Peter Pan has transformed from J.M. Barrie’s character to an archetypal literary figure. Since appearing in the play that bears his name, he has appeared in a subsequent run of films, plays, songs, art pieces, and books. In Jungian terms: he resides in the collective subconscious of humanity. Geraldine McCaughrean’s novel, Peter Pan in Scarlet, stands out because it is an approved sequel to Barrie’s original, Peter and Wendy. Famed author of The Kite Rider, McCaughrean was chosen from a pool of more than 200 applicants by J.M. Barrie’s estate, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. In the words of Peter Pan project director Christine De Poortere, she was selected “because she kept Barrie’s integrity and captures his voice” (Smith).
While preserving the integrity and capturing the voice of another author is no small feat, McCaughrean faced the incredible challenge of updating Peter’s story for contemporary readers while keeping his archetypal, timeless nature intact. As such, viewing Peter Pan in Scarlet as a continuation of Barrie’s series, raises new themes and issues beyond keeping true to Peter and Wendy. While staying true to De Poortere’s praise for preserving Barrie’s distinctive narrative style, Peter Pan in Scarlet provides more than simply a continuation of Peter and Wendy’s plot; it offers a dialogue. The new perspectives and themes that MaCaughrean chooses to introduce serve as both hermeneutical accounts and dialectical antitheses to those presented by Barrie. Distinctive among these is the relationship of the Lost Boys to their abandoned mothers, and by extension the mother/child relationship. Peter and Wendy provides a scathing narrative from the child’s perspective, but Peter Pan in Scarlet introduces the mother’s perspective. In exploring this neglected facet of Barrie’s story, McCaughrean fleshes out the entire issue, thus providing readers a more complete perspective. The books work together rather than in competition. This relationship is starkly different from the one created by Barrie, as the Lost Boys and their mothers are in direct conflict.
Barrie’s depiction of the Lost Boys’ condition in Peter and Wendy is illustrated from their perspective, while the mother’s is essentially ignored. Though Barrie makes an account of Mrs. Darling’s experience, he emphasizes that she is the exception to the rule because she waits so long for her children and adopts the Lost Boys. Despite her break from the pattern, Barrie is still very scathing towards her as he writes, “You see, the woman had no proper spirit. I had meant to say extraordinarily nice things about her; but I despise her, and not one of them I will say now. . . For all the use we are to her we might go back to the ship. However, as we are here we may as well stay and look on. That is all we are, lookers-on. Nobody really wants us” (Barrie 208).
Note that the reader’s role as looker-on is similar to the Lost Boys’: the reader has no use of and is no use to mothers. The Lost Boys are boys who fall out of their perambulators with their nannies. If they are unclaimed in seven days they are sent to the Neverland. Once their mothers close their windows, they are forgotten and barred from home. Though the process is initiated by the boys falling out of their perambulators, final responsibility for the Lost Boys’ lot in life lies with the mothers. They are the ones who neglect to claim their children, and their decision to close the window seals the children’s fate. The damage inflicted by this decision is most apparent in Peter’s story. Based on his story, a mother can only disappoint. Not only does she forget him, she replaces him:
. . . so alarming was his agitation; and with a fine candour he told them what he had hitherto concealed.
“Long ago,” he said, “I thought like you that my mother would always keep the window open for me; so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed” (Barrie 167).
Clearly, the relationship between the boys and their mothers is quite one-sided and harsh. Mothers cannot win: either they look after their children and doom them to adulthood, or they lose their children and exile them to Neverland. Viewed in this light, it is understandable that McCaughrean chooses to explore the mothers’ side of the story.
Peter Pan in Scarlet provides an antithesis to the thesis of Peter and Wendy, for it explores a mother’s experience in losing a child to Neverland. McCaughrean’s main device for doing so is a stop on the League of Pan’s quest: the Maze of Regrets, the place where mothers search for their Lost Children. The Explorers first encounter this place under faulty assumptions, but this misinformation serves as introduction to the truth. According to the circus-master, Ravello, this place is the Maze of Witches: a place where, “nursery maids sacked, turned out-of-doors, mad with hatred and seeking revenge on the children of Neverland” (McCaughrean 289). Though Ravello’s account is inaccurate, it introduces the idea to the Lost Boys -- and to the reader -- that the family does not truly forget them. If their absence was inconsequential and they could simply be replaced, as Barrie asserts in Peter and Wendy, then there would be no consequences. If the opposite were true, no parents would be angry enough to turn out their nursemaids. Smee recounts the true nature of the place and its residents when the League of Pan reunites with him in the Home Under the Ground:
“. . . That there’s the Maze of Regrets! Nursery maids? Codswallop! No hired servant would set sail over stormy seas in an open perambulator - not out of hate, not out of anything! Nah! Those ladies are the Heartbroken! There’s none other would make a voyage like that. They do what they have to. Instinct, see. Can’t help themselves. They’d do anything, Mothers would.(McCaughrean 289)
The Lost Boys are happily reunited with their biological mothers, but they do not forget Mrs. Darling. Unlike Barrie, McCaughrean praises her for breaking the pattern as she writes, “Mrs. Darling would always be the real one [mother], beause she had taken them in when they were Lost Boys, and had raised them and let them lick the mixing bowls and shampoo the dog and wear warpaint in bed and ride upstairs on buses” (McCaughrean 297). Mrs. Darling is credited with finding someone believed forever lost. In Peter Pan in Scarlet the mother’s mistakes are addressed, but they are not condemned for it as they are in Peter and Wendy.
Viewed in this light, Peter Pan in Scarlet and Peter and Wendy work in a dialectic fashion to explore the relationship between Lost Boys and their mothers. Peter and Wendy provides commentary -- and condemnation -- from the point of view of the Lost Boys. Barrie does this by placing most the responsibility for a child becoming lost on the mother, offering Peter’s tragedy of being forgotten and replaced as the model that all Lost Children follow. Their departure has no consequence and only the child suffers for it. Even in his portrayal of Mrs. Darling, a woman who does suffer in her children’s absence, he discards her. She is useless to the reader and her children, and the children have no use for her either. Peter Pan in Scarlet exposes the Lost Boys and readers to the bigger picture -- that the mothers suffer along with the children. It does so first by introducing the consequences of their absence: firing the nursemaids. Then it widens the scope of the situation by introducing the Heartbroken mothers. Further, McCaughrean praises Mrs. Darling for being able to find the Lost Boys first. Together, Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan in Scarlet explore a complex relationship that everyone encounters in some fashion, whether as child or as parent or as both. It is a universal experience. As such, the books are timeless together.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
McCaughrean, Geraldine. Peter Pan in Scarlet. New York: Schuster and Schuster, 2006.
Smith, Dinita. “What’s Peter Pan Up to Now? All Will Soon Be Revealed.” New York Times. August 28, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/28/books/28pan.html? pagewanted=1&_r=1.