Obituary: P. L. Travers
Thursday 25 April 1996
The first of P .L. Travers' five Mary Poppins books, entitled simply Mary Poppins, was published in 1934 and became an immediate success with children and adults alike. It was translated into 20 languages and became a world-wide bestseller when Walt Disney made it into a film starring Julie Andrews. Four more stories followed at intervals: Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), Mary Poppins in the Park (1952), Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (1982) and Mary Poppins and the House Next Door (1989). In the intervening years she published The Fox in the Manger, based on a Christmas carol in which the Fox brings his gift of cunning to infant Jesus, thus uniting cleverness and goodness, wildness and tameness in cosmic harmony; and Friend Monkey, the story of the Linnet family with their pet monkey and their Nanny Miss Brown- Potter. But these characters failed to achieve the same archetypal status as her first creations.
"I have never written for children," she once remarked, "for who knows where childhood ends and adulthood begins?" And indeed the timeless, magical world she creates in her work is a reflection of her own mystical poetic vision. This she expanded more theoretically in a series of lectures and essays, of which What the Bee Knows: reflections on myth, symbol and story was a selection published in 1989.
P. L. Travers was reserved to the point of secretiveness: the use of initials was partly due to her desire for anonymity: "At first I wanted to publish my books anonymously - the best poems in anthologies are written by Anon," she said. By the same token she did not like biographies: "What porridge Mr Keats had for breakfast is of no consequence," she wrote. As a result for years I did not know that the tall, elegant old lady I saw walking down our street with a queenly gait was the creator of Mary Poppins. Later I interviewed her for a book and we remained friendly neighbours from then on.
Although warm and open, in interviews she declined answering any questions relating to her private life, or her age. Her official date of birth was 1906; in fact she was born in 1897 in Queensland, Australia, to an Irish father and a mother of Scottish origin. She was educated at home by governesses, and as a young girl she worked in turns as secretary, dancer, actress and journalist. She wrote poetry in childhood. "Hardly Mr Yeats," commented her father when she showed him her first poem at the age of seven, but her mother was encouraging: "I like the rhyming of mother with smother," she said. She started publishing her poems in various local papers while still a teenager.
When her father died, the family fell on hard times, and she had to abandon her ambition of university education to earn a living. She left Australia for London in her early twenties, where she worked as a freelance journalist. She sent some of her poems to AE (George Russell) who published two of them in the Irish Statesman, of which he was then the editor. Later she met him on a trip to Ireland and became his protegee. He introduced her to George Moore in London, and to Yeats and other members of their literary circle in Dublin. Their close friendship lasted until AE's death. Through him she met A.R. Orage, the editor of the New English Weekly, who published some of her poems and articles.
It was during convalescence after a severe illness that she conceived Mary Poppins. "She came to me to amuse me," she said, "staying long enough for me to write her down." She believed that her books were gifts of God, "given" to her, and quoted C. S. Lewis saying, "There is only one Creator, we merely mix the ingredients He gives us."
"Gloria in Excelsis Deo," she wrote on the last page of Mary Poppins Comes Back, for, although not religious in the conventional way, P. L. Travers was profoundly mystical. In her youth she had become interested in Zen Buddhism: "The Mary Poppins books were in essence Zen stories," she claimed. Later she explored other mystical traditions, and in the last years of her life she became interested in Islamic mysticism (Sufism), particularly the Persian branch of it, through meetings with members of the Fraternity and their publications in Britain.
P. L. Travers lectured extensively at American universities - Radcliffe, Smith College, Clermont - and received an honorary degree from Chatham College, Pittsburgh, in 1978. She never married, "but I have a family", she would say to deflect further probing - an adopted son and grandchildren whom she loved. Her last years were marred by severe old age, though her mind remained clear until the end, and she remembered names, titles of books and poems accurately. Last time I visited her she told me that Cameron Mackintosh wished to make Mary Poppins into a musical, but that their were problems about rights with Walt Disney's corporation. "It could make a good musical," she said, her eyes "so blue that they go back to God" sparkling with enthusiasm.
At the end of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, when Mary leaves the children and disappears, P. L. Travers wrote: "The bright shape speeding through the air above them would forever keep its secret. But in the summer days to come and the long nights of winter, they would remember . . . Mary Poppins herself had flown away, but the gifts she had brought would remain for always." It will be the same with P. L. Travers herself.
Mary Poppins is one of that handful of films, including The Wizard of Oz and Disney's animation classics, that have become perennial favourites, writes Tom Vallance. It deserves its popularity, for it is both a morality tale and family entertainment of a high order.
Set in a never-never land of a stylised Edwardian England, where it seems perfectly feasible that an eccentric neighbour should erect a ship's deck on his roof, it coats its message with a "spoonful of sugar" that never cloys. This is due largely to the performance of Julie Andrews, both matter- of-fact and immensely endearing as the nanny who comes down from the sky with her umbrella and carpet-bag, to take charge of the neglected children who have set out their requirements in a letter torn up by their father but wafted to Mary in the clouds. (The film created its own fairy tale when Andrews, having been famously passed over by Hollywood for the role she originated on stage in My Fair Lady won an Academy Award for this, her first screen role.)
Even Dick Van Dyke's excruciating Cockney accent, heavily criticised the English side of the Atlantic, has taken on its own quaint charm, become the butt of countless comedians' jokes, and is part of the film's folklore. (He recently described the film as "the most delightful experience of my life".) Unlike The Wizard of Oz or Snow White, Mary Poppins has no elements to frighten even the youngest child - the horde of black-garbed would-be nannies, wafted off by a magical breeze, are the closest thing to witches on view.
"A Spoonful of Sugar" has endured as the most popular of its accessible songs (all beautifully orchestrated by Irwin Kostal) though the lilting "Chim Chim Cheree" won the Oscar. A delightful animation sequence, cued by "Jolly 'Oliday", includes farmyard animals joining in song, Andrews and Van Dyke gliding across a brook on the backs of two turtles, a jaunty tap routine by Van Dyke and a row of penguin waiters, and as its climax a lively gallop on carousel ponies. The former vaudevillian Ed Wynn is Mary's Uncle Albert who literally floats on air when he laughs and has to think sad thoughts to come down (a counter-variation on Peter Pan's advice to the Darling children to "think lovely thoughts" in order to take flight). The mid-air tea party at which Albert tells the children corny jokes pays homage to another classic, Alice in Wonderland. A bracingly exuberant dance by chimney-sweeps over London rooftops highlights the choreography of Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, while the lullaby "Feed the Birds" movingly features the 85-year-old Jane Darwell (Ma Joad of The Grapes of Wrath) in her last screen role.
P. L. Travers reportedly felt the film added too much sugar to her original premise, but her "universal truths" are faithfully conveyed, particularly the self-awareness of the children's father, who finally relaxes and joins his children in kite-flying. The splendid supporting cast are primarily British - Glynis Johns and David Tomlinson as the parents, Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice as the children, plus four great character players in Hermione Baddeley, Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher and Reginald Owen.
Though live action sequences were filmed in the summer of 1963, special effects and animation took another 11 months and the film opened in August 1964 to great acclaim to become Disney's biggest box-office success to that time. That success continues today with ongoing video sales and television transmissions all over the world.
Helen Lyndon Goff (Pamela Lyndon Travers), writer: born Maryborough, Queensland 9 August 1899; (one adopted son); died London 23 April 1996.
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