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Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

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Statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
Statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is a novel by J. M. Barrie, published in 1906, featuring the character he originated, Peter Pan. It tells the story of how Peter left his family as an infant, became a friend of fairies, and (re)learned to fly.

In modern times, people sometimes refer to Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens as a "prequel" to Peter and Wendy, but this is a little misleading. Although it was published following the popular success of the play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, it was actually written – and published, as part of a larger book – before the play. Also, they weren't really written in continuity with each other. Kensington Gardens asserts that Peter is one week old, and will never have a birthday, but in Peter and Wendy he is clearly school-age, has been for at least a generation, and always will be. Peter's personality is different, matching his age. The setting and characters of the first book are not mentioned or even alluded to in the "sequel", and the magic of flight is explained differently. They do contain some common elements, however. Both include a girl who takes a fancy to Peter, and both have scenes of a little house being built around her as she sleeps, suggesting that Barrie approached the second work more as a second version of the Peter Pan story.

The text of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was originally published in 1902 as chapters 13-18 of Barrie's novel The Little White Bird, a semi-autobiographical fantasy about an unnamed gentleman and David, a little boy he befriends; the Peter Pan story is something he tells to the boy (or the boy to him) in that story. There are some minor differences in the stand-alone version, mostly in the opening paragraphs. It replaces a few proper names of characters that had been introduced in earlier chapters with generic terms, e.g. replacing "Mary" with "his mother", since otherwise it would be unclear who that person was. A few instances of Barrie's ideosyncratic use of second person pronouns are also replaced with more conventional approach: "you go to them every day unless you are looking decidedly flushed" became "I used to take David there nearly every day unless he was looking decidedly flushed", which had the added advantage of introducing David as a character. The Little White Bird was published as a novel for adult readers; Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was published with 50 color illustrations by Arthur Rackham, ostensibly as a children's book, but in a fancy hardcover edition that was more likely to end up in the library than the nursery.

The story is set in Kensington Gardens, a famous park in London, mostly after "Lock-Out Time", when the park gates are closed to the public, and the fairies and other magical inhabitants of the park can move about more freely than during the daylight, when they must hide from ordinary people. Fairy inhabitants of the gardens are first described in Thomas Tickell's 1722 poem Kensington Gardens.

Plot summary

Peter is a seven-day-old infant who (like all infants) used to be a bird. Peter has complete faith in his flying abilities, so, upon hearing a disturbing discussion of his adult life, he is able to escape out of the window of his London home and return to Kensington Gardens, where he (like all babies in London) came from. Upon returning to the Gardens, Peter is shocked to learn from the crow Solomon Caw that he is not still a bird, but more like a human - Solomon says he is crossed between them as a "Betwixt-and-Between". Unfortunately, Peter now knows he cannot fly, so he is stranded in Kensington Gardens. At first, Peter can only get around on foot, but he commissions the building of a child-sized thrush's nest that he can use as a boat to navigate the Gardens by way of the Serpentine.

Although he terrifies the fairies when he first arrives, Peter quickly gains favor with them. He amuses them with his human ways, and agrees to play the pan pipes at the fairy dances. Eventually, Queen Mab grants him the wish of his heart and he decides to return home to his mother. The fairies reluctantly empower him to fly home, where he finds his mother is asleep in his old bedroom.

Peter feels rather guilty for leaving his mother, mostly due to the fact that he believes she misses him terribly. He considers returning to live with her and decides to go back to the Gardens to say his last good-byes. Unfortunately, Peter stays too long in the Gardens and when he uses his second wish to go home permanently he is devastated to learn that, in his absence, his mother has given birth to another boy she can love. Peter returns, heartbroken, to Kensington Gardens.

Peter later meets a little girl named Maimie Mannering who is lost in the Gardens. He and Maimie become fast friends, and little Peter asks her to marry him. Maimie is going to stay with him, but realizes that her mother must be missing her dreadfully, so she leaves Peter to return home. Maimie does not forget Peter, however, and when she is older she makes presents and letters for him. She even gives him an imaginary goat which he rides around every night.

Throughout the story, Peter misunderstands simple things like children's games. He does not know what a pram (baby carriage) is, mistaking it for an animal, and he becomes extremely attached to a boy's lost kite. It is only when Maimie tells him, that he discovers he plays all his games incorrectly. When Peter is not playing, he likes to make graves for the children who get lost at night, burying them with little headstones in the Gardens (inspired by small stone markers found in in the Gardens, indicating the boundaries of two London parishes).

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