Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: The book by J. M. Barrie and illustrations by Arthur Rackham

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As the reader can readily determine, I have been fascinated with all I have learned about Kensington Gardens since rediscovering the cache of photographs we took in 2006.  It has been a bit of a treasure hunt to track down the buildings, statues, areas by describing as much as I could in a search, and then learning about the location, etc.  I was quite surprised to learn of the origins of the Peter Pan story, and then when I found the book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J. M. Barrie with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, thanks to the Project Gutenberg-tim work, I was hooked.  I will not reproduce the entire book here, as you can see it in its entirety, along with the beautiful images, at the link in this paragraph.  My purpose is twofold here: (1) to add what I learned about the story of Peter Pan, and how he came to live in Kensington Gardens, and (2) to look at some of the scenes from the Gardens compared with my photographs.

The Serpentine Peter Pan

The Serpentine, where the fairies play after Lock-Out time.

The Serpentine begins near here.  It is a lovely lake, and there is a drowned forest at the bottom of it.  If you peer over the edge you can see the trees all growing upside down, and they say that at night there are also drowned stars in it.  If so, Peter Pan sees them when he is sailing across the lake in the Thrush’s Nest.  A small part only of the Serpentine is in the Gardens, for it soon passes beneath a bridge to far away where the island is on which all the birds are born that become baby boys and girls.  No one who is human, except Peter Pan (and he is only half human), can land on the island, but you may write what you want (boy or girl, dark or fair) on a piece of paper, and then twist it into the shape of a boat and slip it into the water, and it reaches Peter Pan’s island after dark. (Barrie, 1906, Chapter 1 The Grand Tour of the Gardens)

Albert memorial

Old Mr. Salford wandering in front of the Prince Albert Memorial.

Well, Peter Pan got out by the window, which had no bars.  Standing on the ledge he could see trees far away, which were doubtless the Kensington Gardens, and the moment he saw them he entirely forgot that he was now a little boy in a nightgown, and away he flew, right over the houses to the Gardens.  It is wonderful that he could fly without wings, but the place itched tremendously, and–and–perhaps we could all fly if we were as dead-confident-sure of our capacity to do it as was bold Peter Pan that evening. (Barrie, 1906, Chapter 2 Peter Pan)Peter flying to the Gardens

At first he found some difficulty in balancing himself on a branch, but presently he remembered the way, and fell asleep.  He awoke long before morning, shivering, and saying to himself, ‘I never was out on such a cold night’; he had really been out on colder nights when he was a bird, but, of course, as everybody knows, what seems a warm night to a bird is a cold night to a boy in a nightgown.  Peter also felt strangely uncomfortable, as if his head was stuffy; he heard loud noises that made him look round sharply, though they were really himself sneezing.  There was something he wanted very much, but, though he knew he wanted it, he could not think what it was.  What he wanted so much was his mother to blow his nose, but that never struck him, so he decided to appeal to the fairies for enlightenment.  They are reputed to know a good deal. (Barrie, 1906, Chapter 2 Peter Pan)

Peter in Kensington Gardens

It was to the island that Peter now flew to put his strange case before old Solomon Caw, and he alighted on it with relief, much heartened to find himself at last at home, as the birds call the island.  All of them were asleep, including the sentinels, except Solomon, who was wide awake on one side, and he listened quietly to Peter’s adventures, and then told him their true meaning.

Peter talking to Solomon Caw‘Look at your nightgown, if you don’t believe me,’ Solomon said; and with staring eyes Peter looked at his nightgown, and then at the sleeping birds.  Not one of them wore anything. ‘How many of your toes are thumbs?’ said Solomon a little cruelly, and Peter saw to his consternation, that all his toes were fingers.  The shock was so great that it drove away his cold. ‘Ruffle your feathers,’ said that grim old Solomon, and Peter tried most desperately hard to ruffle his feathers, but he had none.  Then he rose up, quaking, and for the first time since he stood on the window ledge, he remembered a lady who had been very fond of him.  ‘I think I shall go back to mother,’ he said timidly. (Barrie, 1906, Chapter 2 Peter Pan)

This is the point where Peter realizes he can no longer fly, and Solomon confirms he will have to remain on the island forever, explaining he was now a Betwixt-and-Between.  Fast forward near the end of the tale, when Queen Mab grants Peter two “little wishes.”  He wished to be able to go back to his mother as his first wish, flew home and into the open window where his mother lay asleep.

‘O mother!’ said Peter to himself, ‘if you just knew who is sitting on the rail at the foot of the bed.’…He knew he had but to say ‘Mother’ ever so softly, and she would wake up. They always wake up at once if it is you that says their name. Then she would give such a joyous cry and squeeze him tight. How nice that would be to him, but oh! how exquisitely delicious it would be to her. That, I am afraid, is how Peter regarded it. In returning to his mother he never doubted that he was giving her the greatest treat a woman can have. Nothing can be more splendid, he thought, than to have a little boy of your own. How proud of him they are! and very right and proper, too.

But why does Peter sit so long on the rail; why does he not tell his mother that he has come back?

I quite shrink from the truth, which is that he sat there in two minds. Sometimes he looked longingly at his mother, and sometimes he looked longingly at the window. Certainly it would be pleasant to be her boy again, but on the other hand, what times those had been in the Gardens! Was he so sure that he should enjoy wearing clothes again? He popped off the bed and opened some drawers to have a look at his old garments. They were still there, but he could not remember how you put them on. The socks, for instance, were they worn on the hands or on the feet? He was about to try one of them on his hand, when he had a great adventure. Perhaps the drawer had creaked; at any rate, his mother woke up, for he heard her say ‘Peter,’ as if it was the most lovely word in the language. He remained sitting on the floor and held his breath, wondering how she knew that he had come back. If she said ‘Peter’ again, he meant to cry ‘Mother’ and run to her. But she spoke no more, she made little moans only, and when he next peeped at her she was once more asleep, with tears on her face.

It made Peter very miserable, and what do you think was the first thing he did? Sitting on the rail at the foot of the bed, he played a beautiful lullaby to his mother on his pipe. He had made it up himself out of the way she said ‘Peter,’ and he never stopped playing until she looked happy.

He thought this so clever of him that he could scarcely resist wakening her to hear her say, ‘O Peter, how exquisitely you play!’ However, as she now seemed comfortable, he again cast looks at the window. You must not think that he meditated flying away and never coming back. He had quite decided to be his mother’s boy, but hesitated about beginning to-night. It was the second wish which troubled him. He no longer meant to make it a wish to be a bird, but not to ask for a second wish seemed wasteful, and, of course, he could not ask for it without returning to the fairies. Also, if he put off asking for his wish too long it might go bad. He asked himself if he had not been hard-hearted to fly away without saying good-bye to Solomon. ‘I should like awfully to sail in my boat just once more,’ he said wistfully to his sleeping mother. He quite argued with her as if she could hear him. ‘It would be so splendid to tell the birds of this adventure,’ he said coaxingly. ‘I promise to come back,’ he said solemnly, and meant it, too.

And in the end, you know, he flew away. Twice he came back from the window, wanting to kiss his mother, but he feared the delight of it might waken her, so at last he played her a lovely kiss on his pipe, and then he flew back to the Gardens.

Many nights, and even months, passed before he asked the fairies for his second wish; and I am not sure that I quite know why he delayed so long. One reason was that he had so many good-byes to say, not only to his particular friends, but to a hundred favourite spots. Then he had his last sail, and his very last sail, and his last sail of all, and so on. Again, a number of farewell feasts were given in his honour; and another comfortable reason was that, after all, there was no hurry, for his mother would never weary of waiting for him. This last reason displeased old Solomon, for it was an encouragement to the birds to procrastinate. Solomon had several excellent mottoes for keeping them at their work, such as ‘Never put off laying to-day because you can lay to-morrow,’ and ‘In this world there are no second chances,’ and yet here was Peter gaily putting off and none the worse for it. The birds pointed this out to each other, and fell into lazy habits.

But, mind you, though Peter was so slow in going back to his mother, he was quite decided to go back. The best proof of this was his caution with the fairies. They were most anxious that he should remain in the Gardens to play to them, and to bring this to pass they tried to trick him into making such a remark as ‘I wish the grass was not so wet,’ and some of them danced out of time in the hope that he might cry, ‘I do wish you would keep time!’ Then they would have said that this was his second wish. But he smoked their design, and though on occasions he began, ‘I wish——’ he always stopped in time. So when at last he said to them bravely, ‘I wish now to go back to mother for ever and always,’ they had to tickle his shoulders and let him go.

He went in a hurry in the end, because he had dreamt that his mother was crying, and he knew what was the great thing she cried for, and that a hug from her splendid Peter would quickly make her to smile. Oh! he felt sure of it, and so eager was he to be nestling in her arms that this time he flew straight to the window, which was always to be open for him.

But the window was closed, and there were iron bars on it, and peering inside he saw his mother sleeping peacefully with her arm around another little boy.

Peter called, ‘Mother! mother!’ but she heard him not; in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bars. He had to fly back, sobbing, to the Gardens, and he never saw his dear again. What a glorious boy he had meant to be to her! Ah, Peter! we who have made the great mistake, how differently we should all act at the second chance. But Solomon was right—there is no second chance, not for most of us. When we reach the window it is Lock-out Time. The iron bars are up for life.  (Barrie, 1906, Chapter 4 Lock-Out Time)

Of course, there was more to the tale, and Barrie would go on to pen additional stories and plays.  I confess to a sense of sadness at this “children’s tale” and while I suppose it could have served a moral intent, along with some fun imaginary times, it seemed a rather dark side.  Then again, that was the case in many a “fairy tale” wasn’t it?



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2 Responses to Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: The book by J. M. Barrie and illustrations by Arthur Rackham

  1. Sheryl says:

    It’s fun to learn about the origins of the Peter Pan story. The Gutenberg Project has made some wonderful resources readily available.


    • Suzassippi says:

      Yes, Gutenberg Project has been amazing. Honestly, I had no idea of the origins of this story before this discovery. Thank you for stopping by to see Peter Pan and the crew at Kensington Gardens. 🙂


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