‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’
by J M Barrie, in Peter Pan etc,
illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1906/1902)
Before Peter and Wendy (1911) there was this, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), published with illustrations by Arthur Rackham; and before that there was the stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904) following on from The Little White Bird (1902), from which Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was later extracted.
Amongst all this convoluted literary history are mingled clues to Barrie’s own psychology, hints about his relationship with his mother and his deceased brother David, and his relationship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother, Sylvia. Fascinating though these aspects may well be to many readers I’m more interested in the story which unfolds in the six chapters and the impact it may have on the innocent reader.
I say “innocent” reader, but it’s hardly easy to banish from one’s mind the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter and Wendy and in the many versions and retellings that have sprung up in the century or so since the play first saw the light. Here, instead of a boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees” we find a week-old baby who matures without getting older, and instead of the varied geography of Neverland the action takes place almost exclusively in one of London’s Royal Parks.
The first chapter is, I think, the most disconcerting. The narrator takes a little boy, David, on a grand tour around Kensington Gardens bounded, then as now, on the east by the lake called The Serpentine and, beyond, Hyde Park and on the west by Kensington Palace. An attached map helpfully gives David (and us) the layout of the grounds, with features given alternative names in keeping with the story which the narrator and his charge develop together. We, the readers, are addressed as though we were David’s age, on an anecdote-filled transit of the gardens.
Then we are introduced to Peter Pan as though he is a figure from folklore known to generations before David, perhaps going back to Regency times or earlier. Is he a baby? Undoubtedly, for Peter has floated out of his nursery window and into the public gardens. Is he a personage known from pagan beliefs? Indubitably, for he plays panpipes and is known to ride a goat. Is he both at the same time? So it seems.
Through this chapter and the next we learn how he discovers his nature and talks to birds, is advised by a wise crow and is granted wishes by the fairies, has a boat made by thrushes and returns home to see his mother. This last excursion is fraught with peril: will he prefer his new outdoor life or take pity on his distraught mother, will the window remain open or will it be barred, with glimpses of another baby in his mother’s arms?
Kensington Gardens has a further peril: every evening sees lock-out time when visitors must leave and the gates are clanged shut. Woe betide any children who are left inside for the fairies may mischief them! What will happen to four-year-old Maimie who deliberately hides in the snowbound park? Will she survive, and how so, will she follow Peter’s example and will the fairies take pity on her? And how does Peter acquire the goat with which he is later associated?
In many ways Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is a very different beast from its more famous incarnation. Though sharing some features it is altogether more parochial and its fairy court more bourgeois than Neverland’s denizens, and there is less of a sense of continuous or immanent danger. However, despite its odd beginning I was surprised to find myself frequently charmed (when I wasn’t over-analysing), in the same way I was by the opening chapters of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. That charm came through in little misunderstandings, for example when Peter and Maimie are at cross-purposes when they swap a thimble for a kiss, and in the narrator’s observation of the kinds of logic that arises from a child’s viewpoint.
It is sentiment that, for me, characterises this novella, much as it does with Peter and Wendy: the yearnings for maternal contact and friendships and the musings on birds as the souls of babies. Also colouring it all is an impulse for exploring unknown regions: there is a premonition of Peter’s famous cry — “To die would be an awfully big adventure” — in this final chapter when parish boundary stones are interpreted as gravestones for babies. Barrie’s own acquaintance with loss inspires the ground bass underlying this strange fantasy.
A final word on the illustrations by Arthur Rackham is now due. Though this edition only reproduces some of the original plates and line drawings in black and white, Rackham’s bravura colour paintings are what make Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens something special. While F D Bedford’s engravings are perfectly adequate for the 1911 novel, Rackham’s embellishments are simply magical.
3/21 TBR Books in 2021