British author P. L. Travers (1899–1996), although the author of many writings for children and adults, was best known for her 1934 book Mary Poppins and its sequels. This fantasy, about a nanny with magical powers, became one of the great publishing successes of the twentieth century, enjoying new bursts of popularity after the book's adaptation to film in 1964 and to a stage musical in the early 2000s.
Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff on August 9, 1899, in Maryborough, in the Australian province of Queensland. She later took the surname Travers from the first name of her father, Travers Goff, a bank employee and an alcohol abuser who fell on hard times during her childhood; Pamela, a fashionable name in the years after World War I, was her own invention. As a writer she used only her first and middle initials, a common device in British letters especially among women who wanted their work to be appreciated on its own merits. Her father was of Irish descent and sometimes waxed maudlin about his ancestral home; her mother was fond of raising her daughter with the aid of maxims and sayings, some of which found their way verbatim into the Mary Poppins books. Often as a child, Travers imagined herself as a bird, specifically as a hen. "'She can't come in, she's laying,' her family and friends would say," according to Mary Poppins, She Wrote , Valerie Lawson's biography of Travers. She loved animals and had a rich fantasy life, often arranging corners of her family's backyard into miniature parks. She also loved to read fairy tales.
Travers's father died when she was seven. The family moved to the resort town of Bowral in New South Wales, where her great-aunt (the model for the title character in Travers's 1941 book Aunt Sass ) owned a sugar plantation. Travers attended Normanhurst Private Girls School but was bored with her classes and demanded to be allowed to read on her own, whereupon she began the weighty history The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . Even as a teenager, Travers was writing poems that appeared in Australian peri-
Although she had moderate success on the stage, appearing in Shakespeare's plays and touring New South Wales with a repertory company in 1921, Travers had to make ends meet by working as a journalist. She penned a column for a Sydney newspaper for two years. She became fairly widely published as a poet in Australia, publishing a number of pieces in a literary magazine called The Bulletin in 1923. Some were on Irish themes; many were surprisingly erotic in nature. But she was frustrated with life among conservative Australians, who, she wrote (according to Lawson), "took their fun very seriously" and "were incapable of undressing delight delicately, garment by mysterious joyous garment." The Australian sense of humor, she felt, was "stodgy, mutton fed." She had a strong desire to see more of the world, and she felt that England was the literary center of the English language. So in 1924, she sailed for London.
Travers often told a story that she arrived in England with just ten pounds in her pocket, and promptly lost five of them. Actually, she had succeeded in turning the voyage into several travel articles that she sold to Australian publications, and she hit the ground running as a writer in London, sending articles about the arts back to Australia and New Zealand, with a number of them appearing in New Zealand's Christchurch Herald . Soon she was finding publishers for her writing in the British Isles as well, and one would turn into her primary influence: in 1925 she sent some poems to the Irish Statesman , and its editor encouraged her. The editor was the poet, Irish nationalist leader, and mystic theosophist George William Russell, who used the pen name AE.
Travers and Russell began a friendship that lasted until Russell's death in 1935. "Pamela Travers would spend much of her life in an attempt to live out George Russell's ideas," noted Lawson. "She did not just love Russell. She felt as if he was her sun." The relationship was platonic, however, and Travers never married, although she later adopted a son named Camillus Travers. Russell introduced Travers to Irish poet William Butler Yeats and to other Irish literary figures who drew on Ireland's mythical past in their works. Travers, already a writer given to fantasy and imagination, soaked up more of Ireland's rich history of storytelling and poetry. She also delved into mystical thought and studied for a time with the celebrated Armenian-born spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff. She visited the United States and also the Soviet Union; a chronicle of the latter journey, Moscow Excursion , became her first published book.
In 1934 Travers suffered from pleurisy, a lung illness, and took time off from writing to recuperate in an old cottage in England's Sussex region, where she lived with a roommate. AE had suggested that she write a story about a witch. One day she had to entertain two visiting children, and concocted a story for them about a nanny who carried her belongings in a carpetbag and had an umbrella with a parrot's head on the handle. This governess, Mary Poppins, came to Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane to care for the Banks children: Jane, Michael, and twins John and Barbara. Mary Poppins had magical powers, such as the ability to throw a tea party that would be held on the ceiling of a room. The story grew into the book Mary Poppins , illustrated by Mary Shepard (the daughter of the original illustrator of Winnie the Pooh ) and published in 1934.
The book was successful from the start, and Travers soon followed it with a sequel, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935). The reasons for the success of the Mary Poppins books have been the subject of numerous literary studies, but among those reasons is certainly the books' seamless mixture of fantasy and everyday elements. The books also had deeper patterns of fantasy drawn from Travers's studies of myth and legend, and Travers never thought of them as being exclusively for children. They also incorporated aspects of her own life (the father in the books, George Banks, was a bank manager like Travers Goff), and, when asked by interviewers later what had given her the idea for Mary Poppins, she sometimes said it seemed the character had always been with her. The New York Times quoted her as saying that "the ideas I had [as a child] move about in me now," and that "sorrow lies like a heartbeat behind everything I have written." Travers returned to Mary Poppins several times throughout her long and productive career, issuing Mary Poppins Opens the Door in 1944, Mary Poppins in the Park in 1952, Mary Poppins from A to Z in 1962, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane in 1982, and Mary Poppins and the House Next Door in 1989. All were illustrated by Shepard, and all maintained the world of the original book, frozen in time.
Travers also issued various Mary Poppins compilations, along with related projects such as Mary Poppins in the Kitchen: A Cookery Book with a Story (1975). But she also wrote other books, and pursued many interests beyond the imagined feats of her most famous creation. In 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, Travers began working for Britain's Ministry of Information. She was sent to the United States, and wrote a young adult novel, I Go by Sea, I Go by Land in 1941, cast as the diary of an 11-year-old girl evacuated from England during the war. Travers used part of her time in the United States to further her interest in mysticism, spending the summer of 1944 living in a boarding house in Window Rock, Arizona, on a Navajo reservation. She earned the trust of some of the Navajos and was given an Indian name, obeying their injunction that it be kept secret.
American film executive Walt Disney realized within a few years of the release of the original Mary Poppins that the series could be made successfully into a film, and first made an offer to Travers in 1945. She was skeptical about the idea and resisted it for many years, demanding, among other things, that any film be live action, not animated. She finally agreed to sell the rights to Mary Poppins in 1959, with the stipulation that she would serve as consultant on the script of the film. Even so, she was dissatisfied with the final product, which she felt was too saccharine.
The film took several years to finish, partly due to disagreements between Travers and Disney scriptwriters, and the straightforward if charming musical that eventually resulted had a very different flavor from that of Travers's stories. However, Mary Poppins (1964) left Travers a wealthy woman for the rest of her life. With the young British actress Julie Andrews cast in the lead role, the film grossed more than $75 million, included several songs (by Robert and Richard Sherman) that became popular standards, and introduced the term "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" to English vocabulary. Its plot included elements from several Mary Poppins books but was mostly based on the first one. The film was adapted into a stage musical that had its premiere in London in 2004. The 1934 Mary Poppins had already been turned into a stage play around 1940, but Travers refused to give permission for a musical extravaganza by Cats creator Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Though well over 60 years old when the film appeared, Travers was not content to rest on her laurels. She served as writer-in-residence at Smith College in Massachusetts in 1966. She had continued to deepen her interest in mysticism and the occult, contributing articles to the world mythology magazine Parabola , and many of her later books reflected this interest. A lecture series she gave at Scripps College in California was turned into a book, In Search of the Hero: The Continuing Relevance of Myth and Fairy Tale (1970), and she penned the full-length study What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story in 1989, at the age of 90. Travers also wrote a biography of Gurdjieff, and her 1971 children's book Friend Monkey also reflected her study of world mythological literature; it was based on the Indian epic The Ramayana .
Travers remained active until the end of her life. She planned a Goodbye, Mary Poppins book in which she would terminate her character, but publishers and letters from upset children dissuaded her. She was given the Order of the British Empire in 1977. Although she was friendly to the parade of interviewers who came to her home in London's Chelsea district, she was usually reticent about the details of her own life, many of which emerged only with the publication of Lawson's biography in 1999. Travers died in London on April 23, 1996, at age 96.
Lawson, Valerie, Mary Poppins, She Wrote , Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults , 2nd ed., Gale, 2002.
Daily Mail (London, England), April 25, 1996.
Guardian (London, England), April 25, 1996.
Horn Book Magazine , September-October 1996.
New York Times , April 25, 1996.
Times (London, England), April 24, 1996.
"P(amela) L(yndon) Travers," Contemporary Authors Online , Gale, 2006, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (January 12, 2007).