Before he conceived of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie decided it was time to grow up and quit smoking. He justifies this decision in My Lady Nicotine: A Study in Smoke (originally published in 1890), which begins with a common trio of arguments against substance addiction. The bodily and spiritual ruin; the economic impact; the pain caused to loved ones. In the case of our narrator (who seems to be a lightly fictionalized Barrie): he felt frequently like he was dying; realized several oriental rugs could be purchased yearly with the money saved; and delayed his marriage six months when his fiancée demanded cessation. Slowly, however, this “study” diffuses into a different mode. At the introduction’s close, fidgeting in the drawing room with postprandial cravings, he listens to his wife sing a sweet and mournful song, which takes his thoughts far away, to a parlor on the top floor of an inn, where time seems to slow as his body's hunger warmly fades, like coals in the hearth that throw light around this room — onto newspapers, through smoke rings, across the faces of gentleman friends, and against the contours of a tobacco jar. It’s a lost world, once known so well, and he pulls up a chair and begins to pack a pipe. “After a time the music ceases, and my wife puts her hand on my shoulder. Perhaps I start a little, and then she says I have been asleep. This is the book of my dreams.”
It is also a book of Barrie’s dreams past. The volume was stitched together from pieces he had written anonymously for the St James’s Gazette, Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, and elsewhere, published to “establish his title to the contents in the face of pirates and rival claimants”, writes Denis Mackail. And yet it works surprisingly well as a single unit, whatever kind of unit that may be. There are: chapters on the pleasures of apparatus — pouches, smoking tables, the choice of stem and bowl; short stories masquerading as essays about friends, the men with whom our narrator smokes; speculations about literary history (surely Spenser puffed in bed); epistolary correspondence; a ghost story; three dream visions; and unfiltered wit. The only throughline to it all is how the chapters mirror the instincts of a smoker’s mind: although it may stray to other subjects, the prose always returns at steady intervals to the preoccupations of nicotine.
We catch sight of the author’s slight social awkwardness, his odd sense of humor, the famed idiosyncrasies. Embittered in his youth for failings of wit, the narrator would “lay in a stock of repartee on likely subjects” the night before entering “the society of ladies”. All of this changed once he acquired his pipe. Known to scoffers as “the Mermaid”, its mouthpiece was a cigarette holder, which required “months of unwearied practice . . . before you found the angle at which the bowl did not drop off.” He turned this to his advantage at parties.
She observed the strange-looking pipe. . . . It is possible that she may pass it by without remark, in which case all is lost; but experience has shown me that four times out of six she touches it in assumed horror, to pass some humorous remark. Off tumbles the bowl. “Oh,” she exclaims, “see what I have done! I am so sorry!” I pull myself together. “Madam,” I reply calmly and bowing low, “what else was to be expected? You came near my pipe — and it lost its head!” She blushes, but cannot help being pleased; and I set my pipe for the next visitor.
Perhaps it’s best that this man quit smoking.
While it might seem quite at odds with Neverland, My Lady Nicotine, like Peter Pan and Wendy (1904), is concerned with fleeting youth, a stage of bachelor life that has the trappings of childhood in a way: simple pleasures, imaginative adventures with companions, idleness, tranquility, and a sense that these days might go on forever, until they don’t. The book ends on a maudlin image. The narrator sits each night alone in the drawing room, while his wife sleeps upstairs. At a certain hour, a neighbor through the wall, whom he has never met, sparks a meerschaum pipe, and our man puffs his empty piece in solidarity until he hears the neighbor clearing out his bowl’s final ash. “Therefore when his last tap says good-night to me I take my cold briar out of my mouth, tap it on the mantel-piece, smile sadly, and so to bed.”
For a slightly different take on nicotine, see Juliette Bretan’s essay “Documenting Drugs: The Artful Intoxications of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz”. And for a film about a smoker pitted against Tinkerbell’s cousin, see our post on Princess Nicotine (1909).
Feb 6, 2024