A to Z: Wendy Darling

W

I suppose it was all especially entrancing to Wendy, because those rampagious boys of hers gave her so much to do. Really there were whole weeks when, except perhaps with a stocking in the evening, she was never above ground. The cooking, I can tell you, kept her nose to the pot, and even if there was nothing in it, even if there was no pot, she had to keep watching that it came aboil just the same . . .

Wendy’s favourite time for sewing and darning was after they had all gone to bed. Then, as she expressed it, she had a breathing time for herself; and she occupied it in making new things for them, and putting double pieces on the knees, for they were all most frightfully hard on their knees.

 When she sat down to a basketful of their stockings, every heel with a hole in it, she would fling up her arms and exclaim, “Oh dear, I am sure I sometimes think spinsters are to be envied!”

 Her face beamed when she exclaimed this.

 You remember about her pet wolf. Well, it very soon discovered that she had come to the island and it found her out, and they just ran into each other’s arms. After that it followed her about everywhere.

A few years ago, I wrote my master’s thesis on Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1902, as part of The Little White Bird), J.M. Barrie’s first published version of Peter Pan; of Barrie’s later versions—Peter Pan (1904–a play) and Peter and Wendy (1911–novelization of the play), the versions we’re most familiar with–I said little. These are the versions that have escaped their author in the same way that Mary Poppins escaped P.L. Travers. I also didn’t talk much about Wendy Darling, as she doesn’t appear in PPIKG, but I knew I’d be talking about her when I got to “W” on this month’s challenge.

Wendy Darling is the oldest of the Darling children, and it is she who Peter Pan wants to take away to Neverland, hoping she’ll be his mother and tell him stories; John and Michael only go because Wendy wakes them and insists that Peter Pan take the whole family.  This is pretty consistent from version to version, though some adaptations place Wendy as pubescent and some a bit younger, which naturally changes the ages of her younger siblings (and of Peter Pan himself).  Barrie’s texts don’t note an exact age, though we know that Wendy is enrolled in the equivalent of an elementary school, and she hasn’t yet reached puberty, but she has two younger siblings old enough to speak, so she must between between 6 and 12–and she’s generally depicted on the older part of the scale.

That’s because Wendy is, according to Barrie, “every inch a woman, though there were not very many inches.” She’s  on the cusp of adolescence, and her position in Neverland is very much affected by being the only girl living with the Lost Boys and being a girl closing in on sexual maturation. The boys want her to be their mother, and Wendy obliges as much as she can (at one point, John and Michael have become so wrapped up in this game that they truly believe Wendy is their mother.) And while Wendy’s domestic play marks her as different from the boys, Peter’s participation in (and encouragement of) the domestic fantasy and Wendy’s occupation of the liminal space of pubescence work together to give Wendy the greatest amount of agency in the entire story.

Wendy is able to move back and forth between child and adult, mother and daughter, desired and desire-er, and she does so fairly adeptly. At her home in England, she plays house with her siblings, and when Mr. Darling won’t take his medicine, giving it instead to Nana (the family dog and the children’s nurse), Wendy scolds Mr. Darling and comforts Nana. In Neverland, Wendy does the mending, washing, cleaning, etc.; Peter Pan’s enticements are that she can make pockets for the boys, tell them stories, and tuck them in at night. But Wendy is also drawn to Neverland because there are mermaids; she’s drawn to the fairies. She wants to learn to fly. She wants to have adventures.

And she does have adventures. She does visit the mermaids. She helps Peter rescue Tiger Lily. But she can never have quite what she wants from Peter, who doesn’t understand what she or the other girls in the story want from him—or their jealousy of each other:

“Peter,” she asked, trying to speak firmly, “what are your exact feelings about me?”

“Those of a devoted son, Wendy.”

“I thought so,” she said, and went and sat by herself at the extreme end of the room.

“You are so queer,” he said, frankly puzzled, “and Tiger Lily is just the same. There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother.”

“No, indeed, it is not,” Wendy replied with frightful emphasis. Now we know why she was prejudiced against the redskins.

“Then what is it?”

“It isn’t for a lady to tell.”

“Oh, very well,” Peter said, a little nettled. “Perhaps Tinker Bell will tell me.”

“Oh yes, Tinker Bell will tell you,” Wendy retorted scornfully. “She is an abandoned little creature.”

Here Tink, who was in her bedroom, eavesdropping, squeaked out something impudent.

“She says she glories in being abandoned,” Peter interpreted.

He had a sudden idea. “Perhaps Tink wants to be my mother?”

“You silly ass!” cried Tinker Bell in a passion.

She had said it so often that Wendy needed no translation.

“I almost agree with her,” Wendy snapped. Fancy Wendy snapping! But she had been much tried, and she little knew what was to happen before the night was out. If she had known she would not have snapped.

Wendy, then, has a much better idea of what Tiger Lily and Tinkerbell want than Peter does. She has to–she’s a girl, and a girl about to embark upon puberty, at that. The notion of Wendy’s purity is important, but she cannot maintain her purity without knowing about desire. Her desire, though, works differently than Peter’s–Peter has the desires of a child, and Wendy has the desires of an almost-woman. Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell, and Wendy all have this same kind of desire for Peter, but he doesn’t understand. Wendy understands Tinkerbell–and she does from the beginning, when Tink pulls Wendy’s hair after Wendy gives Peter a kiss–to be in competition for Peter’s affections.

Later, when the children are captured by Hook, Wendy’s budding maturity is used to trick her.  Hook, rather than seizing her as he did the boys, is polite to her, asking her to come along and offering to escort her: “He did it with such an air, he was so frightfully distingue, that she was too fascinated to cry out. She was only a little girl.”

In other words, Wendy Darling occupies a liminal space, a space of ambivalence. She is neither girl nor woman, and so she is able to critique both.

*****

A few versions of Wendy Darling:







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6 Comments

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  1. Interesting take on Wendy. Children often are too young to see subtexts.. your series is making me think that my beloved books of childhood might be very interesting to revisit as an adult.

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    1. I think sometimes children are too young to see the subtext, and sometimes I think they know more than we give them credit for. But yes, there are a lot of things that we miss as kids or that we’ve forgotten–it’s one of the things that makes children’s literature so interesting.

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  2. There are two things that have really stuck with me about these books. The first is the kiss that lurks by Mrs Darling’s lips, that Mr Darling can never have, and Captain Hook’s obsession with what is good form. It’s this sort of ambivalence that occurs in many of literature’s greatest characters that you wonder about, as a reader, long after the details of the plot have blurred in your mind. Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it.

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    1. Glad you stopped by! I have puzzled for years about that kiss, and about how in the end it is Peter who gets that kiss. And Captain Hook has always been one of the most fascinating villains, because he seems, for the most part, only the villain because Peter is who we’re supposed to see and to side with as the protagonist. But Hook’s actions are often reactions to something Peter has done, and even when he captures Tiger Lily and is going to maroon her, it’s because she has climbed and sneaked aboard his ship with a knife in her teeth.

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