We all know the story of Peter Pan, yes, because we’ve all seen the Disney film (most likely numerous times)? That’s what I thought, anyway. Despite knowing how far adapted the films can become from their source material, I hadn’t given much thought to Peter Pan the book being different from Peter Pan the film. Not until I saw a stage adaptation late last year, which was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I thought then (and most probably proclaimed on Twitter) that I simply MUST read Barrie’s tale.
Fast forward a year and I still had not read the book, when lo!, I received an email about a new Alma Classics edition. Would I like to read it?, it said. Yes please, I said. This new edition includes Peter and Wendy, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the play Peter Pan, and a whole bundle of extra material. It also has lovely illustrations by Joel Stewart.
The pictures are charming and help root the story as one for children… which isn’t as clear cut as all that. In the sections at the back about the author and his works I learnt that Peter Pan had first appeared as a story within a story in an adult novel Barrie wrote, The Little White Bird. And there is plenty in Peter Pan that feels like it is talking directly to the grown-ups, or perhaps it’s Barrie talking to himself. Tinker Bell turns up ‘gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.’ And it’s dark, in the way that put me in mind of Roald Dahl at times. At the very beginning Barrie relates how Mr Darling went about deciding whether the children would be able to stay, as he tots up the family’s finances:
‘ “Remember mumps”, he warned her almost threateningly, and off he went again. “Mumps one pound, that is what I have put down, but I daresay it will be more like thirty shillings – don’t speak – measles one five, German measles half a guinea, makes two fifteen six – don’t waggle your finger – whooping cough, say fifteen shillings” – and so on it went, and it added up differently each time, but at last Wendy just got through, with mumps reduced to twelve six, and the two kinds of measles treated as one.’
In the world of Peter Pan, children are heartless, fathers are wrong-headed, and mothers are foolish. Boys want mothers and girls want husbands and babies. None of this, problematic though it is, would prevent me from sharing the story with children – not least because I know eight-year-old me would have scoffed at these characterisations as much as grown-up me does. And it’s never insidious or hidden; the fact that these things are depicted blatantly makes them easy to spot and lends them an absurdity. I don’t know if that’s what the author intended, but it’s how I read it.
Coming to the story so late, and with the weight of numerous adaptations and casual ‘knowledge’ about Barrie’s life did make it harder for me to separate creator and creation. Finding Neverland has a lot to answer for. But I did enjoy the story. It has pirates and a crocodile, mermaids and fairies. It also has Tiger Lily and her tribe, which is a further problematic part of the book, one which made me wince. There’s nothing I can or want to say in defence of the way the tribe is depicted. The publisher do a decent job of talking about the differences in attitudes when the book was written in the extra material at the back of the book. Peter Pan does feel a bit like an object lesson in acknowledging the problems in popular culture you enjoy.
I do think Alma have produced a very nice edition, pulling together the different stories and giving the additional information to contextualise the work. The illustrations are super, and it all comes in a very affordable paperback. Nice job!