JORGE Luis Borges once commented that it was the fate of all great literature to end up, ‘disencumbered’, as stories for children. Certainly there are few great works – folk tale, myth, Homer, Shakespeare – beyond the reach of Ladybird or of the wonderful Marcia Williams. Perhaps they all have at their heart a tale powered by strong emotions. But the opposite is also true, that many great works for children end up as works of consuming interest and great reflection for adults. And for the very same reasons; that successful books for children must have a strong tale and one that is powered by emotion.
Jacqueline Rose, in The Case of Peter Pan – The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, calls the gap between between adult writer and child receiver ‘unbridgeable’. Writing with a growing awareness of childhood abuse in the 1980s, Rose questions whether there can ever be an innocence in child/adult relationships. What, to her, is so problematical is that the writer aims to seduce the intended audience. The use of the word ‘seduce’ rather than the more neutral ‘engage’ separates the writer for children from other writers.
Rose claims that, ‘Children’s fiction sets up the child as an outsider to its own process, and then aims, unashamedly, to take the child in.’ But what if the writer is not as self-consciously aware of ‘writing for children’ or has the designs she imagines? The writer, for example, is perhaps not writing with that audience securely in view, but with an audience of one – herself: in other words, the child is already in. Might it in fact be that some of the most resonant books for children were not written for children (that ‘for’ is highly contentious for Rose), but, like most books, to satisfy some inner compulsion of the writer; one that the writer may not have been fully aware of till much later?
In 1922, J.M. Barrie made an entry in a notebook: ‘It is as if long after writing “P. Pan” its true meaning came to me – Desperate attempt to grow up but can’t.’ In her Annotated Peter Pan, Maria Tatar comments that, ‘Perhaps he is referring here to his failed marriage or to his devotion to children and childhood games, perhaps to both.’ What is striking here is that Barrie is writing unambiguously about himself. But, even in the unstable, shifting tones of Peter and Wendy – ‘as we are here we may as well stay and look on. That is all we are, lookers-on. Nobody really wants us’ – Barrie could not help revealing aspects of himself or of his selves. This remains true when, in 1928, in a rather arch, cloying tone, he addresses the five Llewelyn Davies boys in his dedication to the play of Peter Pan; addresses them all, even though George had been killed in action in 1915, while Michael was drowned in 1921 in an accident one month short of his 21st birthday:
Wendy has not yet appeared, but she has been trying to come ever since that loyal nurse cast the humorous shadow of woman upon the scene and made us feel that it might be fun to let in a disturbing element.
There is, as ever, something unguarded in the writing, exemplified by the descriptive roles given to the two female characters; one ‘humorous’, the other ‘disturbing’.
The notebook entry was made twenty years after Barrie had first introduced the story of Peter Pan in 1904 in The Little White Bird. Seven years later, in 1911, Peter and Wendy was published; but already, by that time, the ‘idea’ of Peter Pan had become a force in popular culture. As Tatar points out: ‘Peter Pan was a children’s classic before it was a children’s book.’ In Barrie’s introduction to the play, twenty-four years after its first performance, ‘Some disquieting confessions must be made in printing at last the play of Peter Pan: among them this, that I have no recollection of having written it.’ The fluidity of the text over these years, and the tenacity of the central image of ‘the boy who wouldn’t grow up’, account for the challenge of pinning Peter Pan to the shadows of academic or psychoanalytical study. What Rose calls ‘the illegibility of Peter Pan’ is one of the reasons for his longevity. Some might substitute ‘mystery’ for ‘illegibility’.
Sigmund Freud’s term for what J.M. Barrie felt, reflecting on his creation, is ‘afterwardness’ – that feeling of catching up with thoughts and actions when the moment has passed. Freud would have approved of Barrie’s revealing comment in his ‘Dedication to the Five’ that, ‘A safe but sometimes chilly way of recalling the past is to force open a crammed drawer. If you are searching for anything in particular you don’t find it, but something falls out at the back that is often more interesting.’ From my own experience, when I wrote, very quickly, one afternoon in Africa, the text for the animal picture book, Who is the World For?, I had a feeling that all I was doing was responding to a question that came to me as a given. It was months later before I realised that the question came from a childhood experience of always feeling that, as a family, the world was for others, not for ourselves. We had to keep our voices down, to behave with invisible presence, while the rest of the world was loud and pleasurable. ‘Who is the world for?’ ‘The world is for you!’ When I first told someone what the book was about I found a lump coming into my throat.
My experience of writing for children and young adults – and I only speak for myself as an occasional writer for children, as was Barrie himself, rather than as a children’s writer – is that I am choosing a genre which best fits what I want to say, and that genre carries a form which holds compulsion and emotion in the way that a sonnet frames thought. There are strictures in any writing decision; in writing for children, the stricture is most obviously the audience. But, as with the sonnet, once the stricture is accepted, one writes with it, going with the grain of what it offers. And what motivates both sonnet and children’s story often comes from the same place. As Barrie commented, ‘I think one remains the same person throughout [life], merely passing…from one room to another.’
For example, in Sixteen String Jack and The Garden of Adventure, what first engaged me was the combination of the excitement of childhood play – the evanescent moment – with a sense of adult melancholy, the passage of time. There is a tension between childhood activity and adult experience running through my text; something that is expressed in Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay, ‘Child’s Play’:
Nothing can stagger a child’s faith; he accepts the clumsiest substitutes and can swallow the most staring incongruities. The chair he has just been besieging as a castle, or valiantly cutting to the ground as a dragon, is taken away for the accommodation of a morning visitor, and he is nothing abashed; he can skirmish by the hour with a stationary coal-scuttle; in the midst of the enchanted pleasance, he can see, without sensible shock, the gardener soberly digging potatoes for the day’s dinner.
What Stevenson describes here is ‘somatic practice’ or ‘bodily thinking’; or more plainly ‘play’. There were of course many threads that wove into Peter Pan. The importance of play was one of the most significant of these and one of the features of Sixteen String Jack is that Ian Andrew’s illustrations convey, not only what it looks like to be a child playing, but also what it feels like. Certainly, my understanding of the force of Peter Pan rests more on the compulsive play that my son, Cameron (aka Peter Pan), and I (Darling/Hook/Darling) experienced than any reading about the play itself.
The anthropologist, Tim Ingold, has written of the ‘taskscape’ within a landscape; namely how that landscape appears to those who work within it. I have coined ‘playscape’ to offer us another perspective. There are urgent studies to be done regarding how children have experienced landscape and regarding how that (diminishing) ‘playscape’ is represented in literature. Barrie said, in ‘To the Five, a Dedication’, that he ‘always knew that [he] made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame’. But he also claimed, when recalling his time playing in the garden of Moat Brae House that ‘…when the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work.’
I see no contradiction in these statements, though years separate their sources. The imagination that lives through direct activity and action can be revivified within the reflective imagination; what is experienced directly can be experienced through observation. Perhaps this is partly what causes Jacqueline Rose discomfort. But, regarding the importance of play, Stevenson and Barrie have much in common. In her biography, RLS – A Life Study, Jenni Calder writes:
Many children exist in a border territory between fantasy and reality. Stevenson was exceptional in relishing his fantasy to such an extent that he made every effort to preserve it for the whole of his life. As a child, fantasy helped him to cope with, to find happiness in, a lonely existence dominated by ill-health. As a grown man it was still a source of pleasure, not so much as a means of escaping reality, which he knew well enough could not be done, but as a way of making life more colourful and interesting. In writing romances and making a claim for their importance, Stevenson was insisting on the legitimacy of the imagination. There were many who were ready to succumb to such insistence.
The delight in fantasy that both writers shared was given physical presence in their imaginative inhabiting of two special gardens. Stevenson’s ‘opportunities for enacting make-believe’ lay in the garden of his grandfather’s manse at Colinton. Playing with his cousins, Stevenson could ‘take on the personality of a hunter, a soldier or a red indian…’ The primacy of place – the garden at Moat Brae House in Dumfries – is one of the key ‘arguments’ of Sixteen String Jack and the Garden of Adventure. In his introduction to R.M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island, one of the books which had shaped his imagination, Barrie writes, ‘To be born is to be wrecked on an island; and this no doubt, is why the male child’s first instinct is to acquire a knife and secrete pieces of string.’ Barrie continues playing with the image of the shipwrecked child, but there is no escaping the darker tone, which is the tone of a proverb – ‘To be born is to be wrecked on an island’. Or in a closed garden. But, as in Peter Pan and Wendy, Barrie pulls us deeper still: ‘Never yet was any one wrecked on an island who looked up at the palms and down at the surf without wishing that he had been wrecked with more experience.’
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is celebrated this year on its 150th anniversary, is very different in tone to Peter Pan and Wendy. There is a clarity of narration, a more fixed standpoint, not allowed by the fluidity of Barrie’s strategy. According to Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, author of The Story of Alice, Carroll’s tone ‘makes us feel simultaneously that we are being taken into his confidence and eavesdropping on a private joke’.
Whatever manoeuvres Barrie was rehearsing in the garden of Moat Brae, they helped to mould the imagination that captured, engaged and ‘seduced’ generations of children; but they also enacted, in some ways, dramas that he would take into adulthood. As Rose reminds us, ‘The most crucial aspect of psychoanalysis for discussing children’s fiction is its insistence that childhood is something in which we continue to be implicated and which is never simply left behind.’ Whether Barrie’s childhood dramas were resolved or not is just one of the fascinations of what draws us to his writing for children and makes children’s writing such a rich, if under-researched, field of study.
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This is an edited version of an address given by Tom Pow at ‘Forgotten Histories, New Perspectives and J.M. Barrie’, a conference held earlier this year by Glasgow University’s Solway Centre of Environment and Culture and Edinburgh University’s School of Literature, Languages and Culture.
Sixteen String Jack and the Garden of Adventure
Tom Pow, Illustrated by Ian Andrew
Birlinn Children’s Books, £9.99, ISBN: 978 1 78027 226 9
The Story of Alice – Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland
Harvill Secker, £25, ISBN: 978 1846558610, PP496