Classic children’s authors tend to acquire a mythic reputation, often a sort of shadow image of their most famous creation. Lewis Carroll and his desperate need for the friendship of little girls is the most obvious example, but J M Barrie comes a close second, being depicted as a man who couldn’t grow up, who turned his back on his own failed marriage to inveigle himself into a household already equipped with a gang of boys, thus allowing himself to both be, and not be, a sort of father without responsibilities and boys’ gang-leader — a view backed up by such books as Jackie Wullschlager’s (mostly disapproving) Inventing Wonderland, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens, and the film Finding Neverland.
Loaded with these preconceptions, I expected Peter Pan and Wendy, Barrie’s 1928 novelisation of his 1904 stage play, to be a sort of manifesto of eternal boyhood, but it turned out to be a slightly more honest and self-aware examination of that inability/unwillingness to grow up. Peter Pan, though a hero at times, is also seen as a distant, strange figure, more like a fairy changeling than a human boy, several times being described as heartless, and quite capable of forgetting Wendy (and Tinker Bell) as soon as they’re out of his sight. But as Barrie doesn’t seem to have sufficient sympathy or understanding of the other character in his book’s title (the only other really interesting character is Hook), we don’t get a proper examination of the alternative to Peter Pan-ism, i.e., growing up. Wendy, though she does grow up in the book, is made to feel guilty for the fact, even though (I’d say) she gets the better part of the deal.
Peter Pan and Wendy is a strange reading experience (to me as an adult, anyway). There’s a feeling that this isn’t supposed to be your introduction to the story — at the time it was written, Barrie could be pretty sure of your having seen the hugely successful play first — and we’re not really introduced to the characters (Wendy and the other Darling children have already heard of Peter Pan at the start, and aren’t surprised when he flies into their bedroom looking for his shadow), nor are we at any point being convinced of the logic (or illogic) of the story. It all just happens, and it’s the fun in telling it that is the main point. The story itself doesn’t have much weight — it’s so full of playful make-believe, there’s no sense of it going anywhere, nor of its having any logic to adhere to — but Barrie keeps things alive by the occasional bit of storytelling brio, such as when, after introducing the pirates and Captain Hook’s way of keeping them in check, Barrie says, “Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method,” making the story seem a much more live, active experience than most books. Barrie also has his moments in dramatising what’s going on in his character’s heads — the scene where Hook, thinking Peter Pan to be dead, is unable to feel triumph because of hangups from his schooldays, really adds an unexpected dimension of character.
The bizarre thing about Wendy being made to feel guilty for having grown up, at the end of the novel, is that, while she was in Never Never Land, she did nothing but play at being a mother to the Lost Boys. Peter Pan, on the other hand, has no need to grow up, as he lives constantly in a make-believe world of instant gratification, with adventures (in which he always wins) in constant supply. He is not so much the image of eternal boyhood as an ideal of a non-existent sort of boyhood (though one that boys may wish they had) which doesn’t have any emotional attachments. No mothers, no fathers, and no need of friends. (The Lost Boys are a constantly renewing bunch; Tinker Bell, devoted to Peter Pan, dies of old age after a couple of years and Peter forgets she ever existed.) The Darling children, including Wendy, take on this heartlessness while they’re in Never Never Land, not caring how miserable they’ve made their parents by disappearing suddenly in the night. On returning, they’re instantly forgiven, and herein lies the book’s main need for its fantasy element. The best fantasies, though they start out as escapes, end up having to face the thing they escaped from. Never Never Land is an escape from emotional consequences, but this continues into the real world after the children return, making you feel you haven’t really returned, and that this isn’t a truly satisfying ending.
But although Peter Pan and Wendy only works because it ignores its own emotional implications, it can’t be because Barrie himself was unaware of them. His 1920 play Mary Rose could be seen as Wendy’s story with a more realistic twist, told from the point of view of those she left behind. In the play, Mary Rose is a woman who is twice in her life lost to a faraway fairyland, disappearing for years then returning having not aged, while those around her have. The second time, she disappears shortly after having given birth; when she returns, she pines for the baby she hadn’t finished nursing, but the boy is now a grown-up man, his mother all but forgotten. Here, then, the lack of emotional connection between a child and its parent which was, in Peter Pan, a result of a quite natural boyish retreat into imagination, is seen as the result of bereavement and loss, and so is perhaps that much more an honest expression of whatever it was that caused Barrie’s retreat from his own adulthood.