Tuesday, 27 May 2008

On this day, in another May...



I can never walk along Church Row in Hampstead -- which is just around the corner from where I was born -- without thinking of the Llewelyn Davies brothers, who are buried alongside their du Maurier relatives in the graveyard. It's a beautiful place, whether in May sunshine or showers, but melancholy, also, and today I found myself thinking of Michael Llewelyn Davies in particular, who was born on June 16th 1900, and died on May 19th 1921. A contemporary account of his death appeared (see above) in the Oxford Chronicle, eight days later, on May 27th.
Michael drowned in Sandford Pool, in the arms of another Oxford undergraduate, Rupert Buxton. There has always been speculation that it was suicide, though the circumstances of their deaths remains uncertain. One of the witnesses told the coroner's court: "Their heads were close together; they were sort of standing in the water and not struggling..."
When I was researching 'Daphne', I found myself returning over and over again to the story of her cousin Michael -- one of the five 'Lost Boys' adopted by J.M Barrie, the celebrated inspirations for 'Peter Pan' -- without ever being able to come to a definite conclusion. Perhaps that is one of the reasons his life remains so compelling, because its outline eludes us. He remains a lost boy; forever young, forever mysterious, forever just out of reach.

22 comments:

Gondal-girl said...

Lovely post Justine - he was a beautiful Lost boy wasn't he. Have you read that book INVENTING WONDERLAND: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, JM Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne by Jackie Wullschlager? It draws beautiful connections between these writers and the inspiration behind their work...that is where I first heard the sad and slightly disturbing drowning of Michael, like Narcissus or some other Greek god...

Bront√ęBlog Adm. said...

So intriguing and sad...

oxford-reader said...

The lives of those boys have always facinated me with the way 'Peter Pan' wove around their lives like a noose. Theirs was such a sad family.

Justine Picardie said...

Gondal-girl: Thanks for the book recommendation -- I hadn't heard of it, but it sounds interesting -- particularly as they were all writing in the same era. I'm going to order it now.
And thanks for the comment from Bronteblog -- I was catching up with your recent posts last night, which kept me up far too late!
Oxford-reader: what a powerful image you've drawn in this comment: Peter Pan as a noose; flying free as a snare...

Gondal-girl said...

yes, it is a really beautiful book and so haunting the way the End of the Victorian era beginning of the Edwardian, was really the last kiss goodbye to a Golden age, ended by WW1-think The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in Wind in The Willows - I found it a really inspiring book - didn't one of the Peter Pan/Llewelyn Davies boys die in the War?

Justine Picardie said...

Yes -- George, the eldest of the five boys, died in 1915. Such a waste... The Jackie W book is out of print, which is a shame, but I will buy a second hand copy from somewhere...

oxford-reader said...

It's so interesting to consider why the idea of Pan should have had such a powerful and terrible hold on the boys.
It's not something that has ever had to be considered about Lewis Carroll's Alice - has it?

Gondal-girl said...

Yes the Alice things is intriguing, lots in the Jackie M book, as she gets to the crunch about Carroll and his nude pictures of children- very apt for Australia at the moment - Bill Henson - major photographer has had exhibition closed of his nude teens/ children and there is a big furore about censorship/ consent / art - can't say it is an easy topic. The photos are beautiful yet disturbing - the only answer perhaps is debate....?

Un-settling some of those nudes of Carroll's - Alice Liddell as a beggar / his requests to a mother for more natural nude / photos...something afoot that is not quite right, but neither deserves a lynching...

Justine Picardie said...

I agree that there's something faintly disturbing about Carroll's photographs of little girls. And some of the passages in Barrie's novel, The Little White Bird -- which evolved into Peter Pan -- are quite shocking if you read them now, in their description of the male narrator's excitement at having a little boy to sleep with him in his bed overnight. But then I start feeling as if I'm using modern values to judge what might have been entirely innocent. Mind you, Freud (a contemporary, after all) would have been fascinated by Barrie's writing, don't you think?

Henri Llewelyn Davies said...

Great post, Justine, and two particularly good pictures of my great-uncle, Michael - (possibly with 'genetic memory' playing a role, I've always found Church Row Cemetery slightly uncomfortably melancholy - more than most other graveyards, as I often react to them as tranquil, peaceful places.

My grandmother (married to Jack, 'Lost Boy' No. 2) knew Michael quite well in his late teens and she thought it might have been suicide (though she'd never seen him obviously feeling depressed) because she heard that there were weeds in Sandford Lock where Michael and Rupert died, and the boys should have known that. She said Michael was hugely sophisticated and (the usual word applied liberally to the boys) charming - and he seems to have been a 'smoother-over' of family squabbles etc. My grandmother liked him enormously (they used to have great fun going clothes shopping together!). I heard about all this endlessly in my youth...

Gondal-girl: I like your Narcissus/Greek God image - very like the 'he was a gracious almost-genius' kind of legend of Michael that sprang up sort of fully formed after his death! About his character, but no doubt influenced by his drowning.

Oxford-reader: It's interesting what you say about the Liddle family, as (if I'm right) Alice Liddle has always struck me as rather a sound, solid person post-Carroll.
Actually, the frequent reports of Pan's 'powerful and terrible hold' on the five boys are often greatly exaggerated. My grandfather (Jack) and the youngest boy Nico were fine (re Pan and in many other ways) and sometimes I think the radical Pan Effect on Peter has been emphasised far out of recognition (though I know there's lot of evidence that he did feel it sometimes) - after all, he did have a whole other life for sixty years. I think Justine dealt with the Pan aspect very well in her portrayal of Peter in 'Daphne'.

I don't personally think Michael consciously killed himself (not that I know for sure of course) - I'll put more about this on my own blog if anyone's interested (it's basically an all-generation family blog anyway - I'm intending to put much more 'Lost Boys' stuff on there.)

Justine Picardie said...

Henri -- thanks so much for your response to this. Everyone should go and read Henri's blog immediately -- she is the granddaughter of Jack Llewelyn Davies, and therefore Michael was her great uncle. You'll find lots to read over there...

HelenMH said...

I found your treatment of the stories of the Llewelyn Davies boys in 'Daphne' very moving. So much sadness in one family.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for your comment, Helen. It's such a sad story... and no wonder Peter became so melancholy, while he was reading through 'the Family Morgue'. Just a few weeks before Michael's death, J.M Barrie wrote this in his notebook:
'Death: One who died is only a little ahead of procession all moving that way. When we round the corner we'll see him again. We have only lost him for a moment because we fell behind, stopping to tie a shoe-lace.'

Gondal-girl said...

Yes Freud would have a field day as would Jung I think, there is something about these stories ( Alice/ Peter Pan) that really resonate deep in the psyche, and not just about growing up/loss of innocence.

The Victorian/Edwardian idea of the child is a very different one than now, I suppose it was a relatively fresh one, the child in it's own distinct sphere of innocence, beginning of children's rights, being closer to nature ( before children were treated like adults). Perhaps Barrie and Carroll to a modern eye may have some latent tendencies, but to themselves and their massive readership, I think they were returning to that perfect place, the wellspring, the womb - somewhere where everything is all possible again

Justine Picardie said...

The odd thing about Barrie is that he was consciously innocent -- or at least, consciously celebrating the state of childhood innocence -- in ways that now look less than innocent to our modern eyes.

oxford-reader said...

To make a flipant remark: it doesn't help that Michael Jackson named his ranch Neverland with all that has been in the news about his supposed antics.

Also -thank you Henri for the comments on Alice Liddle and on your family too. I recognise that sometimes we tend to remember the sadder details in history, rather than recognising that most of the family (like Jack and Nico) managed to live normal lives for most of the time.

Gondal-girl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gondal-girl said...

Was it suicide or an accident that the two drowned together? Is there any more information on that? It is a strange co-incidence, but then again sometimes younger people, boys in particular, no not their mortality and boundaries...There is something so Chatterton about this...Thinking of Michael, there is something re-assuring in the fact that he was not alone

Justine Picardie said...

There's a lot of information on the J.M Barrie website -- I give the link in the list on the opening page of my blog (the list on the right). It's a treasure trove of original letters and so on...

Justine Picardie said...

Once you're in the JM Barrie website, just click on the link marked Davies family. If you're anything like me, you'll spend the next few days absorbed in reading the letters that have been scanned and stored there.

Carmina said...

interesting, a friend of mine that followed the life of Michael Llewelyn Davies and she said to me that his son buys Viagra Online because he has erectile dysfunctional issues.

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Dakuro said...

Well... where I live there's a church in the same street very close but I never went because I don't like to think that there's a god, or something greater, but I like graveyards, because they are quiet places that's always in silence and you can read peacefull.
Thanks for sharing.

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