Peter Pan, Children's Literature and Childhood

PETER PAN - CHILDREN'S LITERATURE and CHILDHOOD

On reading Barrie's biography it also became clear to Peter that the adventures of the other Peter were based on the curious relationship that Barrie had engineered with a group of young brothers, the Llewelyn-Davies boys (see right).

Barrie, although he was married to Mary Ansell (see left), had no children, - although they did have a big St Bernard dog, Porthos, who reappears in Peter Pan as 'Nana', the canine nanny to the Darling children. 

Shortly after his disastrous marriage, Barrie befriended a young couple called Llewelyn-Davies who lived near by, in South Kensington.
At the time Sylvia (see right) & Arthur Llewelyn-Davies had three sons, George, Jack and Peter. Eventually two more sons were born - Michael and Nicholas. 
Barrie seemed to 'steal' these boys from their parents, endlessly playing with them, telling them stories and photographing them, (occasionally in the nude - when they were swimming - see left)). 
The boy's father, Arthur Llewelyn-Davies, not surprisingly, gave every sign of disapproving of this somewhat strange state of affairs but, being a gentleman, he never made a fuss. 

Equally, Arthur (see right) never made a fuss when Barrie made him the prototype for the ineffectual and spineless Mr Darling in 'Peter Pan'. Strangely, however, Barrie insisted that in the play the same actor who played Mr Darling should also play Captain Hook - so perhaps Barrie had a divided opinion about Arthur. 
After some years of being persistently neglected by Barrie, Mary took up with a much younger man, and Barrie was forced into a divorce.
With Barrie then spending even more time with Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies and the boys, Arthur conveniently died of cancer of the jaw, leaving Barrie to maintain what then became a paternal interest in the late Arthur's sons, and their widowed mother, Sylvia.

A short time after Arthur's death, the distraught, grieving mother; the beautiful Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies, who was Barrie's model for Mrs Darling (see left) in Peter Pan, also died of cancer, which we may speculate was exactly what Barrie secretly wanted. 
After having clandestinely, but clumsily 'doctored' Sylvia's will in his favour with regard to the boys, Barrie was left as the boy's guardian, and it is from those boys, and particularly Michael, that Peter Pan, 'the boy who never grew up', emerges.

Strangely, Barrie, who was a rather sickly man, and addicted to tobacco, outlived two of the Llewelyn boys, George and Michael.

George (see left) was killed at 'the front', in France, during the 1914-1918 war.
George Davies and his brother Jack met Barrie during their regular outings to Kensington Gardens, with their nurse Mary Hodgson.
As the oldest (he was four years old when he met Barrie) he featured most prominently in the early storytelling and play adventures from which the writer drew ideas for Barrie's works around that time about young boys.
He and Jack (and to a lesser extent Peter) were featured in a photo storybook 'The Boy Castaways' which Barrie made during a shared holiday at Barrie's Black Lake Cottage in 1901.
In the 1904 play 'Peter Pan', or 'The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up', Peter Pan is roughly 10 - the same age that Davies was when Barrie began writing the play in 1903.
Barrie reported taking some of the characterization of Peter and individual 'Lost Boys' from things Davies and his younger brothers said or did.
For example, in response to Barrie's oral tales about babies who died and went to live in Neverland, the boy reportedly exclaimed, "To die will be an awfully big adventure"; this became one of Peter Pan's most memorable lines.
Michael (see right), was undoubtedly Barrie's true favourite, and probably the actual model for Peter Pan.
He was an infant when Barrie was writing the first appearance of Peter Pan as a newborn in the highly dubious story, 'The Little White Bird'.
He was four and a half years old when 'Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up' opened in London in December 1904.
The following winter, Michael was ill for several months, so in February 1906 Barrie and producer Charles Frohman brought scenery and some of the cast to the family's home in Berkhamsted to perform the play for him.
Barrie began writing a sequel to Peter Pan, about the boy's brother, to be entitled 'Michael Pan', but instead he incorporated this material (such as the hero's nightmares) into the novel 'Peter and Wendy'.
Michael and Barrie remained very close as he grew up and went away to school, particularly after his eldest brother George died in combat in Flanders during World War I in 1915.
Michael attended Eton College, where he had difficulty adjusting to life away from his family, and exchanged letters daily with "Uncle Jim" (Barrie).
He also suffered from nightmares, which he had experienced since childhood.
Nonetheless, he made a number of friends, and excelled at his studies, including art and writing poetry, and was described as a "brilliant boy", one destined for great things.
After finishing at Eton, Davies attended Christ Church, Oxford, where he continued to correspond regularly with Barrie.
He briefly decided to study art at the University of Paris, but returned to Oxford.



Several friends from Eton joined him there, but he also became very close to Rupert Buxton, the son of Sir Thomas Fowell Victor Buxton, 4th Baronet and a former pupil of Harrow School.

The two became inseparable friends, spending time both at the university and on holiday together.
Buxton was also a poet, and had an interest in acting.
Buxton was one of the few friends of Davies whom Barrie reported getting along with.
The closeness of Davies and Buxton, combined with the uncertain circumstances of their death, led to speculation that the pair had died in a suicide pact.
The Sandford Pool was well known as a drowning hazard (there were warning signs, and a conspicuous memorial for previous victims) and the pair had gone swimming there before.
The water was 20–30 feet deep, but calm.
Buxton was a good swimmer, but Davies had a fear of water and could not swim effectively.


A witness at the coroner's inquest reported that one man was swimming to join the other, who was sitting on a stone on the weir, but he experienced "difficulties", and the other dived in to reach him. However, the witness also reported that when he saw their heads together in the water they did not appear to be struggling.

Their bodies were recovered "clasped" together the next day.
Some later accounts report that their hands were tied to each other's.
Michael's brothers, Peter and Nico, each later acknowledged suicide as a likely explanation, as did Barrie.

Peter (see left), who became a successful publisher, also committed suicide some years after Barrie's death, throwing himself under a train.
He was a signal officer in France and spent time in the trenches; at one point he was hospitalized with impetigo.
He ultimately won the Military Cross, but was emotionally scarred by his wartime experience.


In 1917, while still in the military, Davies met and began to court Hungarian-born Vera Willoughby (a watercolour painter and illustrator, as well as a costume and poster designer), a married woman 27 years older, with a daughter older than he was.
He stayed with her when on leave, which scandalized Barrie and caused a rift between the two.
His former nurse and mother figure Mary Hodgson disapproved strongly as well.
The relationship continued at least through the end of his military service in 1919.
In 1926 he published an edition of George Farquhar's 'The Recruiting Officer', featuring illustrations by her.
In 1926, Davies founded a publishing house, Peter Davies Ltd, which in 1951 released his cousin Daphne du Maurier's work about their grandfather, illustrator and writer George du Maurier, the Young George du Maurier, letters 1860–1867.
He married Margaret Ruthven in 1931, and had three sons with her: Ruthven (b. 1933), George (b. 1935) and Peter (b. 1940).
He grew to dislike having his name associated with Peter Pan, which he called - perhaps rightly - "that terrible masterpiece".
Upon Barrie's death in 1937, most of his estate and fortune went to his secretary Cynthia Asquith, and the copyright to the 'Peter Pan' works had previously been given in 1929 to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London.
Although Peter (and his surviving brothers) received a legacy, some have speculated that this drove Davies to drink - he eventually became an alcoholic.
Peter's son Ruthven later told an interviewer:
"My father had mixed feelings about the whole business of Peter Pan.
He accepted that Barrie considered that he was the inspiration for Peter Pan and it was only reasonable that my father should inherit everything from Barrie.
That was my father's expectation.
It would have recompensed him for the notoriety he had experienced since being linked with Peter Pan - something he hated."
In fact, Peter was sadly mistaken, as Michael was the model for Peter Pan, with Peter Llewelyn Davies only providing the eponymous hero's first name - Peter.
At the time of his suicide, he had been editing family papers and letters, assembling them into a collection he called 'The Morgue'.
He had more or less reached the documents having to do with his brother Michael's suicide.
Other possible contributing factors in his suicide were ill health (he was suffering from emphysema), as well as the knowledge that his wife and all three of their sons had inherited the usually fatal Huntington's disease.
Newspaper reports of his death referred to him in their headlines as "Peter Pan".


Only Jack and  Nico (see right), lived into relative old age.
Jack, (see left) and his elder brother George, first met Barrie on their regular outings in Kensington Gardens with their nurse Mary Hodgson and infant brother Peter in 1897.
He and George were the audience for the fantastic stories in which Barrie conceived of the character of Peter Pan.
The character of John Darling (see right), the older of Wendy's brothers, was possibly named after him.


In 1906 Jack was recommended by Barrie to Admiral Robert F. Scott for a position at Osborne Naval College, which was unlike his brothers, who all attended Eton College (see left).
Jack harbored some resentment of Barrie, at times believing the writer was trying to take his father's place (especially after his father died - and in this Jack was probably correct).
He was not as close to the writer as were his brothers, especially George and Michael.
Just prior to his mother's death, he joined the Royal Navy and served in the North Atlantic during World War I.
His brothers Peter and Nico (the youngest) out-lived him.
He married 19-year-old Geraldine "Gerrie" Gibb in 1917, without first asking permission of Barrie, who only grudgingly approved of the relationship, nonetheless, Barrie gave the couple charge of the Davies family house, where Michael and Nico still lived during school holidays, in the care of Mary Hodgson.
Jack had two children: Timothy, born in 1921, and Sylvia Jocelyn (named for Davies' mother, but always known as Jane), born in 1924.
He died in 1959 at the age of 65, several months before his brother Peter committed suicide.
It seems that the idea of never growing up, which is the main theme of a number of Barrie's books and plays, and is the central theme of 'Peter Pan', cast an ominous shadow over at least three of the boys. 
The lines "death would be a great adventure" are spoken by Peter in the book, 'Peter & Wendy', and in the play 'Peter Pan', - and perhaps it was that sentiment that echoed rather too forcefully in the minds of these brothers, causing George to raise his head over the parapet at the inopportune moment, Michael to take a morning dip with his boy-lover, when he couldn't swim, and Peter to step off the platform into the path of an oncoming train.


Those three boys died prematurely but Peter, the immortal boy, obviously lived on in endless revivals on the stage, in books and eventually in films. 



As the years passed people puzzled over what it was that each generation found so fascinating about the 'marvellous boy'. 
Some critics have suggested that the fateful character, Peter Pan, is not a 'real' child because he doesn't want to grow up, and of course 'real' children, we are led to believe, are only too keen to grow up.
This is true to an extent.
Another mistake that many critics make, however, is to suggest that 'Peter Pan' is a book and a play, about a boy, or about children.
Perhaps those who have considered the matter a little more deeply would suggest that 'Peter Pan' is a work that is essentially about adults – or at least for adults.
It is, in truth, about adult's thoughts and feelings about childhood - and has been described as a 'profound meditation on childhood, beginnings, time and death'. 
One thing is certain; 'Peter Pan' is not a 'children's' book' in the generally accepted sense of the term.


click for more information and images of J M Barrie and Peter Pan

As we shall describe below, 'children's' books' are uniquely a product of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Peter Pan, of course, was written during that period, so it could, arguably, fit into that category. 
If, however, we compare it to a more recent 'children's' book', we shall see that it in fact occupies a completely different genre.

J K Rowling (see right) shot to fame of the basis of just one book about the boy-wizard, Harry Potter (see left).
Subsequently further books, featuring the same character, were produced, until eventually the character and the plots were played out. 
Now Harry has a couple of similarities to Pan. 
First he is a boy; not an adult.
Next, Harry has no parents, although, rather than being unknown, they are dead.
Equally Harry has special powers, like Pan, although these powers are not intrinsic to his nature, like Pan's, but are instead simply learned.

What Rowling cleverly, or maybe cynically, did was to adapt the traditional 'school adventure', which originated with 'Tom Brown's School Days' and continued with 'Stalky and Co' (see left), 'Just William' and 'Billy Bunter'.
The genre had become essentially outdated, as few modern children would attend a private boarding school of the kind described in such stories - and so Rowling simply added a magic ingredient; - that ingredient being, of course, 'magic'.

So we had the same rambling Gothic building (see right), the same prefect system, the same arcane customs and rituals, and the same eccentric teaching staff - but with the added attraction of magic, to breath new life into a thoroughly decrepit literary form.
Critically, however, Harry Potter has practically no appeal to adults, who see through Rowling's sham, and recognize the books as weak pastiches, which make excellent 'children's books', but have very little depth or substance.

Now take 'Peter Pan' and compare him to 'pasty-faced' Harry.
Far from being a pastiche, or a reworking of another genre it is, in itself, quite unique, having no antecedents.
And while 'Peter Pan' does appeal to children, much of the text is way beyond their understanding, and is obviously aimed at adults.
Barrie was quite obviously not writing just for them, the children - but for us and, of course, himself !






CHILDHOOD & CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

What we often don't realises is that 'childhood' itself is a very odd concept.
For example, before the nineteenth century there was no such thing as 'childhood' - children were just 'miniature adults' (see right).
Equally, no one would possibly think of writing a book about 'childhood' or children before the nineteenth century.


You can look through all the literature of the Ancient world, the Medieval world and the Renaissance and you will find almost nothing about children.

The only significant literature about children before the Enlightenment are poems by Greek and Roman authors about their young boy-lovers (see left), and of course Shakespeare and his  'Mr W H, - but pederastic poems are not particularly popular in contemporary society.



'And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.'




With the 'Enlightenment' came the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, (see right) (1712 -1778), and it is from him that we get our first 'modern' view of children and childhood in 'Emile', the story of a boy and his education.



Right up the end of the 19th Century children were dressed as and treated as adults, and this included the fact that they were expected to work from an early age.


It is only with the publishing of 'The Water Babies' by Reverend Charles Kingsley in 1863 that the Victorians began to think of childhood as a distinct and unique period in an individual's life - a period which should not be encumbered with the responsibilities and tasks of the adult.



Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (see left), the mathematician and author, better known as Lewis Carol, continued the trend of romanticizing childhood in his most famous works, 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and its sequel 'Through the Looking-Glass'.

Interestingly, Carol was similar in some ways to Barrie in that he did not just write for and about children, but was rather besotted by them, photographing (see Alice Liddell right) them in various states of undress, and forming deeper relationships with them than with his contemporaries.
Like Barrie he escaped any censure at the time with regard to these activities, but unlike Barrie, Carol was attracted to little girls rather than little boys.


To us a more acceptable writer would be R. M. Ballantyne, who established the 'boy's adventure story' genre, and is best remembered for 'The Coral Island' (1857).
This work aimed specifically at young boys, and a story that almost certainly influenced Barrie when he came to create the Never Land, which was an island, and the pirate ship and Captain Hook.




Robert Louis Stevenson (see right) was not only a contemporary of Barrie, but also a close friend.

While 'Kidnapped' (1886), may be critically acclaimed as one of his best novels, 'Treasure Island' (1883) (see left) is undoubtedly his most famous, and Long John Silver seems to be undoubtedly an antecedent and model for Captain Jas. Hook in 'Peter Pan'.




By the time Barrie and Stevenson were writing, childhood had become for the Victorians a unique period in a person's life.
Amongst the upper and middle classes children were seen a being little lower than the angels, particularly in regard to children's purity and innocence.





Later writers, like Edith Nesbit (1858 - 1924) (see right), author of 'The Railway Children' (1906) (see left), and Alan Alexander Milne (1882 - 1956), author of 'Winnie the Pooh' (1926) and 'When We Were Very Young' (1924), continued the trend of children's book which described children as sweet, gentle and innocent.

What is surprising about Barrie, however, is that the Lost Boys, and Pan in particular, are not at all sweet gentle and innocent.
Now while Barrie, partly because of his own nature, and partly because of the times in which he was writing, could not show that Peter was lacking in innocence, (particularly with regard to sexual matters), he did make it quite clear that Peter and the Boys were in no way sweet or gentle.
Peter and the boys were incredibly violent, and Peter even 'weeded out' some of the Lost Boys when they began to grow up, by simply killing them. (remember Barrie's comment about the statue in Kensington gardens - "It doesn't show the devil in Peter.") (see right).
Peter, by his very nature could not love, had no idea of the difference between truth and fantasy - and for fantasy we could substitute lying - and he had not the slightest empathy or sympathy with or for anyone other than himself.
So Barrie 'bucked the trend' in children's literature to some extent, but significantly he did valorise childhood in the same manner as his contemporaries, giving it a status far above the dullness and dreariness of adult life.

One of the reasons why the Victorians and Edwardians were so enamoured of the child was because of the appalling rate of child mortality that existed at the time.

Unlike in the West today, death in childhood was not something rare and unusual, and in fact is was almost the norm. Children were lucky to survive childhood.

The children who did die were of course the ones who stayed forever young and, like Pan, never grew up.
Caught in the eternal innocence of childhood, or adolescence, these individuals took on a god-like status, and were mourned with an intensity and a ferocity that we would find hard to comprehend today.


When Darwin's daughter Annie (see right),(1841-1851), died at the age of ten Darwin was heartbroken, and the girl's death resulted in him completely losing his religious faith.

Now Darwin (see left), of all men, having been one of the first to clearly see Nature as being 'red in tooth and claw', should have been able to deal with the death of his daughter with a certain degree of equanimity.
Quite the reverse was the case, however, and seeing this innocent 'angel' cut off in her prime, Darwin gave in to the most extravagant grief.



Barrie (see left), then an old man, mourned George with a ferocity that frightened his friends, but that was as nothing when compared to his grief when Michael died.






Michael (see right), Barrie's favourite, drowned in 1921.
After Michael died Barrie was never the same, and almost all the fire and creativity left him.
George was dead and would never grow up, but the boy who was the real Peter Pan, Michael, was also dead - and yet Peter Pan couldn't die - and Barrie simply was unable to 'square the circle'.




And that brings us back to 'Peter Pan', which is arguably, one of the most significant books written in modern times, because it deals with not just childhood, but with all the important aspects of life, such as fathers, mothers, children, growing up, growing old, dying, time, (the clock in the crocodile (see right) - Barrie's symbol of our decay and death), feelings, and above all love, as symbolised by 'the kiss'.



Interestingly, Peter Pan, when offered a kiss by Wendy, doesn't know what a kiss is and so he holds out his hand (see left).

Wendy, not wishing to embarrass the strange, but fascinating boy, gives him a thimble.
There is, of course, another kiss in the story, Mrs Darling's kiss (see right), which is concealed in the right hand corner of her mouth and is, significantly, out of reach of all three children and Mr Darling.

And so, back to 'Our Peter' .....
read on.......
  
return to
  
CHAPTER 1
'INTRODUCTION'
or go to ....
  
CHAPTER 2
'IN THE BEGINNING'


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