J. M. Barrie in 1901

It is sometimes said that the main contribution of Edith Nesbit to children’s literature is that she anchored it firmly in real life. This may seem a surprising claim, given the magical creatures in some of her books, but the concept is comprehensible when we consider the other works that have survived from the first decade of the 20th century.

Until Nesbit indeed the great classics of children’s literature were fantasies, as in the wonderful works of Lewis Carroll – as was seen in the recent film of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, where Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen were much more memorable than Alice herself.

Carroll of course belonged in the 19th century, but the first few years of the 20th century brought forth two other classics which are still considered at the very apex of children’s literature. Interestingly, and perhaps understandably, they were both individual works, and nothing else their creators wrote came anywhere near them in either interest or popularity – quite unlike in the cases of the other writers of children’s books I have dealt with so far, and those who dominated the scene in the second half of the century too.

The first of these classics was J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, which was in fact a play that has been retold and represented in many forms. Most notable of these is its annual reincarnation as the best loved of pantomimes, that strange cultural artifact the British indulge in at Christmas. The story lends itself of course to the characteristic features of panto, with the lead role being played by a girl and the villain being obviously monstrous so that children can boo him lustily.

Peter Pan is a slight figure who flits about excitedly when he is not actually flying, so he can be portrayed easily by a girl. Even more fitting, for the opposite role, is the character of the piratical Captain Hook, who can gloat wickedly with twirling moustaches to upset the children. Barrie, interestingly enough, thought of him as a Balliol man. Balliol College at Oxford was the renowned nursery of future administrators of the Empire, such as John Buchan, which suggests that Barrie thought imperial rule could be related to a profession not many would have thought in any way similar.

Hook also also has a memorable weakness, his terror of the crocodile who ate up his arm that Peter had cut off. The beast had found it so tasty that it continued to pursue him to eat the rest. Fortunately for Hook however, the crocodile had swallowed a clock, which keeps ticking, so that he has warning of when it will approach – but he knows that some day the clock will wind down, the tick will not be heard, and the crocodile will creep up on him without warning.

This allows for endless variations on another tradition of pantomime, when an actor says something that the audience knows is wrong, so that they can correct him lustily. My first introduction to panto was with my College Dean, who thought I would be lonely over Christmas, and I was quite bemused to find him and his family all shouting ‘Yes, he is’, when Captain Hook announced that the crocodile was not around. Cries of ‘No, he isn’t…..Yes, he is’ went on for ages, and everyone evidently thought this enormous fun.

The exception to the ease with which Peter Pan could be turned into a pantomime was the lack of a prominent role for a large woman, to be played by a man. This character is known as the Dame, and engages in slapstick, much of it entirely unsuitable for children who nevertheless roar with laughter as skirts are lifted and false bosoms waggled. Numerous productions over the years have tried to solve the problem, sometimes by turning Nana, the dog who was supposed to look after the Darling children who went away with Peter, into a large figure of fun.

All this suggests that Peter Pan was emphatically a creation for juvenile minds, but the fact is that there is a trace of the juvenile in all of us, and retreating to a world of fantasy can be fun for adults too. The story also has aspects that are more whimsically entertaining, as when the father of the children who are swept away to his Neverland by Peter punishes himself by staying in the dog’s kennel. He had punished the dog earlier, which is why Nana was not around to protect the children when Peter visited.

Peter had come to visit because he had been taken away when he was a baby, and he still had fond memories of his nursery, and so came to look at the Darling children in their cosy home. Unfortunately he lost his shadow on one of these visits, and came back to search for it, and then had to take Wendy away so that she could sew it on for him. Once she reached Neverland, she became a mother to the Lost Boys, Peter’s companions, who had like him been lost by their parents when they were babies.

Barrie’s story had its roots in his fascination with a family of young boys whom he adored. He himself had an unhappy marriage, and was much more interested in boys, though this may not have had the sexual connotations that are considered normal for such obsessions in our modern age. Thus Lewis Carroll too is now assumed to have been paedophilic, in his case the passion having been for young girls, as in the model for Alice. In both cases it is I think not entirely naïve to believe that such affection was asexual, the impossibility of sexual desire with regard to the children of one’s friends (in Carroll’s case the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, the Oxford College at which he taught) precluding the development of warmer feelings that a post-Freudian age thinks inevitable.

In Barrie’s case he was perhaps driven to excessive emotion about boyhood by the memory of his older brother, who had died before he was fourteen, leaving their mother to console herself with the thought that her darling son would never have to grow up. Barrie himself, forced to suffer such a ghastly fate, naturally fantasized about never growing up, and was able to play out the fantasy not only through his young friends, but also through the immortal figure of Peter Pan. With two of the boys dying in the First World War, one can sympathize with the more lasting nature of the literary creation, the story of the boy who never grew up, which, even if based on that early tragedy, has given such enormous pleasure to so many over the years.

Source: Island Online 2 September 2010 http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=5683
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