Peter Pan’s dark side emerges with release of original manuscript

JM Barrie’s first draft of the classic story paints the hero as a far less pleasant boy

He’s the boy who never grows up, a lovable rogue who has convinced generations of children that “dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough”. But now a darker side to Peter Pan has been revealed with the publication last week of JM Barrie’s original manuscript, Peter Pan and Wendy.

Fans will be able to read the previously unpublished version of the story in Barrie’s own handwriting and see the amendments he made to his manuscript as he was writing it.

The new edition demonstrates how Barrie toned down Peter Pan’s character to suit audiences in 1911, after having second thoughts about how negatively Peter should be portrayed. For example, he deleted descriptions of him as “an elfish boy” who speaks “defiantly” to Wendy and tries to be “more contemptuous than ever”.

Jessica Nelson, who edited the new edition, said that the characterisation of Peter in the manuscript reminded her of Mary Shelley’s original version of Frankenstein: “The creature in the manuscript was darker, with less human qualities.”

Peter is also more of an “egoist” in Barrie’s manuscript, compared with the final published version, she said: “I would say he is more mean.”

This depiction is arguably more consistent with the ending of the book, where Peter callously reveals to Wendy that he has forgotten Tinkerbell entirely. He then takes Wendy’s daughter off to Neverland, leaving Wendy behind, desperate to be allowed to come.

“Barrie was not afraid of going to some dark places. He was also trying to show that children can be fierce,”said Nelson.

In the manuscript, Neverland is called Never Never Land and features a “desolation bay”. It is also named later than in the 1911 book. “It seems more mysterious in the manuscript,” said Nelson. She said she thought this indicates that Barrie originally wanted to emphasise the distance between the world of grown-ups and that of Peter Pan: “Neverland is really a Never Never Land, a land which grown-ups can never, never reach.”

The fierce crocodile.
The fierce crocodile. Photograph: aerhion/Illustrations by Gwynedd Hudson, Courtesy of SP Books.

The title of the manuscript was changed to Peter and Wendy in the 1911 print run of the book, before Wendy’s presence was dropped. But the original title better reflected how important women were to Barrie, Nelson said. Although Wendy does not play a larger role in the manuscript, re-reading the story with this title in mind emphasises the significance of her character and puts her back in her rightful place. “It does give Wendy a role that tends to disappear because Peter Pan is such a charismatic figure.

“I think, due to his personal story, James Barrie wanted women in general and Wendy and Mrs Darling in particular to have a special place in what he wrote. Women were very important to him – he wrote the story because of his meeting with Sylvia Davies and he discovered literature because of his mother,” said Nelson.

Only 1,000 hand-numbered copies of the 282-page manuscript have been printed by publisher SP Books. Each one costs £140 and includes 21 full-page colour illustrations by Gwynedd Hudson from a rare 1930 edition of the novel. Some of the proceeds from sales will go to Great Ormond Street Hospital, which still owns the copyright it was given by Barrie before he died.

Nelson says holding the new edition is the next best thing to touching the manuscript itself, which is in the New York Public LIbrary. She found it particularly moving to be able to read in Barrie’s own hand the book’s famous opening line: “All children, except one, grow up”.

On the whole, he wrote fluidly and hardly crossed anything out, she said: “I think he pretty much knew where he was going.”

Perhaps, as Pan himself would say, it was obvious: “Second to the right and straight on till morning.”


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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