If you know me personally, you probably know that the moment someone starts to talk (usually assertively, and usually incorrectly) about children’s authors, my attention in immediately piqued. I’ve been stopped from having fights with people on the topic of a lot of children’s authors, usually because I get passionate and no one has time for that.
So while I have this platform, I’m going to say it: please check your sources on when you discuss what any given author has done, particularly when it seems to be ingrained in our cultural consciousness.
What I mean:
Contrary to popular belief, Roald Dahl did not support Hitler, Lewis Carroll was not a pedophile, and J.M. Barrie was not Johnny Depp – but more importantly, this myth of his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys has been severely misconstrued. There is a great deal that we believe because of popular culture, things that are easy to fall into because of how they have been spun – by popular press, Hollywood, or modern understandings of sexuality (and a deep need to deny that adult relationships with children can be anything but sexual in nature if the adult and the child are not related).
Mostly I want to discuss Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie, because these two are probably two of the most influential authors in the children’s literature canon, writing Alice in Wonderland and Peter and Wendy respectively, and both of them have been deeply misconstrued by the modern media.
There is a great deal of speculation regarding Lewis Carroll and his relationship to Alice Liddell, but also by extension with other little girls. There’s overwhelming evidence that Carroll was unable to connect with adults, or men of any age, and that he really only felt comfortable speaking to and interacting with little girls. He was known to keep safety pins on his person when going to the beach, so that little girls playing the surf could pin their skirts up.
In modern parlance, this is the definition of a pedophile – but this would require some kind of sexual attraction or sexual proclivity, and there’s no evidence that Carroll had either of those things. Liddell was his friend, and he did take pictures of her, but her mother was present at all their interactions. It’s becoming a popular theory to suggest that Carroll himself was somewhere on the autism spectrum, although this is hard to prove conclusively. At any rate, Liddell never spoke against him, not even in later years.
Barrie, on the other hand, seems to be blessed (if that’s the word) with more public press than he likely deserves. The movie Finding Neverland portrays him as a bit of a space cadet, but ultimately a benign and loving father-figure to the poor orphaned Llewelyn Davies boys. While there’s an element of truth to that, this is muddled and complicated by the idea of theft – theft of these five boys through an murky and vaguely illegal adoption, and is even more obscured by the fate that awaited these five children.
While again, I want to be clear: there’s no evidence that this relationship was sexual in nature – a claim that I believe – there are so many unhealthy elements to it that it makes it difficult to parse how this happened. The death of George Davies (killed in action during the First World War) was certainly impactful, but the death of Michael Davies, which was a suicide with a friend (and possible lover) certainly brought to air some questions about their relationship, and if it was healthy for either party.
So the question is how to truly imagine Barrie’s involvement with these children. Why did he feel the need to meddle with the will to the point where he needed to possess these children? Why does the theft of these boys seem to slip between the cracks of how this story is presented to us?
My point isn’t to try and make anyone hate (or love) these writers. Their work is important, and canonically significant. I’m more interested in making people more cautious about how they discuss them as people, and to keep the air clear of rumor or popular misconception.