This week’s post is inspired by the story of “Aunt Sass”, a semi-autobiographical and truly exquisite testimony about Pamela L. Travers’s memorable great aunt.
“Aunt Sass” was published privately in 1941 in a limited edition of five hundred copies and it was intended as a Christmas gift for friends, although the theme had nothing to do with Christmas.
I wonder what her friends’ reactions were. Were they touched? Did they care about her childhood memories? Did they discuss the story with her? Or, did they toss it somewhere on a shelf and forgot about its existence?
Fortunately, for the purposes of this blog and my personal obsession with Pamela L. Travers, Donna Coonan, Commission Editor of Virago Press, undertook to uncover Pamela’s unpublished works after seeing the documentary “The Secret Life of Mary Poppins“ a BBC culture show narrated by Victoria Coren Mitchell. In November 2014, Virago Press, with the authorization of Pamela’s estate, published “Aunt Sass” along with two other stories: “Ah Wong” and “Johnny Delaney.”
Now back to Great Aunt Ellie.
From the moment Pamela L. Travers’s father passed away, Great Aunt Ellie, a wealthy spinster with a bullying tendency, became the controlling force of Pamela’s life.
She was a born ancestress and matriarch and used the children and grandchildren of her brothers and sisters for her own dynastic purposes.” She was like the central shaft of a merry-go-around. When her whistle blew the family revolved about her like so many wooden horses.
Pamela L. Travers’s mother, Margaret Goff, found herself financially unsupported and overwhelmed by the task of raising three young children alone. Great Aunt Ellie (the sister of Pamela’s grandfather) came to the rescue and took the role of the directing and protecting figure in Margaret’s and her children’s lives. The grieving family, anxious about its future, moved in temporarily with Ellie and her two dogs, Badger and Tinker. The first meal at Aunt Ellie’s house seems to have been forever carved into Pamela’s psyche:
The next thing we knew we were all sitting at the luncheon table hearing Aunt Sass (Ellie) descant unfavorably on our table manners, upbringing, personal appearance and ghastly futures. One after another the children melted into tears and were ordered from the table. Eventually, my mother could bear it no longer and left the room, weeping. I alone remained. She glared at me and through a maddening haze of tears I glared back.
And now, I suppose, you’ll break down and go too.
I will not, you old Beast! I shouted to her. I am not crying, it’s only my eyes.
Pamela L. Travers
This was hardly a warm and comforting welcome. Not only that, but according to Pamela’s biographer, the children, when visiting, would be sent to sleep on a cot in the attic while the best spare room would be reserved for the dogs, Tinker and Badger.
The story doesn’t tell us explicitly, but it is possible that Ellie herself was overwhelmed by the events and by the long-term task of assisting the financial and moral needs of her niece and her three young children.
“Here, take the cherries to the little ones and tell your mother Aunt Sass is a bitter old woman and that she didn’t mean a word if it.“
Pamela L. Travers
Nevertheless, Ellie’s manners were cold and her mean words stuck in young Pamela’s mind for many years to come. If that was not the case, there would not have been a story about Aunt Sass and no Mary Poppins, for that matter. Aunt Ellie had a somewhat of a contradictory personality; a rough exterior combined with inner sentimentality.
Her remarkableness lay in the extraordinary, and to me, enchanting discrepancy between her external behavior and her inner self. Imagine a bulldog whose ferocious exterior covers a heart tender to the point of sentimentality (…).
Reportedly, extremely opinionated, Ellie viewed the world in either black or white. She also believed herself to be the retainer of all truth and expected, as “a general in a War Office,” to be obeyed on the spot.
The grim face was stony with conviction, the deep voice rumbled and you felt a delicious tremor of fear and anticipation fly through you. Any minute, any second some terrible miracle might happen. Would the world fall in two if you brought her the wrong knitting needles? Would you go up in smoke if you tweaked Tinker’s tail or Badger’s ear?
For little Pamela, the ambiguity of Aunt Ellie proved itself frightening, but at the same time, her presence provided a sense of safety, of being taken in charge by someone who appeared almighty and powerful; just like the Banks children in the Mary Poppins stories.
Ellie’s power resided in her wealth and in her use of constant criticism and gossip as her weapons of coercion and disempowerment. I suspect that she was being bullied by her own inner fears and disappointments, and that whenever guilt arose she tried to compensate for her exteriorized bullying by the occasional fairy godmother kind of attitude, which her financial resources allowed her to do. She did pay for Pamela’s boarding school, her typewriter, and at last her fare to England. As the years passed by, little Pamela grew up to become a young woman with artistic talents and a mind of her own.
Now, this is just a hunch, but I feel that when Pamela, in her budding femininity, began to express her artistic tendencies more assertively, her Great Aunt’s insecurities only increased and maybe even gave birth to some feelings of jealousy. I wish I could travel back in time and see what really happened. Instead, we are left to rely on little bits and pieces of memories such as this one:
I will not go out with you in that hat!
Very well, Aunt Sass. I’ll go by myself.
Why do you have to turn yourself into a monstrosity? I am ashamed to be seen with you. Get into the car!
Writing? Faugh! Why can’t you leave that to journalists?
What’s all this I hear about you going to England? Ridiculous nonsense! You were always a fool.
Anyhow, Ellie and Pamela never truly got along. “For the rest of her life we fought with all the bitterness of true affection.”
Ellie became ill right after her last visit to England. She was ninety years old. The illness “stretched her on her bed and drew a curtain of unconsciousness over her.” When, against all expectations, she came briefly back to life she was a different woman.
The old gruffiness, the fierce egotism were gone. She was concerned and anxious now to reveal the heart that had hidden so long behind it. It was as if, knowing her time to be short, she must hasten to let the light appear through the thinning crust of flesh. … That stretch of dark unconsciousness had taught her how not to be self-conscious. Her defenses were down at last.
It was on their last meeting that Pamela gave Ellie a copy of the first of the Mary Poppins books. Her aunt took it to read it on her voyage back home. I wonder if she recognized herself in the traits of Mary Poppins. Could that be the cause of her softening of the heart? We’ll never know the answers and I can only speculate.
I also couldn’t help but notice something else, a similarity of fortunes. It is almost as if Pamela in some way professed her own future. She too lived well into her nineties, she too was quite self-obsessed and self-conscious, and it was only in her later writings that she expressed this same willingness to open up and at last be vulnerable; something that she resisted during her entire life.
“I had to learn that to be vulnerable, naked and defenseless is the only way to safety.”
Pamela L.Travers, Letter to a Learned Astrologer, 1973
It is true then that Pamela L. Travers wrote more than she knew, although when she said: “We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit” she was referring to the resemblance between Mary Poppins and her Great Aunt Ellie. Strangely enough, when interviewed, Pamela always maintained that she didn’t know where Mary Poppins came from.
A comment made by her adopted son, Camillus Travers, comes to mind: “My mother was Mary Poppins.” And if Mary Poppins was based on the character of Helen Morehead, then it is only logical to conclude that as Pamela L. Travers grew older and life deceptions accumulated, she unconcsiously reproduced her bitter aunt’s behavior.
I also wonder if Pamela L. Travers ever became aware of the irony of it all. She acted out what she internalized as a model of strength and resilience. Experiencing her life as an ordeal, she modeled “the giantess, the frightening fairy-tale figure who” in her “childhood seemed immense enough to knock against the stars and hold counsel with God.”
Eugene and Curtice are Reynal and Hitchcock, the founders of a publishing company in New York.