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Rambling around Neverland [Mar. 28th, 2019|05:10 pm]

I begin to think of this as the blog past that never grew up. I have been working on it for over a week, nibbling away at it a paragraph at a time. I never set out to binge-read Peter Pan. I was looking through the To Be Read pile for my next book, and pulled out Geraldine McCaughrean's Peter Pan in Scarlet, the authorised sequel. I don't think this had anything to do with the Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland, which I have not seen; it has been heavily trailed, so I might have made a subconscious connection, but I'd have thought that was more likely to put me off the subject than to attract me. I'd bought the book in a charity shop out of 90% admiration for McCaughrean's The White Darkness, 10% curiosity: how do you write a sequel to Peter Pan, and what's more, one which will please Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, who commissioned the competition by which McCaughrean was chosen for the task?

Because Peter Pan is a very uneasy creation, and it must be difficult to submerge yourself in his story deep enough to write a sequel without asking the problematic questions: what's so great about never growing up? Who is that intended to appeal to? I thought children couldn't wait to grow up, to do the things that are forbidden until you're older...; adults are permitted to return briefly to childhood, but we know that sooner or later we will have to let go, to grow up, to leave Neverland. It's easy for me to be - well, call it cynical, if you like - about Michael Jackson, because I'm the wrong age and have the wrong taste ever to have been a fan of his music. My strongest impression of him is of the Jackson 5, and I wonder what sort of childhood that must have been, enough to make anyone wish they could have deferred growing up just a bit longer. Seen from that angle, calling your home 'Neverland' is close to putting up a sign saying Something is seriously wrong here. Peter Pan woos his playmates away from their mothers, for his own benefit, not for theirs: even if you couldn't bring yourself to believe in Michael Jackson as a sexual predator, how could you not be uneasy about the emotional manipulation that was going on in plain view? On the other hand, what can I say about J.M. Barrie's friendship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, as chronicled in the BBC drama, The Lost Boys? Nothing: I didn't see that, either. (Why didn't I? Ian Holm as Barrie, how did I miss that?) In other words, the problems with Peter Pan are not deeply hidden. They are all on the surface. Ursula Vernon's Never demonstrates this admirably.

Geraldine McCaughrean finds somewhere else to go. Neverland itself is in trouble, and is breaking through to 'the mainland', to real life. The no-longer-Lost no-longer-Boys have troubled dreams, and awake to find leftovers in their beds, daggers, a pile of leaves, a hook. So they make their way back to Neverland, find it changed, autumnal. This is nicely done, picking up from the conclusion of Barrie's Peter and Wendy, which sets out the future careers of the adult Lost Boys, who must now turn themselves back into to children by the clever strategy of dressing up as children, because "[e]veryone knows that when you put on dressing up clothes, you become someone else." So by putting on their children's clothes, the adults become children again - which is awkward for Tootles, who has only daughters, but he copes, and spends the rest of the book as a girl (with a phantom moustache). Slightly, who in Barrie's version cuts whistles out of the trees, dances ecstatically to his own tunes and is quite the most conceited of the boys, has become the Honourable Slightly Darling, a clarinettist and a widower. He has no children, but finds his way to childhood and Neverland by going right down to the foot of the bed - and beyond. The character of Slightly is the one point where the sequel seems to me to diverge sharply from the source material, and the result is so endearing that I'm not about to complain. The style is also very much its own thing. It is sprightly, almost bouncy, and nothing like the voice of The White Darkness, and I wondered whether it was the voice of Barrie's book, but no, as I confirmed by a rereading of Peter Pan and Wendy...

At least, I thought that was the name of the book I was looking for: but the title on my Puffin edition is just Peter Pan. I also found a copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. Confused, I turned to Wikipedia. A brief chronology, as much for my own reference as anyone else's: in 1897 Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies boys in Kensington Gardens. Chapters inspired by this form part of an adult novel called The Little White Bird (1902) in which the name Peter Pan first appears; but this Peter is a very different character to the Peter Pan of she stage play (1904). Nonetheless, Barrie's publishers decided to reissue those chapters separately, with illustrations, as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. The actual novel-of-the-play wasn't published until 1911 (I don't know why), and it was called Peter and Wendy - but it does appear to be the same book,

I couldn't imagine what The Little White Bird might be like: what a strange book, to be a novel for adults but contain this very solid slice of fairy tale. The internet found me someone who had read it and was equally bemused, but who kindly provides a plot summary. The text is available on Project Gutenberg, which I was not expecting: surely it (or at least the part of it which is also Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens) is part of Barrie's bequest to Great Ormond Street Hospital?

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens opens with a map (drawn by Arthur Rackham. It is a reasonably accurate map of Kensington Gardens, but it is also a traditional Fantasy Map TM, marking the locations of a variety of legendary events. Some of these are explained in the text - but the text also refers to more heroic exploits (for values of those words wqhich apply to very small children) not all of which are explained in these chapters. Kensington Gardens is a mythical kingdom. and Peter Pan is just one of its inhabitants. For example:
There are more gates to the Gardens than one gate, but that is the one you go in at, and before you go in you speak to the lady with the balloons, who sits just outside. This is as near to being inside as she may venture, because, if she were to let go her hold of the railings for one moment, the balloons would lift her up, and she would be flown away. She sits very squat, for the balloons are always tugging at her, and the strain has given her quite a red face. Once she was a new one, because the old one had let go, and David was very sorry for the old one, but as she did let go, he wished he had been there to see.

The map alone was enough to remind me of the map of the Park in my Mary Poppins books, but the connection there could have been just in my head: this, though, is unmistakeable. As Wikipedia points out: "Travers greatly admired and emulated J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. Her first publisher was Barrie's ward, Peter Davies, one of the five Llewelyn Davies boys who were the inspiration for Peter Pan." Peter Davies was, in this context, more than just "one of..." the five Llewelyn Davies boys, he was the baby brother whose name Barrie borrowed for the boy who never grew up, just as he borrowed the name of the older David for the child who accompanies the narrator on his walks in Kensington Gardens (don't small children traditionally fantasise that the new baby has flown out of the window and gone to live somewhere else, never to return?) I think Travers also had the Darling family in mind when she created the Banks family: the children, the father who is more a child than any of them, their unconventional (any maybe even magical) nanny... but that's another story.

This passage also serves as a taster of Barrie's style in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, its adoption of a child's eye view without any concessions to a chold's vocabulary (venture?). It is whimsical to a degree which ought to be intolerably sweet, but somehow isn't - or at least, I don't find it so, most of the time. I could do without the passages about how babies are hatched as birds on the Birds' Island, and dispatched thence to the mothers who are waiting for them.

Peter, in this version, lives with the birds, and is half bird himself, neither entirely bird nor entirely human, a Betwixt-and-Between. However long he lives there, he is perpetually only seven days old, and in Rackham's illustrations he is a plump baby among the slender fairies and the trees with their grasping twiglike fingers. He plays panpipes for the fairies' dances, and later acquires a goat on which he rides: did these attributes suggest the 'Pan' part of his name, or were they suggested by it? I have no idea.

Likewise, I have no idea whether Barrie set out to adapt the story of Peter Pan into a stage play, and realised that it would be easier if Peter were older, and that there would be more opportunities for adventures if Neverland, the land of make-believe games, were substittured for Kensington Gardens. Or did he from the start have the idea of an older boy who lives alongside pirates and - well, Barrie calls them Redskins - and decide to attach the name of Peter Pan to this new idea? Peter claims to be the same person, he tells Wendy that he ran away the day he was born, and lived with the fairies in Kensington Gardens - but you can't believe anything Peter says.

I am assuming that it's safe to treat the play and the later book as the same narrative: I have no reason to think otherwise. It is possible that I have seen the play, as a child: when I read the passage in which Tinkerbell 'dies', my first thought was that it had taken a great deal of elaborate contrivance to bring about her death, and the passage in which she is saved by children affirming their believe in fairies is surprisingly brief (less than a page). Then I remembered that on stage it would have been more substantial, and I pictured the theatre full of applauding children. I wouldn't go so far as to call this a memory, but there might be some actual memory behind it. Faced with adapting this very theatrical moment to a text narrative, Barrie brazens it out, but I can see why he wouldn't want to prolong it. Peter appeals to all the children who mught be dreaming of Neverland:
"If you believe," he shouted to them, "clap your hands; don't let Timk die."
Many clapped.
Some didn't.
A few little beasts hissed.

This feels like the voice of experience - but it is enough, and Tinkerbell revives.

For the sake of completeness I should add that I don't think I have ever seen the film: I watched a clip on YouTube and felt no recognition, no familiarity at all. Except that I had remembered the way to Neverland as being "Second star to the right, and straight on till morning." So I was taken aback to read what Peter told Wendy: "Second to the right, and straight on till morning," - again, with the caveat that you couldn't find Neverland by following these instructions, Peter just said anything that came into his head. But had I just imagined the version with the star? No, I was remembering the Disney version. Oh, dear.

Anyway, the book. I was going to talk about how male-dominated it is, with its central Boy Who Never Grew Up, and its Lost Boys (who are all boys). Its Neverland is the place that embodies children's make-believe games, but they are boys' games of pirates and Redskins. Hook himself is another boy, and old boy - an Old Estonian - tormented by standards of behaviour and good form inculcated in his schooldays. All of which is true, but the original title was Peter and Wendy, and the narrative is often given from Wendy's point of view. Neverland has mermaids, which are surely there because Wendy dreams of mermaids. Admittedly, Wendy slips almost too easily into the rôle of Mother which Peter has chosen for her - no, chosen her for. He entices her to Neverland to be his mother, Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily both declining this honour; Wendy accepts it because Mother is a part she enjoys playing. There is humour in the depiction of her mothering, as she reproduces her own mother's policies (the boys must rest for an hour after lunch before they swim, and it must be a real rest, even if lunch was make believe). There's a lovely double perspective in the depiction of Wendy, the child playing the part of an adult. When the chidren are captured by pirates, the boys are hanfled roughly, but not Wendy:
With ironical politeness Hook raised his hat to her, and, offering her his arm, escorted her to the spot where the others were being gagged. He did it with such an air, he was so frightfully distingué, that she was too fascinated to cry out. She was only a little girl.

Peter is iconic, and the price of this is that he can be two-dimensional. Wendy is only a little girl, so there is room for her to be a real, three-dimensional, little girl.

She is, admittedly, not to modern taste as a model for little girls, but at least this is presented as a personal characteristic. At the end of the book, Wendy grows up, but "you need not feel sorry for her" because she is "one of the kind that likes to grow up," I can't deny that growing up to be a mother is the natural fate of a female in this book: mothers real and pretend, present and absent, are everywhere, from Mrs Darling to the Neverbird. But other options are available. There are the mermaids, playing ball games with bubbles; there is Tinker Bell, with her exquisite boudoir and her jealousy. Above all, there is Tiger Lily, proud daughter of an Indian chief, as brave as she is beautiful... But how to talk about Tiger Lily without talking about the clash of racial stereotypes she embodies? I assume that what is going on here is nothing to do with Barrie's own perception of indigenous peoples, and everything to do with the clichŕs of 'ripping yarns' for boys, but beyond that I am not prepared to go.

I stumbled into this exploration of Neverland inadvertently, thinking that I wasn't particularly interested in Peter Pan himself. I wondered whether his continuing presence in literary culture owed as much to the bequest which makes him synonymous with helping sick children (and you couldn't not want to do that, could you)? And no doubt that's part of his power. Perhaps the development of the myth through the book, the play, the another book, (maybe even the film), not, like King Arthur, through the many hands of the ages but always in the words of one man, adds to its strength. There's something about the way Barrie tells his story (and I'm thinking particularly of the Peter and Wendy novel, here), narrating a story about children rather than a story for children, in the voice of an adult entranced but also amused by his subject. He sees the charm of Neverland, but he knows that only Peter can live there for ever, and that Peter is neither entirely admirable nor entirely happy. Is it Barrie's fault if careless readers do not notice this?

While I have been wandering in Neverland, the story has started following me around. It started with an album of bandes dessinées, bought I forget when, in a secondhand shop I forget where, coming to the surface now and demanding to be read: A la recherche de Pater Pan by Cosey (otherwise unknown to me). It is set in the Alps of the Valais, in the late 1920s, and it devotes its efforts to a gorgeous and well-documented depiction of the way of life of that place and time. The central figure is a tourist from England, a (blocked) novelist who claims to be obsessed with Peter Pan, having been given the book as a child, by his brother. 'The book', according to its cover, is both Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter Pan and Wendy. I'm not going to quibble about this: Cosey thinks that Barrie was an "auteur anglais", this isn't about factual accuracy. Quite late in the book, the title is explained: it's the novelist's reply to the question, what will your next book be called? And he reflects that he associates his brother, at some level, with Peter Pan. There doesn't seem to be any actual basis for this, in what I read, but this is only volume one of two: perhaps all will become clear in the second half of the story. I'd buy it, anyway, if I ever sw a copy.

Next, thinking I had left Peter Pan behind me, I read The Lost: the Dark Ground by Gillian Cross, the first book of a trilogy which J. had loaned to me. I'm saying as little as possible about this one, because it's a terrific book and one of the great things about it is the way the story gradually unfolds and keeps you guessing. Also, book one of a trilogy, so I could say things on the basis of what I know now that were completely wrong. But, quite a long way through the book, it occurred to me that 'the Lost' echoes (in my head, if nowhere else) with the Lost Boys in their home under the ground in Neverland. So I hadn't entirely got away from Peter Pan yet.

Finally, putting together my comics order for the next month, I came across The Wendy Project, and was delighted that someone had decided to put Wendy at the centre of the story. (Not to mention Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's The Lost Girls - no, let's not mention that.) Edited, 24.4.19, to add that Melissa Jane Osborne and Veronica Fish's The Wendy Project turns out to be completely charming: 16 year-old Wendy (Davies, not Darling) crashes her car into a lake, causing the death of her backseat passenger, her younger brother Michael (this being the USA, there is no suggestion that this is in any way illegal or abnormal). With the help of her counsellor / therapist, the belatedly named Dr Barrie, who askes her to make a sketch book of her feelings, she works her way through denial and grief (and Neverland) to acceptance and moving on. That's a SPOILER! but you never doubt she will: the question is how, and at what cost. The surprise is how close a reading of Peter Pan this entails, with generous use of quotations, and textual allusions (Tinker Bell / Jenny Wren causes Tootles to shoot down the Wendy Bird, for example, and I was delighted to note a flamingo by the shore of Michael's lagoon...) Lovely art by Veronoca Fish, with day to day life in monochrome, but Neverland breaking through in glorious colour.

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.