Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways. Each Saturday I plan to highlight one of these remarkable women. There will be no limit to the areas of history that I may include; however as a guide I will look to the month of their birth, the month of their death or the month associated with their mark in history when I select them. Is there an outstanding women in history you would like me to include? I welcome your suggestions. Would you like to guest blog one of the world’s outstanding women? Let me hear from you.
To read previous posts in this segment, there is a menu at the top of my site. Another outstanding woman from the world of literature, meet P.L. Travers.
“Perhaps we are born knowing the tales of our grandmothers and all their ancestral kin continually run in our blood repeating them endlessly, and the shock they give us when we first bear them is not of surprise but of recognition.”
P.L. Travers was her pen name. She was born Helen Lyndon Goff on August 9, 1899, in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia. Her mother, Margaret Agnes Morehead, was the sister of the Premier of Queensland, Boyd Dunlp Morehead (Another source said niece, not sister). Her father, Travers Goff, was an unsuccessful bank manager and heavy drinker who died when she was 7. Called Lyndon as a child, in 1907 Travers moved with her mother and sisters to Bowral, New South Wales after her father’s death, where an aunt (the inspiration for her book Aunt Sass) had a sugar plantation. She lived there for 10 years until 1917, although boarded at Sydney’s Normanhurst Girls School during World War I.
Travers had a rich fantasy life and loved fairy tales and animals, often calling herself a hen. Her precocious reading led her to undertake The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and her writing talents emerged during her teens, when she began publishing poems in Australian periodicals, The Bulletin and Triad. Adopting the stage name Pamela (popular at the time) Lyndon Travers, she gained a modest reputation as a dancer and Shakespearean actress.
Her wealthy relatives, however, did not approve; feeling that Australians lacked humor and lyricism, she left for London, England in 1924, to seek the literary life. In London, she dedicated herself to writing under the pen name P. L. Travers. She began publishing articles in various papers, including poems that she had submitted to Irish Statesman. Its editor, George William Russell, pseudonymously known as AE, became a lifelong supporter of Travers. Through Russell, she also became friends with poet William Butler Yeats, and further explored her mythological interests studying with mystic G.I. Gurdjieff.
At the invitation of her friend, US Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, Travers spent two summers living among the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples studying their mythology and folklore. After the war, she became Writer-in-Residence at Radcliffe College and Smith College. She returned to England, making only one brief visit to Sydney in 1960 while on her way to Japan to study Zen mysticism.
Published in London in 1934, Mary Poppins was Travers’ first literary success. Sequels followed (the last in 1988). While appearing as a guest on BBC Radio 4’s radio program Desert Island Discs in May 1977, Travers revealed that the name “M. Poppins” originated from childhood stories that she contrived for her sisters, and that she was still in possession of a book from that age with this name inscribed within. Travers’ great aunt, Helen Morehead, who lived in Woollahra, Sydney, and used to say, ‘Spit spot, into bed’ is a likely inspiration for the character.
The Disney musical adaptation was released in 1964. Although Travers was an adviser to the production, she disapproved of the dilution of the harsher aspects of Mary Poppins’ character, felt ambivalent about the music, and so hated the use of animation that she ruled out any further adaptations of the later Mary Poppins novels. At the film’s star-studded premiere (to which she was not invited, but had to ask Walt Disney for permission to attend), she reportedly approached Disney and told him that the animated sequence had to go. Disney responded by walking away, saying as he did, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” Enraged at what she considered shabby treatment at Disney’s hands, Travers would never again agree to another Poppins/Disney adaptation, though Disney made several attempts to persuade her to change her mind.
So fervent was Travers’ dislike of the Disney adaptation and of the way she felt she had been treated during the production, that when producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her about the stage musical when she was into her 90s, she acquiesced on the condition that only English-born writers and no one from the film production were to be directly involved with creating the stage musical. This specifically excluded the Sherman Brothers from writing additional songs for the production. However, original songs and other aspects from the 1964 film were allowed to be incorporated into the production. Contrary to popular belief these points were not stipulated in her last will and testament. A section in her will (section 5-c) directs the trustees to follow her wishes regarding exploitation of her literary estate, but these wishes have not been made public.
The 2013 movie Saving Mr. Banks is a dramatized story about both the working process during the planning of Mary Poppins and also that of Travers’ early life, drawing parallels with Mary Poppins and that of the author’s childhood. The movie stars Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.
Though Travers had numerous fleeting relationships with men throughout her life, she lived for more than a decade with Madge Burnand, daughter of Sir Francis Burnand, a playwright and the former editor of Punch. They shared a London flat from 1927 to 1934, then moved to a thatched cottage in Sussex, where Travers published the first of the Mary Poppins books.
At the age of 40, two years after moving out on her own, Travers adopted a baby boy from Ireland whom she named Camillus Travers Hone. He was the grandchild of Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats’ first biographer, who was raising his seven grandchildren with his wife. Camillus had a twin brother named Anthony, but Travers chose only Camillus, based on advice from her astrologer.
Camillus was unaware of his true parentage or the existence of any siblings until the age of 17, when Anthony came to London and knocked on the door of Travers’ house. He had been drinking and demanded to see his brother. Travers refused to allow it and threatened to call the police. Anthony left but soon after, Camillus, after arguing with Travers, went looking for his brother and found him in a pub on Kings Road.
Travers was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1977. She lived into advanced old age, but her health was declining toward the end of her life. Travers died in London on 23 April 1996 at the age of 96. According to her grandchildren, Travers “died loving no one and with no one loving her.” Her son Camillus died in London in November 2011.
I selected her for today’s post because I love the story of Mary Poppins. I have never read her book but have seen the film many times. As her story was underway for my post, I started to know that I don’t like this woman. I chose to go forward with the post but I am not sure I believe she is an outstanding woman. To intentionally split up twins and just to follow what her astrologer advised was cruel. I don’t know what really went on between her and Walt Disney but in my mind, the film brought her story to the masses. It seems to me that her grandchildren summed it up with the statement “died loving no one with no one loving her.”