P. L. Travers

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Pamela Lyndon Travers OBE (born Helen Lyndon Goff) (9 August 1899–23 April 1996) was an Australian-born British author best known for her Mary PoppinsWikipedia series of urban fantasy novels.

Goff was born in Queensland, and grew up in the bush before being sent to boarding school in Sydney. She took up writing in her teens and had a brief stint as a Shakespearian actress. Goff later emigrated to England during her twenties and took the name "Pamela Lyndon Travers" after her father's first name, adopting the nom de plume P. L. Travers[note 1] when she wrote the original Mary Poppins books. Travers would then be known for her widely-publicised feud with Walt Disney — whose use of appropriated folk tales and contemporary children's stories were part and parcel of his media empire — where she expressed disagreement over the treatment of her best-known character, as well as her acerbic control over her creation. She dabbled with both occult and New Age movements as well as having an (allegedly) abusive relationship with her adopted son.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary[edit]

—Julie Andrews, as Mary Poppins
Practically perfect in every way.

Perhaps the best known of her writings is Mary Poppins, a series of children's urban fantasy novels about the eponymous umbrella-flying, carpet bag-carrying magical nanny from London, set during the early 20th century.[note 2] The stories depict Poppins as a vain, aloof yet otherwise caring young woman,[note 3] rearing her charges using magic and self-control and occasionally taking the children under her care on magical adventures, though she more often than not denies having such abilities when confronted about them;[2] the books however at least somewhat allude to Poppins' supernatural origins, with her mother stated to have lived for centuries and some of her relatives being magical creatures as well.

While it has been speculated that the character of Mary Poppins was at least in part derived from the Norland Nannies i.e. the students of Norland College,Wikipedia[3] a prestigious British secondary educational institution dedicated to childcare training whose alumni have worked for the rich and famous such as the British Royal Family,[4] David and Victoria Beckham[5] and Mick Jagger among others,[6] and whose uniforms do indeed resemble that of Poppins's signature outfit, Travers' great aunt Helen "Ellie" Morehead was also cited as a likely inspiration for the character.[7]

The success of the series spawned numerous sequels and adaptations, most notably the 1964 Disney live-action/animated musical film adaptationWikipedia starring Julie AndrewsWikipedia in her big-screen debut loosely based on the books, which went on to be one of Disney's most memorable live-action features. The 2018 sequel Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt,Wikipedia while not as well received critically, is largely a pastiche of the original film albeit in the backdrop of the Great Depression, with the now-grown up Banks siblings having to deal with Michael's children after the death of Michael's wife and the family's now-dire financial situation, with Mary coming to the Bankses' aid. Besides the Disney media franchise and stage musical, there also exists a Soviet miniseries entitled Mary Poppins, Goodbye (Russian: Мэри Поппинс, до свидания!; translit. Meri Poppins, do svidaniya), which was produced by Mosfilm for Gosteleradio presumably without Travers' approval.[note 4][9]

The "bad" in "Bad Tuesday"[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Cancel culture
This did not age well when the Civil rights movement came around.[note 5]

The chapter "Bad Tuesday" in the original 1934 edition of Mary Poppins has stereotyped portrayals of various ethnicities which Mary and her charges come across in a magical adventure across the world, though changing sociopolitical attitudes resulted in Travers having to amend the offending chapter twice: once in 1967, removing any and all potentially offensive language but keeping the plot about visiting foreign lands, and in 1981, where series illustrator Mary Shepard[note 6] revised the illustrations to depict animals instead, altering the four compass points in the accompanying drawing to show a polar bear at the north, a macaw at the south, a panda at the east, and a dolphin at the west.[11] While Travers was initially outraged at her publisher for not taking the effort to defend her work and artistic expression, she later denied accusations of racism in an interview, stating "I have no racism in me. I wasn’t born with it. And it’s never happened inside of me. And therefore, I feel perfectly at ease and at home no matter what color anybody’s skin is." Regardless, as some have felt uncomfortable on what amounts to a product of its time, she was still compelled to make amendments to her work without any apparent (reactionary) consequence, especially as a friend of hers confessed how she felt embarrassed reciting the original story to a group of Black children.[12] If anything, Travers was reportedly indifferent to politics if not completely apolitical, quipping that she would rather choose communism over fascism if she was forced to choose between the two, but she snidely remarked that the former would be a "desolate alternative". She also scoffed at the personality cult surrounding Vladimir Lenin as more of a parody religion than anything to be taken seriously.[13]

Going batty over the BBFC[edit]

The racism controversy isn't limited to the books, however. The 1964 musical film got embroiled in a bit of controversy in 2024 when the usual reactionaries went apeshit over the British Board of Film Classification'sWikipedia decision to retroactively change the film's rating from Universal (U, "suitble for all") to a slightly harsher Parental Guidance (PG) due to one scene where Admiral Boom uses the now-racist term "hottentot" to refer to the soot-covered chimney sweeps spotted near his house.[14] As the Board felt that the epithet amounts to a fancy way of saying the n-word, they reclassified the film and added the phrase "discriminatory language" as a ratings descriptor.[15]

Pamela, woo-meistery and her sexuality[edit]

See the main articles on this topic: Woo and Sexuality

Bitching over Disney[edit]

It is a well known fact that Travers made no secret about her immense disagreement over Walt Disney's handling of the film adaptation of Mary Poppins. Pamela tried exerting control over her work[2] and even had voice recordings made of the meetings she had with Disney and his staff when they had discussions over the film's conception.[16] While Travers expressed apprehension over having her magnum opus adapted to the silver screen by Hollywood producers as she felt the Disney version bastardised her work into something too saccharine, she stated in a phone conversation that she would rather see a British-produced adaptation instead,[17] much like how JK Rowling demanded that the Harry Potter films' principal cast be British whenever possible.[18] Surprisingly enough, she greenlit the idea of a TV special i.e. the 1949 Studio One telefilm starring Mary Wickes as the nanny, though she also lamented the pervasive presence and influence of television especially its effects on children, stating "I don’t see why a child — so full, so fresh, so lively — with his own ideas and imagination, should really need television. … Here we are, loaded with television and we can’t say no to it."[17]

Walt Disney promised his daughters to have the Poppins books translated to the silver screen, and thus began talks with Travers over adapting her creation. It took Disney twenty years of pestering the author to get her to sell the screen rights to him, to which Travers acquiesced when it dawned on her that royalties from the books were dwindling and she had no other choice but to make the proverbial Faustian bargain. While the film went on as planned she was immensely unhappy with how it was "sentimentalized by the 'Disney treatment'[19] and refused to allow any further American-produced adaptation of her work in her last will and testament,[20] though Disney went on to produce the sequel Mary Poppins ReturnsWikipedia in 2018 (with the blessing of Travers' estate no less), and Travers herself allowed the production of a stage musical shortly before her death, albeit only on conditions that British writers alone and no one from the original film production were to be directly involved.[21] This feud with Walt would later be dramatised in the 2013 biopic Saving Private Mr. Banks starring Tom HanksWikipedia as Walt and Emma ThompsonWikipedia as P. L. Travers.[note 7] While the film was released to mostly positive reviews, the late author Harlan EllisonWikipedia likened Banks to a hagiographic pile of bullshit meant to make Walt Disney look good in the eyes of the audience.[22]

Even sadder was how the Poppins novels' original illustrator received little recognition over her role in bringing the nanny to life; even Travers herself could be deemed guilty of obscuring Mary Shepard's contributions as she had a rather controlling hand over Shepard's depiction of her character.[23] Shepard was infamously snubbed over royalties from the 1964 film, though she did win a rather measly compensation for the depiction of Poppins's feet in a ballet position.[24]

I'm the Virgin Mary, y'all![edit]

Any similarities between a virgin named Mary and a nanny also named Mary may or may not be coincidental.

A somewhat lesser-known fact is that Travers had a penchant for the occult and esotericism. Travers became a "disciple" of George Gurdjieff[25] after visiting Fontainebleau in France, and was friends with A. E. Russell,Wikipedia an Irish writer and mysticist who promoted theosophy. These esoteric and pagan elements were incorporated into the Poppins novels, which unsurprisingly disturbed some Christians much like how the now-disgraced JK Rowling sent religious groups into a frenzy over her casual portrayal of witchcraft and wizardry in the Harry Potter novels (though perhaps not to the same level of a moral panic which ensued after the runaway success of the Potter media franchise).[26] Indeed, Travers in her later years characterised Poppins as a manifestation of the Mother Goddess;[2][27] an apologetic blogger on the other hand likened Poppins to the Virgin Mary, apparently seeing parallels with the character (or at the very least the Disney portrayal) and Jesus' mother through their gracefulness, virginity and the fact that Poppins sat on a cloud in the opening sequence.[28]

…Bisexual?[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Bisexuality

One aspect of Travers' life and career that's pretty much overlooked was her apparent bisexuality, where it has been alleged that she engaged in affairs with both men and women, and was involved in a group called "The Rope" made up of predominantly lesbian and bi women devotees of Gurdjieff.[25][29] In fact, a number of people noted how Travers's sexuality was sadly pretty much glossed over in the 2013 Saving Mr. Banks biopic,[30][31] on top of the questionable historical licence it took to make the re-enactment look rather saccharine.

Practically imperfect with her son[edit]

In what is perhaps a peak moment of irony and hypocrisy, Travers allegedly made the bizarre choice of choosing just one of two Irish twin children who were put up for adoption, supposedly as a result of her obsession with the occult when she asked an astrologer over which twin to pick.[32] Reportedly, Travers' stepson Camillus did not realise that he was a twin until later in his life where he felt betrayed and bitter over the crankery she did on the poor twins,[33] culminating in very much the same fate of alcoholism that befell his adopted mother's father.[34]

See also[edit]

  • JK Rowling, an even battier bigot of a hag who just happened to write a far better known series of magical tales.

Notes[edit]

  1. Sound familiar?
  2. The original books take place during the 1930s, though the short story "The Day Out" — which depicts a prototypical Poppins in her late teens — was written in 1926.[1] The 1964 film starring Julie Andrews takes place in 1910, with its sequel taking place in the 1930s where Michael and Jane Banks have since grown up.
  3. Or what appears to be a young woman (if she's even human at all), as there are apparent hints to her immortality throughout the book series.
  4. It is unknown as to what Travers' reaction to the Soviets' appropriation of her work; she might have remained reticent knowing how there's little she could do about it. Interestingly, she did write about her experiences in Russia during the early 1930s prior to penning the Poppins novels.[8]
  5. The image is from a "Little Golden Book" that was a 1953 authorized revision of the Bad Tuesday chapter from Mary Poppins[10]
  6. Daughter of E. H. Shepard,Wikipedia a famous illustrator of children's literature including Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne.
  7. Thompson's casting as Travers counts as a bit of an irony considering how she portrayed a nanny character similar to Poppins in the Nanny McPhee film series, which was loosely based on the Nurse Matilda novels.

References[edit]

  1. Mary Poppins And the Match-Man
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 P.L. Travers - British Author & Creator of Mary Poppins - Britannica
  3. Q&A with Norland Nanny Sophie Weston
  4. Prince George's Nanny Maria Teresa Turrion Borrallo Is A Real Life Mary Poppins
  5. Which VIPs and Celebrities Employ or Have Employed a Norland Nanny?
  6. Norland Nannies - Little Ones London
  7. Nance, Kevin (2013-12-20). "Valerie Lawson talks Mary Poppins, She Wrote and P.L Travers: Biography reveals original character's sharp edge". Chicago Tribune. p. 2. Retrieved 2014-01-12.
  8. The Mary Poppins Effect - Communism
  9. Mary Poppins in the USSR
  10. The Magic Compass: A Story from "Mary Poppins" by P. L. Travers, illustrations by Gertrude Elliott (1953) Simon and Schuster.
  11. Nel, Philip (2017). Was the Cat in the Hat Black?. Oxford University Press. pp. 88–89. 
  12. Slavova, Lina (2021-01-18). "Bad Tuesdays with Mary Poppins" (in en). 
  13. Travers, P.L. (1906–1996)
  14. "Mary Poppins fans slam “woke” age rating change" (in en). 2024-03-01. 
  15. BBFC. "Mary Poppins" (in en). 
  16. P.L. Travers Audio - 1961 Mary Poppins Meetings at Disney
  17. 17.0 17.1 Gray, Tim (2018-12-14). "P.L. Travers’ Efforts to Adapt ‘Mary Poppins’ for Film, TV Were Often Less Than Jolly" (in en-US). 
  18. "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone". The Guardian (UK). 16 November 2001. 
  19. How Did P.L. Travers, the Prickly Author of Mary Poppins, Really Fare Against Walt Disney?
  20. Erbland, Kate (2013-12-26). "The Dark, Deep and Dramatic True Story of Saving Mr. Banks". Film.com. Archived from the original on 2016-01-05. Retrieved 2015-05-14.
  21. Ouzounian, Richard (2013-12-13). "P L Travers might have liked Mary Poppins onstage". The Toronto Star. Retrieved 2014-03-06.
  22. Harlan Ellison on Saving Mr. Banks
  23. Baguley, Margaret; Kerby, Martin Charles (2020-12-24). "Mary Shepard: the artist who brought Mary Poppins to life" (in en-US). 
  24. Lloyd, Shelley (2020-03-20). "Forgotten Mary Poppins illustrator finally recognised after international search reveals rare original drawings" (in en-AU). 
  25. 25.0 25.1 Famous Bis: P. L. Travers
  26. Mary Poppins … and the occult?
  27. Mary Poppins: The Secret Goddess
  28. Mary Poppins and the Blessed Virgin Mary
  29. The truth behind Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers
  30. Saving Mr. Disney: A Lesbian Perspective - Carolyn Gage
  31. Saving Mr. Banks Left Out an Awful Lot About P.L. Travers
  32. The Life Of Mary Poppins Creator P.L. Travers Is Stranger Than Fiction
  33. A Little-Known Friendship
  34. The truth behind Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers