Travers, P.L. (1906–1996)

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Travers, P.L. (1906–1996)

Australian-English theater and literary critic, writer on mythology and spirituality, who wrote the enormously popular "Mary Poppins" books. Name variations: Pamela Lyndon Travers. Born Helen Goff Travers on August 9, 1906, in Queensland, Australia; died at her London home on April 23, 1996; daughter of Robert Travers and Margaret (Goff) Travers (Irish-Scottish ranchers); educated at home, then in Australian schools; never married; no children.

Was a writer, actress and dancer in Australia; freelance writer in England (1924–40); published Mary Poppins (1934); lived in America (1940–45), England (1945–65); was writer-in-residence at Radcliffe College, Massachusetts (1965–66), at Smith College, Massachusetts (1966–67), at Scripps College, California (1970); returned to England (1976).

I have long held that the secret of the successful children's book is that it is not written for children.


Selected writings:

author of twelve books for children and seven for adults, including Mary Poppins (illustrated by Mary Shepard, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1934); Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935); (adult) Moscow Excursion (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1935); Happy Ever After (1940); I Go by Sea, I Go by Land (Harper, 1941); (adult) Aunt Sass (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941); Mary Poppins Opens the Door (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943); Mary Poppins in the Park (Harcourt, 1952); (adult) In Search of the Hero: The Continuing Relevance of Myth and Fairy Tale (Scripps College, 1970); Friend Monkey (Harcourt, 1971); (translator with Ruth Lewinnek) Karlfried Montmartin's The Way of Transformation (Allen & Unwin, 1971); (adult) George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (Traditional Studies, 1973); Two Pairs of Shoes (Viking, 1980); Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (Delacorte, 1982).

Pamela Travers, author of Mary Poppins, was a serious and prolific writer on mythology, legend, and spirituality, but the success of the Poppins books overshadowed her other literary accomplishments. Private, avoiding celebrity, and denying that she was a "children's writer," she lived in Australia, America, and England. She maintained an intense reserve on biographical questions and only a few fragments from her personal life are known to the many critics who have studied her. No more than occasional glimpses in her early poetry provide clues about her romantic life, her forms of support, or her motives for moving to England and America.

Travers was born in 1906 in Queensland, Australia, and grew up on a sugar cane plantation beside the Great Barrier Reef, to a family of mixed Scottish and Irish ancestry. Her parents gave her no encouragement in her early experiments in storytelling, and let her spend long periods alone making "nests," sometimes for migrating birds and sometimes for herself. Her mother used to read romantic novels which as a child Travers found astonishingly dull: "The characters were all stationary figures; like waxworks they never did anything, never went anywhere, no teeth were ever brushed, no one was reminded to wash, and if they ever went to bed it was not explicitly stated." Much more exciting, in her view, was a book entitled Twelve Deathbed Scenes from her father's shelf. Designed to be edifying, it caused her "to long to die, on condition, of course, that I came alive again the next minute, to see if I, too, could pass away with equal misery and grandeur." She also loved the most gruesome stories from Grimm's fairy tales and from the Old Testament, once embarrassing her father with the question: "What is a concubine?"

In 1914, her father died. The seven-year-old Travers, along with her two younger sisters, went to live with her Aunt Christina in New South Wales, who later became the subject of her book Aunt Sass (1941). She first attended a local school and then a boarding school where she became an enthusiastic actress and playwright. Travers was offered a role on the Sydney stage at the age of ten but her mother forbade it. From earliest childhood, she had been writing stories, and directing and acting in her own plays. At the age of 16, possibly dissatisfied with home and school life where she was expected to shoulder burdens beyond her years, she joined a traveling company of dancers and actors, and soon began to work as a freelance writer of journalism and poetry. Saving her money from these assignments, she was able to immigrate to England in 1924, where she continued to sell work to magazines and newspapers. Early poems describe her search for love. In "The Plane Tree" (1927), she compares the unhappy ending of a love-affair to the falling of summer foliage which leaves nature starkly revealed:

I know you now. Winter has laid you bare
Of green falsehood and gold disguise.
Farewell the traitor leaves and the soft drone
Of cozening branches lying to the wind.

In Ireland, where she went in search of her father's relatives, she met the poet A.E. (George William Russell), who accepted her poetry for publication in his journal The Irish Statesman, introduced her to Indian mythology, and would take a keen interest in the ancestry of her fictional creation Mary Poppins. She nursed Russell in his last illness and was present at his death in Dublin in 1935. Biographer Patricia Demers thinks that much of her subsequent work was a playing out of themes introduced to her, or encouraged, by him during their close friendship. Russell also introduced her to William Butler Yeats, by then the grand old man of Irish literature, who encouraged her literary ambitions and shared a similar enthusiasm for fairy tales, legends, and magic. On a visit to see him, she gathered branches from rowan trees on the Isle of Innisfree, subject of one of his most famous poems.

Travers wrote Mary Poppins in an ancient thatched Sussex cottage, while recovering from an illness, and published it in 1934, but the character had been familiar to her since childhood. She had told her younger sister Mary Poppins stories when they were both children, and had written "M. Poppins" inside the cover of one of her own books when she was seven. The Banks family's nursemaid Mary Poppins is a magical being with a large fund of common sense, much less sentimental than her later personification in the movie, and imperious in her demands on the children she cares for. Having the outward appearance of an old-fashioned nanny, tall and thin, vain and prim, she flies through the air with the help of a parrot-headed umbrella, slides up the banisters, can whisk her charges around the world, or back in time, and resents receiving any instructions from her ostensible employers. She takes the children to the zoo one evening where they are lectured by a wise old snake, the Hamadryad. Mary Poppins refuses to explain her conduct or the nature of her magic. And she is always her own boss, coming or going as she pleases.

Mary Poppins, with illustrations by Mary Shepard , was an instant success—Travers claimed that she did not try to write for children, but just assumed that they would understand what she had written. "If you look at other so-called children's authors, you'll see they never wrote directly for children," she wrote. "Though Lewis Carroll dedicated his book to Alice, I feel it was an afterthought once the whole was already committed to paper…. And I think the same can be said of Milne or Tolkien or Laura Ingalls Wilder ." Travers declined to explain to curious readers how Mary Poppins could work her magic or where she came from, though she did write five vastly popular sequels, elaborating the mystery. Much later, in 1981 she rewrote a section of the original book which included black children speaking in dialect, because black parents groups had protested it as racist and urged its removal from libraries and schools in San

Francisco. Travers was annoyed at having to submit to this pressure, arguing that children of all races enjoyed the book (it was already translated into 25 languages). "I wonder sometimes, how much disservice is done children by some individuals who occasionally offer, with good intentions, to serve as their spokesmen."

During the 1930s, Travers wrote regularly for a new magazine, the New English Weekly, and remained a faithful contributor until it folded in 1949. T.S. Eliot was one of its editorial advisors and she reviewed enthusiastically the first performances of several of his plays, including Murder in the Cathedral. She was a regular drama reviewer, willing to criticize the leading actors and directors of the era in London and Stratford and often expressing the opinion that British theater needed a transfusion of new blood. Theater, which she knew from both sides of the footlights, seemed to her a rich and expressive art. "The theater is the authentic link between person and person," she wrote in a 1937 review, "the common denominator of humanity and the means by which the dramatic element in man is released and projected into actuality. We know ourselves not merely by inward but also by outward looking and the theater, of all the secondary arts, provides the greatest natural arena for the clash or contact of self with other." She contributed reviews of 17 Shakespeare plays in the 1930s, writing on at least one of the tragedies, Hamlet, five times.

Travers also wrote book reviews and travel pieces and in 1934 made a guided tour of the Soviet Union, which she commemorated in her second book Moscow Excursion (1934). She had no explicit political views to vindicate, unlike many literary pilgrims to the early Soviet Union, but she found the endless trumpeting of industrial and agricultural achievements rather hard to bear and much preferred seeing a Russian version of Hamlet in a Moscow theater. She also bristled at the knowing falsification of history presented to her by official guides and booklets, and by the disappointing realization that "the new State, wrested so nobly and with such heroism from chaos during the Ten Days, has developed merely into a new and more vigorous form of bourgeois bureaucracy. Looking for the New one is brought up rudely against the Old—garnished and prinked out in a new hat, of course, but recognizably the old." She added that in a world "rocking madly between Fascism and Communism" she would prefer the latter tyranny if forced to choose but that it would be a "desolate alternative." She also recognized at once, with her mythopoeic outlook, that the idealized "Worker" and the mummified Lenin were the trappings of a parody religion rather than the alleged antithesis of all religion.

Shepard, Mary (1909–2000)

English illustrator. Name variations: Mary Eleanor Jessie Knox. Born Mary Eleanor Jessie Shepard on December 25, 1909, in Surrey, England; died in London on September 4, 2000; daughter of Ernest H. Shepard (the illustrator) and Florence Eleanor (Chaplin) Shepard (an artist); attended Slade School of Art; married Edmund George Valpy Knox (an editor for Punch), on October 2, 1937 (died January 2, 1971); children: (stepdaughter) Penelope Knox (d. 1999) who under her married name of Penelope Fitzgerald wrote novels.

Mary Shepard was born on Christmas Day, 1909, in Surrey, England, the daughter of Ernest H. Shepard and Florence Chaplin Shepard , both artists. Florence died when her daughter was 17. Mary Shepard followed in the footsteps of her illustrious father who had illustrated A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" series, among others. In fact, in 1932 P.L. Travers had first approached Ernest to do the "Mary Poppins" series. When he had to beg off because of overwork, the assignment went to Mary.

In 1937, Mary married E.V. Knox, a widower and the editor of Punch. At the time, Mary was only seven years older than Knox's daughter Penelope, who would later be known as the author Penelope Fitzgerald . As Penelope grew older, she and Mary became like sisters, living near each other, and talking daily. Shepard, who spent her last years in a nursing home, died in September 2000. She was so modest, wrote Eden Ross Lipson, that she "did not wish to be buried with her husband in the pretty Hampstead cemetery because her name would add clutter to his stone." Rather, Penelope's children arranged for twin stones to be placed next to Knox's: one for their mother who had died in 1999 and one for Mary.


Lipson, Eden Ross. "Mary Shepard Dies at 90," in The New York Times. October 2, 2000, B8.

When the Second World War began, Travers was one of few British residents to welcome the nightly blackout, which most regarded as a terrible ordeal. It was, she wrote in 1939, an "ancient recreating fountain of darkness," in which London "swings now to earth's rhythm, goes with the sun and calmly obeys the law." A literary celebrity by 1940, she accepted an invitation from the Ministry of Education to visit the United States. Arriving by ship via Canada, she wrote a series of 12 "Letters from another world" for the New English Weekly, describing the American political scene in the days before American entry into the war. Another children's book, I Go by Sea, I Go by Land (1941), was based on her Atlantic voyage with a shipload of evacuees, but was seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl. Homesick for England but unable to return through the hazardous North Atlantic, she had the chance to visit a Navaho Indian reservation in New Mexico. She spoke about her writing to tribal meetings, bought native clothes, and received a secret initiation name from the tribe—events she frequently referred to in later interviews. She remained fascinated by the southwest and was an admirer of Carlos Castenada's novels about Mexican-Indian religion in the 1970s and 1980s.

Travers was back in London at the end of World War II, working once more for the New English Weekly and, following its failure in 1949, for several other English periodicals. In 1962, she published The Fox at the Manger, a tale of the animals which witnessed Christ's birth, which are joined by a fox, the wild animal that, she said, had been most harshly treated by earlier storytellers. Walt Disney made the musical film of Mary Poppins in 1963, starring Julie Andrews as Mary but mixing human and animated characters for the second time in Hollywood's history. Travers, now in her late 50s, was a consultant on the set and made Disney agree to certain stipulations, such as setting the film in the Edwardian era (rather than in the 1930s setting of the books) and not involving Mary Poppins in a romance. Even though it enriched her and pleased her in some ways, Travers said that the film was nothing like the books. She hoped it would stimulate a new interest in them rather than becoming their substitute. Later that year Travers posed for a statue of Mary Poppins being carved for New York's Central Park to stand beside the statues of Hans Christian Andersen and Alice in Wonderland, though due to planning and siting problems it was never installed.

In the mid- and late-1960s, she spent several years as writer-in-residence at American colleges—Radcliffe and Smith in Massachusetts and then Scripps College in Claremont, California. While working at Scripps, she published the text of a speech which summarizes many of her views, In Search of the Hero: The Continuing Relevance of Myth and Fairy Tale (1970), arguing against the demystification of life and literature and against the idea of a sharp separation between the thoughts and lives of children and adults. Reverting to this theme in a later article, she deplored the fact that "we grown-ups have become so timid that we bowdlerize, blot out, retell and gut the real stories for fear that truth, with its terrible beauty, should burst upon the children. Perhaps," she added "it is because we have lived through a period of such horror and violence that we tremble at the thought of inflicting truth upon the young. But children have strong stomachs. They need to know what is true." She gave an address to the Library of Congress in 1967 and became a familiar figure on the American literary landscape.

In this period, she also shared the widespread countercultural fascination with Eastern religion—a theme in her work ever since her friendship with George Russell. Now she wrote George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1973) about one of the gurus of the era, and spent several years studying with a master of Zen Buddhism. She

also contributed frequent articles to Parabola, a magazine of mythology and spirituality, and was one of its editors from its founding in 1976. In an early article, she discussed England's bronze age fortifications and stone circles with archaeologist Michael Dames. She showed that she did not allow her interest in these ancient places of worship to carry her off into the crackpot realm of latter-day Druids, but that she was emotionally gripped by the sense of continuity between ancient generations and her own. She compared crawling into an Irish burial mound with being born, adding: "I was overcome with the vibrations and the sense of power that was in this place…. One's whole body was vivified; it was almost unbearable." In later issues, she frequently contributed interpretations of fairy tales and folk-myths, and mythological short stories.

In the early 1970s, Travers was living in New York, where she wrote Friend Monkey, based on the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman who is both lively and sorrowful, and creates chaos wherever he goes at the time of Queen Victoria 's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Neither it nor a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty myth were well received by critics, who saw them as heavy handed, didactic, and lacking the sharp edges which made Mary Poppins such a pleasure. Travers returned to England in 1976 to live in the affluent London district of Chelsea, in a terraced house with a pink front door, and published the last of the Mary Poppins books, Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, in 1988. She remained prolific and active through her 70s and 80s.


Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 54. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989, pp. 148–162.

Demers, Patricia. P.L. Travers. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1991.

Travers, Pamela. "I Never Wrote for Children," in The New York Times Magazine. July 2, 1978, pp. 10–12, 14.

——. "The Art of Fiction," in Paris Review. Vol. 86, Winter 1982, pp. 211–229.

——. Moscow Excursion. NY: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1934.

——, and Michael Dames. "If She's Not Gone She Still Lives There," in Parabola. Vol. 3, 1978, pp. 78–91.

related media:

Mary Poppins, Walt Disney musical film, starring Julie Andrews, Glynis Johns , and Dick Van Dyke, 1963 (for which Travers was a consultant).

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia