Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 22, 2010

Biography Meets Mary Poppins and Peter Pan

When I teach children’s literature this is always a question: how much author background is helpful in terms of understanding a work and how much is a distraction? Of course I love biography, not to mention being fond of gossip, so I make an effort to curb myself from long tales. I try, and don’t always succeed, to keep mostly to what might be relevant to the text at hand, which this week will be Peter Pan and Mary Poppins. P.L. Travers (born Helen Goff, she changed her name to Pamela Travers when she was twenty-one … see my tendency? Does this matter?) grew up in Australia and moved to London where she settled for most of her long life. She wrote poetry and journalism before creating her most famous character.

There’s the quick encapsulation, leaving out how much she was bothered by Disney. What seems most relevant is that her father died, at least partly as a result of too much drinking, when she was seven. Her mother found it so hard to cope as a single parent that she announced she was going to throw herself off a bridge and left Helen/Pamela with her younger sisters, trying to distract them with fairy stories. P.L. Travers spoke of being haunted by that night, and wondering what happened to abandoned children: did that question run through her work?

Another childhood tragedy probably shaped Peter Pan. James Barrie was six when his older brother David died in a skating accident the night before his fourteenth birthday. Their mother took to her bed, hardly eating or talking for a long time, while the Wendy-like sister took on a mother’s role. Some scholars believe that James tried in some way not to grow beyond the age of his dead brother. Do the lost boys with their underground hideout stand for the dead brother? them of passing time? In Barrie’s novel we find a lot of hatred of grownups: lines like Peter breathing hard and quick since for every breath taken in Neverland a grownup dies. (now we should give Disney some credit for taking out such lines).

Although Father is no Darling, ha ha, mothers get the worst rap, perhaps stemming from Barrie’s feeling that his mother essentially left the children after the death of his brother? Who can say? But the attitude is a creepy element among some marvelous images and creative plotting, and it’s not covered up. Apparently the original incarnation of the Peter Pan story was titled: The Boy Who Hated Mothers. When I told this to my friend Dan yesterday, he said, “Thank goodness for marketers.” Yes. One bad title could have kept this book off the shelf of classics.

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  1. Oh, I love this stuff–is it really gossip? Okay, maybe, but such wonderful details. Helen Goff??! Wow. 🙂

  2. I love all the gossipy stuff about writers, too :). But this tendency only came with age. I do like pondering why someone writes the way they do. Mary Poppins A-Z looks interesting!

  3. I think novelists should have a taste for gossip, or that’s my excuse. But, you know, to serve story, not to be catty, I hope!

  4. A little curiosity can’t be bad, right?
    Mary Poppins A-Z is one of the eight books Travers wrote about Mary. I haven’t read beyond two: something to look forward to!

  5. Oh, and here’s some more gossip: illustrated by Mary Shepherd, daughter of Ernest, who of course did Winnie-the-Pooh!

  6. When I was getting my MA in children’s lit a few years ago, I ran smack into a thing called close reading. I didn’t do well in it. I always preferred reading a book in context with the author’s life and the times he/she lived. In class, we’d be picking apart a sentence ad infinitum until once I yelled, “Maybe it was the only thing she could THINK of and that’s what she put down!” The writer in me knows how true that is.
    I have a huge collection of children’s author bios and criticism books. If I want to read about Kenneth Grahame, I go back to the Arcadians, not Freud.

  7. I love it!

  8. I love this kind of info! It is a tricky balance to figure out how much is pertinent when interpreting the story, but I think it’s fascinating to think about what might have triggered certain ideas in the writers’ imaginations.

  9. Actually I like to do the close reading, too, because I feel it teaches me a lot as a writer. But your yelling “maybe it was the only thing…” made me smile. Which I’d hope I’d do as a teacher if someone yelled that, but I don’t know…
    Hope you put all those author’s bios etc. in a nice shelf on one side of the Honeysuckle Cafe. You’d never get me to leave.

  10. Thanks for the shout out, Laura!

  11. Maybe it’s just the sorts of things authors like knowing? We can read ourselves in a bit? There’s usually some connection between the writer and the work, but maybe sometimes it’s just another absorbing story.
    Thanks for dropping by!

  12. Good idea! The Cafe can have a special section devoted to children’s authors bios and memoirs. I even have the memoir novel by Eleanor Estes, who wrote all those sunny books but came from a horrible background, and Elizabeth Enright’s mother’s autobiography–Maginel Wright was a famous children’s illustrator in the 1920s and sister to Frank Lloyd Wright.

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