Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 3, 2014

What I’m Reading: Mary Poppins, She Wrote

Leaving the theater after seeing Saving Mr. Banks with my daughter, I spoke of my delight, but half way across the parking lot, I started wondering about how much truth was woven into the story about an author, her beloved books, a beloved producer, and a talented team of song-writers. I loved Emma Thompson as Mrs. Pamela Travers dancing with the Sherman brothers to songs they wrote for Disney’s Mary Poppins, but I wondered how closely such images adhered to life. I was enchanted with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and believed while watching that his insight might lead Pamela to a sort of epiphany, but was this rather too tidy? Was P.L. Travers truly so snippy, so rude, so Mary-Poppins-ish? Emily looked to her phone to answer a few of my questions – yes, Pamela’s father’s first name was Travers, which she took as her pseudonym — but after seeing the movie again with my husband, I read Valerie Lawson’s 1995 biography, Mary Poppins, She Wrote. Can a biography unravel, or add another layer to the life of the girl born as Helen Goff? Can I write clearly about two books and two movies that in many ways slip-slide together, taking on the ways that tales depend on the tellers.


Valerie Lawson seems a hard-researching and reliable narrator, taking on this life partly as she was curious about a writer who, like herself, hailed from Australia. She seemed never swept toward criticism or un-tempered adoration, and if she felt either at times, nicely covered her tracks. The book proceeds chronologically, with the past being shown mostly through summary, not the involving scenes a movie gives us. We hear about the charm and self-destructiveness of Pamela’s father, but don’t really see or feel it, though it appears he did read a poem written by his little girl and say, “Not exactly Yeats,” but not on his deathbed. And while Valerie Lawson speculates some on literary sources and the impact of the death of Pamela’s father when she was young, this isn’t as directly tied together as the movie suggests, weaving from the past to present obsessions.

Valerie Lawson details how she wrote poems, essays, and much beyond the series of books that brought her fame as P.L. Travers: she chose initials as an author, not as some women have hoping to be taken as a man, but wanting to be seen as neither male nor female. And she was so worried about being pigeon-holed or even known as a writer for children, that she often went out of her way to point out her adult audience. However, she thought of Beatrix Potter as “one of the archangels,” and loved “her understatement, her bareness, he surrealism, her non explaining.”

But before the books that brought her some fame, there was the angst of a young woman trying to make a living and a life in theatre, as a writer, and doing odd jobs in London. I kind of wished Pamela could admire Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and other poets without the crushes, but who of us is as dignified as we might wish? We hear of her traveling to Dublin and deciding to stop at “the Lake Isle of Innisfree,” though it was raining, and the boatmen scoffed that around there they called the place Rat Island. She cut down a great armful of rowan branches, heavy with berries and symbolism of death and resurrection, which she carried back on the boat, train, and street, arriving dripping wet at Yeats’s home. She got dried off, and touring the rooms later, saw a single sprig in his study. Was the lesson that less is more, or she shouldn’t cut branches sacred to druids and fairies, or she might be try to be a little more cool?

When Pamela turned forty and yearned for a child, she jumped at the chance to adopt the grandson of an Irish publisher, a friend and biographer of Yeats. It’s said that she chose the better-looking baby, and was affirmed in her choice by an astrologer. She put on a wedding ring and told stories. I think we can be happy Saving Mr. Banks chose to skip past the years of loneliness and motherhood, the episodes of Pamela giving illustrator Mary Shepherd a hard time, a series of shady gurus, the traveling – though I was interested to learn Pamela spent time in Russia, Japan, New York City, Maine, and the Southwest, and annoyed undergraduates at Smith College and Radcliffe. The movie works well zig-zagging between childhood and her early sixties, when she left a flat in what looks like could be Cherry Tree Lane for Hollywood.


The biography tells us she was very happy to get a generous sum of money for movie rights, at a time when her books weren’t selling well, and shortly after her adopted son, Camillus, had learned by running into his twin brother in a bar that they shared living parents he’d never heard about. A rocky mother-son relationship ensued. Maybe it wasn’t the worst time to go to Hollywood, though perhaps it wasn’t the best. Both Mary Poppins, She Wrote and Saving Mr. Banks give versions of a fraught relationship with Walt Disney, who took the episodic stories that make up Mary Poppins and looked for an arc. He mused on the song “Feed the Birds” and chose a retired actress whose spread skirts gave her the shape of a Madonna or trinity, with the saints and apostles of St. Paul’s Cathedral looking down and smiling, “though we can’t see them,” at those who fed the birds or the poor. Walt Disney looked for a reason for a family to invite a stranger into the home, then a reason for her to leave. It seemed Mary Poppins had to be there to save the family, while the stories are more zen-inspired, with moments of delight, revelation, and mystification, with little concern for lessons or a narrative shape within the collection beyond that the nanny comes and goes as the wind changes.

Mary Poppins in the book is not a whole like Mary Poppins in the movie. It seems Pamela Travers hadn’t heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice to novelist who sold movie rights: to throw the book over the Hollywood border, grab their money, and run. In fact we’re sympathetic to how she feels robbed of her character. Tom Hanks as Walt Disney is sympathetic, too, saying he’d felt the same pain letting go of some control of Mickey Mouse. But there’s some tension in the corner of his mouth. Walt Disney was a different kind of charmer than Pamela’s father, but perhaps most charmers have a combination of liking people with a healthy dose of self regard.

Pamela Travers cried at the L.A. premier of Mary Poppins. Who knows if she was re-experiencing the sense of loss she felt at the death of her parents? Mary Poppins, She Wrote alludes to a lifelong search for her lost father, ending with the sense that it’s the search that matters more than the finding, and that while Pamela didn’t find her Mr. Banks, she did find herself amid all the looking. The importance of the quests over the destinations is a theme that mattered to Pamela, who believed that our inner selves are not hidden, but lost, and we may spend our lives looking for them. But where’s the movie in that? There’s a reason zen koans aren’t made into films. Most of us prefer narrative arcs to the often more realistic shapelessness of life, not simply craving happy endings, but the hero’s journey of separation, adventure, and return. We know that Walt Disney didn’t accept Pamela Travers’s phone calls and she publically spoke ill of him, but together they collaborated on something that matters to many. Creativity, which both book and movie take as a theme, is full of mysteries. Much as I’d like to stand by what seems to be fact, and am grateful for all I learned from Mary Poppins, She Wrote, I’m taking the side of Saving Mr. Banks, with its smiles, tears, and truths that are close enough.




  1. I haven’t seen the movie, yet, but have read other reviews & they are all not as nice as yours, Jeannine. I like that you also shared some from the other biography. What an interesting woman to have traveled so much & so far, restless searching I suppose. You’ve not mentioned her mother at all, so it makes me wonder about that relationship. Thanks1

    • Linda, I have read the criticism, and do feel in some ways P.L. Travers’s work was disrespected — and want to be wholly on the side of the author! –but as I am a fan of Disney’s Mary Poppins, I felt that the bristly collaboration had a good outcome. The mother shown in the biography comes off as not particularly nurturing, so you do see the young Helen Goff sort of raising herself on stories, by the force of her own imagination. I suppose as her father died when Helen was so young that loss had the most impact, as well as her identifying with his Irish roots as a way to give herself an identity. She was indeed a fascinating woman, and the movie couldn’t take on all the many sides of her life.

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