I have long held that the secret of the successful children’s book is that it is not written for children. … Outside appreciation of any kind is of secondary importance to the true children’s writer. For him the first and ultimate requirement is that the book should please himself. For he is the one for whom the book is written. With it he puts to sleep his wakeful youth and tells the story of the hidden child within him. Such works are more often than not the results of an imaginative mind playing its light over lonely childhoods. What the child lacked in those tender years the imagination gives back to it.
Pamela L. Travers
This is what Pamela L. Travers wrote, under the pen name of Milo Reve, in her review of Beatrix Potter’s biography “The Tale of Beatrix Potter” written by Margaret Lane.
When Beatrix Potter died in 1943, few knew the full story of her life and the “Tale of Beatrix Potter“, published in 1946, was the first account of her life. I wish I could ask Pamela if she was assigned to read and review the book or was she the one who chose the subject of her article. Anyhow, the tales of Beatrix Potter were part of Pamela L. Travers’s childhood reads, so in either case I believe she very much enjoyed the task.
Pamela L. Travers’s book review was entitled “The Hidden Child” and was published in the New English Weekly on April 10, 1947 and luckily for me, it was reproduced in its entirety as an Appendix in Patricia Demers’s book “P.L. Travers“, a scholarly book I purchased some time ago on Amazon.
The apparent intensity of Pamela’s deep understanding of the essence of the children’s writer is worthy of attention since all who knew her unanimously attest that she was quite self-absorbed and somewhat alienated from others. Pamela L. Travers was not particularly empathetic and her intimate relationships seem to have been quite tumultuous and complicated. Then, probably, any insight that she might have had of another human being’s experience must have been a resonance of an experience of her own.
I knew about Pamela L. Travers’s lifelong admiration for Beatrix Potter, her biographer Valerie Lawson skimmed through the subject in her book “Mary Poppins She Wrote” but never dove into what might have motivated such veneration. Sadly, Lawson missed the significance of Pamela L. Travers’s appreciation of Beatrix Potter. Instead, she made condescending comments about both Pamela’s life and artistic choices. Seeing that Pamela never explained herself, that she wrote her first Mary Poppins book in a beautiful cottage in the country side, and that she loved to garden, Lawson concluded that Pamela was trying to imitate Potter in every way. Lawson never met Pamela L. Travers, yet, she went as far as to affirm that Pamela undertook to write her version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale simply because she wanted to follow into Potter’s footsteps who wrote her detailed version of the Cinderella story. (Pamela L. Travers’s retelling of the Sleeping Beauty was explored in depth on this blog, see About the Sleeping Beauty Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V and Part VI.)
It is somewhat strange and disappointing that the only thing that Lawson retained from her reading of the “Hidden Child” was that Pamela loved the sweet femininity of the female animal characters in Beatrix Potter’s stories for their ability to nurture and put things to right…
Never before and probably never after did Pamela reveal so plainly the pattern of her inner torments and somehow it remained totally unnoticed by the outside world.
What makes me say that? Well, for one, at the time when Pamela L. Travers wrote “The Hidden Child“, she was 48 years old and she had successfully published three of her Mary Poppins books, and was herself considered as a successful children’s writer (despite the fact that she always denied having written the Mary Poppins stories with the intention to please children). And, what’s even more significant is that she continued to write children’s stories until late into her eighties. Listed below is the chronology of her fiction writings…
- Mary Poppins, London: Gerald Howe, 1934
- Mary Poppins Comes Back, London: L. Dickson & Thompson Ltd., 1935
- I Go By Sea, I Go By Land, London: Peter Davies, 1941
- Aunt Sass, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941
- Ah Wong, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943
- Mary Poppins Opens the Door, London: Peter Davies, 1943
- Johnny Delaney, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1944
- Mary Poppins in the Park, London: Peter Davies, 1952
- Gingerbread Shop, 1952
- Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party, 1952
- The Magic Compass, 1953
- Mary Poppins From A to Z, London: Collins, 1963
- The Fox at the Manger, London: Collins, 1963
- Friend Monkey, London: Collins, 1972
- Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975
- Two Pairs of Shoes, New York: Viking Press, 1980
- Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, London: Collins, 1982
- Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, London: Collins. 1988
What does that signify? It means that Pamela L. Travers’s inner child was never appeased, she did not succeed to set herself free to find her fate in the grown-up world. And this is where Beatrix Potter succeeded in her life journey. I believe that this is the main reason for Pamela’s fascination.
After reading the “Hidden Child” I decided to read the “Tale of Beatrix Potter” and see if I could find some evidence supporting my perception of the emotional connection that Pamela L. Travers must have felt when reading the “Tale of Beatrix Potter“. And indeed, reading the book, I realized that there were some obvious similarities between the early emotional experiences of both writers.
As children, they were both kept fed and sheltered, but other than that they were pretty much ignored by their parents and were left to their own devices. Both girls experienced the neglect of their emotional needs and their budding talents were disregarded. Both loved and felt a deep connection with nature. Both were destined to take care of their parents and both desperately wanted to find and did find their way out. As young adults they both suffered from bouts of depression and both ended up writing stories that appealed to children.
But I believe that Beatrix Potter’s transformation in the second half of her life, from a timid and lonely child to a farmer, conservationist and a business woman caused Pamela L. Travers’s admiration.
Once Potter married, she lost all interest in writing and devoted herself to her husband and her true love, nature. Beatrix Potter became Mrs. Heelis, a sheep farmer, nature conservationist and an estate owner.
Pamela L. Travers’s interpretation of Potter’s metamorphosis gives a glimpse of her own inner yearning.
And this retrospective (the story of the child within) my go on for book after book until the time comes when the child is appeased and freed. That the tales cease then is not necessarily a sign of failing imagination but rather that the writer has set himself free to find his fate in the grown-up world. …Beatrix Potter’s life is a perfect example of this pattern. … Full and rich with immediate life she had no overspill for the hidden child; indeed, because of that late fullness the child no longer needed her. She became what she had instinctively longed to be…
Here it says it all…for those who listen…and do not judge…
Pamela L. Travers continued, book after book, in her attempt to soothe her inner child, little Lyndon, (Pamela’s real name) without ever succeeding to move genuinly into the next stages of her life.
The next post will examine in more detail the similarities and the differences between the childhood experiences of Pamela L. Travers and Beatrix Potter. Hope you stay tuned.