Though my family is related to J M Barrie, and I have read much of his work, it was only recently that I added a Barrie book to my library. It is the 1912 edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
I was going to make a grand presentation of this on Mythaxis, but there is already a beautiful representation of an earlier edition of the book, with Rackham’s illustrations, on Gutenberg. My 1912 edition actually features more illustrations than the Gutenberg version and is reckoned to be the ‘best’, or, at any rate, most complete, edition.
At first sight, the prose is somewhat syrupy, as though intended for childish consumption, but there is usually a hidden agenda, readable more readily by an adult eye.
You always want to have a yacht to sail on the Round Pond, and in the end your uncle gives you one; and to carry it to the pond the first day is splendid, also to talk about it to boys who have no uncle is splendid, but soon you like to leave it at home. For the sweetest craft that slips her moorings in the Round Pond is what is called a stick-boat, because she is rather like a stick until she is in the water and you are holding the string. Then as you walk round, pulling her, you see little men running about her deck, and sails rise magically and catch the breeze, and you put in on dirty nights at snug harbours which are unknown to the lordly yachts. Night passes in a twink, and again your rakish craft noses for the wind, whales spout, you glide over buried cities, and have brushes with pirates, and cast anchor on coral isles.
Nevertheless, there is an uncomfortably child-centred air about some of Barrie’s writing, as though, like his most famous creation, Peter Pan, he is reluctant to grow up. Yet this book is shot through with insights that provoke wry smiles and pangs of nostalgia throughout.
Barrie’s inventiveness is also to the fore in this book, with anthropomorphic animals and birds, fairies and interesting human characters. But the chief delights, for me, are the general quality of the book and its intact dustcover, the Rackham illustrations, the generous quarto size of it, its weight, the meaty, substantial paper, and just the general feel of a century-old book in great condition.
Strangely, and entirely by coincidence, I now live within a couple of miles of Barrie’s home in Surrey, and the woods and lakes in which he delighted are on our doorstep. It is not difficult to conjure up the atmosphere of early 20th century England, basking in nostalgia for an age I never knew!