The Little White Bird by J. M. Barrie

The Little White Bird by J. M. Barrie

Sometimes the little boy who calls me father brings an invitation from his mother: ‘I shall be so pleased if you will come and see me,’ and I always reply in some such words as these: ‘Dear madam, I decline.’

– Opening sentence

This book was a gift from my boyfriend, who, knowing how much I love the story of Peter Pan, discovered that The Little White Bird held the very first mention of the character.

Originally published in 1902, The Little White Bird is the story of an old bachelor, Captain W, in Victorian London, and a young boy called David who is born to a middle-class family in the same area.

As Captain W lunches at his members’ club, he watches each day as a young nurse meets with her lover at the post office, and is bemused by the clockwork way in which the same scene plays out every day. Until one day it doesn’t; the lovers have fallen out, to the great annoyance of narrator Captain W.

This annoyance starts an unlikely relationship, as Captain W subtly intervenes and reunites the young lovers. From this moment on, he silently watches them and anonymously aids them as they continue on their way to becoming a family.

David is born, and Captain W fancies himself as something of a father to David, who would not have been born if it wasn’t for Captain W’s intervening. As the years go by, Captain W and David have their own adventures in Kensington Gardens, which is where all children originally come from, starting life as birds, before they fly to their parents’ homes to become human children.

The Little White Bird is easily one of the weirdest books I have ever read. The main story is normal enough, narrated by Captain W who is an interesting, if not slightly boring, character. However it’s the chapters describing Kensington Gardens and Peter Pan that are altogether out-of-place.

The style changes completely, and suddenly we are thrust into a world of magic and fairies and Peter Pan, who at just seven days old decided he missed his life a bird too much, and flew back to the Gardens abandoning his parents and human life.

These chapters have since be described as a “book-within-a-book”, and were published separately in 1906 as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

I think those chapters are supposed to represent the magic of children themselves, who can bring youth and magic to even the oldest and sternest of grown-ups. But David means even more than that to Captain W; David is the child that he never had.

At one point in the story, Captain W invents his own son, and names him Timothy. Such does this lie become, that he finds himself half-believing that Timothy was once real, and although never directly mentions it, you get the obvious feeling as the reader that Captain W is using David to fill the void in his life that he never realised he had.

It was lovely to see some of the famous references we know and love from Peter Pan in this narrative, including the reference to Peter Pan not knowing what a kiss is, and being given a thimble instead. There is no Wendy in The Little White Bird, instead it is Maimie Mannering who gives Peter his thimble.

Porthos is Captain W’s large St Bernards, based on the author’s own St Bernard of the same name, and undoubtedly the inspiration for ‘Nana’ later on in the Peter Pan stories. There is one bizarre chapter, where it is inferred that Porthos visits the fairies at Kensignton Gardens and wished to become human, which he does, and Captain W discovers a man called William Paterson who displays bizarre characteristics. However, after Paterson becomes sadder and more withdrawn he disappears. Porthos (who had vanished around the same time Paterson arrived) is suddenly found and it’s all rather weird.

The Little White Bird really is two books in one, and appeals to both those who love classic novels and magical, fantasy novels. Whether the two actually work together or not is another thing, I think perhaps they do – but only on reflection and not during the process of reading.

I’d recommend it to anyone who loves Peter Pan as much as I do, or to anyone who lives near Kensington Gardens – who will see the Gardens in a different light afterwards.

Despite her semblance of delight I knew that she was wondering at me: and I wondered at myself; but it was true.

– Final sentence

3 Stars (3 / 5)

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