Posted by: HAT | December 19, 2014

Food for Fantasy: The Little White Bird

Cover of an early edition of the Little White Bird

The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens, by J.M. Barrie

Hi, Gang!

On Monday, I started out the day cleaning the office, and ended up having read The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens, by J.M. Barrie. It’s the story of a late-middle-aged solitary gentleman who almost inadvertently, yet insistently, becomes the benefactor of his starving-artist neighbors, and cultivates a familial relationship with their little boy. In the process, the reader learns of the secret “after Lock-Out” world of Kensington Gardens, including the inaugural tale of Peter Pan.

This is a seductive book. Even admitting that its seduction might have been a little more alluring on a day when the alternative was tidying the office, it has delicious qualities. Yes, it’s classist and sexist and sentimental, but in a straightforwardly late Victorian way that situates all that political incorrectness in its remote-enough time and place, as a historical-cultural artifact. The dimension of class in particular, with its intricate boundaries and taboos, is all the problem of someone else’s society – at least, for an American reader – so it can be read and noticed and understood, which is satisfying, without triggering guilt over what the reader’s not doing to fix it. The narrator is unreliable in a wonderfully transparent way – he tells us everything, he just obviously mislabels it, as the reader knows full well. So there’s fun to be had in finding out just how this allegedly crotchety but clearly tender-hearted aging gentleman “spinster” is going to save the day for the afflicted poor young people who seem to surround him. The creepy sexual subtext would get our narrator arrested for stalking in the early 21st century world, and his neighbor presented with the Worst Mother of the Year Award for agreeing to the unsupervised visits between this character and her son. But here, too, the reader will quickly conclude that the narrator is perfectly harmless, and look a little wistfully at the genuine friendship our latter-day gutter thinking would have denied this kindly old man and his adopted son-he-never-had.

Granted, I am no fan of Pan. Past acquaintance teaches that Peter Pan is a thoroughly objectionable character: callous, shallow, selfish, and misogynistic. The Peter Pan of Adventures in Kensington Gardens, who purposefully abandons his mother in full awareness of her grief over his disappearance, is not one flake of pixie dust better. But for all his many faults, Peter Pan inhabits a magical world that invisibly parallels our own. His story nurtures the ability to imagine the wondrous possibilities of our prosaic environs, and that nurture is a public service.

One of my personal favorite tales in The Little White Bird is that of the secret identity – arguably, as it depends on what one is willing to believe possible – of Mr. W’s, the narrator’s, newfound friend Prestone. Prestone’s canine mannerisms are all the more fetching, or suspicious, as he only joins the little social circle when Mr. W’s dog, Porthos, goes missing. The implicit moral lesson of the episode, that while no man is a hero to his valet every man may be a hero to his dog, put me in mind of an old commercial for Companion Animal Placement. (AdRespect gives the commercial a low respect score, but commentators take issue with that rating; they have good reason to do so, especially on the interpretation of the tag line.)

A classically positive review of The Little White Bird is online at Tales of the Marvelous; the book itself is online at Project Gutenberg.

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