Tag Archives: P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson – and Mary Poppins’ Age

I was recently trying to read Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, by Valerie Lawson, and quite frankly I got bored. My reading progress was slowing down to almost nil and that is always a sign to me that I should give up. There are too many books I want to read to get bogged down by dull books. I picked up several other books about Jane Austen and Mary Astor and it’s amazing how much reading I’ve gotten done since.

I used to feel intensely guilty about not finishing a book, but I’ve developed a scheme to help me. If I am one-third of the way through a book and I still don’t like it or am struggling, then I can put it down. If I’m halfway through or more, then I just need to push through, boring or not. But I was two-thirds of the way through Mary Poppins, She Wrote, however, I was making such desultory progress and there were so many books I had from the library, sitting in a basket, begging me to read them, that I finally gave up. I felt instant release.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. TraversMary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers by Valerie Lawson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps I just wasn’t interested enough in the life of P.L. Travers. She seems to have been a very unhappy woman, always seeking peace or solace in the spiritual. She was very interested in the mystical and seems to have had fraught relationships with a variety of people, but the books very rarely explains in what way. It’s all surface detail or assertion. I’ve read books that contain a lot of surface detail – usually because there really is no personal information available – but do a better job of connecting that person’s life with the times they live in. In this, we never get a sense of any of her relationships with others, even with her adopted son, Camillus. We learn she was born in Australia, did some acting, wrote some poetry, went to England, wrote Mary Poppins, adopted a son without taking his twin, went to America during WWII, and so on, but it’s just cold facts.

I did glean a few interesting facts about the character and origins of Mary Poppins, however. One of the first mentions of Mary Poppins was in a short story Travers wrote while she was still in Australia. Mary Poppins was the seventeen years old nanny who goes out with her boyfriend, the match man, and they jump into a chalk picture and have tea. Apparently, Travers took the whole short story and put it into her book, presumably minus the romance. She was reportedly annoyed that Disney chose that particular episode to go in the movie.

Another interesting tidbit is about Mary Poppins’ age. I always thought she was in her late thirties or early forties (though my sister tells me she always imagined her younger) and Walt Disney apparently was concerned that she was, too. He asked Travers and she replied that Mary Poppins is between twenty-four and twenty-seven…so Julie Andrews, at almost thirty, was actually about the correct age.

1 Comment

Posted by on June 20, 2014 in Biographies


Tags: , , , , , ,

Mary Poppins – by P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins, #1)Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Mary Poppins when I was twelve, but at the time I was more interested in authors like Jane Austen or Agatha Christie. But when Saving Mr. Banks came out my interest in the book was renewed, though perhaps I read it too intellectually. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had let myself read it for pleasure instead of looking for it’s meaning.

The general assessment is that is all about order. Mary Poppins comes and puts the Banks’ lives in order, but she also introduces them to quite a few disorderly things…at least to the children. She has a kind of dual nature.

She is a mysterious nanny. She comes, she bides a while and takes care of Jane, Michael and the twins, John and Barbara, and she departs…with the promise that she will return. She doesn’t come with any stated or unstated goal. She just takes care of the children, and because of knowing her they are exposed to the magical world that she lives in. She interacts quite as a matter of course with animals, she pops into a chalk picture with Bert the match man, she is acquainted with a star from the constellation Pleiades, her uncle gets filled with laughing gas on certain birthdays and floats in the air.

There is stability in the house, but also the expectation that something marvelous could happen at any time, though usually not in the house. Mary Poppins is both reassuringly solid, stable and no-nonsense, but also extraordinary, mysterious and slightly unpredictable (unpredictable not because she is capricious, but because she is unknown).

One thing that fascinated me is this subtle theme of terror or the frequent use of the word ‘terrible.’ The word is used several times by Travers. She uses the word in reference to Mary Poppins, Mrs, Corry and the snake they meet at the zoo. Mrs. Corry’s children are terrified of their mother, the animals are terrified of the snake. Jane and Michael never quite feel terror, but Mary Poppins certainly gives them a lot of terrible glances.

According to Valerie Lawson in her book, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, “But Poppins had yet another aspect. Something sinister lay behind the blue button eyes and flowerpot hat. As P. (Pamela) L. Travers…wrote, every good fairy has her evil counterpart, the necessary antagonist.” She continues, “Poppins has lasted because she is as peculiar as she is kind, as threatening as she is comforting, as stern as she is sensual, as elusive as she is matter of fact.”

Mary Poppins is a fairy tale, but in a much more traditional way. Our modern understanding of fairy tales is hugely influenced by Disney films, but the original fairy tales were far darker. Mary Poppins comes from older fairy tales, with a dash of mythology – the snake, a Hamadryad, is a mythological creature that bonds with a tree and is related to nymphs. The star, Maia, is also a mythological character.

Travers said in an interview that the book was “entirely spontaneous and not invented, not thought out.” However, she said that it had been pointed out, and she had come to believe, that Mary Poppins represented the Mother Goddess and that it was a Zen story that people could read anything into.

She also commented that she did not write the book specifically for children. She felt that children’s literature is a genre created by the publishers. However, she did feel that reading myths and nursery rhymes is the best method for teaching children because they are not a direct means of teaching, but lessons are imparted indirectly. One example she gave was Humpty-Dumpty, which teaches that not all things are possible. Her book, Mary Poppins, is the same. With Mary Poppins leaving at the end, she imparts the understanding that not all things last.

Another thing that interested me about Mary Poppins is how she does not seem to command magic, she is part of the magic. The Hamadryad tells Jane and Michael, during their Zoo adventure, that they are all one and Mary Poppins somehow seems to be able to do what she does because she is actually aware that she is one with everything. This is what makes her unique from everyone else. Her knowledge is her power.

View all my reviews


Posted by on June 3, 2014 in Children's Literature


Tags: , , ,

Saving Mr. Banks and Thoughts on Disney and Travers

2013  Starring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell – Directed by John Lee Hancock


Saving Mr. Banks was a bit of a disappointment to me, but it did make an impact, mostly before I’d even seen it. I was not aware of the story of how Walt Disney coaxed, cajoled and finessed his way to the rights of Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, who was a complicated woman (to put it mildly) and highly protective of her work; so even before I saw the movie, I developed a reawakened interest in the film version Mary Poppins, Walt Disney, the Mary Poppins books and a new interest in P.L. Travers. In that respect, the movie was highly successful.

However, when I finally saw it, the actual movie was a letdown. I was slightly bored. I feel it was a movie that would have benefited from a tighter narrative. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are marvelous as Disney and Travers. Hanks is exactly how I imaged Disney was (at least when dealing with people outside his staff) and Thompson’s Travers is so acerbic, but brittle and seems on the verge of breaking any minute. But what I wanted was to see more of them.

But there are frequent flashbacks to Travers’ childhood, which contain no particular tension and goes by like a sluggish dream. I’ve been watching a lot of old movies and it has surprised me how effective it is to eschew flashbacks and simply have a character tell their story or the story of someone else, and perhaps that would have been difficult to do, but it seems Saving Mr. Banks would have been stronger if it had stayed in the present tense and revealed her past in some other way.

What really intrigued me about the film were the reactions to it. Many people enjoyed the film and though they sympathized with Travers, were glad the books were turned into the movie so many know and love. On the other hand, other people viewed the film as a travesty, perpetuating the travesty of another film. One writer felt Saving Mr. Banks showed Travers being steamrolled by corporate Disney, which then committed artistic rape and turned her books into a simplistic, sugary concoction.

They argued that Travers was not portrayed as a fully creative human, but a one-dimensional pill. Others argue that the film is about a specific slice of time and that she really was a pill in those recordings of their meetings.

The author of the screenplay, Kelly Marcel, defended her choice to change the ending (Travers cried during the premier because she was dismayed by the movie, but Marcel turns her tears into a cathartic moment regarding her father) and she said, “It just wasn’t the story I was telling. I was telling the story of the father and the daughter. For me, this movie is not about the making of Mary Poppins, it’s about parents’ relationships with their children, and redemption, and forgiveness, and how our relationships with our parents affect us as adults.” The interviewer, however, came down on the side of Travers’ books and felt that the ending is a betrayal of her.

In fairness, I think one’s reaction might have a lot to do with how much you like the movie and how much you like the books. If you feel the movie was a cloying, simplistic version of the more complicated books, then the movie might look like a celebration of a desecration. If you liked the movie, however, then it might seem like an interesting story about the making of a movie you cherished and a bit about the life of the woman who inspired it.

Saving-Mr-Banks-660x330[1]Whatever the film is, it is not meant to be biographical. It could have dealt with other aspects of her life, like the fact that she was a mother, but perhaps the screenwriter felt that if we had dealt with it the audience might have had less sympathy for her since she apparently had a fraught relationship with her son, Camillus, whose widow said she was relieved that he was not mentioned in the film.

It’s fairly respectful of P.L. Travers, despite concerns that the film wants us to celebrate Disney bullying her into giving him the rights. There is some self-reflective, gentle poking at Disneyfication. It’s subtle, but the audience is clearly invited to identify with Travers and not Walt Disney. We are looking at Disney through her eyes when he invites her to go to Disneyland or when her room is filled with Disney paraphernalia. Walt Disney is largely opaque in the movie, which is appropriate, since the film is not about him. The movie allows the audience to see their opinions reflected in Travers’ expressed opinions, like when she complains that the movie makes life seem too easy when Mary Poppins used her magic to do things like clean their room.

If Travers seems one-dimensional in the film, it’s possibly because the script is focused specifically on her and her relationship with her father. People are made up of many relationships, but because of the specific focus, we only see one side of her. Perhaps if the flashbacks had included more of her life past her childhood…perhaps not. Perhaps I don’t know what I wanted from the film. 🙂

Some Thoughts

The film has also brought out some debate regarding Walt Disney. I’ve been a little surprised at the animus directed at him. I’ve been reading a biography about him and honestly, he seems no more worthy of animus than any other studio head at the time. He’s been called antisemitic, a closet Nazi and a racist – none of which is true, though he had the usual insensitivity of his era. It’s not that I’m excusing him, but I feel that he is as much a fully human, creative individual as Travers and they both deserved to be understood as such.

The truly lovely aspect to all the debate is that whatever movies are made and however people are misunderstood or misrepresented, the original books still remain to be read, the real Travers and Disney remain to be understood, the movie Mary Poppins remains, and at least what Saving Mr. Banks did is to remind us of that.

Some Links

Margaret Lyons writes in an article on Vulture about some of the things the movie did not cover about Travers’ life and also felt that the film portrayed Travers as a “joyless, loveless pedant finally giving herself over to the delight and imagination of the Wonderful World of Disney” instead of “a creative, passionate person, with dignity and real emotions, getting steamrolled by one of the most powerful companies in the world.”

Aisha Harris, on Slate’s Culture Blog, analyzes the accuracies and inaccuracies of the film’s portray of the meeting between Disney and Travers.

Jerry Griswold, in an article on SDSU Children’s Literature, agrees largely with Lyons. He writes, “call Emma Thompson’s character anybody else, and I have no problem. But associate her with P.L. Travers – a generous and kind woman, albeit with a no-nonsense manner of a Zen master – and I have to cry foul.” He goes on to write that “her book Mary Poppins is profound – though let me tell you from experience, it’s hard to persuade people to sample it because of the Disney movie…” In an aside on Griswold’s statement, I can appreciate how it would be difficult to watch a movie version of someone you knew and admired. I wouldn’t appreciate it, either, simply because no film portrayal could ever hope to encompass the multidimensional flesh-and-blood person you knew. However, I, and several people I know, did come to the book through the movie.

For an interesting look at Travers’ life and her relationship with he son, David Jones gives a fairly detailed look at her life and a bit about her son, Camillus, and his twin brother, who she chose not to adopt.

And for a fairly thorough look at Walt Disney and his life and studio, Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: the Triumph of the American Imagination is highly informative, not only about Disney, but the making of his cartoon and featured films.

1 Comment

Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Comedy, Drama, Movie Thoughts


Tags: , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: