Monday, March 10, 2008

P.L. Travers

Born August 9th, 1899 in Queensland, Australia
Died April 23rd, 1996 in London, UK

Life is full of odd little conundrums and puzzles that just never quite add up. P.L. Travers' life and works is an example of this and prompts a couple of questions. How did a girl from a small bushtown, born-and-bred Australian of Irish descent, end up creating a character, Mary Poppins, that is right up there in the pantheon of quintessentially British icons along with Big Ben, blue uniformed bobbies with bee-hive helmets, and marmalade on toast? And just how did this Haight Ashbury-like bohemian writer of quirky stories, student of eastern religions and philosophies, hard-headedly negotiate with a major studio such as Disney so that she had authorial control over the movie script and was paid a fortune at the same time?

Pamela Lyndon Travers is actually a stage name. Helen Lyndon Goff was born August 9th, 1899 in a small bush town in southeastern Queensland, Australia. Her father was a local bank branch manager, hard drinking but a family man. Tragically, he died when Travers was only seven. For a short period she was left as the oldest of three children (all girls), trying to cope with a dysfunctional, grieving and suicidal mother while looking after the young ones as well. She was rescued from this difficult position by a crusty but gold-hearted maiden aunt who brought her to Sydney for schooling. Some have speculated that Great Aunt Ellie served in part as a model for Mary Poppins.

During her later school years, Travers began writing short articles and verse for local papers. After graduating she continued writing but also began pursuing a career on the stage. She joined Shakespearean troop, touring Australia and New Zealand. It was while in New Zealand that she began having more substantive articles accepted by major papers such as The Bulletin and The Triad in Australia as well as some of the New Zealand papers.

At twenty-five, she decided the Antipodes was too small a canvas for her ambitions, purchased a ticket on a steamship to the UK and moved to the British Isles, returning only once for a visit to her native land some forty years later.

As a child, Travers had shown a vivid imagination and interest in story-telling and books. Her father had told her old Irish folktales as many wonderful family stories of their antecedents in Ireland, which turned out to be engaging because of their fancy rather than their accuracy. Dublin was Travers' first destination on arriving in the British Isles and she struck up a mentor relationship with the great Irish poet and critic known as AE, George William Russell. Russell served as Travers' portal into the higher echelons of British intellectual and cultural circles in the 1920's and 1930's with introductions to Yeats and others. Travers initially supported herself by writing and sending back articles and stories to the papers and magazines in Australia and New Zealand (it was in the Christchurch Sun in which Mary Poppins made her first appearance in a short story in 1926), but quickly established a writing niche among the British papers as well.

Travers clearly had a penchant for carving out her own path, taking advantage of the circumstances in which she found herself but remaining somewhat independent as well. While smack in the middle of the Bloomsbury set, and as much a flaunter of tradition as they, she made her own decisions that as often as not reflected a very independent character and cast of mind.

She never married but, wanting a family, adopted an Irish orphan. She was from all appearances a good mother but oddly never told her child that he was adopted, nor, perhaps more critically, that he was in fact one of a pair of twins. It was only when his twin tracked him down in London when he was nineteen that he discovered any of this.

Travers was intensely interested in myths, legends, Jungian symbols, etc. Sometime in the 1930's she came into the circle of what might now be known as a guru or spiritual advisor, George Gurdjieff, who was clearly, even at that time, something of a charlatan but who none-the-less attracted quite an enduring following among sophisticated and affluent people. She became a frequent contributor and consulting editor of Parabola, this group's quarterly literary and philosophical magazine in 1976 when it was founded.

Travers only wrote twenty-one books across her very long life of ninety-six years. Her first book Moscow Excursion came out in 1934 following a trip to the Soviet Union, then still seeming so new, a breath of fresh air and promise and exercising such fascination for Europe's chattering classes.

It was in that same year that she also published the first of a series of books that would make up the bulk of her work, starring the iconic English nanny, Mary Poppins.

For those of you that only know Mary Poppinsfrom the Disney movie, it is important to point out that this is an instance where the book and the movie are related but independent works of art. In the reading community, it is not uncommon to instinctively disparage any movie rendering of a beloved book. And in many instances the criticism is well deserved, it is a huge challenge, most often not met, to transfer the complexity and subtlety of a book to the brevity of a movie.

I think in this instance though, there is one of those successes that do come along. I can think of three right away that have a similar background and outcome: Mary Poppins, Doctor Dolittle, and The Wizard of Oz. In each of these instances there is an established series of books well loved by readers. In each case, the movie version hews reasonably closely to the broad outline of the books but usually draws most heavily on the first book or couple of books in the series. In each case, the resulting movie is a masterpiece of entertainment, absorbs like a chameleon the broad picture of the books, but is also distinctively different from the books. They are not faithful translations of the books form page to screen but rather the books trigger or function as a muse to a new art object.

In the case of Mary Poppins, the movie captures some of the whimsy and sense of magic with which Travers infused her books but it misses much of the hard edged characterization with which Travers made her books "real". As opposed to the pretty and estimable Julie Andrews version, Mary Poppins in the books is vain, sometimes almost capricious and somewhat hard edged in a way that never makes it into the movie. But it works in the book.

Mary Poppinsis the story of an apparently magical nanny that comes to bring order out of the chaos of the Banks family and the five children of which it is comprised. Mrs. Banks is a flibbertigibbet, loving but little involved in the lives of her children and the management of her household. Mr. Banks is a bank clerk wholly absorbed in his career. Mary Poppins brings magic into the lives of the children in a very structured and disciplined way though it is often never perfectly clear whether the magical things really occurred or only that the children think that they did.

Despite her quirks, the children quickly come to love Mary Poppins and are anxious that she should never leave. Mary Poppins famously commits only that "I'll stay till the wind changes." She does eventually leave when the wind turns but she has accomplished her goal of reconnecting the children to their parents. It doesn't take much to look at the Mary Poppinsnarrative and see some of Travers' own childhood with the loss of her father at an early age and the effective disengagement of her mother from family life.

Travers wrote a further two Mary Poppinsstories, Mary Poppins Comes Back in 1935, and Mary Poppins Opens the Door in 1943. At the close of Mary Poppins Opens the Door , she is gone forever. Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten. Her fans clamored for more Mary Poppins stories and over the next fifty years, periodically Travers would release a new Mary Poppins book, sometimes light-weight books that elaborated on particular episodes from within the context of the initial three books, sometimes themed works such as Mary Poppins in the Kitchen which is essentially a child's cook book, to further novels such as Mary Poppins in the Park which capture additional, overlooked tales again from within the original story structure set by the first three books. Distinct from other series such as the Wizard of Oz, in which the quality of writing becomes much more variable in the later books, all the Mary Poppinsbooks are well written; deepening and broadening with additional books rather than running to anemia.

As a side note, it is interesting that from the very beginning, the Mary Poppinsstories were illustrated by Mary Shepard, daughter of E.H. Shepard, illustrator of that other great British icon, Winnie the Pooh. Shepard and Travers collaborated on every Mary Poppins book over the next fifty-five years.

One of Mary Poppins' early fans was Walt Disney's eleven year old daughter, Diane. Seeing her engagement with the Mary Poppinsstories, Disney pursued discussions and negotiations with Travers over the next twenty years or so. Travers was jealously protective of her cast of characters and demanded editing power over the transcript, demanded that the rendition to film should be as a movie and not as a cartoon and worked hard to keep the story true to her books. She also negotiated a payment of $100,000 ($680,000 in today's dollars) plus 5% of the gross profits of the film.

While she made very much a point of disparaging the final product (somewhat belied by her frequent viewings of the movie), I would argue that both her books and Walt Disney's rendering are wonderful gifts to the world of a child and that while they are clearly related, they accomplish two different outcomes. Travers' books have a little bit of the Brother's Grimm to them - part of why children engage with them so readily is not only because they are magical and funny but that these attributes are set in the context of real children's fears of loss and abandonment which give the books a level of emotional engagement and reality much exceeding that in the movie which is fun and enchanting but entertains wonderfully rather than touches a child deeply.

Travers wrote a review of The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell in the New York Times, November 21, 1965. The final paragraph of that review could as well stand for her view of her own creation.

Is it a book for children? I would say Yes because for me all books are books for children. There is no such thing as a children's book. There are simply books of many kinds and some of them children read. I would deny, however, that it was written for children. But is any book that these creatures love really invented for them? "I write to please myself," said Beatrix Potter, all her natural modesty and arrogance gathered into the noble phrase. Indeed, whom else, one could rightly ask. And this book bears the same hallmark. Someone, in love with an idea, has lovingly elaborated it simply to please himself -- no ax to grind, making no requirements, just putting a pinch of salt on its tail -- as one would with a poem -- and setting it down in words. How, therefore, could a child -- and children come in all ages, remember -- fail to read and enjoy it?

Travers wrote a half dozen or so other stories and extended monographs around myths, legends, symbols, and folktales. She received an OBE in 1977 and passed away in 1996, three years after publishing her final book, What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol, and Story.

Independent Reader

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard Highly Recommended

Mary Poppins Comes Back by P. L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard Highly Recommended

Mary Poppins from A to Z by P. L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard Recommended

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen by P. L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard Suggested

Mary Poppins in the Park by P. L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard Recommended

Mary Poppins Opens the Door by P. L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard & Agnes Sims Highly Recommended


Moscow Excursion by P.L. Travers 1934
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard 1934
Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard 1935
Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard 1937
Happy Ever After by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard 1940
I Go by Sea, I Go by Land by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Gertrude Hermes 1941
Mary Poppins Opens the Door by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Agnes Sims and Mary Shepard 1943
Mary Poppins in the Park by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard 1952
The Gingerbread Shop by P.L. Travers 1952
Mr. Wiggs Birthday Party by P.L. Travers 1952
Stories from Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers 1952
The Magic Compass by P.L. Travers 1953
The Fox at the Manger by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Thomas Bewick 1962
Mary Poppins from A to Z by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard 1962
Friend Monkey by P.L. Travers 1971
Mary Poppins in the Kitchen by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard 1975
About Sleeping Beauty by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Charles Keeping 1975
Two Pairs of Shoes by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon 1980
Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard 1982
Mary Poppins and the House Next Door by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard 1989
What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol, and Story by P.L. Travers 1993

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