Female Dominance in a Fantasy World; Exploring the Fairy Hierarchy of Genders in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

©2011 Rebecca Butcher, Jamie Minaker

May Byron. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens- Retold for Little People. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930.

May Byron’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Retold for Little People, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, is a retelling of J.M. Barrie’s iconic and popular fairytale, Peter Pan. Published in 1930 and found in the Children’s Literature Archive, this story explores the many adventures of Peter Pan, the boy who doesn’t want to grow up, as a baby in the enchanted Kensington Gardens. Talking animals, magical creatures and mystical fairies introduce Peter Pan to a fantasy realm. The role of fairies is an extremely prominent element in the book. Through various illustrations and text descriptions of the fairies, the reader is shown a matriarchal society in which the female fairies are empowered and dominant. In the first section of this Biblio-Digital presentation, Rebecca Butcher explores the relationship between the text descriptions and illustrations of fairies, focusing on the female dominance within the fairy realm. In the second section, Jamie Minaker examines the historical context of the perception of females in the Edwardian society.  This Biblio-Digital presentation demonstrates the stark contrast between the fantasy matriarchal society of the fairies within the story and society’s actual patriarchal supremacy during the Edwardian period.

Curatorial Commentary on Category

Female fairies within May Byron’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Retold for Little People, are portrayed as dominant and empowered compared to their male counterparts who are shown as inferior and weak. The female fairies are represented as magical, mystical creatures that rule the Gardens at night. Female fairies are a constant theme within the text and illustrations, which help the reader become aware of the matriarchal society in which the fairies live. Ruled and governed by Queen Mab, the predominant female society of fairies favours the female gender and considers them to be of higher class. The sharp contrast between hierarchy and genders is depicted throughout the story with multiple text descriptions and various illustrations created by Arthur Rackham.


In the majority of the illustrations, the differences between the genders of fairies are extremely noticeable. Arthur Rackham defines the genders of the fairies by using extreme opposite characteristics. By using different illustration techniques to show the contrast of genders, Arthur Rackham is able to portray to the readers the hierarchy within the fairy society. This can be seen in Fig. 1.

The female fairies in this illustration are depicted as elegant and embody the perfect Victorian beauty; perfectly proportioned, thin-limbed, white-skinned with long, curly auburn hair (Riley 29). The female fairies are wearing long, flowing gowns with flowers in their hair. They are portrayed as natural and delicate beauties. Although they are mystical creatures, their facial features resemble those of a human woman. The hierarchy between the genders of fairies is very noticeable in this illustration with women wearing stylized female dresses and hairstyles while the males wear lower class attire (Riley 27). Clearly the female fairies are considered to be from a higher class then male fairies. This shows the female dominance over males. In many illustrations, the male fairies are illustrated as having grotesque features and tiny-framed bodies. Compared to the joyous, positive smiles of the female fairies, the male fairies wear mischievous grins or brutish frowns, suggesting the male fairies are a source of negative energy and behaviour (Atzmon 67). A number of the male fairies have elongated facial features, which resembles more of an animal than a human man.  The males do not appear to be powerful or strong. The female fairies are considerably taller than the male fairies, creating a sense of empowerment and authority.

Arthur Rackham’s conspicuous placements of the fairies within the illustrations also help show the female fairies as the dominant gender. This is portrayed in Fig. 2. This illustration shows the female fairies in the foreground, with the male fairies behind a barred fence in the background. Since the female fairies are placed in the foreground of the illustration, the reader’s eyes are directly drawn to the fairies, causing the reader to become aware of their existence and importance. This simple placement makes sure the reader is drawn toward the female fairies first, then the male fairies afterwards. The reader’s attention is attracted to the female fairies first, creating a sense of higher importance over the males. The female fairies are dancing along the pathway, free of any restrictions, while the male fairies are behind a barred fence. This contrast in placement suggests that the female fairies are free and independent and the males are restricted and of lower class. Also in this illustration, the fairies are the only elements that have colour. The colour appears bolder in the illustrations of the female fairies, another technique which draws the eye of the reader directly to them. In various illustrations, male fairies do not appear at all, focusing the attention onto the female fairies. By excluding the male fairies from multiple illustrations, the focus is predominately set on the female fairies, creating a sense of importance. Throughout the story, Arthur Rackham’s illustrations depict a fantasy world where the female fairies are the more dominant and powerful gender, which is opposite of how females were actually perceived in reality’s Edwardian society.

Text Descriptions

Within the text, there are many descriptions of the female fairies that portray them as being the authoritative gender. When referring to the fairies as a collective group, Byron refers to them as “she” instead of the more prominently used “he”. This instills into the readers that the dominant gender of fairies are female.  Another reference within the text that creates the dominant female representation of fairies is the introduction of the fairy Queen Mab. The matriarchal society of fairies is revealed to the readers when Peter Pan discovers the fairy world for the first time. The text describes Queen Mab’s palace, the first mention of a female ruler within the fairy world.  Having a Queen to rule and govern the fairies clearly shows the empowerment of females within their society. There is no mention of a King or a husband to Queen Mab, which further portrays the female gender as superior.

The representation of female fairies from both the verbal descriptions and illustrations portray them as superior and dominant over the male fairies. This representation of fantasy female empowerment within the fairy society is contrary to how females were perceived in the Edwardian era.

Curatorial Commentary on Context

May Byron received permission from J.M. Barrie to retell his story, with the sole intention of creating a more appropriate adaptation for children. In the process, she made changes to many core principles about children and growing up that were previously established by J.M. Barrie.  With that being said, she remained true to one key ideology in the original 1906 version, which was how the Gardens were ruled by the dominant superiority of female fairies. Our contextual analysis bears homage to the original version of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens because of the historical significance found beyond the text.

Historical Context 

In the real world, outside of Kensington Gardens, women belonged to the domestic sphere. This is a result of the beliefs stemming out of the Victorian period in the 19th century. The role of a woman was to strive to be the perfect motherly figure, which entailed bearing and raising children. In the original book, J.M. Barrie talks about when the fairies discover Peter’s nightgown being used as a sail(Fig.3). Because the female fairies take notice right away they, “ straightway loved him, and grieved that their laps were too small… such is the way of women.”(Barrie, 49) It is quite apparent that the original book is a product of its time. J.M Barrie emerged from a period where women were denied simple rights. In fact, women were nothing more than domestic possessions of their socially representative counter part. In other words, women were not considered to be persons at all. Their days were filled with endless obligations and limited freedom outside of the home.

Social Change in the Edwardian Period

The start of the 19th century was traditional in the sense that women were no more than subordinate domestic possessions. In, ‘ The Female Tradition’, Elaine Showalter presents that, “the middle-class ideology of the proper sphere of womanhood, which developed in post-industrial England and America, prescribed a woman who would be a Perfect Lady, an Angel in the House, contentedly submissive to men, but strong in her inner purity … queen in her own realm of the Home.” (Showalter, 1108) However, after being suppressed to this ideology for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the beginning of the Edwardian period was the time when women began speaking out about these social injustices that were forced upon them for centuries. This began widely known as the suffragist movement. Women sought to create a constitutional change, whereby women would be privileged to basic rights. Many women believed that because the ‘role of a woman’ was in the home, she should not be denied a say in legislation that directly or indirectly influences laws, which impact the home. Women did not approach this social change with any violence, or force. This is unlike men, who have a history of using violent measures as a means to obtain peace or equality. This is alluded to in the book as it stated, “ the men- fairies now sheathed their weapons on observing the behavior of their women, on whose intelligence they set great store, and they led him civilly to their queen.” (Barrie, 49) Women used determination and cunning tactics to raise awareness, and although it took a long time women’s rights were eventually vindicated in the legislation of the Persons Case of 1929.

Contrasting Ideals between Fantasy and Reality

However, this generates the following questions. Why is there a matriarchy-based system in Kensington Gardens? Why has J.M. Barrie, a writer out of the 19th century, decided to put women at such high regards in a social sphere? Perhaps the original story by J.M Barrie was in tribute to the fact that women with such power are ideas that belong in works of fiction alone. The depiction on the cover shows male domination and superiority above all else. Although the female fairies may dominate the fairy world, that is where it ends. The reality of it is Peter Pan is a product of the real world beyond Kensington Gardens. The fairies only dominate the restricted boundaries of the Gardens in the absence of people. In the cover illustration alone, even though the female fairies are bigger in size than the male fairies, it is apparent that Peter Pan is larger than them all. In a sense, reality trumping fantasy. Or, was he conceivably acknowledging the fact that females have the capability to stretch beyond the social norm, outside of the boundaries set upon them by man? It is a possibility that the author’s original intent was to stir up controversy in the reader. This idea that women could be considered equals outside of the home. Jack Zipes believed “that, to be liberating, [fairy tales] must reflect a process of struggle against all types of suppression and authoritarianism and project various possibilities for the concrete realization of utopia.” (Zipes, 312) Maybe Barrie wasn’t so crazy to have Arthur Rackham illustrate women in such a dynamic light. Barrie’s text and Rackham’s illustrations stayed true to so many physical elements pertaining to women outside of the book. It is almost noteworthy to consider why they chose to have such a contrasting element of empowerment within the book.


J.M. Barrie’s book was published in 1906. It is very possible that while the reader took the book at face value, they may have subconsciously been made aware of the possibility of female empowerment within a patriarchal society.  The iconic and admired story of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens has demonstrated how illustrations and text can create a fantasy world that is contrary to society outside of the book.

Works Cited

Atzmon, Leslie. ” Arthur Rackham’s Phrenological Landscape: In-betweens,
Goblibs,and Femme Fatales.” Design Issues 18.4 (2002): 64-83. JSTOR. Web.
11 Oct. 2011.

Barrie, James. Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Illustrated by Arthur
Rackham. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1906.

Ripley, Doré. “The Victorian Mirror: A Freudian Slip into a Hellenistic
Gynoculture-Reflections of Peter Pan.” Interdisciplinary Humanities 23.1
(2006): 23-35. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

Showalter, Elaine. “The Female Tradition.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts
and Contemporary Trends.
Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.              JSTOR.Web.16.Oct. 2011.

Zipes, Jack. “The Potential of Liberating Fairy Tales for Children.” New Literary
13, no. 2 (1982): 309-25. JSTOR. Web. 11. Nov. 2011.