Pamela L. Travers Goes By Sea, She Goes By Land

Pamela L. Travers I Go by Sea.PNG

The previous two posts focused on the religious references in Pamela L. Travers’s writings.  One of these posts analysed the story of “Ah Wong” which was written for a private readership in 1943, and then the second one was about the story of “Johnny Delaney” which was also written for a private readership in 1944.

These two stories were composed during Pamela L. Travers’s war time evacuation to the United States. At that time, she was quite depressed and homesick. Her emotional state pushed her to revisit her early childhood memories, probably as an attempt to relieve her from the psychological pain.

In the story of “Ah Wong,” the reader first gets a glimpse of Pamela’s early religious upbringing, and then witnesses the change in the narrator’s beliefs which occurs after her father’s sudden death. There is no longer a reference to a personified benevolent God but a mystic flow of life; a river that sends the narrator into life and Ah Wong to his death.

In the second story, the character, Johnny Delaney, is described as a bitter man with deep seeded feelings of unworthiness. Johnny feels betrayed by God and the Church.  I believe that all of Johnny’s feelings to have been Pamela’s own as well.

In both stories, there is a sense of ambiguity towards God. In the story of the Fox and the Manger published in 1963 (when Pamela was in her sixties), and which will be the subject of next week’s post, the same ambivalence towards her religious upbringing is also apparent.

I was surprised at the religious references in I Go By Sea, I Go By Land, a book written by Pamela L. Travers and published in 1941. This story has an uncharacteristic frame of hope. It possesses an overall sense of trust in a benign providence, something that Pamela L. Travers totally lacked.

It helped me to interpret this peculiar discrepancy when I learned that Pamela herself dismissed the book as “a mere bibelot…. written at the request of my publisher…all of us took assignments which weren’t properly in our line.”

The publisher in question was Eugene Reynal from W.W. Norton, and he suggested Pamela write an account of her experience of evacuation to the United States. We can speculate that the motivation behind the writing of this books was not so much a spontaneous self expression; but rather, a conscious effort to write something hopeful for her readers in a time of hopelessness. And this all came about because of her publisher’s demand.

Again, just as in the stories of “Ah Wong” and “Johnny Delaney,” the narrator in this story is a child. In this instance the child’s name is revealed to the reader. The eleven-year-old girl, Sabrina, keeps a diary of her adventure. Sabrina and her brother James, who is nine, are accompanied on this journey by a family friend named Pel, and Pel’s baby Romulus. 

The book is separated in two sections. The first, I Go by Sea, is about the experience of the war, leaving one’s homeland and one’s family, and the actual crossing of the ocean. The second part, I Go by Land, is about the children’s adaptation to their new life in America.

It is interesting to note that the book begins with a religious hymn, a prayer for protection, which reappears a few times in the first part of the story and which has inspired the title of the book. Here it is:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.

Before I lay me down to sleep

I give my soul to Christ to keep.

Four corners to my bed

Four angels round me spread.

Two to foot and two to head

And four to carry me when I’m dead.

I go by sea, I go by land

The Lord made me with His right hand

If any danger come to me,

Sweet Jesus Christ deliver me

He is the branch and I am the flower

Pray God send me a happy hour

And if I die before I wake

I pray that Christ my soul will take.


Now, I don’t know much about religion so I had to do a quick search about the religious references in the book, and I found some interesting information.

The hymn’s origin is Thomas Ady’s collection A candle in the Dark (1656) and was written to speak out against the Catholic Church and the atrocities inflicted on witches and other poor souls by the inquisition. Somehow, this hymn, known also as the “black paternoster,” escaped the anti-witchcraft and anti-Catholic sentiments of the 17th century to become a favorite children’s rhyme in England, especially in the 20th century. Some believe that this may be credited to Anglican priest, scholar and hymn-writer, Sabine Baring-Gould. (Pamela was brought up Anglican).

There are no religious references in the second portion of the story apart from a visit to a Cathedral in Montreal at the evacuee’s arrival in Canada. Pel takes the children to the Cathedral to light some candles even though she mentions they are not Catholics. Then, at the very end of the book, the characters sing the famous Victorian berceuse “Now the day is over” composed by the above-mentioned Anglican priest, Sabine-Baring-Gould.  

Now the day is over

Night is drawing night

Shadows of the evening

Steal across the sky.

Jesus give the weary

Calm and sweet repose

With thy tendering blessing

May our eyelids close.


Grant to little children

Visions bright of thee,

Gard the sailors tossing

On the deep blue sea.


Through the long night-watches

May thine angels spread

Their white wings above me

Watching round my bed.


When the morning wakens

Then may I rise

Pure and fresh and sinless

In the holy eyes.


Glory to the Father

Glory to the Son,

And to thee, blessed Spirit,

While the ages run.

Despite the hopeful notes in the story, there are still signs of Pamela’s own lack of faith in an external benevolent force.

Additionaly, I found the character of Pel almost as interesting as Sabrina. Pel is a writer and travels with a baby, in a bassinette, named Romulus. Of course, it is obvious that the name Pel stands for P.L. and the baby Romulus in the story stands for Pamela’s adopted baby Camillus. Once you realize that, then Pel’s advice to Sabrina takes on a new significance: “Nobody can help you, you have to do it on your own. And it takes time, I am only learning it now.” So much for faith in a benevolent force.

The character Pel expresses Pamela’s vision of her Higher Self, the ideal she wanted to embody: “She (Pel) makes you laugh and dance inside yourself and at the same time you feel that she is somebody who will always be there and that is a very safe feeling.”

The character Sabrina, on the other hand, is the bearer of Pamela’s emotional scars from her childhood. When you know that Pamela L. Travers’s mother tried to commit suicide when Pamela was ten years old, the following passage about Sabrina’s anxieties (while watching Pel sleep) is heartbreaking because it probably unveils Pamela’s real-life experiences as a child:

I am frightened when I see grown-ups asleep. They look as though they have forgotten everybody and gone right away into themselves. I feel that perhaps they will never wake up again and we shall be left quite alone and I kept going close to Pel to make sure she was still breathing. She has a very small breath just like mother’s. No sound at all and hardly a movement. Mother makes me very anxious. Sometimes when she is asleep I am afraid she is dead and I think of it in the night. Once, I thought of that and went into her room. It was dark and very still and I was afraid to go near the bed.

I am convinced that this is an autobiographic element. I believe Pamela truly experienced this sort of anxiety. Her father fell ill when she was seven years old and the last time she saw him was before going to bed; he was dead the next morning.

The same split between a vision of a Higher Self and a little girl with painful memories is present in the story Friend Monkey which was written some thirty years later;  thus unresolved issues from her childhood followed Pamela L. Travers until her very end.

I have the third edition of the book which was printed in 1967 and contains Pamela L. Travers’s Foreword. The end of the foreword is quite melancholic and it encapsulates Pamela L. Travers’s belief about life:

After childhood, our lives are no longer our very own. The world comes in and demands its share and unless we are cleaver or – lucky, perhaps – we forget a very great deal.

Pamela L. Travers


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