A Little-Known Friendship 

The friendship between P.L. Travers and Helen Keller is a little-known fact and one that was brought to my attention by a generous reader of this blog. I am forever grateful to my readers who share my interest in the world of P.L. Travers and Mary Poppins and freely share their knowledge with me.

A few letters kept in the archives of Helen Keller reveal that she and Polly Thomson stayed at P.L. Travers’s home during their visit to the UK in 1946. Helen Keller recollects the visit in these words: 

How often Polly and I recall the cozy evenings we spent with you, Camillus, and Moya by the fire in that dear, war-tried little house, surrounded by objects upon which your artistry has bestowed a fairy grace! “

And in another letter: 

I prefer to tell you how two pilgrims in search of ways to succor the war-blinded of Europe were rested and cheered by their visits with you, Moya and darling Camillius. Besides taking you to our hearts we loved your house, bomb-wounded yet warm and sweet to the core, your fire crackling with a cheery message of peace that shall someday inundate all homes, the simple hospitality making us feel natural and free instead of feeling “guests,” and the talk on whose wings the hours flew unnoticed.

The connections I make from reading P.L. Travers’s interviews and writings usually require time and effort, and although I enjoy the process, I must admit that it is immensely satisfying, albeit I feel a little mischievous, to read P.L. Travers’s private thoughts on matters she never discussed in interviews. 

Her correspondence with Helen Keller contains candid details about her relationship with her son, Camillus, and her feelings about single motherhood. In her interviews P.L. Travers rarely talked about Camillus and when she did, it was indirectly, by making references to a boy she knew well or a boy dear to her heart. This may appear strange, but I believe that she was trying to avoid questions about his adoption.  

The adoption of Camillus is discussed in P.L. Travers’s biography Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lawson, as well as in the documentaries about her life, and so I am not going to delve into the details of the adoption here, but just mention briefly, for those of you who are not familiar with the story, that P.L. Travers never told Camillus that he was adopted and that he had a twin brother, and other siblings. At the age of seventeen he discovered the truth when his twin brother came knocking on P.L. Traver’s door.  

As you can imagine Camillus was hurt and felt betrayed by the person he trusted most in life. His anger was mighty, and he never completely forgave her. This was a terribly sad and tragic event for both and P.L. Travers’s biggest regret in life was that she had not been a good enough mother for Camillus.  

And maybe from the outside one can say that she should have made better choices when it came to her son, the truth is she could not have done differently because she did what she could, what she thought was best, based on the level of awareness she had at the time.  

In her letters to Helen Keller, P.L. Travers writes about teaching Camillus how to swim and row during their summer vacation in Ireland and in the Wales, and how she is teaching him to handle a canoe on the Regent Park Lake. She mentions that he is taking violin lessons and “being very musical and with a good ear.”  

But what I find most interesting in this correspondence is that P.L. Travers appears to have been nostalgic of Camillus’s earliest childhood years. It is almost as if she was grieving the loss of their deepest connection, feeling the bond between them beginning to weaken as he was growing up and losing touch with the dreamland of fairytales. In a way they no longer shared a common way of perceiving the world. Camillus, like most of us when growing up, was interested in the external affairs of life and of becoming, whereas P.L. Travers always kept one foot in the land of myth and fairy tales, and looked for a deeper meaning of life, beyond the illusion of the ordinary. She wrote to Helen Keller: 

He, when he first heard poetry, was enchanted by it, but now at the age of eight only wants it now and then. He is so busy being a gangster one moment, supervisor another, a policeman the next. Everything now is acting and there is very little dreaming. The house shakes with his thundering feet, he is always coming from or going somewhere and only at night remembers that he has a mother and is still small enough to sit in her lap and be rocked in the rocking chair.”  

This sentiment of hers was so strong that it made its way in Every Goose a Swan in Mary Poppins in the Park. Camillus is the Boy in the story. The Boy is engrossed in pretend play, he is a fearsome one- eyed pirate, but then when the Tramp dares him to go to Dead Man’s Drop he suddenly remembers that he has a mother, that if he leaves she would be anxious and that after all she was making pancakes and it was better for him to stop acting and be his other self. 

Another interesting aspect of this correspondence with Helen Keller is P.L. Travers’s frankness about her difficulties as a single parent, the frustrations of domestic life, and her difficulty at reconciling it all with her deep need to write.  

Helen, you will understand how sad I have been at having to face the possibility of sending Camillus to boarding school. I aways wanted to keep him at home with me and let him go to a day school. But daily living becomes ever more difficult in England and the almost impossibility of finding anybody to help in the house will probably make it imperative. (…) I have broached the subject with him and his cheerful reply was “I will hit you if you do send me away!” However, as he grows I think he will quite like the idea and I hope to find a simple loving school which will not try and mould his abundant nature into too conventional a pattern. Then perhaps I shall have time to write.”

The boarding school she chose for Camillus was Dane Court Preparatory School for boys in Surrey. Joy Davidson, the wife of C.S. Lewis, sent her own two sons there after consulting P.L. Travers over tea. P.L. Travers’s high praise confirmed Joy Davidson’s impression of the school.  

The one she liked best was Dane Court, in Surrey, about twenty miles southeast of London. It was the most expensive, “gracious, well-established, comfortable without being luxurious and modern without being faddist,” having adopted a progressive policy of not “whack(ing) the children.” 

Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis, by Abigail Santamaria. 

In conlusions, P.L. Travers did what she could to give Camillus a good education and a good start in life.

There are other things in the letters that will probably prompt me to write other blogposts, but this is it for this one, and I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading it.  

Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party Little Golden Book by P.L. Travers 

The Laughing Gas was my favorite Mary Poppins story as a kid. The scene where Mr. Wigg bounces and bobs about in the air like a balloon was the funniest thing that I had ever read. Imagining a round, fat, bald man wiggle in the air with his glasses half on and half off his nose, while holding a newspaper, was a vision I was not willing to let go of. I read and reread the passage until I had exhausted its last drop of funniness. Today, sadly, the same description no longer makes me burst into laughter, but I still enjoy the story, only for different reasons. 

Recently, I saw a junk journal made from A Little Golden Book, Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins on social media. It was for sale, and I almost bought it, but then I changed my mind. I decided to make my own junk journal since I have the three Little Golden Books based on stories from the original Mary Poppins book (the first one in the series). 

Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party is an abridged version of The Laughing Gas. It was published in 1952 along with The Gingerbread Shop, an abridged version of Mrs. Corry. Then, in 1953 a third Little Golden Book based on Bad Tuesday was published under the title The Magic Compass.  

I know, some of you will think this to be a sacrilegious act, cutting up a book and then inserting all kinds of bits and pieces in it, but I cannot help it. I feel compelled to play and interact with these stories in a different way. I promise to post pictures of my junk journals here, but only if they turn out nice. 

I spent my early childhood years in Bulgaria in the 1980’s, and obviously, the Little Golden Books were not part of my early life. In line with my usual habit when something sparks my curiosity, I did some digging and learned a few interesting facts about the Little Golden Books Collection. Here they are. 

Twelve Little Golden Book titles were first published in October of 1942 and were at once a tremendous success with 1.5 million copies sold during the first five months of their existence. Today, there are some 1400 Little Golden Book titles available, and the collection continues to expand. 

Before the existence of the Little Golden Books, books for children in the United States were expensive and not vastly available to children in small towns and remote rural areas. In the 1930’s the average children’s book cost $2.00 (which today corresponds to $40.00) and in comparison, a loaf of bread cost 10 cents.  

The Little Golden Books came into existence because of the collaboration of three groups: The Artist and Writers Guild, Simon & Schuster (the new kid on the publishing block back then) and Western Printing and Lithographing Publishing Company, Racine Wisconsin. Their goal was to publish affordable children’s picture books for 25 cents, an idea unheard of at the time. 

Simon & Schuster were up for the challenge and their partnership with Western Printing allowed for mass production of colorful picture books because Western had big printing presses unlike the other publishing houses of that period.  They were also printing maps for the US Army and had a large allotment of paper and were not much bothered by all the rationing during the war. 

The first twelve Little Golden Books published in 1942 had forty-two pages in total, twenty-eight of which had colored illustrations, and the remaining fourteen pages were illustrated in black and white. However, in 1943 because of the war, The Little Golden Books were reduced to twenty-eight pages. 

In 1944 Little Golden Books signed a licensing agreement with Disney which continues to this day. According to this licensing agreement, each release of a new Disney movie coincides with the publication of a Little Golden Book with the characters from the movie. This is how in 1964 the Little Golden Book Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins came to be. 

The letters of the alphabet, printed on the bottom right corner of the last page of each Little Golden Book, identify its edition. I have the first edition of Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party and that suggests the book did not sell as many copies as other Little Golden Book titles since there are no further reprints. 

The covers of my used copy are worn, but that just adds to the charm, and as for the rest of the pages, they are in good condition.

All three Little Golden Books based on the Mary Poppins stories were illustrated by Gertrude Elliott, one of the illustrators of the Little Golden Books Collection. The pictures in Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party show a plain and stern Mary Poppins, and I think that P.L. Travers must have been pleased by Elliott’s execution.  

Now, for those who are unfamiliar with the story The Laughing Gas (and Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party) here is a short summary of the plot.  Mary Poppins takes Jane and Michael Banks to her uncle’s house for an afternoon tea. As it happens, their visit coincides with Mr. Wigg’s birthday, only when his birthday falls on a Friday, well, it is all up with him; the first funny thought that pops into his head fills him with laughing gas and he is up in the air, just like a balloon.  

Jane and Michael find the situation so irresistibly funny that they too fill up with laughing gas and float up to the ceiling. At this point in the story, the characters are faced with a fantastic problem; the table set for their tea party is down and they are all up. How on earth are they going to have tea?  Of course, Mary Poppins’s magic solves the problem, the table rises up to the ceiling and they all end up sitting comfortably in the air eating bread and butter, and sipping tea.  

As a kid I enjoyed the story for its whimsicality alone, and it goes without saying that I too wished to be filled up with laughing gas. Yet no matter how hard I laughed reading the story, I stayed firmly put on the couch in the living room of my grandparent’s apartment. (That is where I read Mary Poppins for the first time.) The deeper meanings of the Mary Poppins stories became apparent only when I reread them as an adult.  

The Laughing Gas is a beautiful allegory of the uplifting powers of joy and the price we pay when we take ourselves and life too seriously. However, this valuable lesson is missing from Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party, because an important character had to be cut out in order to allow the story to fit into the preestablished length of a Little Golden Book. 

That character is the housekeeper Miss Persimmon. The reader of Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party meets her briefly at the beginning of the story as she is the one who opens the door for the guests, but we don’t learn anything about her, except that she is not too fond of Mr. Wigg.   

In The Laughing Gas Miss Persimmon comes into Mr. Wigg’s room with a jug of hot water for the guests and is stunned by the sight of them all sitting on the air around the table. She is disturbed by Mr. Wigg’s undignified behavior and when Michael Banks suggests to her that she too might catch the laughing gas she exclaims haughtily “I have more respect for myself than to go bouncing about in the air like a rubber ball on the end of a bat. I’ll stay on my own two feet, thank you, or my name’s not Amy Persimmon (…)” 

As soon as the words come out of her mouth, Miss Persimmon, against her will, is propelled up in the air.  After all, the guests need the hot water for their tea. The poor woman stumbles through the air and weeps in distress as she puts the jug of water on the table. On her way down to the floor she mutters to herself that she needs to see a doctor because she is a well-behaved, steady going woman, and the experience that she just had is beyond her understanding. 

Mary Poppins gives an opportunity to Miss Persimmon to loosen up a bit, to let go of her judgmental ways, yet Miss. Persimmon resists. Why? Because tells us P.L. Travers, our social conditioning, if never questioned, will overpower us and cause us to experience nervous breakdowns whenever we are presented with a situation that conflicts with our narrow views. Miss Persimmon has lost her playfulness and her social conditioning has suppressed her ability to experience spontaneous joy.  

As for the children, well, they learn that joy and sadness go hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other. That lesson too is missing form Mr. Wiggs’s Birthday Party, but I will write a separate blogpost about it.

Pamela L. Travers and the Magical Child (Part II)


Last week’s post finished with the following quote from Pamela L. Travers:

I am glad, therefore, to have kept my terror whole and thus retained a strong link with the child’s things-as-they-are, where all things relate to one another and all are congruous.

These potent feelings of terror, reinforced by the early and sudden death of her father and the subsequent suicide attempt of her mother, remained Pamela’s connection to her inner child. However, even before these tragic events, her sensitive mind was predisposed to bursts of anxiety. Snippets of enigmatic adult conversations and the blood freezing fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm fueled her imagination. Pamela, by her own words, developed a fascination with the dark characters of these stories.  She wrote:

 It was the dark ones, after all, on whom everything depended. They awoke the virtues, imposed the conflict and, by strictly throwing the story forward, brought it to its strict end – the achievement of Happy Ever After.

Yet, this vision of the battle between Good and Evil and the necessity of Evil as the hero’s teacher, was not accessible to Pamela L. Travers at the time when the Grimms presented her with the great dark forces of our human nature; evil so dark that it lit her childhood’s nightmares.

And, what else but nightmarish images could have a story such as How some Children Played at Slaughtering project in her mind? Now, a note of warning,  if you have a sensitive stomach I suggest you jump over the next four paragraphs.

In the first part of this story, a group of children led by the butcher’s son decide to play at slaughtering a pig. And who plays the pig? A little boy who gets his throat cut by the butcher’s son while another little girl gathers his blood in a bowl. A councilman walking nearby sees the terrible scene and takes the butcher’s son to the house of the Major who summons the council. An old wise man advisees the council to offer the boy an apple and a golden coin. If the boy takes the coin, he is to be killed. When presented with the gifts, the boy joyfully picks the apple and thus can run free.

What an apparent injustice! I assume that would be the moral of the story for a child like Pamela, left alone to deal with the matter as well as she could. No one was there to explain the deeper meaning of the story or to tell her that the boy was simply imitating his father. And, no one was there to tell her that the boy did not understand the irreversibility of death nor his own mortality and that he was immature thus had no clear understanding of his actions and even less so about the consequences of these actions. And, that what seems to be unjust, is in fact just because the butcher’s son had no ill intention and therefor was undeserving of punishment. But what is to be said about the victim, the boy who played the pig? The story also deals with the apparent randomness of life events; of simply being at the wrong place, at the wrong time. It tells us that, sometimes, bad things happen without there being a guilty party. Or that one bad decision (accepting to play the role of the pig) can have fatal consequences.

In the second part of this Grimm’s story, the reader is taken to an even much darker sequence of events, at the butcher’s house, where the butcher’s wife is bathing her baby while her other two sons are playing the pig and the butcher outside in the yard. The older brother cuts the throat of his younger brother who plays the pig in the story.  When the mother hears the cries, she comes outside, and horrified and enraged by the scene, she takes the knife from her son and kills him. Then she goes back upstairs to her baby, only to find him drowned in the bathtub. What else is left for her to do but kill herself? When the father comes back home and sees what had happened, he becomes so despondent that he dies soon afterward.

Now, how do you explain such a tragic story to a child? Because even if one explains the dynamics in play; a child still remains a child and is simply not ready for certain truths.

Maybe, if Pamela didn’t read these stories at such a tender age, she would not have experienced the panic attacks that often occurred at sunset. When the day was over, and darkness was on it’s way, Pamela knew she would be left alone in her bed with the monsters in her head.

 “Will the sun come up tomorrow?” Pamela kept asking her parents. The question was simply brushed off.If someone knew and understood how anxious I was about the sun, what a help it would have been for me.

Unfortunately, her parents did not understand what it all meant. 

Pamela L. Travers wrote once that if only she bothered to bring her questions to her parents they would have explained things as they are and released her from the grips of her anxieties. However, the following recollection contradicts that assertion.

Pamela’s voracious reading appetite extended itself to the Bible and Of course, if you let a child read the Bible it will inevitably put the grown-ups in precarious positions.”

This is an example of one such precarisous position. 

“What,” I asked my father once, “what is a concubine?”

“Er-hum -!” he responded. “Why do you ask?” Clearly, he was playing for time.

“Well, it says in the Bible that David took him more concubines and Solomon had three hundred.”

He inwardly groaned, but grappled with it. “Well, David was the head of the house, he needed people to look after him and the concubines-er-did.”

Three hundred! I thought to myself. One would need a very big house.

“What a pity, father, that you have only two!”

He was astonished. “Two what?”

“Two concubines-Kate and Bella to cook and make beds.”

“Katie and Bella are not my concubines.” Here was a child being childish, which was something he did not like.

“Then, Nellie, what about her?” Nelly was slightly wanting, and came to help with the washing.

“Certainly not.” The idea was repugnant.

“Well, father, who are your concubines?”

“I have no concubines!” he roared and stormed out of the room. And so I was left to deal with the mighty question myself.

Reading was Pamela’s exploration tool. Her inquisitive mind needed to make sense of the world. So, she read, without discrimination nor restriction. She read everything that came into her hand, even the missionary tracks of her piano teacher.

When I was a child the only way I could learn about other countries was by reading missionary tracks given by my pious piano-teacher, so that today almost every quarter of the globe has for me a faint flavor of old hymn-books.

These tracks and her fathers’ Celtic fantasies might have caused her thirst to see other lands. Undoubtedly, the foreign worlds seemed more attractive and alluring to her than the ordinary day-to-day of the Travers household.  

There must be something else I would say, not at all knowing what it was, but knowing, too, that as far as the wind blows and the sky is blue I would go and find it.

Pamela L.Travers