“Annoying girl, be joyous as of old during the five minutes of the day when you are anything to me, and for the rest of the time, so far as I am concerned, you may be as wretched as you list. Show some courage. I assure you he must be a very bad painter; only the other day I saw him looking longingly into the window of a cheap Italian restaurant, and in the end he had to crush down his aspirations with two penny scones.”
- J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird (1901)
It is in James Matthew Barrie’s The Little White Bird that we are first introduced to Peter Pan. The novel is told from the first-person perspective of Captain W—-, a wealthy, retired military officer who closely observes a lower class family in London. From his study, he watches Mary A—- (the “annoying girl” referenced in the passage above), as she is courted by a destitute young painter. The young couple marries and Mary A—- has a child, named David, all under the watchful eye of the cantankerous Captain W—-, who begins to anonymously assist the couple. The captain grows to love the boy, and Mary A—- eventually discovers the old man’s scheme. A significant section of the novel – including the chapters that recount the mythology of Peter Pan – chronicles the time Captain W—- and David spend in London’s Kensington Gardens. After The Little White Bird was published in serial form, the Peter chapters were extracted, written for and performed in the theater, and later published as a children’s book entitled Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. The play was an immediate hit, groundbreaking in that it required the construction of an elaborate apparatus to make the players fly, and appealing in that the boy who eludes the aging process escapes to a land ambivalent to the rigid morality of Victorian-era England.
The experiment with perspective in The Little White Bird is fascinating, and for some readers, unsettling. Unmarried and childless, Captain W—- almost obsessively watches the world outside his window. While Mary approves of his interest in her child, the captain’s remarkable fondness for the little boy – coupled with accounts of Barrie’s own keen interest in children – can be discomforting for modern audiences, a sentiment no doubt fueled by the work of biographers who’ve a made a living on building support for Barrie’s pedophilia (having done a fair amount of research on Barrie myself, I think these accusations are hogwash, productions of a society hypersensitive to perceived “irregularities” and obsessed with creating boundaries… but that’s just me). Also notable are the self-referential elements of Barrie’s novel; as the story is narrated, readers are made aware that Captain W—- is actually writing his tale down; in the book’s conclusion, he gives his manuscript to Mary.
During his lifetime, Barrie was a beloved and prolific novelist and playwright. After marrying actress Mary Ansell in 1894, the couple often strolled through Kensington Park, and Barrie entertained the children playing there with stories of fairies and pirates. It was at the park that Barrie would meet and befriend the Llewlyn Davies family, incorporating his experiences with the brood into his work. Within years of meeting Barrie, Arthur and Sylvia Llewlyn Davies died of cancer, leaving their children – George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nico – in the care of the author, who loved the boys as sons and was grief-stricken when George was killed during World War I and Michael drowned at Oxford. Ever dedicated to the care of children, Barrie willed any royalties from Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London, England, which profited greatly from his gift until the copyright expired in 2007 and Peter Pan became part of the public domain.
I’m not sure what a “penny scone” is, but based on the attitude displayed toward the confection in the passage above, I imagine it’s a fairly unsavory little biscuit. Well, okay, scones are not biscuits; the scone is a quick bread believed to be Scottish in origin and closely related to bannock, a skillet-cooked flatbread. In her book Biscuits and Scones, Elizabeth Alston argues that American biscuits are a variant of the English scone: unable to easily access butter and eggs in America, early British colonists substituted lard with a slightly different but still palatable result. These ginger pecan scones are a far cry from the American biscuit, and even, I’d guess, the penny scone: wonderfully dense and moist on the inside, crispy on the outside, spiced with three kinds of ginger (crushed, grated, and crystallized), and slightly crunchy from the nuts, this recipe – found here – is a keeper.
By the way, the jury is still out on why 19th century authors dashed (e.g. Captain W—-) their character’s names. Some believe the authors had a real person in mind and dashed the name for propriety’s sake. Others think that the authors wanted their readers to fill in the name for themselves, thus making the narrative more personal for the reader. Another theory suggests that the social and political attacks inherent in most literature were safer to make when unclearly directed. If you know of other reasons, please let me know!