Most of us have seen J.M. Barrie’s famous  play `Peter Pan’,  or one of the many films based on it, but did you know that Barrie developed the play into a novel called `Peter and Wendy’? I recently read this novel for the very first time and found it much more interesting than I was expecting. So, `Peter and Wendy’ is this week’s recommendation. It was first published in Britain in 1911 and has been reprinted many times. You can often find old copies on ABE though I’d suggest avoiding editions which have Mabel Lucie Attwell’s excruciatingly twee illustrations. Alternatively, you can download the text of `Peter and Wendy’  for free. Try to make sure that you are getting the full novel, since there is also a shorter version aimed at younger children which is usually called `Peter Pan and Wendy’. Barrie gave all the royalties for `Peter Pan’ to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London. If you enjoy this book, perhaps you might consider sending a donation to this remarkable hospital.

Everyone knows the basic story of Peter Pan. Around 1900, three children – Wendy, John and Michael – are living in London with their parents, Mr and Mrs Darling, and their Newfoundland dog, Nana. `There never was a simpler happier family until the coming of Peter Pan.’ Wendy has dreamed about a strange boy called Peter Pan, just as her mother did when she was a child. When Peter flies into the children’s nursery one night, Nana scares him off and Peter’s shadow is caught as she closes the window. Peter returns a week later with his companion, the tiny fairy Tinker Bell (Tink). Nana tries to warn Mr and Mrs Darling that something is wrong but they take no notice and go out for the evening. Peter retrieves his shadow but can’t work out how to re-attach it. When Wendy wakes up she sews it back for him and is fascinated to hear about the magical island known as the Neverland (or Never-Neverland) where Peter lives with the Lost Boys. He soon persuades Wendy and her brothers to come and have adventures in the Neverland. After teaching them to fly (`You just think lovely wonderful thoughts’), Peter leads the children on the long journey to the Neverland (`Second star to the right, and then straight on till morning’). Mr and Mrs Darling come back to find the nursery empty.

Due to the jealousy of Tink, Wendy only just survives the trip to the Neverland. Once she meets Peter’s six Lost Boys, they are captivated by her story-telling skills. The boys build Wendy a little house (hence the name Wendy-House for children’s playhouses) and she is happy to play at being a loving Mother to the lonely boys while Peter acts the role of strict Father. Life on the island is exciting but full of dangers. There are unreliable fairies, unfriendly mermaids, fierce Red Indians ruled by the intrepid Princess Tiger-Lily and a crew of dastardly pirates led by the infamous Captain James Hook. It was Peter who cut off Hook’s arm in a sword-fight and flung it to a passing crocodile, which is now keen to eat the rest of the pirate captain. Hook plans to capture and kill Peter Pan, Tink plots against Wendy, and Wendy, John and Michael are slowly forgetting who they really are. Meanwhile, back in London, Mr Darling blames himself for the children’s disappearance and Mrs Darling keeps the nursery window always open…

`Peter and Wendy’ has a haunting opening sentence -`All children, except one, grow up.’ Like Kenneth Grahame’s `Dream Days’ (see my post of August 2013 ) or William Golding’s `Lord of the Flies’, this book is more about children than for them. It includes events which happen before and after the action of the play `Peter Pan’ and the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters are described in some detail. Barrie becomes a character in his own right in his role as narrator and commentator. His style isn’t a bit pompous and I found myself laughing aloud at some of the jokes. At times the narration seems playfully post-modern – as when Barrie pretends to consider which of several adventures to relate (such as the `sanguinary affair’ of the redskins at Slightly Gulch or the story of `that cake the pirates cooked so that the boys might eat it and perish’)  before  settling on the `Mermaid Lagoon’ episode which appears in the play. He also makes it very plain that these are story-book `redskins’ and pirates, not realistic ones. They are equivalent to the stereotypes which  children now encounter in Fantasy war-games.

`Peter Pan’ is famous for its seething subtext, which has provoked all manner of psychological interpretations. `Peter and Wendy’ shows that Barrie was not as unconscious of this subtext as many people suppose, since it contains a scene in which Captain Hook argues with his own `ego’. With his death-dealing iron-hook for a hand and his `curdling’ smile, Hook is one of Fantasy’s most memorable villains, especially as he is followed around by a gigantic crocodile who has swallowed a ticking clock. Wendy finds Hook `enthralling’ and he is played to perfection by tall, dark and handsome Jason Isaacs in the 2003 film of `Peter Pan’. The pirate leader is full of evil schemes and even manages to flummox the redskins by not following the proper literary conventions during a battle scene. Yet he lacks self-confidence and is prone to fits of depression. Like Britain’s current Prime Minister, Captain Hook was educated at Eton and his failure to fit in there has left him permanently traumatised. It becomes obvious in`Peter and Wendy’ that Barrie had more than a little sympathy for his arch-villain.

Barrie’s hero, Peter Pan, seems to be a character who took on a life of his own. He first appeared in several chapters of a novel by Barrie called `The Little White Bird’ (1902) as a boy who has run away from his parents to live with the fairies in Kensington Gardens. After the success of the play about Peter (1904 ) these chapters were reprinted in book form as `Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’.  If you visit the real Kensington Gardens in London, you can see a bronze statue of Peter Pan with animals and fairies. Peter’s motivation for running away from home is `always to be a little boy and to have fun’. In the play, Peter sparkles with wit, energy and charm and is endearingly conceited (`Oh, the cleverness of me!’). He’s an exciting, if unpredictable, friend to have. In the novel, Barrie makes it clearer how much Peter is giving up in return for perpetual fun. He is running away from all adult responsibilities and emotions. Peter is a leader who may change sides in the middle of a battle because the fighting is all he cares about. He bullies the Lost Boys, who are missing their families, and doesn’t allow them `to know anything he did not know’. He fails to understand how the passionate Tinker Bell feels about him and is incapable of having a lasting relationship with anybody. In one chilling passage, when Peter believes that Wendy has been killed he thinks of `hopping off in a comic sort of way till he was out of sight of her, and then never going near the spot anymore.’ In another, Barrie hints that if  Peter ever did grow up he might become another Hook.

`Peter Pan’ is a play about `The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’. `Peter and Wendy’ is a novel about a girl who does choose to grow up. Much of the book explores the female view of the story and wise and loving Mrs Darling is the dominant figure in the opening chapters. Modern readers may cringe at the old-fashioned gender divisions in the children’s games – the boys get to fight redskins and kill pirates while Wendy is stuck with the housework – but Wendy does have a pet wolf and is shown to be every bit as brave as the boys. Peter can live in the Neverland because he remains `innocent and heartless’. Wendy is all heart. At first she’s just playing at being a mother. She enforces `nursery rules’ even when they are absurd in the circumstances (the pirates sneak up on the boys while they are taking their after-lunch nap). Then Wendy develops a real sense of responsibility for her new family of Lost Boys. Once that happens, she can’t stay in the Neverland. She loves Peter but she is forced to lead a rebellion against him and return to the pains and pleasures of real life. The last chapters of the novel deal with the adult Wendy’s poignant encounters with ageless Peter and describe how each new generation finds its way to their own personal Neverlands. Reading `Peter and Wendy’ may make you wonder if our current, internet-based, generation is permanently lost in the Neverland. Until next time…