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children's literature, childhood and culture (and anything else that strikes my fancy).

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carbon-based life form: thinking, reading and gardening. New College alum; current grad student writing a dissertation. I specialize in children's literature, media, and culture, and queer/gender studies, with a strong interest in 19th century British literature and culture. I like history, a lot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

J.M. Barrie in the New Yorker

Anthony Lane has a piece in the November 22 edition of the New Yorker titled "Why J.M. Barrie created Peter Pan." The piece is clearly piggybacking on the release of "Finding Neverland," the Barrie bio film starring Johnny Depp & Kate Winslet.

Lane's piece is all right, for the most part, but he (like nearly all the critics I've read on the subject) gets it wrong when he discusses Barrie's marvellous 1902 novel The Little White Bird (TLWB). TLWB is a good read all on its own, and of particular interest for being the source text for what became the play, then novelization of, Peter Pan. It also allows critics to misread and misquote to set of alarm bells of pedophilia. Lane manages to both ring those alarms and clear Barrie's name of any wrongdoing. But the quotes-out-of-context really irk me because they add to the sensationalism surrounding Barrie's friendships with the Llewellyn-Davies boys.
Lane quotes this paragraph from TLWB:
""I returned to David, and asked him in a low voice whether he would give me a kiss. He shook his head about six times, and I was in despair. Then the smile came, and I knew that he was teasing me only. He now nodded his head about six times. That was the prettiest of all his exploits."
What Lane does not tell us is that David, at this point, is still a small baby in a perambulator, and it is the narrator's first meeting with the baby. Lane's comment that the "sheer weirdness of Barrie" takes off in TLWB is ridiculous - honestly, has he read the whole book? The narrator invents and "kills" his own son in order to give baby clothes to David, whose parents are very short of money. Lane also wonders about contemporary reception - there is one often-cited review from the TLS that makes it clear that Barrie's contemporaries were not obsessed with the specter of child molestation. (For more on the subject of child molestation and pedophilia, and its connection to the construction of the child, please see James Kincaid's excellent Erotic Innocence).
The Little White Bird is one of the most heart-wrenching novels I've ever read. At its heart is the narrator's wish to have a child of his own, to be a parent with a family to love and be loved by. If you haven't read this novel, you really should, and then follow it up with Andrew Birkin's even more heart-wrenching Barrie biography The Lost Boys, which has recently been reprinted.

2 Comments:

Blogger Ebony Elizabeth said...

Hi, Kerry!

Great blog. I need to read *The Little White Bird*. I've always found J.M. Barrie to be a bit disconcerting. Something about Peter Pan struck me as eerie, but I don't know what.

Have you read *Peter and the Starcatchers* yet?

All the best,

Ebony

12:12 AM  
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