Peter Pan in Scarlet, the sequel to the original Peter Pan, has just been published amidst much fanfare. Amanda Hodges looks back at the formative summer in Surrey that inspired J. M. Barrie's immortal creation...
“Even Tinker Bell had reached our island before we left it. It was one evening when we climbed the wood carrying Michael to show him what the trail was like by twilight. As our lanterns twinkled among the leaves Michael saw a twinkle stand still for a moment and he waved his foot gaily to it, thus creating Tink.” In such fashion J. M. Barrie recalled the magical summer of 1901 at Black Lake Cottage that inspired his creation of the immortal Peter Pan. The play, which achieved instant acclaim, first appeared in 1904, its hero an amalgam of the Llewelyn Davies boys that Barrie had first met in Kensington Gardens some years before. As he later wrote, “I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together…as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all Peter is – the spark I got from you.”At the turn of the twentieth century Barrie, born in 1860, was firmly established as a successful author and playwright; he and his wife Mary were based in London's Gloucester Road. They had long sought a country residence and so when in 1900 Mary discovered Black Lake Cottage near Farnham it swiftly became their rural bolthole, a place Barrie could invite his cricketing friends and, most memorably, the Llewelyn Davies family. Nestled on a dusty road with no other houses nearby and close to a shallow lake surrounded by pine trees, the property, with its large overgrown garden, was in urgent need of restoration. It offered Mary a substantial project in which to immerse herself, also providing a welcome distraction from her unfulfilling marriage. In July 1901 the Davies' family – Arthur, Sylvia and their four boys – took their summer holidays at a farmhouse in Surrey. “We have taken a charming cottage at Tilford near Mr Barrie's,” wrote Sylvia and it was a place to which they'd often return before the sad quirk of fate that would leave the boys orphaned within a decade. Having finished and dispatched Quality St., his latest play, to impresario Charles Frohman (who would play a pivotal role in staging Peter Pan), Barrie for once had considerable time at his disposal. In his novel Tommy and Grizel, Barrie's lifelong theme of a boy who would not grow up presages Pan. “Poor Tommy. He was so fond of being a boy that he could not grow up. What is genius? It is the power to be a boy again at will.” It was an ability the small, slight Barrie possessed in abundance. He had an ambivalent attitude to maturity, infinitely preferring the vivid world of childhood and in the Davies siblings he found the perfect audience for his games of fantasy and make-believe. With characteristic ingenuity the tranquil area was transformed into a dangerous land of shipwrecks, pirates and Red Indians on the rampage; the lake at the cottage becoming a South Sea Lagoon. His trusty St Bernard Porthos obligingly padding about as whatever animal took the children's fancy, even donning a papier-maché mask to instil terror as a marauding tiger! For George, Jack and Peter (Michael, 'an honorary member of the band' was then only a year old) it was an unrivalled opportunity to indulge their imagination without restraint. The old punt on the lake became either a longboat or pirate ship, Barrie himself appearing as villainous Captain Swarthy, the early precursor of the infamous Hook who would make the boys walk the plank. Sometimes Barrie would stand back from the action photographing the boys in playful combat or jotting down copious thoughts in his notebook. After the Davies returned to London at the summer's end Barrie decided to produce a volume entitled The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, celebrating the adventures of these months. It comprised various photographs with wry captions and stirring chapter headings but no actual text. Purportedly penned by young Peter, its preface was supposedly written years hence, stating “I have still a vivid recollection of that strange and terrible summer…the work is now published for Michael's benefit. If it teaches him by example lessons in fortitude and manly endurance we shall consider that we were not wrecked in vain.” Only two copies of what Barrie called much his best and rarest work were ever made, one retained by the author, the other given to the boys father Arthur who lost his copy on a train soon afterwards, an action possibly reflecting his less fulsome endorsement of Barrie's place in the family's life. The summer also inspired Barrie's novel The Little White Bird, the story of a bachelor whose meeting with a little child in Kensington Gardens results in the creation of Pan, a baby boy who lives on an island in the Serpentine. But, most famously, it provided material for the character of Peter Pan who was already developing in Barrie's fertile mind.
In October 1903 there was a torrent of notes along the lines of ‘fun is all Peter wants’, ‘the horror of growing up’ and similar ideas. “To die must be an awfully big adventure,” once opined George, a remark that Barrie later gave to Peter Pan himself. The name of Wendy – then unknown – originated from a friend's small daughter who couldn't pronounce her r's, Barrie thus becoming her 'fwendy.' Originally there was no Captain Hook in the play, he arose simply because stagehands needed 5 minutes respite to change the stage from Neverland to the Darlings' nursery; this filler was known as a 'front-cloth' scene but swiftly Hook's token appearance evolved into a fully-fledged character complete with pirate crew and crocodile. Originally known as The Boy Who Hated Mothers, an unwieldy title that Charles Frohman wisely suggested reducing to simply Peter Pan. It was first staged on 27 December 1904 and proved an immediate sensation, Frohman's faith in the play – despite its daunting production costs – amply rewarded.
J. M. Barrie died in 1937 but nine years previously he'd generously bequeathed the copyright of Peter Pan to Great Ormond St Hospital. Two years ago the Hospital launched a campaign to have a sequel written, the winning entry by Geraldine McCaughrean recently published as Peter Pan in Scarlet. “Will Neverland work its infallible magic?” asks McCaughrean hopefully. Set in 1926 after the Great War, the tale sees the Darling children, now grown up, returning to Neverland where they find much changed, except, of course, the perennially youthful Pan. Liz Cross of the book's publishers Oxford University Press says, “Not many sequels become true classics in their own right but I genuinely believe this one will.” Barrie clearly demonstrated that with the right source of inspiration the story of the boy who would not grow up will continue to enchant many new generations. In his Dedication to Peter Pan, written in the 1920s, Barrie reminisced that, decades after his first conception of Pan, “There is Peter still…but to me he lies sunk in Black Lake.” A melancholy view of his creation coloured by the untimely deaths of both George and Michael in subsequent years. But Black Lake was undoubtedly a place that had captured a joyful moment in time perfectly, Barrie distilling its essence into something of timeless appeal. SM
With many thanks to Great Ormond St Hospital. Please visit www.gosh.org and www.peterpaninscarlet.com For further information on J.M. Barrie see Andrew Birkin's excellent website www.jmbarrie.co.uk or Lisa Chaney's recent biography Hide & Seek With Angels.