Travers Goff: Don't you ever stop dreaming. You can be anyone you want to be.~from Saving Mr. Banks (2013)Saving Mr. Banks starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson shows the emotional devastation connected to a troubled childhood while at the same time affirming the healing nature of art and storytelling. In the case of both Walt Disney (Hanks) and Pamela Travers (Thompson) the pain and hardship of youth sharpened the creativity by which both would entertain children for many generations with the tale of Mary Poppins. A few years ago The New Yorker had an article about the making Disney's Mary Poppins, here:
“Mary Poppins” advocates the kind of family life that Walt Disney had spent his career both chronicling and helping to foster on a national level: father at work, mother at home, children flourishing. It is tempting to imagine that in Travers he found a like-minded person, someone who embodied the virtues of conformity and traditionalism. Nothing could be further from the truth....
Children’s authors are not known for their happy childhoods, and Helen Goff—the little girl who at twenty-one changed her name to Pamela Travers and never looked back—endured one that was almost archetypal in its sadness and its privations. She was born in Australia in 1899, the eldest daughter in a household of girls. Her father, Travers Goff, was a bank manager and a drinker, and he died when she was seven. Valerie Lawson, the author of the only comprehensive biography of Pamela Travers, notes that “epileptic seizure delirium” was given as the cause of death, but says Pamela Travers “always believed the underlying cause was sustained, heavy drinking.” Her mother, Margaret, who was pretty and feckless, soldiered on for a few years, and then, when Helen was ten, she did what a mother is never supposed to do. She gave up.One night, in the middle of a thunderstorm, Margaret left Helen in charge of the two younger children, telling her that she was going to drown herself in a nearby creek. As an old woman, Travers wrote about the terrifying experience: “Large-eyed, the little ones looked at me—she and I called them the little ones, both of us aware that an eldest child, no matter how young, can never experience the heart’s ease that little ones enjoy.” Helen stirred the fire and then they all lay down on the hearth rug and she told them a story about a magical flying horse, with the small ones asking excited questions (“Could he carry us to the shiny land, all three on his back?”). As she tried to distract her siblings, she worried about the future. She later wrote, “What happens to children who have lost both parents? Do they go into Children’s Homes and wear embroidered dressing-gowns, embroidery that is really darning?” That predicament—the fate of children whose parents can’t take care of them—haunted her for the rest of her life.
Margaret came back that night, having been unsuccessful in her suicide attempt, but Helen’s mind was made up. She no longer cleaved to her unreliable, dithering mother but, rather, to a formidable maiden great-aunt, Helen Morehead. Aunt Ellie, as she was called, bossed everyone around, but her fierceness disguised a kindness she would have been embarrassed to admit.Share
If it was possible to be a rebellious teen-ager in the girls’ schools of Sydney in the nineteen-tens, then Travers was one. She studied elocution and eventually joined a travelling Shakespeare company, playing the role of Lorenzo in “The Merchant of Venice.” She wrote for the Christchurch Sun, and for the literary magazine The Triad, where she was the author of a saucy column called “A Woman Hits Back” and often published her erotic ruminations. (Travers, inviting her readers to imagine her taking off her underwear: “The silky hush of intimate things, fragrant with my fragrance, steal softly down, so loth to rob me of my last dear concealment.”) She was loose-limbed and boyish—no beauty—but her phenomenal self-regard and quick, vicious wit drew attention. By 1924, she had decided that she had outgrown the antipodes, and bought a ticket on a passenger ship of the White Star Line bound for Southampton, hoping to make her fame and fortune as a writer in London.
Once there, Travers found work as a journalist, filing stories for the Sun and eventually writing theatre reviews. Fleet Street was a man’s world, and she was a man’s girl. Flirtatious, charming, smart, unmarried, and a welcome addition to the convivial pub scene, she had the bounder’s willingness to press her work on anyone who might help her, and when her submission of poems to the Irish Statesman was met with a promising letter from its editor, the poet George Russell—known as A.E.—she went to Dublin to see him. A.E., a married man of fifty-six, was a reckless encourager of young people. His literary connections extended from the house next door—the Dublin home of Yeats—to New York and the Continent, and he offered them all to Travers. A theosophist, he urged her to take up the study of mysticism, which became a lifelong preoccupation. They began a relationship that was filial, intellectual, and marked by romantic gestures. It lasted until his death, ten years later.
The most important of A.E.’s introductions, however, was not professional. He had a hunch that Travers would take a liking to another single girl living in London, Madge Burnand, the daughter of one of his friends, the former editor of Punch. The two women hit it off immediately. In 1931, they set up housekeeping in a cottage in Sussex. Madge did the cooking, while Pamela wrote poems for the Irish Statesman, and essays for the New English Weekly, where she later served on the board with T. S. Eliot. It was there, in the winter of 1933, that she succumbed to a bout of pleurisy, took to her bed, and began to write.
Travers chose as her subject one of the great English preoccupations: nursery life. More to the point, within that subject she located a rich and relatively untapped vein of experience—the relationship between a nanny and her charges. Travers was writing at the end of a groundbreaking epoch of children’s literature that included the works of Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, J. M. Barrie, and A. A. Milne, each of them annexing vast territories of children’s experience. Several years earlier, Travers had published a newspaper short about a comical nanny named Mary Poppins. More recently, A.E.—whose advice usually succeeded only in making her bad poetry worse—had given her an inspired suggestion: he thought that she should write a story about a witch. Now the idea struck her: why not make Mary Poppins into a shape-shifter?We tend to think of the British nanny—formally trained, bred to the job, imperious, unflappable, and immaculately turned out—as one of England’s oldest traditions. She was actually a relatively short-lived institution. Born in the early days of Victoria’s reign, when industrialization and a population explosion among both the poor and the middle class brought the two groups together in a highly regimented and hierarchical servant culture, she had all but disappeared by the end of the Second World War. The middle-class house that was populated with specialized servants became a thing of the past, and nannies evolved into an accoutrement strictly of upper-class life, associated with the aristocracy.
Travers’s story, which unfolded over the course of an eventual eight books, is set in Depression-era London, and describes a world in decline. The Banks family, though solidly middle class, is racked with financial anxieties, and possessed of “the smallest house in the Lane,” which is “rather dilapidated and needs a coat of paint.” Nonetheless, they have a retinue of servants: “Mrs. Brill to cook for them, and Ellen to lay the tables, and Robertson Ay to cut the lawn and clean the knives and polish the shoes and, as Mr. Banks always said, ‘to waste his time and my money,’ ” as well as a nurse, Katie Nanna, for their four children. Mrs. Banks keeps busy running the household, going to tea, and, when she can, putting her feet up. Mr. Banks works at a bank.
Obviously, Travers did not write her books to commemorate a happy childhood, but she did seem interested in rewriting her bad one. The Banks family is a reformed version of the Goffs, their charming features magnified and their failures burnished away. Father is a banker, although not a drunk; mother is a flibbertigibbet, although not a suicidal one. And Mary Poppins, like Aunt Ellie, is the great deflater, the enemy of any attempt at whimsy or sentiment. (“ ‘I smell snow,’ said Jane as they got out of the Bus. ‘I smell Christmas trees,’ said Michael. ‘I smell fried fish,’ said Mary Poppins.”) But she is also an everyday enchantress, a woman who will scold a child for wearing a coat in a warm room but also one who will take her charges to a midnight congress of animals at the zoo, and on an afternoon trip around the world.
The literary Mary Poppins is by no means an untroubling character. Indeed, at the end of the first chapter of the first book—in which she arrives as a shape hurled against the front door in the midst of a gale, assumes the form of a woman, bullies Mrs. Banks into hiring her, snaps at the children, and doses them with a mysterious potion after she gets them alone in the nursery—she earns only a qualified endorsement: “And although they sometimes found themselves wishing for the quieter, more ordinary days when Katie Nanna ruled the household, everybody, on the whole, was glad of Mary Poppins’s arrival.” She is, in fact, very often “angry,” “threatening,” “scornful,” and “frightening.” She calls the children cannibals, jostles them down the stairs, and makes them eat so quickly that they fear they will choke. She has a habit of saving the children from horrifying supernatural experiences, it’s true, but this would seem more of a boon if she herself hadn’t brought them on in revenge for naughtiness. Often, she seems like someone who doesn’t like children much.
Still, they love her. It is Mary Poppins who puts the children to bed and unbuttons their overcoats and bathes them; Mary Poppins who, familiar to the children simply by her scent—toast and Sunlight soap—comes to their bedsides and comforts them with warm milk and quiet words. It is Mary Poppins who earns the deepest love a child has to offer: that which is bound in his trusting dependence on the person who provides his physical care. “Mary Poppins,” Michael cries in anguish the first night she has come to care for them. “You’ll never leave us, will you?” It’s the great question of childhood, the question upon which all the Mary Poppins books turn: is the person on whom a child relies for the foundation of his existence—food and warmth and love at its most elemental—about to disappear?
“I’ll stay till the wind changes,” she tells him honestly, and at the first book’s end she leaves abruptly. Mrs. Banks is furious; the children are heartbroken. “Mary Poppins is the only person I want in the world,” Michael shrieks, throwing himself on the floor. His outburst would be doubly wounding to the modern mother: her child would be suffering and she would be reminded of the love she had forfeited to an employee. But Mrs. Banks is untroubled by either fact. Her concerns are for the disruption of her household. She and Mr. Banks have a dinner party to attend, and it’s the maid’s day off.
The “Mary Poppins” books are transfixing and original, trading sharp drawing-room comedy with fantastical adventures and carefully rendered scenes of servant life. Travers wrote the first volume quickly, patching together the episodes of Mary Poppins and the children with those of Mary’s excursions—to her own “Fairyland,” on a private jaunt with Bert. It was likely Madge who sent the manuscript to a London publisher, Gerald Howe. He accepted it immediately, and then Travers chose an illustrator, a young woman named Mary Shepard, whose father, Ernest Shepard, had illustrated the “Winnie-the-Pooh” books. It was the beginning of a long, fruitful, and often unhappy relationship. Shepard illustrated all of the “Mary Poppins” books, though often with some bitterness: Travers allowed her almost no license in how she composed images. Travers was intimately involved in all aspects of the physical production of her books, including the color of the dust jackets and the typeface.
Travers sent the book to press with some trepidation, fearing that a children’s book might undermine her hard-won literary cachet. She considered releasing the book anonymously, but her publisher wouldn’t hear of it. In the end, she need not have worried. The book, which came out in 1934, was not only popular with children but well received by the audience whose opinion she valued most. T. S. Eliot, who was then an editor at Faber and Faber, expressed interest; Ted Hughes later wrote to tell her that Sylvia Plath had loved “Mary Poppins.” Princess Margaret and Caroline Kennedy were both admirers. Over the course of the “Mary Poppins” run—the last book was published in 1988—the series was increasingly influenced by Travers’s study of spiritualism, myth, and the occult. But domestic scenes were always her strength. A review of the second book in the series, “Mary Poppins Comes Back,” which appeared in this magazine in 1935, observed of the main character: “To our taste, she and her little charges are at their best when they are fixed firmly on the ground, snapping tartly at each other in the very human and cluttery nursery of the Banks family.” (Read more.)