Reviewing Mary Poppins She Wrote

So here I go, my first post. But before we start I must tell you that, although I am an avid reader from the early age of four, I have no formal education or training in literature, psychology or mythology. It’s just that lately my heart goes naturally towards these fields.  And now that I have grown a little (just a little) older, and a little wiser (just a little), I allow myself to listen to my heart more often.

♥  This blog is my answer to my heart’s calling and it is intended as a personal creative outlet for my impressions and ideas about Mary Poppins and her controversial author, Pamela L. Travers.

Why did I choose this subject for my blog?  Well, it was not intentionally planned and kind of happened gradually.

My interest in Pamela L. Travers and her literary creation was aroused by Valerie Lawson’s book, Mary Poppins She Wrote, a book that landed in my hands by pure fluke. It was at the time when Saving Mr. Banks was coming out on the big screen and I was planning to go see it. I decided to read the Mary Poppins book in preparation for the movie. (I didn’t know that there were six Mary Poppins books written over a period of more than 50 years.) It turned out that my local bookstore did not have the Mary Poppins books in stock. However, the clerk did not return empty handed. She kindly handed me a book titled Mary Poppins, She Wrote which of course I ended up buying because of the inscription on its cover: “Explores the events that inspired the major motion picture Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks.” That was even better!

And this is how my obsession with Pamela L. Travers and Mary Poppins began developing: ♥   I was simply struck by her imagination and her fiercely rebellious nature.

♥  Above all, I was deeply moved by the first part of the book which describes her difficult childhood experiences. I fell in love with little Helen Lyndon Goff (Pamela L. Travers’s real name), an extremely sensitive, exceptionally perceptive, imaginative and creative little girl as you will discover in future posts.

♥  I was saddened by the fact that this beautiful soul got trapped in the maze of illusions of the outer world and ended up alienated and alone. I wanted to understand why such an intelligent and creative woman could not heal her wounds. These issues were unfortunately not explored, at least not in serious depth, by Valerie Lawson. The more I read the book the more irritated I became.

Before I explain what drove me nuts about Mary Poppins, She Wrote I must admit that Valerie Lawson did an incredible job as an investigative journalist, which she is by profession.

It took her five years or so, and many trips to England, Ireland and Australia to uncover the life of Pamela L. Travers. If you have read the book, you know she succeeded in gathering many details about Pamela, her family, friends and acquaintances and even about the family and acquaintances of these acquaintances. Many people now know that Pamela had tumultuous, intimate relationships with men and women, was a follower of the peculiar spiritual guru Gurdjieff, and adopted a son without ever telling him that he was adopted (or that he had a twin brother). Lawson also made many links between real people from Pamela’s childhood and some of the characters in the Mary Poppins stories. And in my opinion that was the most enjoyable part of the book.

Disappointingly, Lawson failed to connect emotionally with Pamela L. Travers, although in the Preface of the book she tries (unsuccessfully in my opinion), to draw some similarities between herself and Pamela Travers:

My search for Pamela Travers began with the discovery that she was an Australian. Like myself, she had been a dancer, actress and writer. Going on “the Pamela hunt” [the underline is mine] became a five-year journey of discovery that took me down unexpected paths, both geographically and emotionally.”

However, Lawson never explains the emotional impact of writing Pamela’s biography on her personal life.

And honestly, is it only me that has an issue with the expression “the Pamela hunt?” It is certainly a funny concept, and a funny choice of words, of wanting to hunt her down. Doesn’t sound like an empathic endeavor, does it? It doesn’t even sound like a discovery quest.  Funny choice of words and the true meaning lies in the subtle nuances of language.

The most upsetting thing about this biography is that it could have been more insightful if only Lawson had a genuine interest in Pamela’s literary work as a gateway to her psyche.

Instead, this is what Lawson writes about her interest in Pamela:

For me, Travers became more fascinating the more I learned of her mystery. That was what intrigued me most, not her subject matter…

Overall, I was left with the uneasy feeling that Lawson purposefully decided to avoid meeting Pamela in person.

Lawson first contacted Pamela through her agent in 1994, Pamela was 95 years old. This was Pamela’s response:

 “Dear Miss Lawson,

I don’t like personal publicity but I’m willing to talk about my work any way you like.”

She also inquired if Lawson read her latest book What the Bee Knows.

Of course, Lawson didn’t know anything about the book because she was not interested in Pamela’s work; she was interested in the “Pamela hunt,” the hidden facts of a private life.

This is what she did after receiving Pamela’s response.

From an obscure Californian publisher I ordered a copy of What the Bee Knows, a book I quickly cast aside…I had no time then for Travers’s mythological references and search for heroes. One morning eighteen months later I woke knowing this was the right time of my life to write the book.” Seriously…

So in 1996, when Pamela was 97 she wrote again to her agent. The agent replied that Pamela was extremely ill and the day after the agent’s letter arrived in the mail Pamela died.

It seems to me that Valerie Lawson almost waited for Pamela to die before starting her biography. She probably thought it would be easier to write the book. What makes me say that? Lawson’s own words:

Despite her (Pamela’s) wish that no biography be written, I believe her death meant the ground rules changed. I took the same point of view as the biographer Michael Holroyd, who has said “I discriminate between the rights of the living and the dead…” When we are living we need all our sentimentalities, our evasions, our half-truths and our white lies, to get through life. When we are dead different rules apply.

I personally believe that we can’t truly know a person by only learning the facts of their lives. The facts are not the truth, just as Pamela used to say.

♥  Observable events are the outer reflection of an inner phenomenon. If you understand the inner phenomenon, you have a chance to interpret more accurately the facts and get a clearer image of the person. Even then, we all remain a little elusive; we all dwell in the world of perceptions and images. So how can we rely simply on other people’s perceptions about Pamela Travers? How can we get a clearer image of her, especially now, that she is irreversibly unavailable for an interview? Pamela gave the answer to Valerie Lawson. Read What the Bee Knows.

And this is where I will pick up in my next post, with my thoughts on Pamela’s last book What the Bee Knows.

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4 thoughts on “Reviewing Mary Poppins She Wrote”

  1. It seems to me that you’ve bought into a lot of what Valerie Lawson says about P. L. Travers. Considering your astute observation that Lawson didn’t connect with Travers, I’d suggest that you take her biography with a huge grain of salt! I don’t think Travers became anywhere near the negative and disillusioned person that Lawson portrays. There is much more to learn about Travers from her own writings and other sources, including many that Lawson hasn’t consulted.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, it is nice to talk to someone who shares my interest for Pamela L. Travers! However, my blog is a personal pursuit, a hobby. I am simply sharing my intuitive understanding of Pamela L. Travers and her literary work.
      I agree with you any biography should be taken with a few grains of salt. Lawson clearly displayed a judgmental attitude towards Pamela and I believe she did not understand her pain and inner torments. But in my opinion Pamela L. Travers did experience intense negative emotions and was not an easy person. I watched and re-watched two documentaries about her life and the testimonials given by people who knew her do not contradict much Lawson. And as for Pamela’s other writings they too point in a sad direction, at least that is my reading of them.
      I would be more than happy to read materials that her biographer did not consult if you are willing to share some with me. I am not in the scholarly field and I have a full-time job, so my resources are limited to the internet and books I can purchase in a book store or online. If you want to get in touch I will send you an email with my coordinates.

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