Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2010

Mary Poppins She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson #BookReview

Mary Poppins She Wrote is a most engaging biography.  Originally published as Out of the Sky She Came in 1999, it was re-published with this (almost equally awkward) title to coincide with the advent of the recent Mary Poppins musical, but the book stands scrutiny on its own terms.  It’s very readable, impeccably researched, and it reveals the enigmatic life of P.L. Travers (1899-1996) without being prurient.

The first surprise is that Helen Lyndon Goff chose her feckless father’s surname as her pen-name P.L. (Pamela) Travers.  (I’m going to refer to her in this review as Pamela as Lawson does in most of this book, to avoid confusion).  Without being too heavy-handed about it, Lawson shows that Pamela’s search for an idealised man in her life led to fantasy not only in her fiction but also in her interpretations of her own life and family background.  Travers Goff portrayed himself as an Irishman and Pamela perpetuated his grandiose stories about himself as a plantation owner, not least because the impecunious bank employee didn’t fit with the ideas she had about her family antecedents.  She had a wealthy Aunt Ellie who took the family in after Goff died, and her standards were those that Pamela adopted.

Except, that is, for Aunt Ellie’s disapproval of the stage as an occupation for a girl of her class.  Pamela was obsessed with acting ever since participating in school performances at the Bowral branch of Sydney Girls Grammar School (for which Aunt Ellie paid the fees).     Moving the girl to a high school in Sydney didn’t break the spell, and before long Pamela got her way and was allowed to perform in a pantomime at J.C. Williamson’s where she was noticed and subsequently taken on as understudy (for an Ophelia who was never ill).  The actor Allan Wilkie provided her first break when he cast her as Anne Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor.  It was at this time that Pamela adopted the stage name Pamela Travers, and kept it as her nom-de-plume when she started writing later.

Her writing career began on tour in New Zealand where she fell passionately in love with a journalist and began writing poetry.  His intervention led to a  column called ‘Pamela Passes’ in the Christchurch Sun which persisted even after her return to Sydney, where she also wrote freelance pieces including poetry for The Bulletin, then the most prestigious magazine for aspiring writers.  This poetry seems not to have worn well with the passage of time, but Lawson quotes this one from 1923 as a presentiment of Mary Poppins:

The Nurse’s Lullaby

Hush, little love, for the feet of Dusk
Stir softly through the air.
And Mary the mother comes to set
A star within your hair

Sleep, O heart, for the candle-light
Out of darkness gleams,
And Mary’s mouth on your mouth shall fill
The drowsy night with dreams.
  (p63)

By contrast, Pamela also wrote flirtatious pieces for the lecherous Frank Morton’s salacious magazine The Triad (much to Aunt Ellie’s dismay), but she saved her pennies carefully and sailed away to England in 1924 before any harm was done.

Pamela dreamed of a romantic life in Ireland but her timing was bad.  The disillusionment of the failed Easter rising and partition led the best of Ireland’s writers to leave their country; and England was equally unlike the imaginings Pamela had based on her father’s Edwardian experiences.  World War I had shattered the myth of the Great Hero and cultural life was brutally cynical and determinedly modern.  Pamela’s sentimental poetry fit ill with that of the Bloomsbury set, exemplified, says Lawson, by modernist works such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses and To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.  It was just as well that the Christchurch Sun was behind the times and still wanted her pieces (though Lawson says that wealthy relations meant that Lyndon was never at any risk of real financial hardship).

Her first mentor (and father-figure) was the Dublin editor George William (AE) Russell who printed her poems in the Irish Statesman.  He was more than twice her age and she was fortunate that he didn’t take advantage of her.  Keen on supernaturalism, he was a bit barmy but very influential.  Alas, poetry (then as now) paid very little, and so Lyndon began writing for more popular magazines, little pieces about children’s dreams for women’s magazines.  It was these that were the basis for Mary Poppins (though Pamela later said otherwise).   

It’s almost half a century since I read Mary Poppins  and Mary Poppins Comes Back.  I didn’t own them; I borrowed them from the Montclair Library in Durban so I only got to read them once.  But I remember them vividly, such was the spell that they cast, so it’s quite illuminating to see them analysed in an academic way.  As I child I didn’t notice that the characters of the real world (Mr and Mrs Banks , Miss Lark and the Park Keeper) were ‘forlorn and rather lonely’  but I remember responding to the anarchic folk of the unreal world: Mary Poppins’ bizarre relations and friends; and the talking creatures.  Like most children I had a fertile imagination – I believed in the possibility of these characters.  I didn’t know about duality, but I longed for a different life where I didn’t have to be sensible and well-behaved.

But by the time the Mary Poppins series was made into Walt Disney’s film, Pamela wasn’t very well-behaved at all.  She had quarrelled with significant friends, she had damaged the emotional development of a young boy, Camillus, by adopting him on a whim, and she was bossy.  I can understand her being aghast at some of Disney’s plans but the record of her interventions as the film was being made makes her seem a bit of a termagant.

What did surprise me was that Disney seemed not to have any understanding of English social life and culture.  The scripts sent to Pamela were full of American slang, and his stereotyped ideas about servants as Cockneys shows that he and his minions hadn’t done the most basic research; English servants prided themselves on their ‘between-classes’ accents and no employer, upper or middle-class, would have countenanced a nanny who spoke anything other than the same ‘respectable’ English that they spoke.  (This was because the children spent most of their formative years with their nanny and would have adopted her speech patterns).  I find it surprising that such a successful film-maker and entrepreneur would assume this wouldn’t matter to English viewers.  (Although the film was a box office success, English critics weren’t impressed.)

As those of us who read the book first as children and then saw the film with our own children will know, the Disney film is nothing like the book and was, for me, anyway, the film that exemplified what has come to be known pejoratively as Disneyfication.  I think the Mary Poppins film was the last one he made and the last one I willingly watched.  No wonder Pamela was upset: she cried at the premiere.  However, she had received a generous fee for the rights which secured her financial future, and with an eye on a sequel, she kept her criticisms to herself in subsequent correspondence with Disney, at least until his death in 1966.

After that, she spoke out, but with care.  She was torn between wanting to be acknowledged as the author of the book and not wanting to have anything to do with a film she despised.  She was also aware that the more awards the film got, the better the box office receipts.  This dichotomy in her attitudes led to a shift in her always insecure personality: as she moved into middle age she began to act the last great role of her life and tried to develop a persona of wise old woman, enigmatic and deeply private.   (Lawson uses the term ‘crone’, but not in a pejorative sense).

But as Lawson admits, Pamela was a cranky old woman.  As writer in residence at Radcliff , Smith and (later) at Scripps, she was not popular because of her prickly behaviour. Students thought she was opinionated and they despised her because she was not an intellectual only a ‘commercial success’.  She alienated the academic staff by ordering them about as if they were her staff, and they too thought she had ‘intellectual pretensions’.  (She had, after all, only finished secondary education) though she tried to glamorize this by claiming to have had a ‘private education’.

She had a lonely and stressful old age as her star faded.  In the 1970s she was honoured with an OBE and an honorary doctorate (from a minor American college) but public interest was waning.  She donated money towards a statue of Mary Poppins for Central Park in New Tork but the money was returned due to lack of interest.  She was in poor health, she was worried about her adopted son’s severe drinking problem and she was still seeking a guru and got mixed up with a charlatan peddling spiritual enlightenment.

The books she wrote in this late period were mostly a muddle of Jungian psychology and fairy tale, and publishers and critics alike were unimpressed.  Only one last Mary Poppins was published when Pamela was a very old woman; she fought long and hard with Walt Disney’s successors about a sequel and a musical; and she became obsessed about the fate of her papers (which ended up sold to the Mitchell Library in Sydney).  She spent her last year as a recluse, racked with pain from arthritis, and died aged 97 .

She was buried by Camillus, her adopted son, following her precisely detailed instructions, and obituaries were generous.  Would she have liked the stoush over which of four Australian towns were to claim her when the musical finally hit the stage after her death? Probably not, because she tried to obscure her Australian origins, and maybe this is why there is some ambivalence from some residents about whether they want her or not.  Whatever about that,  Maryborough in Queensland  was the first to erect a statue, while Bowral fights for the honour against Allora and Ashfield in Sydney’s western suburbs claims her as a notable resident as well.

P.L. (Pamela) Travers aka Helen Lyndon Goff turned out to be much more interesting than I had expected and I hope Lawson ventures again into literary biography.  For an interview with the author, see Femail.   Reviews are a bit ambivalent – it seems that some find this biography tests their loyalty to the Mary Poppins books and find Lawson wanting because of it.  Bev Sullivan’s at M/C Reviews is the best of them.

Author: Valerie Lawson
Title: Mary Poppins She Wrote
Publisher: Hachette, 2010
ISBN: 9780733623671
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $24.99 AUD.


Responses

  1. Interesting review, Lisa, about an interesting woman. I firmly believe Maryborough should have the highest claim. That’s where she was born – and, more importantly – was where I was born. LOL.

    I never have read the books though. Not sure why … but probably never will now.

    • Oh well, LOL, that settles it, Maryborough it is, Sue!

  2. It’s sad that a very good achievement (e.g. creating and writing the Mary Poppins’ books) often has to be strung out to last the rest of a lifetime.

    People want to hold the adored person base forever e.g. needing to come across as wise old woman, donating money for statues et al. In reality she was a vulnerable semi-loonie wrapped up in former glory.

    (I went to a Germaine Greer as guest speaker women’s luncheon about 10 years ago. I felt for GG as she strived to say something that was worth saying. Rather it was a tirade against publisher’s ripping off authors and some old chestnuts, even if true, about social conditions in Australia. All been said before and I could have come up with the speech but no one would have turned up.)

    Also, her books got a much needed boost by the Disney treatment and I suspect many more enjoyed the film than the books.

    • Hi Robyn, welcome to chat on ANZ LitLovers:)
      Yes, there is much in what you say…Travers/Goff isn’t the only one by any means who suffered from ‘relevance deprivation syndrome’. You’re also almost certainly right about many preferring the film, especially now when the books have probably dated badly, but with books in general, popularity IMO isn’t necessarily a measure of merit.
      Part of the problem for Travers/Goff was also that she was a writer of *children’s books*, which are rarely treated with the same respect as books written for adults. This may be because books for children can rarely be ground breaking or experimental in the same way as adult books, nor can they treat the same weighty themes. But a good book written for children can tackle issues of the human condition with great sophistication, and the Mary Poppins books did do that.
      Cheers
      Lisa

  3. Thanks for sharing this – I found it searching for Mary Poppins – so this was an interesting segway for me. Thank you for taking the time to write this.
    I think you have an engaging style of writing, well you must because I read the whole thing not realising how long it is!

    • Thanks, Claire!

  4. […] Poppins at the State Library I attended a talk by Valerie Lawson, biographer of PL Travers at the State Library of NSW tonight. Valerie and one of the Library's curators, Emma […]


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