M, age 8: Will you make a Peter Pan costume for my Finn doll?
(She had me at Peter Pan. She had me at herself, actually.)
I made the thing; tiny green sock-scrap leaves sewn on tiny beige sock-scrap shirt, a messy torrent, surpassingly cute. And then I reminded her that Peter Pan is often played by a woman. That anyone could wear the costume. It was silent for a moment, as it often is when she’s thinking, and then she said, actually, her girl doll A. will probably wear the shirt every day, because of her dolls, she’s the most adventurous and flexible…
And this is how we raise them, how they lift off despite gravity, and perhaps even fly…
When I was in graduate school, I gave a seminar on J.M. Barrie‘s Peter Pan. It’s one of my favorite books, in fact it’s maybe my favorite book, and reveling in the novel’s story and history was a joy. I’ve been waiting until I could read it to my daughter, suggesting it often, but she repeatedly refused. Wasn’t ready, or I was trying too hard. Then someone loaned us an audio book of Tinkerbell stories and I told Merida that we have to read Peter Pan (the original!) before she could listen to it. So a few days ago, she finally relented and we began The Great Book. Now she’s begging me to read more whenever we have time. After I read this passage from Chapter One, we had a funny conversation.
“Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.”
My daughter leaned over to me and said, “Do you do that?”
How to answer? I was vague.
She said, “Don’t you know?”
“It’s a story,” I said, and smiled.
I’ve just read the most ridiculous and wonderful novel. It’s called The Young Visiters (sic) Or, Mr. Salteena’s Plan by Daisy Ashford. Written around 1890 by nine-year-old Daisy Ashford, the novel was published in 1919. (I love the internet. You can read the original text here.) According to the Academy Chicago Publishers 1991 preface by Walter Kendrick, J.M. Barrie, my icon and one of my favorite writers, doomed this novel to obscurity in our time. Kendrick writes: “I would lay the blame for juvenilizing The Young Visiters on Sir J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, who wrote a treacly preface to the 1919 edition. Barrie drew a precious picture of little Daisy at work, now with ‘the tongue firmly clenched between her teeth,’ now with ‘her head to the side and her tongue well out.’ He imagined her sucking her thumb and called her the ‘blazing child.’ The British stomach such goop better than Americans do; they seem to place a smaller premium on growing up. Barrie, however, falsified The Young Visiters for all readers when he made it out to be merely the product of a precocious imagination. It is that, of course, but it is also a Victorian novel in miniature, a tidy précis of English fiction circa 1890.” (I know that’s his opinion, and I might argue–have not yet read Barrie’s preface, but will later, as it’s online at Project Gutenberg. Stay tuned. And more on Barrie in a moment.)
But rather than tell about the novel, let me show. On p. 86, Miss Ashford treats the reader to the following, with the original spellings:
Chapter 9: A Proposale
Next morning while imbibing his morning tea beneath his pink silken quilt Bernard decided he must marry Ethel with no more delay. I love the girl he said to himself and she must be mine but I somehow feel I can not propose in London it would not be seemly in the city of London. We must go for a day in the country and when surrounded by the gay twittering of the birds and the smell of the cows I will lay my suit at her feet and he waved his arm wildly at the gay thought. Then he sprang from bed and gave a rat a tat at Ethel’s door.
Are you up my dear he called.
Well not quite said Ethel hastilly jumping from her downy nest.
Be quick cried Bernard I have a plan to spend a day near Windsor Castle and we will take our lunch and spend a happy day.
Oh Hurrah shouted Ethel I shall soon be ready as I had my bath last night so wont wash very much now.
No don’t said Bernard and added in a rarther fervent tone through the chink of the door you are fresher than the rose my dear no soap could make you fairer.
I have never read a book like this. The allure for me as reader hides in its layers, and in the child’s awareness of the weary adult world. Her prose. Her exuberent misspellings. And the allure is also in imagining this nine-year-old in the context of the nine-year-olds I know–smart and imaginative as they are–writing a book like this.
As Kendrick writes in the preface on p. xvii, “Ashford’s masterpiece truly deserves the overworked adjective ‘unique’: there is nothing else like it, and nothing can match the special pleasure it gives.”
In writing this post, I thought about a presentation I gave in graduate school about J.M. Barrie and the story behind Peter. I forgot how deeply I had then delved into Barrie’s work and life, but here are some of my presentation notes, which explained (in my words from twelve years ago, which I would re-write today, but for expediency, won’t) why this is interesting to me: “I have been working on an adult novel from a child’s point of view. I did not anticipate the power of looking through a child’s eyes at all the small things adults tend to overlook. This has been a great lesson in detail and imagery. Perhaps to normalize my obsession with childhood and the connection between child and adult, I keep coming back to Peter Pan as an important emblem. Reading Peter and Wendy has helped me think about the layers a writer can use to involve both child and adult awareness.”
I’m so grateful to my daughter’s teacher, Ann Guthrie, who knew of my fasciation with this kind of story, and loaned me Daisy Ashford’s book.
Now off to buy my own copy.
Why is it that every year as January first approaches, I feel like Captain Hook with the crocodile? The tick of the clock the crocodile swallowed reminds me of time passing, mortality, the end of things. This year, more than ever before, I feel this immense need to rush things out of the house, banish all dust, all grime, all extraneous matter. This includes wanting to empty my closets of junk (not a new feeling, and not exclusive to this time of year, but flaring up nonetheless) and wishing I had a few more hours, just a few, to set things in order. To give me a false sense of calm. As if somehow at midnight, something will turn back into a pumpkin (mixing my children’s stories here, but I don’t have much time to think of how to not!) and something will vanish, never to come back.
But this is true for each second that passes, isn’t it? Why is this moment (11:59 pm) any different from any other moment? This has been a hard year in many ways, for many of my people. I’m not sad to let parts of 2010 go, and yet there’s my urge to halt the clocks, slow it all down, just for today, so I can…Do everything! Fix everything! Recycle everything! And feel something important somehow more clear.
Instead I wish I could be “good form” about it (Captain Hook, in the real book by J.M. Barrie, is very concerned with what is “good form”) and just get out my sword, or hook, and greet the ticking crocodile with bravado. “Hallo, you scaly fiend!” I’d say. Wishing again for that dream of swashbuckling heroics and the liberation from clocks, from fear of time passing, from fear of mortality.
On the other side of today, I hope to find a little more of that courage.
May it be a brave and beautiful year for us all.