Peter Pan is one of the most recognisable characters of children’s literature. He is famously ‘the boy who wouldn’t grow up’ and embodies the ideals that children always wish to have and adults wish they’d never lost – the ability to never grow old, never have to shoulder responsibility, never have to hold down a full time job and pay taxes. Instead Peter Pan and his friends, the Lost Boys (so called because all were supposedly lost in Kensington Gardens as babies) spend day after day frolicking in the sun and trying (often failing) to befriend mermaids.
There are many theories about the inspiration behind the character of Peter Pan, many of which were discussed in the foreword to the edition I read. (Unfortunately I can’t quite remember which edition it was, and I’ve long since returned it to the library). The most well known source of inspiration is Peter Llewellyn Davies; as a friend of the family, J.M. Barrie famously had a very close relationship with the Llewellyn Davies children and assumed joint guardianship over the five boys after their parents died. Three of Peter’s brothers, John, Michael and George, also feature as characters in the book. As much as I would like to believe their lives were as beautiful and overly romanticised as Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of James Barrie and Peter was in Finding Neverland, the reality of the Barrie/Llewellyn Davies family didn’t have such a happy ending. The real Michael sadly drowned when he was twenty, about five years after his oldest brother George was killed in the First World War, and Peter committed suicide in his sixties. The ‘appropriateness’ of J.M. Barrie’s relationship with the boys has also been called into question in recent(ish) years, although this has been hotly denied by Nicholas Llewellyn Davies, the youngest of the children.
The character of Peter Pan may also have been based on James Barrie’s older brother David, who died aged thirteen and so always remained a boy to the family. Another theory is that Peter was influenced by James Barrie himself, who never grew much beyond five feet tall, and so was quite literally the ‘boy who never grew up’ (another reason not to believe everything you see in Finding Neverland, heartbreakingly lovely though it is).
But the funny thing is that, as a character, Peter isn’t very likeable. He’s extremely cocky and arrogant, incredibly stubborn, not to mention selfish and egotistic. He’s likely to sulk if he doesn’t get his own way, and tries to coax children to leave their parents and live with him forever, before becoming bored with them and leaving them behind when he goes off on his solo adventures. While I can appreciate the symbolism behind all of the theories about the inspiration for Peter, to be honest I’m really not sure that it would be much of a compliment if he was based on Michael Llewellyn Davies, or David Barrie.
I did enjoy reading Peter Pan, but there did seem to be a few ‘conflicting interests’ flying off the page. It’s definitely the sort of story which I can imagine would work best when read aloud to children, probably because the story was written around seven years after the play in which the story and characters first became famous, and it feels like the play is always there in the background so that it seems to be a work to be performed rather than simply read. But if I as an ‘adult’ (crikey), read this story to a child, I don’t think I’d quite know what stance to take on it. As the reader or audience, are we meant to be taking the sides of the children or the adults? Obviously it all seems jolly fun for children to be having adventures and surviving independently without adults telling them to wash their hands before tea, but really the actions of the children are incredibly selfish. The Darlings (or Wendy at least) are fully aware that their mother will be worried about them, but they can’t bring themselves to go home in case they miss out on any fun. But at the same time Mr Darling (named for George Llewellyn Davies) often has a habit of acting like a spoilt child himself, so everything seems a bit topsy-turvy and, after much deliberation, I’m still not really sure where I should stand as a reader.
I don’t really like the idea of the Lost Boys and Peter killing pirates either. I thought the whole point about Neverland and children not growing up was a means of preserving their innocence, and yet how can they remain innocent when they’re killing pirates? Okay, children love a good adventure story and everyone knows that pirates are always the bad guys, but killing them seems to be going a step too far in my book. Similarly, I’m not sure how Wendy’s rather suggestive feelings for Peter fit into the preservation of innocence idea. Maybe that’s the sign that she’s growing up too much and needs to go home, but I couldn’t be sure as the real meaning was a bit too ambiguous for my liking. I don’t know, this is probably just me being a stuffy old fuddy-duddy, but there were a few too many contradictions in my eyes (unless I’m misunderstanding everything, which is a distinct possibility).
Obviously the ‘independent woman’ in me (just call me Beyoncé) was ready to scream in frustration at Wendy’s role in general. Although still just a child, all she really wants from life is to have someone to ‘mother’ and to be a good little housewife, which represents nothing more than an absolutely stifling lack of ambition in my eyes. Okay okay, I know this story was first performed as a play in 1904 and obviously it’s going to be pretty old-fashioned in the old feminism stakes, but it’s one aspect of the book (alongside the ridiculously stereotypical and un-PC portrayal of the Indians) which really dates the work for me, and made it a bit hard for me to connect with it in the same way that I might have done with a children’s story of my own generation.
My main gripe with the book though was the fact that the edition I read was very poorly edited. I highly doubt this has anything to do with J.M. Barrie himself, and of course it shouldn’t detract at all from the story, but I don’t think it would be too much to ask for works to be proofread for correct spellings and grammar. There’s no excuse for typing the same word twice in a row or frequently missing full stops from the end of sentences, it’s just shoddy.
Despite all of this, one of the things I like best about Peter Pan is the idea of Neverland, especially the idea that everyone can access a different version unique to them, or remember previous visits, if they can just let their minds drift enough for it to emerge from a corner of their memory. As a ‘grown child’ who is still in possession of an extremely overactive imagination, I like the thought that, if I so chose and was lucky enough to ‘remember’ it, I could retreat to my own Neverland island (with or without flamingos), and I know if I have children of my own I will do everything in my power to make sure they discover theirs. Peter Pan has been responsible for bringing joy to children and adults alike for over a century now – not just through the versions of the play and the books, the films or the sequel (Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean), but also due to the lives that have been changed through the donation of the copyright to Great Ormond Street Hospital, which has been treating sick children with the aid of Peter Pan’s royalties since 1929. And if the story of children benefitting from the adventures of a boy who refused to grow up doesn’t capture the imagination, I don’t know what will.