- Fairies and a Flâneur: J. M. Barrie’s Commercial Figure of the Child
J. M. Barrie’s The Little White Bird (1902) is a fantastical narrative of romantic sentiment, nostalgia, and childish whimsy, not to mention the book that gave literary birth to the famous Peter Pan. The novel is narrated by Captain W——, an aging bachelor retired from the military who voyeuristically observes the courtship of a young woman, Mary A——, and her artist fiancé and then befriends their young son David. Noting the couple’s poverty, the captain secretly provides for them and becomes something of a surrogate father to David, buying him gifts from infancy to school age, overseeing his early rearing by parents and nursemaid, and sharing adventure stories with the boy. Much of the novel in fact unfolds from the fantastical tales told by the captain or by David of the “adventures in Kensington Gardens” had by the fairies and the lost boy Peter Pan as well as of the amusing organization of birds led by one wise old Solomon. The close bond that the captain develops with the child, however, is from the beginning tinged with a profound ambivalence tied to possession: the narrator wants to hold on to the innocent child, and yet that attachment comes with the acknowledgment that David will eventually go off to school, grow up, and leave him. The novel thus shuttles between the often uncanny—indeed, beautifully strange—stories associated with the fantasy and children’s literature of the period on the one hand and the captain’s sense of impending loss that colors his sentimental attachment to the child figure on the other hand.
But this is only part of a bigger, and perhaps stranger, story. In Barrie’s novel, the captain’s melodramatic attachment to the child also expresses a curious market logic. Although he doesn’t explain his attachment to the child in explicitly economic terms, their bond develops and finds expression, alternately, through the phantasmagoria of the market—exemplified by toy shops—and through fairy tales. In both cases, Barrie dramatizes an Edwardian commercial fantasy of endless consumption as [End Page 1] play and suggests how the child figure is constructed to license that consumer fantasy in the service of economic optimism and market growth often associated with the period.
In general, then, this essay concerns itself with how modern British society has shaped often conflicting images of the child and what those constructions of childishness can tell us about the larger cultural preoccupations across the period. Indeed, from the Victorian era through the twentieth century, the child figure plays a curious and shifting role in the British cultural imaginary. As Jacqueline Rose and James Kincaid have shown, the figure of the child often acts as a kind of vessel for containing or displacing adult anxieties associated with sexuality, industrialization, and class difference. In The Case of Peter Pan, Rose argues that Peter Pan, and much of its textual and cultural history, “is a front—a cover not as concealer but as vehicle—for what is most unsettling and uncertain about the relationship between adult and child. It shows innocence not as a property of childhood but as a portion of adult desire.”1 That is, the image of the child is set up to stave off and keep at bay any challenges to normative adult sexuality.2 This process of disavowal requires staking a claim on the child, holding it in place as a category of innocence to bear the weight of and elide anxieties of the uneasy relationship between adult and child regarding questions of sexual origins and unconscious polymorphous desire.3 In Child-Loving, Kincaid similarly posits the child as a category that works to hold at bay Victorian anxieties concerning sexuality, and he shows how the construction of the child figure takes shape through discourses that sexualize the child in the very act of making her or him innocent. That constructed sexual innocence also intersects with and wards off anxieties of class difference and capitalist exploitation in a period still wrestling with problems of child labor and the like. In short, “as a category created but...