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Du Maurier December: ‘Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Peter Pan’ by Piers Dudgeon ***

When I stumbled across it during a fruitless Internet search for The du Mauriers, I thought that Piers Dudgeon’s Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Peter Pan sounded fascinating: ‘Neverland is a true story of genius and possession at a crossroads in time…  Two suicides, a hundred-year-old family secret, and a resentful interloper with a desire to control the fate of those he loved set the scene’.

The book’s blurb alone is rather dark; it goes on to say, ‘Immediately after George du Maurier’s death, [J.M.] Barrie made his move on the family.  He assumed George’s mantle of authority, using his powers of persuasion to captivate George’s children and, more maliciously, his grandchildren, who inspired many of the characters in Peter Pan.  Barrie emerges as a Svengali without conscience, driven by a compulsion to dominate and destroy.  Neverland reveals in horrific detail how Barrie brought his victims to nervous breakdown, early death, and suicide, and how three authors formed an image of their dark side in Svengali, Peter Pan and Rebecca – through the immortal characters in their novels’.

Neverland was published in 2009, and whilst I had not heard of the author before, it turns out that he met du Maurier herself in 1987, two years before her death, and discussed a semi-autobiographical project about her beloved Cornwall with her.  The book which he wrote instead, after du Maurier’s death, ties together the lives of Daphne du Maurier, her cousins, the tragic Llewelyn Davies boys, and J.M. Barrie.  He was intrigued by the fact that du Maurier ruled that her adolescent diaries could not be published for fifty years after her death, and wondered which secrets they may contain.  When he began to dig into her childhood to come up with an answer to his question, he found that Barrie cropped up an awful lot: ‘he was so interested in Daphne, in particular the special relationship that developed between her and her father, that when she was ten he wrote a play about it, which troubled her deeply, even into old age’.

Neverland is split into six sections, which range from ‘Sylvia, the Lost Boys and Uncle Jim: the Peter Pan Inheritance’ to ‘Michael, Daphne, and Uncle Jim: ‘An Awfully Big Adventure”.  The book has been widely well received by critics, including those who have written about du Maurier herself – Justine Picardie, for example.  The book begins with a helpful du Maurier-Llewelyn Davies family tree, and illustrations and photographs have been included throughout.

Dudgeon then goes on to set out the suicide of sixty three-year-old book publisher Peter Llewelyn Davies in 1960, which ‘provoked wide press coverage and speculation, perhaps because some reporters remembered that he had been one of the “lost boys” of Peter Pan, and noted that the tragedy more or less coincided with the centenary of the birth of J.M. Barrie’.  As one might expect, this portion of the book is incredibly sad.  Peter’s eldest son Ruthven had this to say after his father’s death: ‘From the moment I was old enough I was aware that my father had been expolited by Barrie and was very bitter…  He didn’t really like him.  He resented the fact that he wasn’t well off and that Barrie had to support him.  But when he was cut out of the will, he was livid and tremendously disappointed… and he started drinking heavily…  He was virtually a down-and-out by the time he died’.

Dudgeon soon brings in the parallels between Barrie’s influence upon Daphne and her cousins, and her own fiction; a lot of her short stories were inspired by events which involved the famous author, and they also contributed to her own state of mental health.  When writing about du Maurier’s story ‘The Blue Lenses’, for example, Dudgeon believes the following: ‘The power of the story is that only Marda… can see the truth.  The weight of this knowledge is shattering because no one believes her.  Awakening to truth is the first step to breakdown when no one believes you, when only you can see’.

Margaret Forster, the author of an excellent biography of Daphne du Maurier, writes: ‘She felt betrayed, exploited and, worst of all, fooled’ by J.M. Barrie and the power which he held over everyone.  A lot of psychology has consequently been included.  Dudgeon digs into the mysterious and covered-up elements within the family history, and it is in such instances in which he really comes into his own. He presents the family and J.M. Barrie as one does not see them on the surface.

Oddly, whilst Neverland is well written, parts of the book feel rather impersonal; it is as though Dudgeon is writing about his subjects without having any real compassion for any of them.  He appears rather dismissive at times, and the elements of mesmerism which he speaks about are quite overdone.  Some of the themes – and even the quotes from outside sources – are repeated, sometimes word for word.  Something which I found rather irritating and not at all necessary was the way in which Dudgeon seemed utterly obsessed as to whether those he was writing about were good-looking or not.  Given its length, Neverland is a relatively quick read.  It is well crafted and thought has been given to its appearance, but as a general biography, it is not one which I would go out of my way to recommend.

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Favourite Books from my Childhood: One

I thought that it would be a good idea to create a blog post about all of the books which I adored as a child, and naturally, there are many of them.  I have used my Library spreadsheet (a big list of all of the books which I’ve read during my lifetime) as inspiration.

Topsy and Tim

The Big Surprise (Topsy and Tim #2) by Jean Adamson – I used to read the Topsy and Tim books religiously when I was in infant school, and they were the first books I got to when I moved myself up a reading group, much to my parents’ amusement.  In my infant school library, we had a series of wooden boxes on legs, and each of them was painted in a different colour.  The books within each had a corresponding coloured sticker upon their spine.  When I had made my way through the colour which I had been assigned, I would move myself up so that I had more books at my disposal.  I think, in this way, that I reached the books for the most advanced readers when I was still in the middle of Year One.  I also learnt recently that Jean Adamson is a relatively local author to me, and I would have found such a fact terribly exciting when I was younger.  Topsy and Tim is a lovely series of books, and this was my particular favourite.

Funnybones

Funnybones by Allan Ahlberg – This book had an accompanying cartoon, which I am sure that many people of my age still remember the opening rhyme to.  The concept was quite simple: in a dark, dark town, in a dark, dark street, in a dark, dark house, in a dark, dark cellar, lived three skeletons – Big Skeleton, Little Skeleton, and their dog.  Each story featuring the trio was so fun, and I loved the illustrations.  Even though the very idea of living skeletons who enjoy playing tricks on people seems a little odd to me as an adult, something about it really worked, and for this reason, Funnybones and the rest of the books in the series will definitely be read (and the cartoon shown) to my future children, who will hopefully find it as amusing and memorable as I still do.

The Bear Nobody Wanted by Janet and Allan Ahlberg – Janet and Allan Ahlberg were my literary heroes when I was small, and I loved reading all of their books.  The Bear Nobody Wanted is one which remains vivid in my mind.  The story begins as a sad one, but it has a delightful ending, and it certainly made me treasure my soft toys all the more. 

‘The Jolly Postman’

The Jolly Postman, or Other People’s Letters, The Jolly Pocket Postman and The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg – I still remember these books with such fondness.  Each had a plethora of small envelopes inside, in which there were tiny letters which the Jolly Postman was delivering all around town.  I am certain that the stories would still absolutely delight me as an adult, and I am very excited about the possible prospect of re-reading them far into the future.

Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg – Definitely one of the most adorable simple picture books that there is.  I vividly remember reading it over and over again before I could even read its words.

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen – I still absolutely adore these tales, and was lucky enough to drag my boyfriend around the Hans Christian Andersen Museum in Copenhagen last year.  I cannot pick a favourite story as I did love so many of them, but as it is still essentially wintertime, I shall say that ‘The Snow Queen’, and its beautiful television adaptations, is at the very pinnacle of my treasures list.

‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch’ by Ronda Armitage

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda and David Armitage – Such an absolutely charming book, which I remember adoring.  I found out last year that there is an entire series of these books, and am hoping that my library has them all in stock so that I can joyfully discover the Lighthouse Keeper all over again.

The Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker – It goes without saying that I absolutely adored these books.  Which little girl didn’t?  I would happily gaze at the illustrations for hours, and read the lovely accompanying rhymes.

Brambly Hedge

The Complete Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem – Surely the most adorable series of books, Brambly Hedge centered around a group of woodland creatures who wore the most adorable clothing, and were real characters in themselves.  I am longing to rediscover these lovely tales once more.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – Quite honestly, I could gush about this charming book for hours.  If you haven’t read it before, please, go and do so.  It is beautiful, magical and filled with adventure – for me, the very cornerstones of marvellous children’s literature.

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans – Everyone who knows me tends to know how much I absolutely adore the Madeline books, and Madeline herself as a character.  These tales are all told in rhyme, and centre upon a children’s orphanage in Paris, in which Madeline lives with eleven other little girls and their guardian, Miss Clavel.  Bemelmans’ illustrations are utterly charming, and he effortlessly captures the excitement and adventure which his little heroine encounters along the way.

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‘Peter Pan in Scarlet’ by Geraldine McCaughrean *****

‘Peter Pan in Scarlet’ by Geraldine McCaughrean (Oxford University Press)

Peter Pan in Scarlet, published in 2006, is the first official sequel to J.M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan, a firm favourite of mine.  Geraldine McCaughrean was chosen as its author following a worldwide competition run by Great Ormond Street, who receive all of the profits from sales of Peter Pan.  This book, too, raises money for the hospital, a cause close to my heart.

I had not heard of this novel before I spotted it in the Books for Amnesty shop in Brighton, and had I known that it was sold with a charitable donation included, I would have purchased a brand new copy of it.  (I did technically give to charity by buying it, I suppose, but not the one which is specified on this beautiful hardback.)

I was incredibly intrigued to see where McCaughrean would lead the story of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, Wendy, John and Michael Darling, and those little Lost Boys.  In the sequel, which begins in 1926, ‘Dreams have been leaking out of Neverland’ and affecting all of the now grown-up men who were once the Lost Boys.  Along with each dream, an object is subsequently found in their beds – for example, a cutlass.  Wendy – or ‘Mrs Wendy’, as she is here – surmises from this that something is wrong in her beloved Neverland, and that she and the Lost Boys must return in order to assist Peter.

Throughout, McCaughrean echoes the style of the original book beautifully, and she is very faithful to Barrie’s prose techniques.  The story which she creates is so inventive, and it follows on from the original marvellously.  Her writing is just darling.  As a die-hard Peter Pan fan, I could not have hoped for a better sequel.  McCaughrean has delivered a great adventure, and has made it as true to the original as was possible.  Peter Pan in Scarlet comes very highly recommended from this girl, who will never grow up.