In every society, every century, some time of life seems to embody current cultural ideals and has superior prestige. In ancient China, we are told, the greatest honor was given to old age; America in the 1960s admired teenagers, attributing to them boundless energy, political altruism, and a polymorphously joyous sensuality.
The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred children who had not yet reached puberty. The natural innocents of Blake and Wordsworth reappear in middlebrow versions in hundreds of nineteenth-century stories and poems, always uncannily good and sensitive, with an angelic beauty and charm which often move the angels to carry them off. But the early deaths of these children are not felt as wholly tragic, for if they never become adults they will escape worldly sin and suffering; they will remain forever pure and happy.
This is such a classic Victorian idea that it seems quite right that a man walking in Kensington Gardens near the Albert Memorial, in the final years of Victoria’s reign, should have imagined the last and most famous of these unaging innocents: Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.
The current idea of Peter Pan as a shallow, cloyingly cute fantasy is probably based on memories of the Disney film, or some similarly oversimplified and sugared version of the story in print. The original play is more interesting and complicated, just as its author, James Barrie, was a more original and complex man than he is now generally reputed to be.
Current opinion is not absolutely wrong: Barrie was a whimsical romantic with an emotional, occasionally a maudlin, devotion to mothers and children. But he was also a shrewd, cynical, and highly successful journalist and dramatist who had made his way from a weaver’s cottage in a remote Scottish village to a town house in South Kensington. As the seventh of eight surviving children, and the adopted uncle of five more, he knew very well that juvenile charm and innocence are often accompanied by profound egotism and an unconscious capacity for cruelty. Moreover Barrie knew, for the most bitter and private reasons, what a boy who didn’t grow up would really be like. He was that boy.
His strange story echoes through nearly all of Barrie’s writing, but it can be heard most clearly in his memoir of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896) and his two remarkable and now almost unknown autobiographical novels, Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1900).
For the first six years of his life, Jamie Barrie seems to have been an ordinary little boy, not unusually good or unusually clever. He was an unimportant member of his large impoverished family, especially compared to his brilliant older brother David. David was unmistakably the parents’ favorite, and the center of his mother’s ambition; she was determined that he would win a scholarship to Edinburgh University and become a famous minister—“the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.