Peter and Wendy: A Window to J.M. Barrie’s Life

Children's Literature Archive© 2010, Agatha Krzewinski, Andrea Kusec, Joanna Rivers, Rita Steinberg

J.M. Barrie. Peter and Wendy. Illustrated By: F.D. Bedford. London: Hazell, Watson & Viney, ltd., 1911.



Do you know that this book is part of the J.M. Barrie “Peter Pan Bequest”? This means that Sir J.M. Barrie’s royalty on this book goes to help the doctors and nurses to cure the children who are lying ill in the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London.

J. M. Barrie was a Scottish author and dramatist, best remembered today as the creator of Peter Pan. Though he did create such an extraordinarily popular read for both past and modern day, he also has a sympathetic nature that many were unaware of. At the beginning of the book, Peter and Wendy, a few lines speak volumes to the man J. M Barrie was, and the compassion he held within his heart. Paying respect to the sick, he dedicated the right to his book, Peter and Wendy, to the Great Ormond Hospital, and this let J.M Barrie give tribute to his tough childhood, as well as his greatest influences. Having his brother pass away as well as Peter Davie, his close friends youngest son become ill, he recognized that hospitals need better resources in order to serve the community in which he grew up in. His mother, after his brother’s death, began ignoring Barrie and his other siblings, giving them no support physically or emotionally. J.M Barrie had to take on a parental role in the family household, and this made him realize that taking care of others is an important quality of life. As an adult, he saw children struggling in life and symbolized this as a parallel to his own childhood. In order to repair his feelings of childhood as well as his sympathy for the Davie family, he dedicated his book rights to the hospital in order to help these kids who had similar experiences and feelings like himself. These kids felt abandoned, like himself, and he needed to help others in order to mend his own mindset. J.M Barrie then wrote a book on children and their fantastical beliefs, and through these given rights, he gave belief to the patients at the Great Ormond Hospital as well.

J.M. Barrie’s life has been a tragic and yet successful one. A playwright & novelist, he was born on May 9, 1860, in The Tennements, Kirriemuir, Scotland. He was the ninth child and third youngest son to David Barrie, a handloom weaver and Margaret Ogilvy. Though they lived in poverty, the family was mostly education driven. James, however, was a disappointment to the family. His eldest brother, Alexander, graduated from Aberdeen University with honours and opened his own private school. His second eldest brother, David, was charming, handsome, athletic and the favorite of Margaret. James, meanwhile, showed neither academic promise, nor good looks and was quite small for his age. In January 1867 David died in a skating accident before his fourteenth birthday. Margaret never fully recovered from it and from then on James was denied any love from her and would live in David’s shadow. He attended his brother’s private school Glasgow Academy, and then followed him to Dumfries Academy where he became interested in drama and wrote his first play. He attended Edinburgh University and was drawn to journalism at first, writing for many journals and magazines. He later moved to London and published several novels and in the 1890s established himself as a novelist. He decided, however, to turn to drama during this period but his first experiment was not well received. In 1901 he produced three major plays; the third one, Peter Pan, was the most successful, although at the time he was referring to it as Peter and Wendy. The story was initially inspired by the Llewelyn Davies, the sons of Sylvia Du Maurier, a woman James had an affair with while married to actress Mary Ansell. The time he spent with them led him to remember memories of his childhood and his mother and create a story that would be told for generations.


J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy has an interesting creation – the author started drafting this story as a relief from his depression after the death of his brother, and the attention he gave his mother as a result of this tragedy. This affected how his characters were portrayed: Peter and the Lost Boys were unable to age (applying to Barrie’s brother; had he not aged he would not have died), and nurturing mother figures (Wendy). However, Peter and Wendy was not solely inspired by his depression; Barrie’s notable relationship with the Davies’ family affected how his character’s personalities began to form, as well as their names. The reception of Barrie’s story produced mixed results – critics reviewed it as sexist, especially concerning Wendy’s characters. Being displayed as “motherly” and often not able to do things for herself, it was said that that the story deprecates the idea of the modern woman. Nevertheless, Peter and Wendy were role models for children in these times; Peter was a brave, fun-loving warrior that little boys would yearn to be, and Wendy was a kind and sweet person who inspired little girls to be moral and helpful. Critics also believed that this story was symbolic of growing up; boys would forever be boys, like Peter, unless they accepted and learned how to grow up. When Wendy eventually leaves Neverland, this symbolizes “growing up” and leaving childhood innocence and all of its wonders behind – although she never does forget Neverland, and Peter (parallel: she never forgets her youth). Overall Peter and Wendy offers stereotypes for how boys and girls should be, but Barrie lets children fully appreciate their childhood before entering the adult world of a darker colour.


Francis Bedford was the first to illustrate Peter and Wendy in 1911 and by doing so, he set the stage for all others illustrators who came in the later years. In time, illustrations are often changed to fit with the current times and ideology, and have a great effect on how the reader perceives the characters in the novel. In this edition, Wendy is portrayed as an innocent and nurturing motherly figure and her clothes emulate that. In Disney’s adaptation of the novel, Peter gives Wendy the name, “Little Mother”, which is exactly how the illustrations portray her. She is always placed in the middle of the lost boys, wearing clothes which were adult like as opposed to the lost boys who looked their age. This reflects the early 19th century, because children were still not recognized as being different from adults, which is why children’s literature was so scarce in those times. There is also a sense of the Victorian ideal woman present in the illustrations of Wendy, which could be directly linked with Barrie’s relationship and strong bond with his mother. A Victorian woman was known to be pure, clean and having the role of a caretaker for the family, which is what Wendy was to Peter and the lost boys. Her innocence and motherly image was also supported by the scene of Wendy sewing on Peter’s shadow, which is a reference to the 19th century woman with a needle and demonstrates her heed to take care of him.


Select Bibliography

  • Barrie, J. M., and Viola Meynell. Letters of J.M. Barrie,. London: P. Davies, 1942. Print.
  • Birkin, Andrew. J.M.Barrie & the Lost Boys: the Love Story that Gave Birth to Peter Pan. New York: C.N. Potter, 1979. Print
  • Donald, James. Troublesome Texts: On Subjectivity and Schooling. London: Taylor & Francis Ltd., 1985. Print.
  • Dunbar, Janet. J.M. Barrie; the Man behind the Image. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. Print.
  • Jacqueline, Rose. The Case of Peter Pan and the Impossibility of Children’s Literature. London: Macmillan, 1984. Print.
  • Matthew, H. C. G, and Brian Howard Harrison. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (in association with the Britsh Academy: from the Earliest times to the Year 2000) Vol. 4. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.
  • Rogers, Jacquelyn Spratlin. “Picturing the Child in Nineteenth- Century Literature.” Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children 6.3 (2008): 41-46. EBSCO Host. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.
  • Routh, Chris. “Man for the Sword and for the Needle She: Illustrations of Wendy’s Role in J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy.” Children’s Literature in Education 32.1 (2001): 57-75. EBSCO Host. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.
  • Saltzman, Rochelle H. “Folklore in Great Britain: Working-Class Critiques of Upper-Class Strike Breakers in the 1926 General Strike.” Anthropological Quarterly, 67.3, 1994. EBSCO Host. Web. 09 Oct. 2010.
  • Silvey, Anita. Children’s Books and Their Creators. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995. Print.

About Lorraine Janzen Kooistra

Lorraine Janzen Kooistra is Professor of English at Ryerson University and Co-Director of the Centre for Digital Humanities. She works with illustrated Victorian periodicals at the intersection of the material and the digital, and is particularly interested in pictorial initials and textual ornaments.