Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan at Edinburgh International Book Festival

Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan at Edinburgh International Book Festival

THE creative worlds of two of literature’s greatest children’s writers, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll and Peter Pan author JM Barrie, and their impact on modern culture, were examined at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this morning.

In discussion were Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, author of The Story of Alice, which examines the lives of Lewis Carroll, his literary muse Alice Liddell, and the 150-year-old story that she inspired, and Tom Pow, whose illustrated novel, Sixteen String Jack, investigates the childhood world of JM Barrie at Moat Brae House in Dumfries which helped inspire his most famous literary creation.

In setting out the lasting effect of Alice in Wonderland, Douglas-Fairhurst highlighted how Carroll’s best-known creation had become co-opted into modern culture, woven into the lyrics of The Beatles and Jefferson Airplane, turned into fairground rides at Disney World and even used to describe psychological conditions.

“Over 150 years a story about growing up has itself has developed in surprising ways, and what started off as an attempt to entertain three little girls in Victorian Oxford has become an important part of the story that we tell about ourselves,” he said. “In 1990 the New York Times ran an article about Alice under the headline, That Girl Is Everywhere. And since then, she has become even harder to pin down. If literary characters can be national treasures, then Alice definitely qualifies.”

Tom Pow told the audience that through replaying the scenes of Peter Pan with his son, invariably cast as Captain Hook, he came to understand the lasting appeal of JM Barrie’s book to children and adults.

He said the inspiration for Sixteen Strings grew out of a “sense of place and a sense of play”, referring to a visit he made to Barrie’s Dumfries home.   “It was here JM Barrie played with two boys, and he later said that this was the place where Peter Pan was born,” he explained. “He [Barrie] said that, recalling the time at garden of Moat Brae House, ‘when the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles and became pirates on a sort of odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan’.”

Pow added that for Barrie, the experience of playing and observing children playing, in particular those of the Lleweyn family, had been central in his creative process. Quoting Barrie as having said that “nothing important happens after age 12”, and that “writing about a boy is the next best thing to being one”.

Pow contrasted this with what he perceived as Carroll’s approach, which he described as the author posing a series ‘what if?’ questions to himself and drawing his inspiration from them.

Discussing the effect the characters had on their real-life inspirations - Peter Lleweyn Davies, who committed suicide later in life, had struggled with his public perception as the real Pan, while Alice Liddell hid her literary incarnation for many years - the two authors agreed that the nature of the creations meant they had very different impact on their pair’s lives.

Pow said: “The thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it’s full of questions. One of the main things is ‘who am I?’ And she [Alice] can say ‘I’m an old woman’. Peter Pan is ‘I just want to be a boy and have fun’, there’s a kind of wilful determination to be stuck there.”

Douglas-Fairhurst added that when Liddell finally revealed herself as the ‘real Alice’ in 1928, then in her late-70s, she caused a media sensation, but was a “reluctant celebrity”.   He said: “There is a letter in which she comes back from New York in 1932 saying is it wrong to be tired of being Alice in Wonderland? But I do get tired. So I suppose she managed to separate out her literary identity from her personal identity and saw them as two separate beings.”

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