Mary Rose by J M Barrie

MaryRoseMary Rose is, literally, a sinister play: right-handed J M Barrie, suffering writer’s cramp, wrote it with his left hand. It is, in a way, the anti-Peter Pan, dealing not with the wonderful adventures of children in Never Never Land, but with the loss felt by those left behind — an adult play, rather than one for children, and a post-World War play, too, rather than one set in the Arcadian Edwardian era of long, golden summers.

It starts with a young man, Harry, visiting the house he used to live in before he ran away to sea at the age of 12. Now empty and a long time on the market, the house is reputed to be haunted, though its stony caretaker, Mrs Otery, is not to be drawn on the matter. The second act gives us the back-story: when she was eleven, a young girl called Mary Rose disappeared, for twenty days, on a small island in the Hebrides, where she had been sketching whilst her father fished. Her parents were frantic; but then Mary Rose returned thinking only a few hours had passed. As a grown-up woman she apparently remembers nothing of the incident, though feels a vague fondness for the island. She tries to convince her husband-to-be Simon to spend their honeymoon there. He, having been told what happened, thinks better of it, until several years into their marriage, by which time they have a two-year-old boy, and Simon has grown to disbelieve the story about Mary Rose’s disappearance. They visit the island, and she disappears again — not for twenty days this time, but twenty-five years. When she returns, she’s not a day older. Everyone else, of course, has aged: her parents are now old, her husband is grey and used to being alone, her baby boy has grown up and run away to sea. The play, which for much of its time is a lightly comic portrait of a rather idealised, Edwardian ‘perfect’ marriage — with the man being decent, strong and a little stupid, and the woman being quirky, wilful and doting — is bookended by a sense of utter loss, both loss-through-absence and an even worse sort of loss, when the presence of someone longed-for or loved but irretrievably changed only serves as a reminder of all that is lost. Mary Rose’s parents, Mr and Mrs Morland, lose Mary Rose (at first through marriage, though she continues to live at home, then to the mysterious island); husband Simon loses his wife; Mary Rose loses her parents and her husband and her child. When she returns after her second absence, the years have come between her and those that remain, and she can only pine for her baby, who is now not only grown up but run away. This multi-generational, omnidirectional sense of loss is even more concentrated on the boy, Harry, whose running away at the age of twelve isn’t explained, but could be seen as an attempt to lose even himself, having spent his early years so overshadowed by the loss of his mother.

coverOften described as a ghost play (because, even though she’s said to have died, Mary Rose somehow lingers in the house to which she returned, acting as both a playful, absent-minded child, and a pining mother), Mary Rose resonates just as much with fairy stories about people who disappear — as in Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, or, much more intensely, Alan Garner’s Boneland — or who disappear then return — as in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale — only to feel severed from those they once loved. The key fantasy element, Mary Rose’s disappearance, is never explained. (The island is known as ‘The Island that Likes to be Visited’, though as a local notes, ‘an island that had visitors would not need to want to be visited’.) Perhaps this is why the overlap between the ghostly and the fairy seems to work so well: it gives the play an uncompromising feeling of dropping you into an utterly unexplained abyss, a terrible fact that is just there, and which can never be assimilated or ameliorated. Which is, of course, what loss feels like.

J M BarrieIt’s easy to see parallels with J M Barrie’s life. When his elder brother (his mother’s favourite) died in a skating accident just before turning 14, Barrie tried but failed to take the boy’s place. Later in life he adopted the Davies children (one of whom inspired Peter Pan), after both their parents died; then Barrie’s favourite of those children, George, died in the War. But it’s odd the play doesn’t feel, to me, to be about death, as such, but about a mix of both absence and presence — and a very physical presence, at that (Mary Rose, as a ghost, is not insubstantial, though the caretaker Mrs Otery says ‘she’s as light as air’, linking her with Peter Pan). Of all the parallels in J M Barrie’s life, Mary Rose herself seems most like Barrie’s mother, depressed after the death of her most beloved child, and failing to recognise that child in Barrie himself, who was trying to play the role.

Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a film of Mary Rose, though it feels like, with Vertigo, he already did, as that film is also about a very physical haunting, centred on a woman who seems trapped in the past and unable to make an emotional connection the male lead desperately needs. If any film captures Mary Rose’s sense of sudden, utterly unexplainable loss, though, it has to be Picnic at Hanging Rock.

tartarus_2004One more connection I’d love to make — and it almost but perhaps doesn’t fit — is with David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. Both Lindsay’s novel and Barrie’s play start with someone going over a house being put up for sale, and both deal with a room in that house which is sometimes, unexplainably and supernaturally, inaccessible. (In Mary Rose, the room is the nursery, whose door, though unlocked, is sometimes ‘held’; in The Haunted Woman, there’s a staircase that appears to some people, not to others, and only at certain times, giving access to an area described as ‘far and away the oldest part of the house’ — just as the ‘held’ room in Mary Rose is also ‘the oldest part of the house’.) I like to think of Lindsay — whose books make a lot of reference to theatres, plays, and so on — going to see Barrie’s play and getting the seed of an idea which sparked off his own, very strange, reinterpretation. Mary Rose was first performed on April 22nd, 1920 at the Haymarket Theatre, London; David Lindsay, apparently, began work on The Haunted Woman immediately after the acceptance of his first novel, which was finished in March 1920. Does this fit? I don’t know. But both times I’ve read Mary Rose, the opening reminds me of Lindsay’s second novel.

Secret Gardens by Humphrey Carpenter, Inventing Wonderland by Jackie Wullschläger

Secret Gardens by Humphrey Carpenter, cover by Mark EdwardsSecret Gardens is Humphrey Carpenter’s study of the writers who created a Golden Age of children’s fiction, from the mid-Victorians (Charles Kinglsey’s The Water Babies and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books) to the Edwardians (Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, J M Barrie’s Peter Pan), with one post-World War I stray in A A Milne. Prior to this, English Literature had only recently “discovered” childhood as a special state; children had previously been seen as little adults, their size making them particularly convenient to be set to work in places adults couldn’t reach — up chimneys and down mines, for instance. But suddenly, to the Victorians (the wealthier ones, at least), children were the embodiment of all that was innocent, like little Adams and Eves before the Fall, and were therefore something to be preserved, prettified and sentimentalised. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) was the ultimate statement of this approach, leading to a fashion for dressing children up as little English aristocrats and growing their hair in golden ringlets. (In the worst of this strain of children’s literature, whole books were written in mis-spelled baby-talk, surely a joke only adult readers would get, and quickly tire of.)

Then came what Carpenter calls the “Arcadians”, who took a different approach. They made the effort to see childhood from the inside, as a golden age of imagination, freedom and make-believe. Adults, from this point of view, were seen to have lost something as they grew up. Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter and A A Milne were, in Carpenter’s view, the few who achieved perfection, with J M Barrie’s “terrible masterpiece” Peter Pan standing as a self-conflicted statement both in favour of not growing up, and the awful tragedy of not doing so.

The BorrowersIn the books for children that followed World War II, Carpenter detects a new theme, one in which children don’t just disappear into a golden, separated existence for the duration of their childhoods, but one in which they slowly discover their place in an “ongoing narrative”, and so learn to grow up. In The Borrowers (1952), “the first classic for children to emerge in England after the Second World War” (according to Carpenter), Arriety’s childhood world is less a “Secret Garden”, and more a prison from which she must learn to escape:

“The Borrowers’ domain beneath the floorboards, which is in many respects Arcadian… is characterised as above all stuffy, poky, and limiting. It is the precise opposite of Badger’s kitchen: it provides not womblike security but a choking constriction.”

It’s interesting to see how Carpenter focuses on how an “idea of childhood” was slowly developed, first being set aside and polished in its own special place (its secret garden) — necessarily so, to rescue it from pre-Victorian ideas of children being just little adults — then being reintroduced into the main narrative, reconnected with wider society and the idea of growing up, but only after that “special state” has had its properly special time.

Inventing Wonderland by Jackie WullschlagerWhere Carpenter traces the evolution of an idea, Jackie Wullschläger, in Inventing Wonderland, discerns a type. For her, the “Golden Age” of children’s writing belonged to “children’s writers who were also particular psychological types: boys who could not grow up”, and she singles out Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Kenneth Grahame, J M Barrie and A A Milne for particular finger-wagging.

And, sadly, finger-wagging it is. Whereas Carpenter’s Secret Gardens is the study of an idea and a developing literary movement, Wullschläger’s “collective biography”, having stated its theme (that the best books for children were written by “boys who could not grow up”), doesn’t really examine or test it, and so is ultimately unsatisfying. (What about, for instance, the female writers — E Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beatrix Potter — who contributed to the “Golden Age”? Were they “girls who could not grow up”?) Wullschläger has, it seems, an ideal of maturity against which these five male writers offend, but as she never defines it, you can only guess at it — and, sometimes, marvel at its stringency. At one point, she lists a group of children’s authors who, she says, “all lost parents when they were very young and then never fully accepted adult responsibilities”. In this list she includes J R R Tolkien: Tolkien, who served in the war, was a respected academic, had a successful marriage and a family life free of the horrors she describes in the lives of, for instance, Grahame and Barrie (each of whom had a child, adopted or otherwise, who committed suicide). Never fully accepted adult responsibilities? Just what is it that makes Tolkien fail the Wullschläger maturity test?

Lear - Complete Nonsense(The one author she shows some sympathy for is Edward Lear, though she misses the irony that it is exactly the sort of disapproval for human peculiarities she displays in Inventing Wonderland, that drove Lear in such despair from England to find a refuge on the continent.)

Wullschläger’s book, then, is interesting for its short biographies of a handful of writers, but draws no real conclusions as to what made their works successful — only on the fact that the writers themselves were immature. Of Tolkien and Lewis’s work, for instance, she says:

“Yet their work shows how fantasy continued to be shaped by the two forces which had driven Carroll and his contemporaries: nostalgia on the one hand, the need to find symbols and stories to reflect current anxieties, fears and doubts on the other.”

…implying that the only thing these extremely successful authors have going for them is a pair of negatives — nostalgia and fear. (If only she’d looked beyond her horror-word “nostalgia” to find, for instance, Tolkien’s deep, strong, and heartfelt connection with values in a past he both studied and admired.)

If it’s genuine insight into what made the “Golden Age” of children’s literature a golden age, then, you have to go to Carpenter’s book. The “Secret Gardens” so often located in children’s fiction are, at once, childhood itself, and an image of the imagination. A well-stocked imagination is one of the things that will, I think, see a child properly on his or her way towards a genuine, deep maturity — or at least arm them to withstand the jibes of the maturity police (those prey to what Ursula Le Guin has called “maturismo”: a swaggering, machismo-like version of grown-up-ness). This, I think, is more likely to be where these authors, so wounded in childhood that they could not, or would not, buy into the wider world’s maturity game, found their particular imaginative treasures, and thankfully passed them on to the rest of us.