The man who loved islands

Puffins on the Shiant Islands in the Outer Hebrides

For arm-chair explorations of the islands of Great Britain, I have one more recommendation for you: Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago by natural history writer Patrick Barkham. The structure of this quirky and engaging book was inspired by a D.H Lawrence story, "The Man Who Loved Islands" (1928). As Barkham explains:

Islander by Patrick Barkham"Lawrence's fictional hero, who is called Mr. Carthcart, buys a haven of gorse, blackthorn and granite, four miles in circumference, somewhere beyond the British mainland. For a while, he adores his island home, working alongside the thirty-odd people who are his tenants and employees. Soon, though, he realises one inescapable truth about small islands: living on a rock surrounded by the ocean is prohibitively expensive. His capital disappears in renovations. Projects fail. 'His' islanders quietly mock and exploit him.

"Our hero's solution is to downsize. He takes his most fanciful carpenter, and a widow and her daughter to keep house for him, to a smaller island. For a while he finds peace, and compiles a list of every flower in this tiny place. Things take a typically Lawrentian turn, however, for our island idealist sleeps with the widow's daughter, Flora. She has a child, and the man who loves islands realises that he has sabotaged his quest for peace. So he removed himself once more to a concrete hut on a bleak island-rock on which he no longer does anything but dream, living alongside a cat, and then alone. He sleeps, hallucinates and, eventually, goes mad and dies.

"It is a simple story of disillusionment and, like the best kind of fable, niggles away at the reader."

Herm in the Channel Islands, once owned by Compton Mackenzie

Channel Island seal

Jethou in the Channel Islands  one of the islands once owned by Compton Mackenzie

Digging into the history of the story, Barkham learns that Lawrence based its details on real life. He writes:

Compton Mackenzie"The man who loved islands, Mr. Carthcart, was a real man, a friend, fellow writer and rival. Compton Mackenzie is barely known outside Scotland these days and is not much remembered within it. The name rings a bell for those who have watched the film or read the book Whiskey Galore -- his 1947 tale of fictional islanders salvaging thousands of bottles of whiskey from a wartime shipwreck -- but I wonder why he is not better known. He was admired by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell. He averaged more than a book each year of his long life, an unceasing flow of four million published words, including ten -- ten! -- volumes of autobiography he penned in his eighties. He also played a major role in many of the great events of the 20th century -- he was a brilliant spy in the First World War, an inventor of bureaucracy, a founding father of the Scottish National Party (despite being born in England), a pioneer of music journalism, and an early entertainer on BBC radio and television. Here was a feted author and brilliant raconteur, a handsome if rather bird-like man with a mop of black hair that his friend Eric Linklater once likened to a raven shot on its nest. Sir Compton Mackenzie was clever, witty, well connected and celebrated in his lifetime. Now, less than five decades after his death, he is vitually forgotten. Are islands something to do with it?

Kisimul Castle on Isle of Barra in Outer Hebrides

Hebridean seal

"The island-infatuation of idealist, extravagant, egotistical, foolish and tragic Mr. Carthcart -- or Compton Mackenzie -- fascinated me. Why did Lawrence write so unsparingly about a friend? What became of their friendship? And how did Mackenzie's life on small islands actually unfold? I also ponder the universal truths in Lawrence's brief exploration of small-island life. His story reveals the lure of islands for idealists, the clash between dreams and financial reality, and the tension between the individual's need for liberty and his or her need for society. In Lawrence's view, the past is unusually present on small islands. They are dangerously seductive places for people seeking to escape the mainstream who swiftly discover they cannot escape themselves."

Compton Mackenzie's home of the Isle of Barra

St Barr's Church on the Isle of Barra and Sir Compton Mazkenzie with his wife, Faith.

Hebridean seal

Wondering if Lawrence was correct, Barkham travels to eleven islands throughout the British archipelago. Moving, like Carthcart and Mackenzie, from large islands to those that are smaller and smaller, he seeks to understand the dream and the reality of island life, historically and today.

The story of Compton Mackenzie is colourful, loopy, and fascinating, and Barkham tells it well. If you, too, love islands and odd corners of literary history, I recommend Islander. It is a delight.

The Shiant Islands

Atlantic Puffins on the Shiants

Puffins

Words: The passage quoted above is from the introduction to Islander by Patrick Barkham (Granta Books, 2017). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Herm and Jethou in the Channel Islands, owned by Mackenzie in the 1920s; the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, where he lived from the 1930s onward (and on which he is buried); and the Shiant Islands (near the Isle of Lewis), which he owned from 1925-1937. The Shiants are an important breeding place for Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds.


On the Isle of Jura

George Orwell's desk on Jura

Three years ago when Howard and I travelled up to the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Skye, I took Madeleine Bunting's Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey to read on the long train ride north, and found it to be a perfect introduction to the landscape and culture I would soon be immersed in. Bunting's book is lighter in tone and scope than those previously discussed (Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles and David Grange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge), but I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. If her book has more of a travelogue quality, it's nonethess informative, perceptive, and engaging, providing a good overview of an archipelago rich in history and story.

Like Marsden and Grange, Bunting writes about the western islands from an outsider's perspective, following the footsteps of authors who've been drawn to these wild shores for generations. In her chapter on the Isle of Jura, example, she visits Barnhill, the ramshackle farmhouse where George Orwell retreated to write his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Orwell's day, Bunting tells us,

"there was no daily postal service, no telephone and no electricity at Barnhill. The nearest shop was a twenty-five mile round trip, the nearest doctor was on Islay. Orwell was delighted: the place was 'extremely unget-at-able' he declared. He had fled the telephone, the requests for journalism and the busy chatter of London life, he explained in letters. Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting His recurrent fear of assassination since his time in Barcelona in 1936-7 abated, although he still kept a gun at hand. But he wanted his friends to visit and gave detailed instructions for the forty-eight-hour journey from London, with train and ferry times. What resulted were some tense ménages with assorted friends and relatives, which [his sister] Avril was left to deal with when Orwell retreated to his room with his typewriter. One visitor, a young student, David Holbrook, reminisced, 'I wanted to talk to him about life, about politics, Spain and that sort of thing, but he was wheezing away about an Arctic tern.'  

"Orwell's letters portray Barnhill as a powerful emotional counterbalance to his pervasive pessimism in those years. After an autumn spent in bed in the damp house in 1947, he was taken to a Lanarkshire sanatorium for treatment [for tuberculosis] and he wrote to a friend, 'Not much use worrying about Palestine or anything else. This stupid war is coming off in about 10-20 years and this country will be blown off the map whatever else happens. The only hope is to have a home with a few animals in some place not worth a bomb. If the show does start and is as bad as one fears, it could be fairly easy to be self-supporting on the island provided one wasn't looted.' His comments owed much to that mid-20th-century British conception of islands, and the Hebrides in particular, as salvific, the last refuge. 'When one considers how things have gone since 1930 or thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilization,' he wrote. The first title he had considered for Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. On stormy nights in Barnhill, his sense of foreboding may have led him to think he was writing about himself....

Orwell at Work  photographed by Vernon Richards

Barnhill on the island of Jura

"Jura's remoteness was Orwell's only explanation for his decision to move there. But given his deep love of the English countryside, it was an intriguing choice. There were plenty of remote houses in England where the farming and gardening might have been more productive. Jura was a landscape unlike any other he had lived in, and it enabled him to produce a novel which was quite unlike anything else he had ever written, and at a speed, despite his illness, which he had never managed before.

"Barnhill gave him the vantage point from which to create its opposite in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Julia offers the one glimmer of hope in the book; her unabashed love of sex was 'above all what he [Winston] wanted to hear' because it was 'not merely the love of one person but the animal instinct'. Living at Barnhill gave Orwell an experience akin to Julia's 'animal instinct', of a deeply experiential, instinctive world away from abstractions.

"In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell describes people who can no longer understand freedom or truth because history has been corrupted, repeatedly rewritten in the 'Records Department', and in the process their identity and that of England has been erased. Freedom is no longer imaginable because there is no language to describe it; as the state functionary Syme says, 'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.' At one point, Orwell's character Winston Smith can no longer remember his parents. He asks himself, 'Did his parents live in England? England was its name, he thought, or Britain.'

Orwell and goat

"Orwell was writing these lines when living amongst a Gaelic community; the neighbouring crofters with whom he shared the tasks of harvesting would never have been allowed to forget their parents, or where they had lived, given the Gaelic emphasis on genealogy and place. Did Jura and its losses -- of language and history -- creep into the background texture of Nineteen Eighty-Four, providing small details in the vision of how identity -- and thus freedom -- were lost?

"Literary critics of Orwell's work tend to regard Jura as incidental, no more than a backdrop, and their focus has been on Orwell, the man. Their references to Jura have often been simply comments on its remoteness. But Orwell had an acute sense of place; he understood how it expressed history and generated identity. He used vivid evocations of both city and countryside to express his most important political ideas in books such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, and Down and Out in Paris and London. This Atlantic edge of Britain has been a battleground for different interpretations of freedom, and how history and identity create the conditions for them, as I was to discover several times on my journeys. What Orwell found on Jura were reminders of those freedoms which had been lost in urban Britain, and which sustained and inspired him."

George Orwell at Barnhill.

Bunting's book is full of vivid snapshots like this of people, places and stories throughout the Hebrides. She's a fine raconteur and a good traveling companion for readers who prefer some gentle island-hopping to vigorous journeys by sailboat or kayak, or as a follow-up to such epic adventures.

For more on Orwell and other writers on islands, follow the links in this previous post.

Small Isles Bay  Jura  photograph by William Herron

Words: The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta Books, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: George Orwell on the Isle of Jura in the 1940s.


Following the seals

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People of the Sea by writer, naturalist, folklorist and radio producer David Thompson (1914-1988) is one of the best sources we have for the selkie (or selchie) tales of Ireland and Scotland. Thomson's obsession with the seal folk started as a child, but it was not until the 1940s, after the war, that he began to wander the western coast and isles in search of their stories. People of the Sea, published in 1954, contains the lore he coaxed out of farmers and fishing folk, along with vivid portraits of the storytellers themselves and the wild landscape that formed them. The legends range from enchanting to brutal, reflecting the harsh realities of life lived on the ocean's edge.

Fellow-folklorist Stewart Sanderson describes this classic book beautifully:

People of the Sea"On one level it is a masterpiece of literary craftsman ship, the product of a disciplined literary intellect. At other levels, it reflects the author's singularly imaginative engagement with his subject, and his sympathetic rapport with the men, women and children encountered on his travels in quest of seal legends and traditions. 

"David Thompson's curiosity about the seals seems to have been aroused at a very early age through overhearing, and only half understanding, largely frivolous gossip in his grandmother's drawing room in Nairn [a Scottish coastal town]. But it was starkly reinforced a year or two later when, playing truant froma children's party and wandering the shore at dusk, he came to a remote salmon fisher's bothy. Torn between curiosity and fear, since he was trespassing where he had no business to be, he let himself in, and panicked on stumbling across something moving on the bothy floor in the dark. It was something wet but warm; he could hear heavy breathing; suddenly he felt an old man's hairy head pressing against his bear ankle. He was rescued from his terrors by the return of a Gaelic-speaking fisherman, who violently despatched a seal which had been stunned and left for dead by the rest of the bothy crew, and who got the young boy to help him drag the body to the midden. When this gruesome task was done and the bothy cleaned up, the fisherman brewed mugs of tea and talked about the selchies.

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"Killing a selchie, he said, was an unlucky thing to do. His grandfather, however, had earned his living in the old days as a seal hunter; and he showed David Thompson the old man's tobacco pouch made of a seal's paw, telling him how the hair on the skin would sometimes lie smooth and sometimes stand on end, as if it were still alive. He also told a story about another seal hunter who wounded an old seal which escaped. A stranger came to the seal hunter's door and carried him off to a land beneath the sea where he was led to the wounded seal. He was asked to heal the wound by drawing its edges together with his hand. On promising never to maim or kill a seal again, he was returned safely to his own door and rewarded with a purse of fairy gold."

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Although Thompson's family was of the professional class, a childhood accident had harmed his eyesight, causing the boy to be withdrawn from school and sent off to live with his grandmother in a fishing port east of Inverness. There, writes Sanderson,

"he became acutely aware of the social constraints which both bound together and separated his family and their servants, and which divided him from the farm workers, tradesmen and their children amongst whom he spent much of his time, helping with the horses and the harvest on a nearby farm and driving the milk cart on its daily round. Genuine friendships were of course built across the dividing gulf; but still the gulf remained, separating people whose habits and assumptions were often remarkably different from each other. This was particularly true of the inhabitants of the fisherrow, whom townsfolk and farmers in those days generally thought of as almost an alien race.

Seal"Though no doubt Thomson often felt embarrassed, not to say isolated, by these perceptions as an adolescent, the effect on his imagination and ability to empathise with all sorts and conditions of people were to prove an asset later. Folklorists need sensitive antennae if they are to win the trust, and be admitted to the confidences, of those amongst whom they work; and though sadly all too many of the people who figure in The People of the Sea -- fisherman, crofters, ferrymen and folklorists -- are, like David Thomson himself, no longer with us, he is remembered affectionately by the survivors and their families as a man who was always keen to hear stories of the seals and, in the words of Tadgh the South Kerry schoolmaster, to gather up the bits he could about them....

"The rich harvest of folklore in The People of the Sea is fascinating in itself, with its tales of seal maidens and sea views, ancient kings of Ireland and Norway, families who are descended from marriage with seals, melodies learnt from the singing of the seals while fishing in the dangerous waters round the Atlantic cliffs and skerries. But readers will be equally fascinated by David Thompson's vivid recreation of the settings in which this harvest was gathered, of the people who welcomed him to their hearths, of those who gently prompted reminiscences and stories, and of the storytellers own thoughts about the things they told him."

David Thomson's People of the Sea is an old-fashioned book, in all the best ways, and full of the sound, the scent, the magic of sea. I recommend it highly.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

P1120608

People of the Sea

Words: The passage above is from Stewart Sanderson's Afterward to People of the Sea by David Thomson (Cannongate Classics reprint edition, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Jane Yolen's poetry collection The Last Selchie Child (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Last week's post on selkies, in case you missed it, is here.

Pictures: Although we've not far from the north and south coasts of Devon, we haven't been to the sea since the UK's pandemic lockdown began and must make due with fresh water here on Dartmoor. This waterfall at the edge of our hill roars with life during the winter rains, but slows to a trickle at this time of year. It's an beautiful place nonetheless to sit and dream of selkies.


On J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie & Michael Llewelyn Davies

Charles Dickens once stated that Little Red Riding Hood was his first love, and if only he could have married her, he would have known perfect bliss. For me, my first love was Peter Pan -- that charming, exasperating rascal of a boy, killer of pirates and intimate of fairies. But in my generation, we first encountered Peter as portrayed by the actress Mary Martin (in a televised version of the stage play Peter Pan), which created a certain gender confusion. Was Peter a boy (or girl) I had a crush on, or the dashing figure that I wanted to be myself? Play-acting the role of Wendy was boring, too much sewing and mothering of Lost Boys;  play-acting Peter was so much better, strutting and scheming and  fighting pirates. I dreamed of flight, and fairy dust, and Indian drums sounding in the woods; and insisted on leaving the bedroom window cracked in case Peter should appear....

Peter's creator, Sir James Matthew Barrie, died on this day in 1937. Today's post is dedicated to Barrie and to Peter, two boys who never grew up.

Captain Hook and Peter by PJ LYnchJ.M. Barrie was already a well-known novelist and playwright when he sat down to write his first and only play for children, which he completed and offered to the theater producer Charles Frohman in the spring of 1904. It was unlike anything that had ever been presented to children on the London stage before, but Frohman loved it -- except for the title, which Barrie obligingly changed from The Great White Father to Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. ("Great White Father" is what Peter is called by Tiger Lily and her companions.) Although it had roots in the British pantomime tradition, Peter Pan was a wholly original concoction blending pirate stories, desert island stories, Indian adventures and fairy tales, all wrapped around a satire of family life in Edwardian London. Frohman took an enormous commercial risk in backing a play of over fifty parts and of actors wired to soar above the stage. No one knew if this preposterous play would work, especially its anxious author. On opening night, Barrie was ill with nerves, holding his breath at the critical moment when Peter asks the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies. What if no one clapped at all? But the audience responded with such wild applause that the actress playing Peter burst into tears.

Peter Pan by Alice B. Woodward

The opening of the play in December 1904 is now reckoned as the date of Peter's birth, for it marks the emergence of Peter as we know him, sword in hand and Tinker Bell at his side. Yet he really first appeared two years earlier in Barrie's adult novel The Little White Bird. The novel's narrator is a crusty bachelor who lives close to London's Kensington Gardens, where he meets a small boy and establishes an intense relationship with him. He charms the boy with stories about fairies, and about a run-away baby named Peter Pan who lives among the birds and fairies on an island in the Serpentine Lake.

From JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham 2All babies were once birds, he tells the boy, and they still possess the power of flight. Parents, he warns, must keep their windows shut so that their babies don't fly off at night. Peter Pan is a baby who once heard his mother talk about the life he'd lead when he was grown, prompting him to fly to Kensington Gardens in order to avoid this fate. In the Gardens, he's neither bird nor baby but a creature who is "betwixt and between," glorying in his independence, determined to never grow up. Eventually, however, he tries to go back home, only to find that he's left it much too late. His mother has another baby now, and the nursery windows are firmly locked.

The Little White Bird, like most of Barrie's work, drew inspiration from the author's own life. He too lived close to Kensington Gardens, where he walked with his enormous St. Bernard dog, and where he first became friends with three little boys: George, Jack, and Peter Llewelyn Davies. Barrie held the boys spellbound with tales about magical goings-on in the park at night, when fairies emerged from the hollows of the trees, leaving messages for the boys to find. The first "Peter" in these stories was the real baby Peter, flying off from the Llewelyn Davies nursery to join the fairies' revels at night -- but soon a separate character emerged of the fairy-child Peter Pan, who had once been a human baby, but now lived in the wilds of the park. Barrie was an intensely autobiographical writer, mining his own life for story material to a degree that alternately charmed and exasperated the friends and family members who found themselves rendered into novels and plays. Thus to understand Peter Pan, we must take a closer look at his creator and his complicated relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.

Baby Peter Flies Over London by Arthur Rackham

Born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860, James Barrie was the frail, unprepossessing seventh child in a family of ten. His father was a hand-loom weaver, and although the family was far from affluent, they were comfortable, and good educations were provided for the Barrie boys. The eldest son, Alexander, graduated from Aberdeen University with first-class honors in Classics; and the next son, David, a brilliant boy, was expected to do even better. James, however, was a dreamy child more interested in games and Penny Dreadfuls (adventure comics) than excelling in academics. David was the acknowledged star of the family -- but when David was thirteen and James was six, David died in a skating accident. Their mother never recovered from this blow, and James spent the rest of his childhood trying to replace the boy she'd lost. He distracted his mother by begging for stories about the Scotland of her childhood (and would later make a good living turning these stories into articles and books). David remained enshrined in memory as the perfect child who never aged or disappointed. "Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much," J.M. Barrie wrote many years later.

Yet the years from ages thirteen to eighteen seem to have been the happiest of Barrie's own life, when he left his home and grieving mother to attend Dumfries Academy. Though Dumfries was co-educational, Barrie lived in a masculine world of sports, games, and intense friendships with other boys. He was small and thin, but good at football, cricket, fishing, and other sports, and especially at games of make believe involving pirates, bandits, and other stock characters from the Penny Dreadfuls. These games evolved into a Dramatic Club, establishing Barrie's life long devotion to the theater. He wrote his very first play for the club, a melodrama called Bandelero the Bandit.

J.M. BarrieBarrie knew from quite an early age that he wanted to be a professional writer, but his mother had other plans for him. He was to follow the path that David would have taken to a career in the ministry. Barrie dutifully went off to earn his M.A. at Edinburgh University, where he was miserable. He had been popular among the boys in Dumfries, but at university he was at a loss. He was an odd looking young man, barely five feet tall, and appeared much younger than he was. The women ignored him, and the men embarrassed him with coarse talk about the opposite sex. Barrie retreated into solitude, turning shy and reticent, which were traits he'd retain even when he'd become the most successful writer in Great Britain.

Barrie obliged his parents by completing his degree, but returned home still determined to be a writer, landing a job with the Nottingham Journal and sending submissions off to the London papers. The St. James Gazette began to publish Barrie's stories of Scotland in his mother's day, and with this slim encouragement he moved to London at the age of 24. He went with little money and few contacts, and yet within a very few years Barrie's work was appearing regularly in the top newspapers and journals in the country. He published three books about old Scotland -- Auld Licht Idylls, A Window in Thrums, and The Little Minister -- which turned into surprise best-sellers, elevating him in literary circles and opening society's doors. Barrie's boyhood idol Robert Louis Stevenson proclaimed him to be a writer of genius, and Barrie's circle of friends now included Thomas Hardy, Henry James, William Meredith, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.G. Wodehouse.

From Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham copy 2

Barrie then turned his hand to writing plays, scoring successes with Ibsen's Ghost and Walker, London. He loved the theater -- and he also loved to flirt with the pretty starlets of the day, although he never went beyond flirting until he met a young woman named Mary Ansell. Mary's career on the stage was undistinguished but she was lively and intelligent, and as the two grew close, the London society papers predicted an engagement. Mary waited while Barrie dithered about her. He worried that he was unsuited to marriage -- as a child he'd even had nightmares about it -- and the notes in his journals from the period show a man who is wracked with doubt. He loved Mary, but did he love her deeply? Was he capable of a steady, adult love? He worried that the answer was no, but hoped that the act of marriage would mature him -- so he proposed to Mary, married her in Scotland, and took her off on a Swiss honeymoon. The honeymoon was not a success, and Mary later referred to it as "a shock." Barrie's biographers suspect (as did many of his friends) that the marriage was never consummated -- for he seems to have been an entirely asexual man, incapable of physical passion. In a journal entry recorded during his honeymoon he makes this note for a scene in a future play:

Wife-Have you given me up? Have nothing to do with me?
Husband calmly kind, no passion & c. (à la self)

When the couple returned to London, Mary busied herself with their new house and dog, while Barrie retreated into his study and got back to work. He produced new stories, new plays, a sentimental biography of his mother -- and then began Tommy and Grizel, considered by many to be his finest novel. It's the tragic story of Tommy, a writer, who is married to his childhood friend Grizel. The marriage is not a happy one, for there's something vital lacking in Tommy -- he cannot love Grizel, or anyone else, in a physical way (or so the text implies without stating his lack of sexuality directly). He's not like other men, Tommy tries to explain, he's really just a boy who has never grown up. Barrie writes, "She knew that, despite all he had gone through, he was still a boy. And boys cannot love. Oh, is it not cruel to ask a boy to love?"

Peter Pan by Scott Gustafson

As Barrie's biographers have remarked, one can only imagine what Mary thought when she read passages like this in print, realizing that anything she said or did might be turned into story material. But if Mary minded, she didn't show it. She carefully, dutifully kept up the public appearance of a perfectly normal marriage. There were compensations. She was wealthy now, and her husband was a celebrated man. If she didn't have his passion, and couldn't have his children, at least she had as much of Barrie's affection and attention as he had to give until, in 1897, she began to lose even that.

Arthur Llewelyn Davies and sonsFor it was in 1897 that Barrie became acquainted with the three little boys in Kensington Gardens: five-year-old George, four-year-old Jack, and baby brother Peter, who came to play in the park each day attended by their nanny. They talked about cricket, pirates, and fairies; he dazzled them by the way he could wiggle his ears; and before long, Barrie was meeting up with boys on a regular basis. He had always found it easier to make friends with children than he did adults. They didn't mind his moods, his long silences; they enjoyed his black humor and quirky stories, and accepted him as an overgrown boy rather than as one of the grown-ups.

On New Year's Eve, the Barries attended an elegant dinner party where Barrie was seated beside the beautiful wife of a young barrister. He soon discovered, to his astonishment, that this was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of his friends George, Jack, and Peter -- while she discovered, with equal amazement, that the mysterious man who could wiggle his ears was the famous author J.M. Barrie.

Sylvia and Michael Llewyln DaviesSylvia was no stranger to fame herself, for her father was George du Maurier, illustrator for Punch magazine and author of the novel Trilby (which introduced Svengali to the world); her brother Gerald was a well-known actor; and her husband Arthur was the son of John Llewelyn Davies, a prominent theologian. Sylvia was charmed by Barrie's enthusiasm for her beloved boys, and invited him to visit them at home -- which he promptly did, reappearing there with increasing regularity.

Soon Barrie was a fixture in Sylvia's household -- to the chagrin of her husband Arthur, who could not fathom why this strange little Scotsman was so constantly underfoot, and of Mary Barrie, disconcerted by this new focus in her husband's life. Neither Arthur nor Mary had cause to believe that Sylvia and Barrie had embarked on an affair (and Mary, especially, knew how impossible this was), but the intensity of Barrie's interest in Sylvia's boys raised more than a few eyebrows. Sylvia, however, found nothing strange in it. Completely in love with her handsome husband, she saw nothing compromising in accepting Barrie's friendship, and nothing odd in his devotion to her darling sons. She pushed Arthur's objections aside, and Arthur learned to hold his tongue, accepting Barrie's presence in their lives with as much stoicism as he could muster. Barrie's wife, for her part, made a point of befriending Sylvia and coped as best she could with the awkward fact that her husband was engrossed in the lives of another woman's children.

The question inevitably rises in relation to Barrie's involvement with the Llewelyn Davies boys whether he was a pedophile, or had repressed pedophilic tendencies. Nico Llewelyn Davies, the youngest of the boys, when asked about this after Barrie's death, dismissed the idea categorically. "I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call 'a stirring in the undergrowth' for anyone -- man, woman, or child," said Nico. "He was an innocent -- which is why he could write Peter Pan." Writer Andrew Birkin, who spent three years researching Barrie's life for his BBC television program The Lost Boys, interviewed many who had known J.M. Barrie and conducted an extensive correspondence with Nico. Nothing he read or heard indicated that Barrie had a sexual interest in the boys. "Barrie was impotent, it's fairly clear," says Birkin (on the DVD edition of his program). "That was the tragedy of his life. Had he not been impotent, I think he would have been a womanizer — he was always falling in love with his leading ladies over the stage lights. The suggestion that he was somehow pedophilic with these boys doesn't really stand up to close examination."

George  John  and Peter Llewyn Davies

In 1900, Sylvia gave birth to Michael, who would grow to be Barrie's favorite of her sons — but for now it was still George, the eldest, who was the child closest to his heart. Barrie's novel The Little White Bird (1902) is transparently based upon his relationship with George. Captain W., the novel's protagonist, meets a charming little boy in Kensington Gardens, and he sets out to win the affections of both the boy and his beautiful mother.

Barrie and his dog PorthosLike much of Barrie's fiction, the novel is too sentimental to suite most modern tastes (though saved by the delicious bite of Barrie's humor), and the intensity of the narrator's obsession with the boy makes for uncomfortable reading in our less innocent age. But this tribute to children and childhood was exactly suited to the temper of its day. "To speak in sober earnest," proclaimed the London Times, "this is one of the best things that Barrie has written….If a book exists that contains more knowledge and more love of children, we do not know it." George was proud of inspiring the novel (even though it earned him teasing from his school fellows), and Sylvia loved it. What Arthur and Mary felt about the book is not recorded.

In 1903, Sylvia became pregnant with Nicholas (called Nico), her fifth and final child. The day before Nico's birth, Barrie started work on Peter Pan. Unlike baby Peter in The Little White Bird, this Peter would be an older boy who lived in distant Never Land (called Neverland or Never-never Land in some editions), where he'd have the adventures that Barrie had so often play-acted with Sylvia's children. Barrie set the first scene in the Darling house on a shabby street in Bloomsbury -- "but you may dump it down anywhere you like," he wrote, "and if you think it was your house, you are very probably right." The beautiful Mrs. Darling was modeled on Sylvia, and the perfidious Mr. Darling, rather unfairly, on Arthur. Barrie later explained to the Llewelyn Davies boys that Peter was made "by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce flame. That it is all he is, the spark I got from you."

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Other sparks came from Scottish fairy stories -- which Barrie would have heard or read in his youth, particularly as he was a fan of the writer and folklore enthusiast Sir Walter Scott. The fairy stories that he drew upon, however, weren't sugar-sweet Victorian confections about tiny butterfly-winged sprites, but older, darker stories about the dangerous fairies of the Scottish folk tradition. In these tales, seductive, heartless fairies lure children into the fairy realm, an enchanted world that lies at the heart of the woods, or underneath the Scottish hills. Time passes differently in that realm. A single night spent with the fairies might be a hundred years in human time -- so when the children go back home again, their parents are dead and gone.

Peter Pan by Michael HagueIn changeling tales, the fairies snatch infants and pretty children from their beds, whisking them off to fairyland as pampered pets, companions, or slaves. Sometimes a fairy is left behind, glamored to look like the stolen child: a bad-tempered, sickly, hungry creature who is a plague to the human parents. The lost children in changeling tales don't always find their way back home. Sometimes they stay under the hills, losing all memory of the mortal world -- just as John and Michael Darling forget their parents while living in Never Land.

Barrie's Peter Pan is human-born, not a fairy, but he's lived in Never Land so long that he's as much a fairy as he is a boy: magical, capricious, and amoral, like the fairies of the old Scots tradition. He's a complex mixture of good and bad, with little understanding of the difference between them; both cruel and kind, thoughtless and generous, arrogant and tender-hearted, bloodthirsty and sentimental. He is a classic trickster character -- kin to Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and other delightful but exasperating sprites of fairy lore. He's a liminal creature, standing on the threshold between fairy and child, mortal and immortal, villain (when he lures children from their homes) and hero (when he rescues them from pirates).

Peter Pan and Captain Hook by Michael Hague

Peter's last name derives from the Greek god Pan, the son of the trickster god Hermes by a wood nymph of Arcadia. Pan is a creature of the wilderness, associated with vitality, virility, and ceaseless energy.

Peter playing the pipes by Michael HagueIn the ancient writings of Servius we find this detailed description: Pan is "formed in the likeness of nature with horns to resemble the rays of the sun and the horns of the moon; his face is ruddy in the imitation of ether; he wears a spotted fawn skin resembling the stars in the sky; his lower limbs are hairy because of the trees and the wild beasts; he has the feet of a goat to resemble the stability of the earth; his pipe has seven reeds in accordance with the harmony of heaven; his pastoral staff bears a crook in reference to the pastoral year which curves back on itself; and finally he is the god of all nature." Pan's young namesake does not have goat legs or horns, but he does ride on the back of a goat, and he plays the pan-pipes, an instrument Pan invented from hollow reeds.

Like Peter, the god Pan is a contradictory figure. He haunts solitary mountains and groves, where he's quick to anger if he's disturbed, but he also loves company, music, dancing, and riotous celebrations. He is the leader of a woodland band of satyrs -- but these "Lost Boys" are a wilder crew than Peter's, famed for drunkenness, licentiousness, and creating havoc (or "panic"). Pan himself is a distinctly lusty god -- and here the comparison must end, for Peter's wildness has no sexual edge. Indeed, it's sex and the other mysteries of adulthood that he's specifically determined to avoid. ("You mustn't touch me. No one must ever touch me," Peter tells Wendy.)

Wendy by Scott Gustafson

Barrie added three girls to Peter's story (over the Llewelyn Davies boys' initial objection): Wendy Darling, the fairy Tinker Bell, and the Indian princess Tiger Lily. "Wendy" was a nonexistent name at the time. It came from a child named Margaret Henley who referred to Barrie as her "friendy" -- but she couldn't pronounce her "f"s and "r"s, and so the word came out as "Wendy". (Due entirely to Barrie's play, Wendy soon became a popular name for little girls.) Tinker Bell was originally called Tippy in the earliest drafts of the play, and Tiger Lily's tribe is called the Piccaninnies -- a name mercifully left out of modern renditions. (Barrie's Indians are fantasy Indians, "savages" imagined by Edwardian children, and have as much to do with actual Indians as Nanna the dog has to do with actual nannies.)

Captain Hook comes directly from the make-believe games that Barrie played with George and his brothers, as well as from the pirates in the Penny Dreadfuls that Barrie loved as a child. Hook was first portrayed on the London stage by Gerald du Maurier (Sylvia's brother), who brought such menace to the role that children were carried screaming from the stalls. "How he was hated," recalled his daughter, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, "with his flourish, his poses, his dreaded diabolical smile! That ashen face, those blood-red lips, the long, dank, greasy curls; the sardonic laugh, the maniacal scream, the appalling courtesy of his gestures." Hook's villainy was never entirely played for laughs -- he was allowed to be a truly menacing figure, saving the role from pure camp and adding gravity to Peter's story.

Captain Hook and the Crocodile by David Wyatt

While Barrie was busy with the enormous task of making this extravagant fantasia work on stage, Arthur Llewelyn Davies made a sudden move and relocated his family to Berhamsted, twenty-five miles away from London. Barrie still came to visit them, but he could no longer be a daily presence. Instead, he wrote wistful letters to the boys as he hovered anxiously around the theater, watching his actors learn to fly and Peter Pan come to life. Peter himself was played by a young starlet (Nina Boucicault in the first London production, Maude Adams in New York) -- largely because of labor laws preventing child actors from working after 9 pm, but also because of the British pantomime tradition in which the Principal Boy was always played by a girl. Great secrecy surrounded the Peter Pan rehearsals, which of course made the press and the public all the more eager to learn what Barrie had up his sleeve. 

On opening night (December 27, 1904), Sylvia and the boys came into town to accompany the nervous author to the theater. Back in New York, producer Charles Frohman waited to learn if he had a hit or a disaster. Finally a cable came. Peter Pan was an overwhelming success. The critics were charmed, and (more importantly to Barrie) an audience full of children had been enthralled. So many little children were injured, however, by going home and jumping from the furniture that he hastily rewrote the opening scene to explain that fairy dust was required to fly.

The announcement of the first performance of Peter Pan

With this new success, Barrie was busier than ever. He visited Sylvia and the boys as often as his schedule would allow -- but the family was happily settled in Berkhamsted, and Barrie was busy back in London with new stories, new plays, and a variety of political and charitable causes.

Then, in 1906, disaster struck. Arthur was diagnosed with cancer, requiring an operation that would remove half of his jaw and palate. Barrie was immediately at his side, dropping everything to put himself at Arthur's assistance, as well as quietly picking up the cost of his expensive medical treatment. When the operation was completed, Arthur's face was a ruin and he could barely speak. Barrie remained posted at his bedside -- nursing him, reading to him, conversing with him (as Arthur slowly communicated by writing). Arthur found Barrie kinder and wiser than he expected, and the relationship between the two men changed. When Arthur came home from the hospital, Barrie was a welcome (and necessary) presence in the household. The two families spent their summer holidays together, and everyone insisted that Arthur was getting better, but by autumn the tumor had spread, and by the following spring, Arthur was dead.

The Lost Boys by Trina Schart HymanArthur left little money behind, so now Barrie took over the family's support. He had earned a small fortune from Peter Pan and insisted it was theirs as much as his. Sylvia brought the family back to London, to a house near Barrie and Kensington Gardens. "And here, I think, Sylvia did succeed, gradually, in regaining something of the zest for life," wrote Peter Llewelyn Davies, years later, about his mother. "The boys were a fond amusement and distraction for her, relatives came frequently, and the dog-like J.M.B. still living at Leinster Corner and in constant attendance… Everything must have been done, by all who had the care of us and above all by Sylvia herself, to shut out the imp of sorrow and self-pity from our young lives."

From Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens  illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Daily life went on. Barrie continued to write, and Peter Pan continued to cast its spell, becoming the most famous of Barrie's works. The tale of Peter Pan as a baby, originally published in The Little White Bird, was now available in a separate children's book edition, called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The script of the play was published under the title Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up; and eventually Barrie novelized the story of the play in a book titled Peter and Wendy. He ended this volume with a brand new scene in which Peter comes back to Wendy's window years later, and discovers she is all grown up. The little girl in the nursery now is Wendy's daughter, Jane. The girl examines Peter with interest, and soon she's off to Never Land herself where her mother can no longer go, no matter how much she longs to follow.

Flying Above London by Scott Gustafson

Meanwhile, Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family took its inevitable toll on his marriage, and he learned that his wife was having an affair with a young writer named Gilbert Cannan. He begged Mary to break it off, but this she had no intention of doing. Cannon had pledged to marry her, and she wanted a divorce. Barrie disappeared to Switzerland while the scandal raged in the London papers, then returned to London in October for the ordeal of the divorce proceedings. Two days after the case was over, Sylvia collapsed at home. Now she, too, was diagnosed with cancer, in a form impossible to treat. As was the practice of the time, she was not allowed to know how ill she was, though as the illness went on and on and on, she suspected that she was dying. She remained in bed until the following spring, seemed to be improve a little in the summer, and insisted on taking her sons on a fishing holiday to Devon. While the boys fished, she grew weaker and weaker. The children were not told she was dying. She passed away on August 27th, with her mother and Barrie in the room, and Barrie was left to break the news to the boys as they returned from the river.

Barrie now assumed all responsibility for the boys. The elder three were at Eton by this time, where their school fees had long been paid by Barrie, but Michael and Nico remained at home supervised by their nanny, Mary Hodgson, with Barrie living close by. Barrie was now an extremely wealthy man and he lavished money on his young wards -- on clothes, books, sports equipment, and extravagant summer holidays; nothing was too good for them that might the ease the grief of losing their parents. Michael was the most like Barrie of all the boys -- a dreamy, fey, creative child, and Michael was as excessively attached to Barrie as Barrie was to him. At Eton, Michael wrote to Barrie every day. There were more than two thousand letters between them -- most of them later burned by Peter (the family archivist), who was embarrassed by their sentimentality.

Arthur Rackham  from JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Barrie's literary star continued to rise, and he was awarded a baronetcy in 1913 in recognition of his status as one of the best loved authors in Britain. George started university that year, where he remained on close terms with his guardian, but Jack, who was in the Navy now, and more independent than his brothers, resented the dominant role that Barrie had taken in their lives. The following year, Barrie took all of the boys except Jack to Scotland for a fishing holiday (Jack was on a ship in the North Atlantic), and it was there that they learned the news that England was now at war with Germany. George and Peter, like so many young men, immediately signed up to defend their country, and by December George's battalion was posted to the Western Front. With The Little White Bird packed in his kit-bag, he departed for the trenches of France, sending fond and cheerful letters back to Barrie and urging him not to worry. In March, George sent a letter from the Front saying, "Keep your heart up, Uncle Jim, & remember how good an experience this is for a chap who's been very idle before. Lord, I shall be proud when I'm home again, & talking to you about all this. That old dinner at the Savoy will be pretty grand…." By the time the letter reached London, George Llewelyn Davies had been shot and killed.

Captain Hook & Peter by Scott Gustavson"I have lost all sense I ever had of war being glorious," Barrie wrote in one of his last letters to George, "it is just unspeakably monstrous to me now." Sylvia's brother Gerald (the original Captain Hook) also died that year in the mud of France; and Charles Frohman drowned shortly thereafter in the sinking of the Lusitania. Barrie despaired, fearing the war would swallow everything and everyone he loved -- but peace was declared before Michael came of age, and Jack and Peter came safely home. Peter never fully recovered from horrors he witnessed at the Front; he struggled with depression for the rest of his life, and died by suicide many years later. For now, however, life went on. Jack married a girl he'd met while stationed in Scotland. Nico, the youngest, left home for Eton. Michael started at Oxford University, where he cut a dazzling figure. His close friend (and probable lover) Roger Stenhouse introduced him into Lytton Strachey's Bloomsbury set, where Strachey pronounced him "the only young man at Oxford or Cambridge with real brains." Michael was handsome, brilliant, a gifted writer, and seemed to have the world before him. And just before his twenty-first birthday, he drowned in a boating accident.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David WyattLike his mother, undone by the death of her son David, Barrie never fully recovered from Michael's loss, particularly since it came on the heels of losing Arthur, Sylvia, George, Gerald du Maurier, and Charles Frohman. He aged visibly, and for a long while barely had the will to go on living. But go on he did, supported by his affection for his three remaining "Lost Boys," and eventually for their children too -- a brand new audience to charm with stories of pirates, Indians, and fairies. He continued to write, to socialize, to travel, to stay active in charitable and political causes, until he died in 1937, with Peter and Nico at his bedside. "To die will be an awfully big adventure," Barrie once wrote in the voice of Peter Pan. In his will, he left the Peter Pan royalties to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

When Barrie commissioned the Peter Pan stature by Sir George Frampton that stands in Kensington Gardens to this day, he hoped it would allow Peter to be remembered long after his play was forgotten. But one hundred years later, Peter is just as popular as ever, and there are few children who don't know his story -- through picture books, or the Disney animation and other films, if not directly from Barrie's play or the pages of Peter and Wendy.

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens by Sir George FramptonPeter's story has inspired several works of fiction for both children and adults (see the Further Reading list below), and Barrie's life has inspired two dramatic productions: the excellent BBC television series The Lost Boys, and the film Finding Neverland.

Finding Neverland is a charming but heavily fictionalized concoction, playing fast-and-loose with the facts of Barrie's life in order to tell a simpler, more romantic story. Here, Arthur is conveniently dead before Barrie meets Sylvia, and Sylvia's mother is turned into a villain, attempting to keep Barrie and Sylvia apart. The boys are reduced from five in number to four, and are portrayed as older when they first meet Barrie. (In real life, Peter was just a baby.) In the film, it's Peter (not the eldest, George) who is portrayed as Barrie's special friend; and Peter again (not the middle boy, Michael) who shares Barrie's dreamy temperament and interest in writing. The biggest change is that handsome, charismatic Johnny Depp plays the part of the Scottish playwright, depicting him as a gentle, fey dreamer, rather than the odd little sharp-edged man that he actually was. But the movie has moments of magic, the period sets and costumes are lovely, and overall it is worth seeing, provided it's taken with many grains of salt.

Peter Pan by Charles VessAndrew Birkin's television series The Lost Boys, on the other hand, is specifically based on the known facts of J.M. Barrie's life, drawn from a vast array of surviving journals, correspondence, manuscripts, and photographs, as well as extensive interviews with those had known James Barrie. The last of the Lost Boys, Nico Llewelyn Davies, read and advised on Birkin's script -- and when the final production was broadcast, Llewelyn Davies phoned up Birkin in tears, "undone," he said, by the way actor Ian Holm had turned into his Uncle Jim. (The series is available on DVD, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend Birkin's web site, where he generously makes a treasure trove of Barrie material -- journals, letters, story notes, photographs, etc. -- freely available to fans and scholars.)

James M. Barrie was a boy who couldn't grow up, and out of this conundrum he gave us Peter, the boy who wouldn't grow up -- a character so vivid, so universal, and so emotionally true that he seems to belong to folklore now, not to one author's imagination. One hundred years later, children still dream of flying off with Peter to Never Land, where they'll never bathe, or eat broccoli, or (the worst fate of all) have to turn from children into grown-ups.

Some years ago I knew a little boy who referred to adults, like me, as human beings. "Aren't you a human being too?" I asked.

With a look of scorn for the stupidity of my question, he answered, "I'm not a human, I'm a child."

When I pointed out that one day he would grow up to be a human too, he shook his head and insisted, "No. I'm going to stay a boy."

J.M. Barrie would have perfectly understood the desire to stay a child forever -- and advised him to keep his window open, so that Peter Pan could find him.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David Wyatt

Credits: The art comes from a variety of sources and is credited in the pictures captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see the captions.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and author.

Some further reading, nonfiction: J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin (Yale University Press reprint, 2003), J.M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image by Janet Dunbar (Collins, 1970), The Peter Pan Chronicles by Bruce K. Hanson (Carol Publishing, 1993), "The Boy Who Couldn't Grow Up: James Barrie" by Alison Lurie (in Don't Tell the Grown-ups, Back Bay Books reprint, 1998), Barrie: The Story of J.M.B. by Denis Mackail (Ayer Co. reprint, 1977), Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J.M. Barrie, edited by Bold & Nash (Scottish Literature International, 2014). and Letters of James M. Barrie by Viola Meynell (Norwood Editions, 1942).

Some further reading, fiction: Peter Pan & the Only Children by Gilbert Adair (Dutton, 1988), Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry (Disney Editions, 2004), The Lost Girls by Laurie Fox (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Second Star to the Right by Mary Alice Kruesi (Avon, 1999), Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean (Oxford University Press, 2007), After the Rain by J. Emily Somma (Daisy Books, 2003), and Wendy by Karen Wallace (Simon & Schuster, 2004).


The myths we make, the stories we tell

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In her early memoir Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton (1912-1995) recounted the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature, and solitude. At a time when selfless commitment to marriage and family was still the standard measure of a woman's virtue, Plant Dreaming Deep celebrated the pleasures of independence, self-reliance, and living alone. 

Its author, mind you, was not a hermit. Sarton's days were amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings...but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.

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A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that the book caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."

This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and Plant Dreaming Deep was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own creative work after marriage and children, and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden -- not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer.

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Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this volume she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges from this text is prickly, moody and exasperating, compared to the narrator of Plant Dreaming Deep, but also thoroughly human. Sarton's rigorous honesty throughout the book is astonishing, brave, and unsettling.

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I recently dipped into these two volumes again, re-reading Sarton's reflections on solitude in light of the global pandemic that has isolated so many. Like Sarton, I have a taste for solitude, so days of semi-isolation are easier on me than on those of a more extroverted stamp -- but solitude chosen freely is a different beast than solitude imposed by crisis. My temperament is generally steady, and yet I, too, have been strangely moody of late. My heart soars as spring unfolds around me, plunges with the horror of the daily news, rises in my peaceful studio, and falls again as the world crowds in. Each day I ground myself in work, finding strength and purpose in language and paint; each night that ground crumbles underfoot as worry and fear move through my dreams.

In Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of Solitude, Sarton acknowledges both aspects of self-isolation: the deep pleasure and concomitant pain of retreating from the wider world. It's the mixture of the two that makes this time, for me, feel so surreal.

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Plant Dreaming Deep

In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton reflects on the difference between an "isolated" and "quiet" life, in words that echo my initial experience of the current lock-down:

"In that first week [in the farmhouse] I felt I was running all the time. There were hundreds of things I had in mind to do, things about the house, things about the garden, besides the spate of poems that had been pushing their way out. But I imagined that, as time went on, this state of affairs would calm down and I myself would calm down, to lead the meditative life, the life of a Chinese philospher, that my friends quite naturally imagine I must lead here, way all alone in a tiny village, with few interruptions and almost no responsibilities.

"But in all the eight years I have lived here, it has not yet become a quiet life. It is a life lived at a high pitch. One of the facts about solitude is that one becomes as alert as an animal to every change of mood in the skies, and to every sound. The thud of the first apple falling never fails to startle the wits out of me; there has been no sound like it for a year....The intense silence magnifies the slightest creak or whisper.

"But more than any such purely physical reasons for staying on the qui vive, there are inner reasons for being highly tuned up when one lives alone. The alertness is also there toward the inner world, which is always close to the surface for me when I am here, so it may be a mouse in the wainscot that keeps me awake, but it may just as well be a half-formed idea. The climate of poetry is also the climate of anxiety. And if I inhabit the house, it also inhabits me, and sometimes I feel as if I myself were becoming an intersection for almost too many currents of too intense a nature."

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In Journal of Solitude, she speaks of the darker side of seclusion: the fears that arise, and the courage required to overcome them and keep on making art:

"I have said elsewhere that we have to make myths of our lives, the point being that if we do, then every grief or inexplicable seizure by weather, woe, or work can -- if we discipline ourselves and think hard enough -- be turned into account, be made to yield further insight into what it is to be alive, to be a human being, what the hazards are of a fairly usual, everyday kind. We go up to Heaven and down to Hell a dozen times a day -- at least I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. It literally keeps one from falling on one's face....

"We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but it is actually the door into growth."

Journal of Solitude

By acknowledging both sides of solitude, Sarton helps me understand why my experience of pandemic self-isolation varies so widely from day to day, or even hour to hour. The joy I feel as the world slows down, and the deep anxiety that this produces, are just two sides of the same coin.

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Knowing this, I'll continue to value the quiet hours the lock-down gives me -- and make my peace with the fretful, fearful dreams that are part of it too. 

Make a myth of your life, says Sarton. Learn what hardship has to teach you, and use in your art.

 I am making myths, and telling stories, and trying to do just that.

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Words: The quotes above are from May Sarton's Journal of Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973). The poem in the picture caption is from Sarton's Letters from Maine (W.W. Norton, 1984). All rights reserved by the authors estate. Pictures: The bliss of bluebells.