Did we really need to see Peter Pan calling Tinkerbell a "slut"?

Reviewed: Peter Pan by Régis Loisel.

Peter Pan
Loisel
Soaring Penguin Press, £29.99

Despite being over-ripe with themes worth exploring, uncovering or twisting, Peter Pan has never really been subject to the same sort of re-imaginings that stories falling alongside it in the childhood canon have been. Pinocchio has become a killer puppet, the Little Mermaid is a littler goldfish, Grimms' Fairy Tales get grimmer with each remaining, and Peter Pan has little more than the godawful Hook.

It's not like there isn't a host of material to build on. The obsession with mothers, with never growing up, with love triangles between fairies and princesses; it's a psychosexual goldmine, ready for subversion.

Of course, part of the reason why is the unusual copyright status of the character. Donated by J.M. Barrie to Great Ormond Street Hospital, Peter Pan entered the public domain in 1987, but a special government bill gave a perpetual extension of some of the rights: the hospital will always be entitled to receive royalties for any adaptation of the play.

That's led to some artists taking the back route to a critical commentary, the most notable being Alan Moore, whose book Lost Girls depicts the pornographic adventures of Wendy Darling, Alice Liddell and Dorothy Gale (from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz). Wendy's story contains a magic-free telling of Peter's tale, with him and his sister Anna(tinker)bel recast as homeless children in Kensington Gardens; Captain Hook recruits Peter into prostitution and rapes Annabel. It's a take, of sorts; but it'd be stretching it somewhat to say it's just bringing out material implicit in the play.

Régis Loisel's six-volume Peter Pan takes a more direct approach. Starting with young Peter's life in Victorian London, it ends with him and the lost boys in Never-Never Land. Along the way, nearly every possible box is ticked: we find out why he took the name "Pan", learn how Captain Hook lost his hand, learn why the crocodile ticks, where Tinkerbell's name came from, why Tiger Lily loves Peter, who the lost boys are, who can fly and who can't… The whole effect is one of a piling-up of reference after reference, with little of the book existing for any other reason than it takes us to where J.M. Barrie's story begins.

The major exception is even odder. Starting around half-way through, the London scenes introduce Jack the Ripper as a character; Peter's mother is his first victim. Quite aside from the fact that the historical synchronicity isn't quite as spot-on as Loisel suggests – the Ripper murders occurring sixteen years before the first performance of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, although for a character who doesn't age that's less of an issue than it might otherwise be – the whole thing feels utterly unnecessary. It comes out of nowhere, barely interacts with the main plot, and although the deaths illustrate why London is a city Peter might want to leave, the lengthy detour into Ripperology (this Jack is a doctor acting during psychotic breaks, apparently) is just odd.

"Unnecessary" describes a lot of the book, in fact. Did we really need to see Peter calling Tinkerbell a "slut" after she stops him talking to his friends? Or hear Hook utter the strange non-idiom "you're pulling my cock again, with your stories"? Or a full explanation of why the crocodile ticks?

It would be perfectly possible to create a prequel to Peter Pan which justified its own existence. The world of Neverland lends itself perfectly to a sort of boys-own adventure tale, of pirates and indians and exploration and heroism, because that's what it is. Of course, any prequel would be subverted by the play itself showing that there's more to life, even for an adventurous boy, than having lots of fun all the time, but that could be worked with. Instead, we have the equivalent of Before Watchmen or the Star Wars prequels; and as with those, its hard to argue we're really better-off for it.

An illustrated Tinkerbell, from Régis Loisel's six-volume Peter Pan.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism