Wendy grew up. But when she so did she seems to have grown away from the story. This is unfortunate especially as J.M. Barrie always maintained that Wendy was central to the story. In fact If Peter Pan was the impetus of the story Wendy was surely the stories emotional center. So important was she that Barrie added additional material about her in the play adaption which became the novel. Perhaps this was a mistake because from the moment when we saw the grown up Wendy her own peculiar magic waned. She had become just another mother. We forget that the title is and by rights should remain Peter Pan and Wendy because it is the story of their relationship and only by learning their story can we really understand why Peter Pan matters.
First of all, Peter pan is a story about boys and their mothers. Fathers play a small role. Mister Darling is forgettable, Captain Hook while commanding is certainly no father figure and Peter Pan, though he plays Father to Wendy’s mother he remains always the self centered boy. Contrary to the Disney film Peter Pan was a domestic drama as much as a fantasy story and J.M. Berries personal life, and the life of the people who inspired his “terrible masterpiece” was certainly a life centered around the importance of the domestic.
Young James Matthew Barrie story really begins with death. It is a theme that would follow him as closely and as relentlessly as the crocodile pursued Captain Hook, indeed that crocodile was no doubt the result of Barrie’s own experience with death and the peculiar emotional response he developed against it. When Barrie’s older brother drowned everything changed. His mother went into perpetual mourning and while her relationship with Barrie grew closer because of the tragedy it also created in Barrie what could best be termed, in his own words an “other boy”, a replacement for what was lost. Long after Barrie grew up this other boy within him remained dominant and at times could be seductively sinister. Those who knew Barrie were often divided between his genius and genuine compassion and what some critics have suggested was a devious capacity for insinuating himself into the lives of others often at their expense. For Barrie, that seductively devious side, that other boy found a voice in Peter Pan who lived forever in the moment, never reaching for tomorrow but at what a price. He was stuck, trapped in Never Land unable to change, forgetting his closest friends when they were no longer in his presence and embracing death as a great adventure all the while knowing he could never really die because he was not really, fully alive.
Peter Pan, the other Boy at the core of J.M. Barrie was however alone. His very existence excluded him from the company of others in a way that must be viewed as terribly painful for someone who might have had an awareness that extended beyond his own self centered nature and Barrie, the real man and Peter’s creator was without a doubt fully aware of his own loneliness. Wendy became his corrective. She was an ideal girl, young and lovely, motherly without being overbearing. She was the all-woman existing in totality in a way that made most real women seem pale by comparison. I say most because there was one woman whom Barrie cherished above all others. It was not his mother, nor sisters, nor even his wife. They were all important to his character development but each held a small place in Barrie’s deeper emotional center. The woman he came to adore, even to worship was Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, the mother of the boys whose exploits found their way into Peter Pans world but she was unattainable because she was happily married. It would be too much to claim that Sylvia was the model for Wendy who was really an ideal creation as much within Barrie’s own mind as from any real world sources but Wendy did represent all that Barrie adored in this women whom he could never have and indeed a woman he so idolized that he would not have claimed for his own had he been given the opportunity. It was only after her death Barrie made a claim that they were engaged. Of course it is easy to make a claim on someone who resided in the grave. Sylvia became the perfect embodiment of womanhood. She was a devoted mother, loving wife, her beauty was pure and well known but of a kind that artist failed to capture it and perhaps most important she had the good fortune to die young, in her prime leaving behind a brood of boys whom Barrie promptly collected into a curious, makeshift family. It was because Barrie refashioned Sylvia into a picture of womanly perfection that she could be the measure against whom all other women were held and the reason Wendy could be symbolic of all girls. It is because she is so precisely one particular girl.
The reason Sylvia could become so important to Barrie lies in his own youth. In the wake of his brothers death James took it upon himself to console his mother and to replace in her affections his memory. Of course this was doomed to failure but the attempt was genuine and well meaning. Much has been made about one incident in his life which he recounted many years later. At the urging of his sister James enters the darkened room of his bereaved mother to remind her that she still has one son. “It’s no him, it’s just me” were the words James managed to speak in the darkness. Those words have echoed through the years and have been recounted many times. They have become foundational to the biographies of Barrie and have been used to illustrate everything from his own fractured psyche to the supposed if not actual strained relationship with his mother. But the truth is very much different. In fact James became very close to Margaret, perhaps more so than were his brother not to have died. There is no question his brother was her favorite so in his death enough room was opened up for James to slip inside unnoticed, just as Peter Pan comes unnoticed to listen at the Darling Window. But no matter how close the two became there was always a part of her that could never let go of David. Often she would wake in the middle night speaking his name. He became an invisible presence in the household and was touchable by her and her alone.
Many years later when Barrie was writing his “terrible masterpiece” he drew on these past memories. He envisioned a world in which the only ghosts were those of dead mothers who came back to check on their children and who upon finding them grown and unrecognizable went about wailing and moaning in despair.
Barrie tried to emulate his brother. In one early instance he dressed in a suit of clothes and once again entered the darkened room to show his mother that he could look like and be like his dead brother. He whistled, just as Peter Pan would do. Wendy embraced a feminine attitude to life. To grow up would be an awfully big adventure, to become a woman, to fall in love, to marry, to have children, to enact creation in a manner than a child playing pretend can only strive for. It surprises me that Barrie, a man of his time with such complicated female relationships who surrounded himself with boys or with men who could suspend their adult demeanor end become boys (as was the case in his long running Cricket team) could create a female character that was so convincing and so commanding. Her brothers, and the Lost Boys returned from Never land leaving peter pan behind, alone but they did so only because she kept her foot in the real world. She alone could not allow herself to forget their parents. And despite all the wonderful things of Never land she saw it for what it really was. In some ways Wendy was a destructive force, and this is appropriate for a story about boyhood. We first encounter her in the nursery as an innocent yet she is on the cusp of womanhood, she can play the coquette and be sexually aggressive. Over time Wendy will become the mother and caregiver and finally, before leaving Never land forever she will be the destroyer. It was her presence in that world that brought about the murder of the Indians and in turn the death of Captain Hook. This was woman as the source of the destruction which means something to boys. One could make an argument that a boy only becomes a man when he allows a woman to deconstruct those boyish parts of his being.
Wendy was a sort of every woman of the age, very unfamiliar to modern readers but easily recognizable at one time. She was virtuous and pure, decent and noble, fierce and protective, intelligent and cunning, even remarkably erotic at times. She was an amalgamation of the ideal women in his life. And at the root of them all was Margaret, his own mother and Sylvia the ideal mother. Early in the story we encounter what I call “Wendy’s Thimble”. It is a moment of sexual energy that seems rather out of place and yet means a great deal to the story. Wendy and it is important to note that it IS Wendy to instigate this, wants to give Peter Pan a kiss. He does not know what a kiss is and in a moment of coquettishness she gives him a thimble. The thimble becomes a stand in for Wendy’s burgeoning sexual identity. But of course, where she seems to have thought Peter was only playing her games Peter returns her kiss with an acorn.
“She made herself rather cheap by inclining her face toward him, but he merely dropped an acorn button into her hand”
Wendy, unlike Peter Pan wants to grow up. Perhaps she doesn’t understand the price one pays for doing so but she instinctively knows that remaining in Never Land, being stuck in childhood forever is a fate worse than death. Because Wendy is a perfect ideal she must grow up in order have children to nourish without growing up she could never become the woman Barrie so deeply longed for. In many of Barrie’s writings there seems to be curious gender confusion. Not anything that would suggest a sexual deviance but rather some emotional component within him that more strongly identified with female than with male. It was this component that led him to care for his adopted boys in an overtly maternal fashion.
Wendy was Barrie’s ideal woman but there was also a very real part of her that Barrie himself. He was the boy who never really grew up but he was also the product of his mother, of his wife, of his beloved Sylvia all mingling within him to create a skin that he could wrap himself in that was surprisingly feminine in its emotional content.
She found a way to grow up by rejecting the idea that childhood is a state of perfection.
It would take another boy living in an enchanted neverland; this time a peaceful wood to show that growing up is not so bad after all