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

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.

9781476762920Helen 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.

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‘I Go By Sea, I Go By Land’ by P.L. Travers ****

P.L. Travers’ I Go By Sea, I Go By Land, first published in 1941, is a children’s novel, which seems to have been largely – and sadly – forgotten.  Virago have just reissued it as part of their Modern Classics list, including Gertrude Hermes’ lovely black and white drawings.  Travers writes in her preface that the characters and ‘the experiences recorded are authentic’.

The novel presents the fictional diary of eleven-year-old Sabrina Lind.  With the Second World War raging, she leaves her cosy parental home in Sussex with her younger brother, James; their father tells them that their house, in the village of Thornfield, ‘had stood for over nine hundred years and was old enough to take care of itself and would probably go on standing no matter what happened.  The pair have been invited to travel to the safety of America to stay with their aunt, Harriet, for the war’s duration: ‘Just when we were so sure nothing would happen, the German plane came over one night at one o’clock in the morning…  Suddenly there were five loud explosions.  After that there was a terrible silence and I knew that Father and Mother were looking at each other in the darkness and I felt myself getting small and tight inside.  Then Father said quietly, “Meg, they must go””. Sabrina goes on to say, ‘We do not want to be cabin boys and see the world if there is a war on in England.  We want to stay here.  But we do not tell them [their parents] so because their faces will crumple’.

Sabrina has decided to record her experiences in an exercise book, each entry of which is undated: ‘Now I am going to write a Diary because we are going to America because of the War.  It has just been decided.  I will write down everything about it because we shall be so much older when we came back that I will never remember it if I do not.  So this is the beginning…  All of us felt the same thing, that this summer was not like all the other summers but only a Farewell’.

The narrative style which Travers has crafted is engaging, and Sabrina’s voice is believable throughout.  Whilst her narration is, on the whole, unreliable due to her youth, she is an observer; she thus relays all of the information about the war which she hears from the adults around her, so as to set the scene further.  It is most thoughtful in terms of the expressions which Sabrina uses: ‘Oh dear, what an exciting day.  Not the birthday kind of excitement but the sort that makes you feel empty inside and the middle part of you all quivery like a telephone wire’.  Her narrative also rather charmingly contains spelling errors, which makes the whole feel relatively authentic as a document; for example, ‘Walter and James went down into the crayter and found some jagged pieces of bomb and kept them for souvenires’, and ‘he does not like children trapezing over his garden’.

Sabrina and James are charming characters, and both are beset by what they believe to be pressing matters: ‘James is specially worried now about going to America because he has just remembered that in ten years he will be called up and that he ought to be here ready for that’.

Socially and historically, I Go By Sea, I Go By Land has been grounded so well.  It would make a great introduction into the problems which the Second World War caused for civilians on British soil, describing as it does fears of air raids and rationing.  The whole is very of its time, too.  When asked about her future career prospects, for example, Sabrina says: ‘I might be a First Officer or perhaps a Clown in the circus because I like both but perhaps I would rather have some children’.  Pel, a family friend and the woman whom the children are travelling with, announces that foreign waiters ‘are like all the Murders in Shakespeare, they burst in on you at any unexpected moment and have to be bribed before they will leave’.

I Go By Sea, I Go By Land is just as endearing for an adult audience as it surely will be to children.  The novel is a lovely read, which has been well plotted throughout.  We see how the children cope with being away from their parents and their feelings of homesickness, as well as the way in which they fit in to their new community.  One can only hope that Virago reissue more of Travers’ books in the near future.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories’ by P.L. Travers ****

Virago’s delightful Christmas gift book for 2014 is P.L. Travers’ Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories.  In the early 1940s, Travers – most famous, of course, for her charming Mary Poppins books – wrote these stories, which she gave as Christmas gifts to her friends.  Each was published in a limited run of 500 copies – ‘Aunt Sass’ in 1941, ‘Ah Wong’ in 1943 and ‘Johnny Delaney’ in 1944 – and they are now available to a wide audience for the very first time.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers focuses upon three quite unusual characters, all of whom inspired her childhood.  They range from ‘eccentric great aunt’ Christina, who was known as Sass and was the inspiration for Mary Poppins, to a Chinese cook and a ‘foul-mouthed ex-jockey’.

Victoria Coren Mitchell’s foreword is rather lovely, and so nicely written.  She begins: ‘These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P.L. Travers; great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories.  Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations’.

As in Mary Poppins, Travers’ descriptions are lovely, and her characters sparkle with vivacity from the moment in which they are introduced.  Aunt Sass, whom it is believed is based upon Travers’ own great-aunt Ellie, is ‘stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving’.  ‘Like Mary Poppins,’ writes Coren Mitchell, ‘she twinkles and snaps in spits and spots’.

In her title story, Travers describes the way in which ‘Everything in the world came back to herself – or her family.  She used notable people simply as a background for her own life…  The universe and other unknown worlds swung about the central pivot of Aunt Sass and those nearest her…  She was like the central shaft of a merry-go-round.  When her whistle blew the family revolved about her like so many wooden horses’.  Parallels can certainly be drawn between Aunt Sass and Mary Poppins in sentences such as this: ‘The gruff words were immediately discounted by the smile that lit the grim face with a radiance more moving than beauty’.

In ‘Ah Wong’, a family of Australian children try to convert their quirky Chinese cook to Christianity, with some quite amusing results.  In the third and final story, ‘Johnny Delaney’, the title character, with his ‘little thin bow-legs’ and ‘black, Irish head’, works on the family’s plantation and is a jack-of-all trades: ‘I suppose you would have said that he was primarily a jockey.  That, at any rate, was the form of address he preferred.  But he was also groom, stable-boy and carpenter; even, when labour was short, a cane cutter, and sometimes a feeder at the mill’.  In each successive story, elements of darkness creep in, and everything has a hidden depth of sorts.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers lets her readers in, just a little, to her craft: ‘We write more than we know we are writing.’  The places which spring from her pen are so richly described that it does not take long for the scenes which she depicts to become vivid.

Despite the title of the collection, the stories themselves are not festive; they are merely autobiographical tales which show those who had a large impact upon Travers when she was young.  Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories is amusing and heartwarming, and would make a charming addition to any bookshelf.  The book contains lovely illustrations by Gillian Tyler, which match the tales beautifully.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Flash Reviews (27th August 2013)

Mrs Pepperpot Turns Detective by Alf Proysen
I loved this little book when I was younger, and after mentioning Mrs Pepperpot in a review which I wrote not too long ago, the ever-present nostalgia within me has longed to read it again. I did so yesterday afternoon whilst sitting in the sunshine, and as the copy is rather short (it only contains a handful of tiny stories), I was able to get through it in a short window of time. The tales here are sweet, and I love how stubborn Mrs Pepperpot is.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
I vaguely remember reading Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats during my childhood, but when I saw a gorgeous little Faber edition in Cambridge, I couldn’t resist purchasing it. Here, Eliot has presented a lovely and rather fun collection of poems. My favourite aspect in the collection was that the cats had such distinct personalities. A very enjoyable (if rather too slim!) book, which has made me want to read more of Eliot’s poetry.

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
Mary Poppins is a truly marvellous novel, and so much better than the film! I love Travers’ writing, and the characters she has created. Stubborn, headstrong Mary Poppins is a real treasure, and the children are presented realistically. I love the format of the short stories which combine to make a whole, and they have been woven together wonderfully. The stories here are fantastical, but at the same time, they are not too far removed from reality. Yes, Mary Poppins can do marvellous things – slide up banisters and levitate tables full of afternoon tea, for example – but she is also rather firmly grounded. The balance between the two has been struck marvellously. The entirety has been written so lovingly, and it is clear that Travers had a ball whilst constructing this novel. The best thing about this utterly charming book is the fact that it is the first in an entire series, all of which feature the rather unique Mary Poppins