The story of Johnny Delaney, another character from Pamela L. Travers’s Australian childhood, and the meaning of the religious references in that story are the subject of this week’s post.
Just as in the story of Ah Wong, which was the subject of last week’s post, the story of Johnny Delaney was written as a Christmas gift for Pamela L. Travers’s friends and was not intended for the public eye. It was only in November 2014 that the story became available for the general reader. Virago Press, with the authorization of Pamela’s estate, published Aunt Sass a compilation of three stories: “Aunt Sass,” “Ah Wong,” and “Johnny Delaney.”
“Johnny Delaney” was published privately during Pamela’s war-time evacuation to the United States. It is dedicated to a mysterious woman by the name of Frieda Heidecke Stern whom Pamela’s biographer, Valerie Lawson, could not identify. Underneath that dedication there is a German sentence which translates to: “If one door closes, another opens.”
What door had closed back then for Pamela and what door was she hoping would open? Chance did not write that sentence, it meant something. EVERYTHING was a metaphor for Pamela. Then it is only logical to ask, what was Johnny Delaney a metaphor for? This post is an attempt to answer that question.
Pamela wrote the story of “Johnny Delaney” at a time when she was profoundly homesick. Likely, it was her longing to return home to a safe and familiar place that prompted her to turn mentally to the earliest memories of her childhood. Probably to the happiest ones, the more magical ones, and the ones that appealed most to her imagination.
The “real” Johnny Delaney worked as a stable boy and a carpenter but to Pamela he appeared as creature from a fairy tale. It is possible that he taught her, just like the children in the story, to spit with artistry, to make whistles from bamboo sticks, and to read the night starry sky. Although small and crippled physically, Johnny’s presence seems to have been magnified by his shadowy personality:
He was before anything else, an antisocial being. He was a man made entirely of blackness and shadow, the quickest-tempered, arrogantest, bitter-heartedest creature that ever stepped out of the County Clare.
But did the real Johnny have a second sight? Did he forcefully and unsolicitedly dispense his piece of mind to all who met him? Did he die as told in the story, of binge drinking? And above all, was his “life’s work” real? Somehow that last element in the story feels to me too romantic to have been true. It bears too much of a symbolic resemblance to Pamela’s own relationship with the God from her childhood. I will get back to that. But first, let me give you a summary of the story itself.
Come to think about it, “Johnny Delaney” is not a genuine story because there is not really a plot in it. It is a character study; a retelling of a childhood memory about a tormented creature. “His spirit glared through his dark eyes, a fierce, tormented prisoner.”
He was a man who apparently had lost his religion because of some secret pain, and a man betrayed by God just as Pamela herself felt betrayed by God. Truly, he was a man with “His love heavy and silent within him” just like Pamela and he also rejected the Church and the priests and kept to himself, just like Pamela:
The mere sight of a priest enraged him; and he deliberately pressed his hat a little further on his head when he met Mr. Preston, the vicar.
Ah, what do they know of life at all, them ignorant white angels? Sittin’ an’ sthrummin’ their harps of gold with never a shadow upon them.
But despite his antisocial behaviours and his heavy drinking, the reader learns at the end of the story that Johnny’s religion was love; love for the family he worked for, love for the people with whom he worked, and love for the wild life that surrounded him. And although he rejected the organised Christian religion, his life’s work (which is discovered only at his death) was a carving of the nativity scene. This is a nativity scene quite different from its traditional representation which dates to 1223 when Saint Francis of Assisi created the very first one to promote the true meaning of Christmas and worship of Jesus Christ.
This is what Johnny’s nativity scene looks like:
There were carved and painted kings and children kneeling beside a stable. No shepherds with flocks of snowy lambs, no angels with folded wings. Instead there were little native creatures – kangaroos, emus, red flamingos; horses and lizards and goats. The kneeling men were cane cutters, offering green cane boughs; …And alone-apart from men and beasts-stood a little bowed hump-backed figure, with a jockey hat in its hand. It seemed to be gazing at the crib…
Even though his love was strong, Johnny did not believe himself worthy of love. He was forever the observer, the outsider, the misfit. Just like Pamela L. Travers.
The observations about the nature of love in this story have probably more to do with Pamela’s own beliefs than the actual character of Johnny.
Throughout the story, there is a feeling of connection between the child narrator and Johnny. It is as if each one of them recognises himself in the other and a connection that lies between their “blackened by love” hearts.
Now, I don’t know how much of Johnny’s story is true and how much of it is the writer’s imagination. What I know for sure is that Pamela’s early childhood years were not spent on a sugar plantation as narrated in both “Ah Wong” and “Johnny Delaney.” I also know that Pamela fancied the idea of telling people that that was the case, and that her father was the owner of a sugar plantation. This is what she told Patricia Demers who wrote a short literary analysis of her works in the early nineties, before Valerie Lawson’s biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote. This is also what some newspapers wrote as her obituary in 1996. Here is an example from the obituary that was published in the New York Times : “Her father was a sugar planter, and Miss Travers recalled growing up near the Great Barrier Reef in a tropical world of sugar cane, shells and mangoes.”
The truth was different. Pamela’s father was a bank clerk who in his youth worked on a tea plantation in Ceylon. During the first three years of her childhood Pamela’s family lived in Maryborough, near the Mary River, in a two-story home from where Pamela could see the town’s sugar factory. So, there is an imaginative and mischievous stretch of reality on Pamela’s part. She did intentionally mislead people but, then again, people asked for it. She never wanted to be known for the facts of her personal life. She wanted to be understood through her art.
I believe her resistance to reveal the personal details of her life were motivated by fear: fear of being judged, fear of being misunderstood, and a fear of being rejected. She needed to surround herself with a cloak of mystery so to appear worthy of people’s attention and, at the same time, to hide behind it as a protective shield. It was all just a defensive mechanism. What she wrote in “Zen Moments,” an article published in Parabola, confirms just that:
“We sit on our heels on the tatami, the Japanese woman and myself, telling the stories of our lives. One can do this with a stranger. Too near, and the perspective is lost. Only the far can be near.”
So, what was “Johnny Delaney’ a metaphor for? I believe him to be the expression of Pamela’s emotional inadequacy and her unfulfilled need to belong to a family, and above all, her need for a spiritual life after the loss of her faith.