Children's Literature, Plays

Peter Pan in Neverland

In which book did Peter Pan first appear, and what was the target readership of the book? Peter Pan, the play for children? Think again. The boy who wouldn’t grow up first appeared, ironically, in a book for adults, a little-known 1902 novel called The Little White Bird. However, it was the stage play Barrie produced two years later which really brought the boy with severe arrested development to a mass audience, and Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was a huge hit in theatres in 1904 and has been enchanting children and adults alike ever since. Not everyone was impressed: novelist Anthony Hope (author of The Prisoner of Zenda and the man who gave us Ruritania) memorably exclaimed during one performance, ‘Oh, for an hour of Herod!’


It was the play, of course, that gave us many of the familiar characters: the Lost Boys, Captain Hook, the fairy Tinkerbell, and the Darlings. Wendy Darling is often called the first Wendy, the girls’ name having originated in Barrie’s play – a nice fact, if only it were true. In fact, the name Wendy had been used as a girls’ name since the nineteenth century (as a pet form of Gwendolyn) and there is even some evidence that, before Barrie popularised it as a female given name, it was used as a boys’ name.

Nor did he invent Neverland: the word’s first use is credited in the OED to a Sydney newspaper in 1892, twelve years before Barrie put together his play and invented the idea of a mystical world beyond the ‘Mainland’ of the normal world. Similarly, Never-Never Land (the other name by which Neverland is known in Barrie’s writing) is another Australian coinage, dating from 1884 as a term for the remote outback, or ‘Never-Never’. The term ‘Never-Never Land’ as used to refer to ‘an imaginary, illusory, or Utopian place’ similarly predates Barrie, first appearing in the Cornhill Magazine in 1900.

Something Barrie did give us was Quality Street chocolates – or, rather, the name for them. One of Barrie’s less well remembered stage works was the 1901 comedy Quality Street, set during the Napoleonic Wars. The play was only a moderate success and is not read much now, but its lasting legacy was in providing the confectioners, Mackintosh’s, with a name for their new chocolates in 1936. Indeed, the Major and Miss, the two characters who appeared on the packaging for Quality Street chocolates until 2000, were an allusion to their literary origin: they were two of the characters in Barrie’s play.


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  4. The germs of Peter Pan are found quite a bit earlier, actually, in a fleeting line from Barrie’s little known Sentimental Tommy (1896) and The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island (1901). Neverland started as Never Never Never Land and was gradually shortened and changed, and it’s really interesting that it took a final form that is tied to both Australian slang for the interior, desert part of the country and to slang for an impossible place where nothing gets done. And the germ of the Wendy house appears in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, that section from The Little White Bird that discusses Peter Pan; Maimie, who is locked in the gardens after dark, is kept warm in a house built by fairies,

    I wrote my master’s thesis on the Peter Pan texts. I think they’re one of the best examples we have of an author’s revision of his own work, and their generic conflicts (myth, fantasy, fairy story, panto, island fantasy) make them even more interesting.

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  7. Indeed – we forgot to mention Wendy Houses, but the original one is indeed the house Wendy Darling builds. It was apparently inspired by a wash-house outside Barrie’s own childhood home…

  8. So does the “Wendy House” originate from the house Peter commands the lost boys to build around Wendy’s after she is shot by an arrow from Tootles?