‘Treat your guests like family and your family like guests’*
When Scottish author and dramatist J.M. Barrie first wrote his wonderful children’s tale of adventure, love, kindness and hope, Peter Pan, he sited the place where Peter came from as being far away in the ‘never never never land’, which was in the depths of the forest on the banks of a lake covered with ice.
Making more than a big splash on the international scene, The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society by U.S.A. based Barbara J. Zitwer is a first novel for an author who is also an international literary agent and, prior to working in publishing, also produced films.
This gentle illuminating tale is about a fictional New Yorker, Joey Rubin, who is given the task by the architectural firm she works for of overseeing a project she has been working on for some time, the renovation of a crumbling stately home sited in the beautiful Cotswolds a range of hills in England designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Feeling nervous about leaving the security of her New York flat that she has lived in for nearly all of her life, Joey’s experiences at Stanway House will not turn out to be a very different sort of adventure than she might have been expecting.
She is dared by a group of elderly women, who swim together daily in a pond in the countryside, even during the freezing months of January, when the lake is like ice, to join them. Coming upon them together for the first time, shrieking with laughter as they romp about in the freezing water, she thinks surely they must all be mad.
As Joey begins to enjoy taking a dip in this private, watery never never never land with the delightfully dotty members of The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society, she has no idea just how far reaching the effects on her own life, and those around her will be.
The women each, in their own way, let her know that it’s not just Stanway House that needs restoring or transforming, it’s her outlook on life and her understanding of what true love, kindness and friendship is really all about!
Following tons of enlightenment, a very real risk of being frozen stiff and meeting some exciting new people Joey’s former life begins to unravel as she is inspired and re-born.
The book has become an international phenomenon on the publishing and facebook scene, because it plugs into all our emotions and sense of who we are and where we want to be.
It is about the discovery that friendships are ongoing relationships that are not dispensable, but need to be worked on through thick and thin, as well as occasionally through hell and very high water.
It is about how love tests every fibre of our being, as it raises us up one minute and throws us down another. It is about wanting to have a sense of belonging, about sheer joy, heartbreak and hope.
Joey, like so many of us, including the much-feted author J.M. Barrie, do not sometimes want to face the pain and unhappiness of the adult world. To cope Barrie created a magical world ‘never never never land’, a place where we can all go, at least in our imagination, when we need true inner refreshment.
Joey’s challenge throughout her journey is about surmounting the tyranny of distance and about just how much she is willing to embrace change in order to establish a permanent relationship with the brooding complex caretaker Ian, who as her best friend Sarah tells her, ‘every woman in a twenty-five mile radius, single or not, is in love with‘.
A lot of people on facebook have been fantasizing versatile actor Johnny Depp should play Ian McCormack’s character, a scenario I could plug into if there is to be a film. Appropriate too, because there is also a deeper connection; Depp featured as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland in 2004, the story of his relationship with the family of children for whom he wrote Peter Pan.
Celebrated playwright, twentieth century author and the marvellous creator of Peter Pan’s magical Neverland, James Matthew Barrie (1860 – 1937) was no stranger to the hardships and uncertainties of life and love. The story does have its basis in fact and the author’s own first-hand experiences of places, including Stanway House, which was an integral part of J.M. Barrie’s real world.
Born in Scotland, one of ten children of a hand-loom weaver who managed to give this very bright son of his a very good education, including time at Edinburgh University (where he became Chancellor in 1930) J.M. Barrie began his career in journalism, on the “Nottingham Daily Journal,” before heading off to London where in 1888 he published his “Auld Licht Idylls,” followed by “When A Man’s Single,” and “A Window On Thrums.” In 1891 came “The Little Minister,” which in 1897 in dramatic form, established him as a successful playwright.
Early in the twentieth century Barrie’s reputation expanded and became firmly established through such productions on stage as Quality Street (1901) and the truly delightful Admirable Chrichton (1902); works that both possess a great deal of charm and grace.
1897 was the year J.M. Barrie first met Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies and their five sons; George (1893–1915), John (Jack) (1894–1959), Peter (1897–1960), Michael (1900–1921), and Nicholas (Nico) (1903–1980) who were to play such an important role in his life.
After that he became a regular visitor to their house, as well as a firm family friend. Peter Pan, the story of the boy who would never grow up, that would undoubtedly become his greatest success, was based on a story he invented to entertain George and Jack when they were little children. It was all about their brother Peter, who was only a baby at the time. He told them babies were birds who could fly before they were born and, that this was why nursery windows had to remain shut, so that they wouldn’t fly away
After World War I J.M. Barrie became a regular visitor to a gorgeous little English village called Stanway, which is sited on the Cotswold Way in one of the prettiest parts of England.
Stanway House is a fine example of a Jacobean manor house with a fabulous gatehouse and working watermill, which in the opinion of Fodor’s Great Britain 1998 Guidebook is ‘as perfect and pretty a Cotswold Manor House as anyone is likely to see’.
He first visited in 1921 and was entirely captivated by Stanway Village and the house with its many charms.
He spent all his summers there between 1923 and 1932, renting the building from the Earl and Countess of Wemyss, whom he knew through his connection with Lady Cynthia Asquith the Earl’s daughter, who was Barrie’s secretary.
A home movie made one summer entitled “the Yellow Week at Stanway” preserved in the BFI National Archive, reflects the time when Barrie was a resident and welcomed everyone to join him.***.
Barrie was so passionate about the place that he paid for and built a thatched cricket pavilion that rests on staddle stones, which are mushroom shaped pillars that were originally used as method of vermin proofing hay rics on Cotswold Farms.
Stanway House stands in the centre of what is little more than a cluster of houses, which are dominated by this fascinating tourist attraction. Barrie knew the house, and its immense 60-pane oriel window well.
A legend that has arisen since Barrie’s time was that it was at Stanway House his idea for Tinkerbell was conceived, because he would wake in the mornings to see the dancing image of a golden cockerel reflecting on his bedroom wall from its lofty perch, high up on Stanway’s St Peter’s church. However Peter Pan was written years before Barrie visited Stanway House, so it is now considered highly unlikely.**
Stanway is also where a connection with Barrie and Australia comes in, because a keen cricketer, he managed to get the Australian cricket team, who were playing at Cheltenham nearby, to take part in a match against the local team.
J.M. Barrie loved the game of cricket. He had founded his own cricket team in 1890, which was made up of many of his literary friends, including Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, A.A. Milne and H.G. Wells. At 5 feet 3 inches, Barrie was completely dwarfed by Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, but no one really minded.
The Barrie cricket team called themselves the Allahakbarries, believing at the time that Allah akbar meant ‘Heaven Help Us’ rather than ‘God is Great’.
Barrie even had the American actress Mary Anderson recruit artists and singers to play there as well. Anderson recorded that ‘Barrie was not a shining light on the cricket field. I never saw him make a single run’. He was a better bowler though, and its this prowess that achieved him a hat trick in one of the games that prompted his gift of the pretty thatched pavilion.
Anderson cleaned bowled him in an 1897 test against the village of Broadway in the Midlands, his most calamitous performance ever. The team played for enjoyment and love of the game and Barrie was always generous in his praise for everyone, including the opposition.
It finally dissolved in 1913 as that gracious ‘golden age of cricket’ and the Edwardian era came to an end with the beginning of World War 1. A few of the younger players were killed in the war. Among them was George Llewelyn Davies – one of the boys who helped inspire Peter Pan – killed in 1915. (appears in the team photograph in the back row, far left.). His death was a huge blow to Barrie who loved the boys as if they were his own.
Barrie wrote a 40-page book about his team entitled, Allahakbarries C.C. that was published privately in 1890 with a revised version in 1899. Reprinted in 1950 with a forward by Donald Bradman the very rare books are now highly sought by collectors.
There is also another house in the countryside, but in Scotland, where J.M. Barrie grew up and was involved as well. In August 2011 British actress Joanna Lumley, proving she is absolutely fabulous, launched a global appeal for $4 million pounds to save Moat Brae, where J.M. Barrie spent time as a boy, playing pirates in the gardens with friends who lived there.
It appears they formed a drama club performing a play ‘Bandelero the Bandit’ creating a minor controversy when it was denounced by a clergyman from the school’s governing board. Barrie himself later credited Moat Brae as being an integral part of his inspiration for writing Peter Pan.
At the moment it is being transformed from being a derelict Georgian town villa in the rural town of Dumfries in Scotland appropriately into a national centre for children’s literature, following a successful bid by the local trust to save its decaying bulk. Moat Brae is a medium-scale Greek Revival villa, rising to two storeys with a raised basement and extending to five bays built on a large plot of ground that slopes down to the River Nith.
For several days after my first book was published, I carried it about in my pocket and took surreptitious peeps at it to make sure the ink had not faded “
Even if it had not provided what Barrie himself called the ‘genesis’ of the Peter Pan legend, Moat Brae would still stand out as a fine architectural example with a long history of service to medicine as well as to literature.
The author of this terrific tale The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society is Barbara J. Zitwer, an international literary agent, who acknowledges that the inspiration for her novel came from a number of factors.
It is fact that J.M. Barrie donated the ‘Peter Pan Cup’ to the winner of the outdoor Christmas Day swimming race, which is still held every year in the Serpentine in Hyde Park at London. A friend told her about it years before any thoughts of the novel were born, when she was staying in England.
On the day of her mother’s funeral in New York she was in England feeling very sad she had been unable to get home. This is when she met her own group of elderly ladies, who had been swimming ever day in an outdoor pond for fifty years come rain or shine, winter, summer, spring and fall.
Apparently they did give her a swimsuit and asked her to join them, because she was so sad, and it turned out to be an uplifting unforgettable experience for her. Another friend took her to visit Stanway House during that time as well.
It would however, not be until twenty years later that all these events would be recalled and culminate in the creative work published as The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society.
I certainly plug into the authors experiences of the rich textures that she discovered layering the English countryside, as well as that of the interiors of the old house, because I am also first and foremost an interior designer and this is one of my favourite eras in English design history. I love the charm, mellowness and age that Jacobean (Jacobus – Latin for King James 1 England, James VI Scotland 1566-1625) period houses ooze, especially when decorated with furniture of the same era.
The Jacobean period (1603 – 1625) is described as one of melancholy, suffering slowly under the rise in power of religious puritan sympathies in England. During this time constructing houses of brick altered the profile of buildings. They became sober, any pattern that was imposed was by the use of coloured header bricks or, by the late sixteenth century, by the brick being dressed with stone. Classical ornament was in the main used as a decorative device and at this time Lord Bacon stated in his Essay of Building published in 1625 the year of King James’s death, ‘houses are built to live in and not to look on’ although his observation was in the main ignored something Joey, the heroine of our story certainly finds out.
This story meant a great deal to me because there were many similarities of experiences I shared, both in life and as a designer. I grew up swimming daily, spring summer, autumn, and especially in winter when I found the water was always at its most re-invigorating. I grew up reading a great deal and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan was my favourite book.
When my three sons were small I bought an old rare first edition of the Peter Pan Picture Book, published in 1906 with the permission of J.M. Barrie, with illustrations by Alice Bolingbroke Woodward whose charming pictures it says in the preface, ‘will tempt those who have not yet made acquaintance with the living Peter Pan to lose no time in doing so’.
Including too many spoilers in my conversation about the charming The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society is not my intent in writing this piece. I wanted to urge you to read it for yourself, taking from it what you will, much like the Members of the J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society, who in their Manifesto pledge to ‘listen to each other with compassion, to help each other to see sunshine in their darkest hour, and to feel new adventure in their hearts’*.
Was wishing that I had had a huge oriel window to sit in when I was reading my copy, like the amazing one at Stanway House in the Cotswolds, which filters light gloriously.
Instead I spent a marvelous freezing cold mid-winter Friday morning tucked up warmly in bed on what was a dreadfully grey Melbourne day, while the rain beat relentlessly against the window-pane.
Perfect, almost as good as being in ‘never never never land’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012 – 2016
* Quotes: The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society
** Literary Strolls Around the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean by Gordon Ottewell.
***Pen and Pictures no 3 – J.M. Barrie – The Bioscope http://thebioscope.net/2008/05/30/pen-and-pictures-no-3-jm-barrie/
” J.M. Barrie