Since I was a child, I have loved P.L. Travers’ original Mary Poppins stories. Like many of my generation, I am sure, my first introduction to Mary Poppins was in the incredibly saccharine Disney film adaptation, but I was absolutely thrilled to discover the original, sassy Mary not long afterwards. I know relatively little about the author, aside what I gleaned from the Saving Mr Banks film, and when I received a copy of journalist Valerie Lawson’s Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, I was eager to find out what else I would discover.
Helen Lyndon Goff, who later adopted the pen name Pamela Lyndon (P.L.) Travers, was born in Australia. Her father, an Irishman ‘nowhere near good enough’, died in his early forties, ‘his life unfulfilled, his family left destitute and forced onto the charity of rich but emotionally chilly relations.’ Travers was the eldest of three girls, and went to live with her maiden aunt for a time when her youngest sister was born, and again with her mother and siblings after her father died. Travers moved to London in 1924, in order to pursue her career in journalism. Here, she ‘became involved with theosophy, traveled in the literary circles of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, and became a disciple of the famed spiritual guru Gurdjieff.’ She published the first Mary Poppins book in 1934.
We learn about Travers’ ancestors very early on, as well as the ways in which their decisions affected her life, both as a young girl, and later as an adult. After the passing of her father, she went through life determined to find her own ‘Mr Banks’, a father figure who would look after her.
In her preface, Lawson writes: ‘[Mary] 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.’ She goes on to acknowledge that P.L. Travers stipulated that she ‘did not want a biography written about her after her death’. As is clear from her biographical subject, she disregarded this, and began her five-year “Pamela Hunt” that took her down ‘unexpected paths, both geographically and emotionally… Her life was much more than I ever imagined. My life expanded in the writing of hers.’
Mary Poppins, She Wrote has been split into three separate sections, which correspond to the three stages of womanhood which Travers believed in: ‘The Nymph’ (1899-1934), ‘The Mother’ (1934-1965), and ‘The Crone’ (1965-1996). Some of the chapters open with an imagined narrative, which features Lyndon as a character. These are often short, and I would argue that, although they are nicely written, they do not add a great deal to proceedings.
Lawson ponders throughout the various inspiration for Mary Poppins. She writes of Travers’ fascination for fairytales when she was a child: ‘She liked the wickedest women most… She was fascinated by the evil forces of the stories, the black sheep, the wicked fairy.’ She then goes on to examine the quite traumatic elements of Travers’ childhood, and the effects of her ‘cool yet unconventional parents’, which culminated in her ‘thriving on what was difficult.’ Throughout, there is a lot of literary criticism of the Mary Poppins books, as one might expect. Whilst interesting, these sections are sometimes a little longwinded, and the details feel a little repetitive from time to time. The same can be said for the exploration of Travers’ forays into spirituality.
Mary Poppins, She Wrote has a rather low average rating on Goodreads. Other reviewers have written about some of the qualms they had with Lawson’s book; these almost always mention her exemplary research, but also her ‘sloppy’ writing, and a feeling of general disinterest in Travers’ own work. However, as the only comprehensive biography of the rather mysterious P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins, She Wrote is the tome which curious readers will inevitably pick up.
I found the prose of Mary Poppins, She Wrote fitting given the subject matter, and was compelled to read the entirety of the book, but I must admit that after finishing it, I do not feel as though I know a great deal more about P.L. Travers. Some elements of her life were glossed over, and I would have appreciated more depth of information throughout. In consequence, Travers still comes across as a figure shrouded in mystery.
Whilst interesting enough, Mary Poppins, She Wrote had an approach which was perhaps a little too detached. It did not feel, at any point aside from what she stresses in her preface, that Lawson was really connected with Travers. The construction of Mary Poppins, She Wrote is just a little too choppy. I would not discourage anyone from reading it, as Travers was a fascinating woman by all accounts, but it is definitely not the most thorough work of biography which I have picked up this year.