The strange life of the creator of Mary Poppins

PL Travers doesn't fit the stereotype of a children's author. In fact, she didn't even like children.

Mary Poppins, PL Travers's most famous creation.
Mary Poppins, PL Travers's most famous creation.

PL Travers, aged 60, is on a flight to Hollywood and her suitcase is too large for the luggage rack. They want to take it away but she insists she must keep her bag with her. A young woman with a baby in her arms generously allows her case to be taken down instead. Travers, far from grateful, eyes the baby coldly and says: “Will the child be a nuisance?” 

In the new film Saving Mr Banks, Emma Thompson is practically perfect at delivering the withering putdowns of Travers, reminding us that not all children’s authors are renowned for their love of children. Indeed, Travers claimed emphatically that she did not write for children at all. But the film is a fictionalised episode in a long, complex life.

Few knew that behind the quintessentially English nanny named Mary Poppins was an Australian. Five Mary Poppins books – including a translation of one into Latin, Maria Poppina ab A ad Z – had appeared by 1967 when Travers was featured in a “Meet the Author” feature in the first issue of Puffin Post magazine. “She lives at World’s End – what a suitable address for the author of Mary Poppins!” wrote Puffin’s editor, Kaye Webb. Travers told the magazine she had been “born in the southern wild” – a favourite line of hers, from Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy” – to a mother who had the eye of a snake. She also said a hunchbacked old Irishman once told her, “The only education you need is spitting.”

The southern wild was rural Queensland in 1899, and her childhood name was Helen Lyndon Goff, eldest of three daughters of a bank manager named Travers Goff (the first of many models for Mr Banks, the banker father in Mary Poppins), ignominiously demoted to clerk. By claiming to be steeped in the Celtic twilight – actually he was born in Deptford, south-east London – Goff passed on to his daughter his sentimental notions of Irishness, singing and keening over Yeats. He died of drink in his early 40s, whereupon a distinctly Mary Poppins-like great-aunt called Ellie – tall, gaunt and formidable, with maxims, mannerisms and a holdall – blew in from Woollahra to take charge of the family and pay Helen’s school fees.

Having changed her name to Pamela Travers, she took to the stage aged 20, playing Titania at Sydney’s old opera house in 1922. Then she switched to journalism and her output was prolific. She filled several columns with such titles as “Pamela Passes”, “The Moon and Sausages”, and “A Woman Hits Back”: “Men are never interested in women. They are only interested in showing women how interesting they are.” She reviewed theatre and produced the kind of swoony, yearning verses favoured by virgin poetesses in the 1920s (“Crush me close – close against your heart”) with coy references to “the fortress of my womanhood”.

Despite all this activity, she felt she must escape Australia and head for Ireland. “Don’t be an idiot! Ireland! Nothing but rain and rebels and a gabble of Gaelic!” cried Aunt Ellie. But to Dublin Travers went, and plunged into the literary milieu with chutzpah, contriving to captivate the poet George “Æ” Russell, who published her (“Only an Irish person could have written this poem,” he said), and even Yeats himself. In an extravagantly fey gesture, she gathered armfuls of rowan branches in the rain, from the island she thought was Innisfree, and delivered them to Yeats in Merrion Square. In return, Yeats showed her the egg his canary had just laid.

Intoxicated by Irish myths and folklore, Travers joined in the Dublin literati’s embrace of eastern philosophy, theosophy, Madame Blavatsky and other gurus. After her Irish spell she settled in London, where she was able to live by journalism, presenting her life as a whirlwind of excitements, approving Wilde’s dictum that “the first duty in life is to assume a pose”. She kept a dog and drove a battered sports car. She set up home in a Goldilocks cottage in Sussex with Madge Burnand, daughter of the editor of Punch – a prickly relationship that lasted ten years. (Travers never married, and fell romantically for both men and women.)

A trip to Moscow was the subject of her first book, which she dedicated “to HLG”, her previous self. Later Æ encouraged Travers to venture to New Mexico, where she took to tiered flouncy skirts and armfuls of silver bangles. She also fell unrequitedly for another Irishman, the boozing dandy Francis Macnamara, father of Caitlin Thomas. And like many in her circle,  she became an acolyte of the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff. It now seems incredible that intelligent people were emotionally needy enough to fall for the hocus pocus Gurdjieff peddled, and to be fleeced by his conmanship. Travers sat adoringly at his embalmed feet even after he died.

Travers claimed that she wrote her most famous creation for herself – as Beatrix Potter also claimed about Peter Rabbit. As early as 1926 she had published a short story, “Mary Poppins and the Match Man” (Poppins’s best friend, Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke in the film). In the first book, in 1934, she chose an androgynous byline, not to be identified as “one more silly woman writing silly books”, and gave Mary Poppins some of her own characteristics, making her tart, brusque and vain. Where did she come from? Travers, like Poppins, “never explained”. Mary Poppins was like Peter Pan, descending upon a middle-class London household, or Alice, tumbling down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland.  She confronted children with difficult truths, using fairy tales and myths.

In 1940, six years after the first Poppins book was published, the 40-year-old Travers felt such longing for a child that she arranged to go to Ireland and adopt one of the newborn twin grandsons of Joseph Hone, a friend of Yeats. She asked an astrologer in California to prepare the babies’ horoscopes and used his charts to choose Camillus, sailing almost at once with him to the US as an evacuee. Aged three, Camillus the solitary twin told her: “I am two boys, Goodly and Badly.” He travelled widely with her but was miserable at boarding school and became a difficult boy. 

Only aged 17 and bound for Oxford did he discover he was adopted, when his twin brother, Anthony, who had been raised as a Catholic by impoverished grandparents in Ireland turned up unannounced in London. Camillus was furious with his mother and their relationship was damaged. Eventually, like her father, both boys succumbed to alcoholism. In Victoria Coren Mitchell’s recent BBC2 documentary, Camillus’s daughter Kitty Travers said her father had used his concealed adoption forever “as an excuse for bad behaviour”.

Travers remained carefully unfamiliar to the public, being secretive and evasive: “I’m a private sort of person, as anonymous as possible – and that’s not humility.” Despite the stratospheric success of Disney’s film in 1964, she was no longer a household name in 1999, when Valerie Lawson’s excellent biography Out of the Sky She Came was published – used as source material for Saving Mr Banks, it has now been reissued as Mary Poppins, She Wrote.

Travers had always been peremptory and dogmatic about her creation, even in book form. She appointed E H Shepard’s daughter, Mary, as illustrator. She even wanted to choose her own typeface and resisted being paperbacked. It took years for Walt Disney to woo her. She did sign his contract before going to Hollywood (not afterwards, as the new film suggests). Yet she still expected deference and arrived prepared to do battle. The exchanges between Travers and Disney in Saving Mr Banks ring true. “There’s a child in all of us, Mrs Travers.” “Maybe in you, Mr Disney, but not in me.” In a snatch of archive tape, played as the film’s credits roll, Travers can be heard wrangling with the screenwriters, demanding gravitas, eliminating Americanisms (“No, no – that is quite un-English”). She sounds uncannily Thompson-like.

It is rather remarkable that Disney should make this film, which shows an English writer fighting to preserve her work from being travestied and trivialised by the very same studio. (A A Milne did just the same – it was not until 10 years after his death that Pooh developed an American accent in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree.) But Disney was right to excise from Mary Poppins the Zen mysticism and symbolism, about which academics had preposterously written lectures and learned papers. And although Disney’s songwriters the Sherman Brothers are on record as finding Travers “a hellcat” to work with (“like having two weeks of ulcers”), she comes across in the film as ultimately sympathetic, commanding respect for facing up with spirit to the Disney men. Travers was fond of saying that all women pass through three phases: nymph, mother, crone. She had just reached the crone stage – an extremely chic, slender crone with a bubble haircut.

Dodie Smith had a similar maxim: that all women decide to age into either a cushion or a needle. Smith was as needle-sharp as Travers and she too was beady-eyed about Walt Disney buying the rights to her first children’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, shortly before Travers succumbed. But Disney showed up in person at Smith’s thatched cottage in Suffolk and she was charmed. She had expected, she wrote, “a small, mean-looking Hollywood Jew; but he was tall, broad, mid-western and good-looking”.

As Lawson writes, in the initial days of Disney’s charm offensive, P L Travers “fell into Walt’s embrace like a lovesick fool, but the fortune he gave her almost made up for the betrayal”. She got $100,000 upfront and 5 per cent of the gross, so she had to forgive  “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and dancing penguins. And after five years of “uneasy wedlock”, the film emerged – unsubtle, sugary, sentimental; “gorgeous, but all wrapped round mediocrity of thought” – and won five Oscars. Sam Goldwyn wrote an open letter saying everyone in the world should see it. Never mind that Disney’s editions of Mary Poppins books outsold hers; her own sales trebled. She would later say that she had written “a small unpretentious book, but as full of meat as a sausage is. The film made it grandiose, pretentious and took all the stuffing out of the story.” But she always praised Julie Andrews and even thought Dick Van Dyke’s cockney was “really not too bad”. She discussed a possible sequel without objection.

In the 1960s Travers gravitated, as Isherwood and Huxley had earlier, to Jiddu Krishnamurti. She became writer-in-residence at Radcliffe, Smith and other American women’s campuses where she could be as opinionated and touchy as she liked. (Ted Hughes told her publishers that for Sylvia Plath, a Smith graduate, “Mary Poppins was the fairy godmother of her childhood.”) She was given an honorary doctorate, and in her seventies an OBE, plus the accolade of a Desert Island Discs. Her eight records were all poems, including Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and Alec Guinness reading from “Little Gidding”. In her Chelsea house she remained compos mentis almost till the end. “Actresses grow old, dancers grow wobbly, whereas a writer still has a typewriter,” she said, completing two more books, the last being What the Bee Knows

She died in 1996, too soon to see Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical in 2004, which struck an ideal note of magic and pathos; or the fleet of Mary Poppinses at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The irony is that just as Disney’s film whitewashed Mary Poppins (who in Travers’s original stories could be vindictive and almost sadistically cruel), Saving Mr Banks has done the same to Travers. As convincing as Emma Thompson is, the film shows just one dimension of Poppins’s creator – a neatly pressed version, without the hippyish bangles, weird superstitions or secretly adopted son. Travers, in turn, has been supercalifragilistically Disneyfied.

Valerie Grove’s books include “Dear Dodie: the Life of Dodie Smith” (Pimlico, £10.99)