About the Sleeping Beauty (Part I)

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Don’t you know that everybody’s got a fairyland of their own?”

Mary Poppins, The Day Out

What was Pamela L. Travers’s fairyland?  As a child, Pamela was entranced by the fairy-tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, and in her mid-thirties, George W. Russel rekindled her interest in fairy-tales. Once the flame reignited, it burned until the very end of her life. The following quote from Pamela L. Travers expresses the importance of fairy-tales in her own life. 

Later, like streams, they (the fairy-tales) run underground. For a while they disappear and we lose them. We are busy instead, with our personal myth in which the real is turned to dream and the dream becomes the real. Sifting all this is a long process. It may perhaps take half a life-time and the few who come round to the tales again are those who are in luck.

Was she then in luck? Maybe she was, to a certain extend. And even though the fairy tales did not provide her with the answers to her existential questions, at least they provided her with an occupation to sooth her anxieties and fill the lonely hours of her existence. She escaped her ordinary everyday life in fairyland, the same place where she used to escape in her childhood from the coolness of her parents.

Since she had a fertile imagination and a gift for words, the fairy-tales provided her with a creative outlet that eventually won her an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters from the Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The previous year, she also received an OBE from the Queen, however, for the record, it must be told that she was not satisfied by her distinctions – she felt like she deserved more. Pamela wanted to be recognised as a serious scholar and not a writer of children’s literature.

Pamela L. Travers said that each woman can find her role model in the female characters, both good and evil, in the stories collected by the brothers Grimm. Hers, without a doubt, were the characters of Sleeping Beauty and the Wicked Fairy from the fairy-tale of the Sleeping Beauty. Pamela traces her fascination with the Wicked Fairy back to her childhood:

As a child, I had no pity for the jealous queen in ‘Snow White’ or the shifty old witch in ‘Rapunzel’. I could cheerfully consign all the cruel step mothers to their cruel fates. But the ill luck of the Wicked Fairy roused all my child’s compassion. She was in a sense a victim. For her alone there was no gold plate-all she could do was accept the fact.

Doesn’t this identification to a wicked character appear most intriguing? I find that it is. I intuit that maybe the cause for this is that Pamela (or little Helen Lyndon, her real name) felt like the victim in the family, the one always unjustly cast aside, the inadequate one, the one touched by the bad. These inner unprocessed thoughts of inadequacy transformed themselves throughout the years into deep feelings of anxiety and profound identity issues. Her lifelong search for herself explains her later interest in the character of Sleeping Beauty.

What is it in us that at a certain moment suddenly falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come at last to wake us, what aspect of ourselves? (…) something that falls asleep after childhood, something that not to waken would make life meaningless?

In 1965, Pamela L. Travers was invited as a writer-in-residence to Radcliff College (part of Harvard University) at Cambridge and it was during her residency there, in the Widener Library, that she started working on her book “About the Sleeping Beauty”. She spent her time poring over books of myth and fairy-tales and making connections. The book was finally published in 1975 and, disappointingly for Pamela, was trashed by the critics. Patricia Demers reports in her book P.L.Travers that some of the reviews were frankly hostile: “repetitious and windy…buried in self-infatuated blah” (“P.L.Travers’s About the Sleeping Beauty” Kirkus Review, 15 October 1975, 1202)

Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, concluded that “this book had been one for the insiders. Or perhaps for Pamela alone, a woman talking to herself.

And although it is true that Pamela sometimes tended to write her essays in a hermetical manner, she was NOT talking to herself. Maybe the public was simply unable to understand her. Her retelling of Sleeping Beauty is based upon “Briar-Rose” (Dornrpschen) which is the Grimm’s version of the fairy tale. There is also an Afterword in which Pamela writes a comparative study of the Grimm’s version and four other versions from different countries and periods in time, namely: “The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood” (La Belle au Bois Dormant), “Sun, Moon and Talia” (Sole, Luna e Talia), “The Queen of Tibber Tintye,” and the “Petrified Mansion.” 

Now, back to Pamela L. Travers’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty. The Grimm’s version is quite short compared to the detailed 45 pages of Pamela’s retelling.

Pamela L. Travers, in her retelling of the story, remains loyal to the original plot. The major differences, the ones that are easily identifiable from the start, are of form and detail around characters. First, the story is located somewhere in Arabia in the Court of the Sultan and Sultana. Pamela explained the reason for that change in the setting:

To begin with, I was at pains to give it a faraway setting – a vaguely Middle-Eastern world – to lift it out of its well worn rut. I needed to separate it from its attic clutter-the spinning wheel, the pointed witch cap and all the pantomime buffoonery – in order to see its meaning clear.

I fail to see how the meaning of the story becomes clearer by changing the setting. I think the reason for her choice has something to do with her guru Gurdjieff who himself came from the Middle-East and articulated his body of esoteric teachings around the theme of the sleeper. It is almost as if she believed that by setting it in a land of eastern wisdom tradition, the tale itself will be imbued with more wisdom.

Second, the Wise Women (the fairies) are depicted as futuristic aliens, at least this is the image I got when I read:

Not a sound did the Wise Women make as their bare feet of gold or silver floated, as is customary in the fairy world, some inches above the floor. The twelves figures seemed to hang in the air, their naked golden and silver heads gleaming above the swirling robes which were every colour of the rainbow.

This modification to the story is also explained by Pamela: “ It was to do away with their pantomime image and give them their proper weight and authority that our version provided the Wise Women with their hairless heads of gold and silver and made gods their golden and silver feet hover a little above the earth as the gods do on the Greek vases.

Ironically, in my opinion, it is her description of the Wise Women that makes them look like a pantomime image. And for me, it just felt discordant.

Why didn’t her editor say something? With these elements removed, maybe the critics would have been slightly gentler with her work. Or maybe not. They blamed her of using Jungian babble …. but I think she was using Gurdjieff language to express her inner state.  The book is very interesting if one reads it with the intention of getting a better understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s psyche. But if you are not interested in the inner workings of the author, it is not especially entertaining, although the descriptions are beautiful. Pamela L. Travers had a real talent for writing exquisite, lyrical descriptions of places and characters.

 

Pamela L. Travers and The Fox at the Manger (Part II)

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The story of the “Fox at the Manger” is a fable based upon the opposition between the tamed farm animals who view themselves as good, because of their seemingly selfless service to men, and the untamed, aloof, and selfish fox. The fox comes to the manger well into the night when everybody is asleep but his visit is not about his ordinary hunting business. He has come to give a special gift to baby Jesus. The fox’s gift is his cunning ability because he knows that one day baby Jesus will find himself “alone against the world” and that he will need all the protection he could get.

A careful reading of the dialogues between the animals reveal a great deal about Pamela’s outlook on life and her understanding of the nature of our human interactions. This post will attempt to articulate Pamela’s belief system through the analysis of the symbolical meanings woven into the character of the fox.

As you will come to see, the fox in the story is a multifaced character, a sort of symbol, sending signals to the reader. A quote from Pamela L. Travers about the nature of a symbol comes to mind:

If you hang a crystal in the window it will give off light from all parts of itself. That is how the myths are; they have meaning for me, for you and everyone else. A true symbol has always this ‘multisidedness’. It has something to say to all who approach it.

 (The World of the Hero, 1976)

Three aspects of the character of the fox seem, in my opinion, to be revealing of Pamela L. Travers’s psyche. First, I believe the fox in this fable to be a personification of Pamela L. Travers’s feelings of loneliness and alienation from others. Second, the fox can be perceived as the personification of Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual guru, Gurdjieff; and third, the nature of the fox’s gift to baby Jesus can also be understood as the expression of Pamela L. Travers’s unsatisfied childhood need for unconditional love. Now, let’s examine each one of these three elements.

Pamela L. Travers’s feelings of loneliness

Pamela L. Travers left her familiar Australian homeland at the age of twenty-four in search of a new, more fulfilling life in the mythical land of her deceased father’s fantasies, Ireland. Her escape from the controlling forces of her mother and her great-aunt Ellie propelled her into a newly gained freedom, which unfortunately, had the effect of activating (or maybe intensifying some already existing) deep survival anxieties; anxieties which might also have been the cause of her various illnesses throughout her life. And despite her serendipitous new writing beginnings, her work provided only meager revenues. Her fortune came much later in her life and did not relieve her from her deeply ingrained fears of never having enough money.

When Pamela L. Travers arrived in England, she sent a poem to George W. Russel, the editor of The Irish Statesman, who then introduced her into the Irish literary society almost overnight. She attached herself to Russel who, until his death ten years later, played the role of the mentor and grounding presence in her life. When Russel died, Pamela L. Travers was totally devastated. Her love life was a disaster and her sexuality somewhat ambiguous. Her relationships seem to have been very intense and shortly lived. She never married, and four years after Russel’s death Pamela adopted a child which she ended up sending to boarding school at the age of twelve.

In her early eighties, Pamela was awarded an OBE from the Queen (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) as a recognition of her literary work.  She asked Aidrian House, Former Editor of Collins Publishing, who also happens to have edited the “Fox at the Manger” to accompany her to the Buckingham Palace; a request that came to him as a surprise:

I felt surprised when Pamela asked me to the Buckingham Palace, I felt surprised that she didn’t have any friends closer to her in age, friends from her past who might’ve come with her. But then I suppose that she was probably in her early eighties. But there was always something about her, she always stood back slightly from ordinary relationships in every day life. And maybe that made her slightly lonelier than some people.”

(Documentary “The Shadow of Mary Poppins”)

Now, knowing these facts from her life, one comes easily to the conclusion that the following statement made by the fox reflects Pamela L. Travers’s own life experience. I believe that it is Pamela lending her voice to the Fox:

No one bids me go here, go there. … I live in danger, as the halcyon lives that builds her nest on the wave; alone with myself at all times….To be alone is my nature. … I have or have not, according to fate and season – and either way it is whole. Half a thing is of no use for me.

The Gurdjieff teachings

Pamela L. Travers followed the esoterical teachings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff and her writings were greatly influenced by her spiritual beliefs. (These influences will be explored in more detail in future posts.) For the purposes of this post, I will simply expose the basic idea of Gurdjieff’s teachings which has found its way into the story of “The Fox at the Manger.”

Gurdjieff taught his students that man was basically a sleeping machine with a potential to develop his consciousness through the practice of divided attention, which means to be simultaneously aware of both oneself and what one is considering. To delay reaction intentionally while consciously observing oneself, to question one’s ways of being and knowing, and thus generating the necessary inner friction to cause awakening. Continuous conscious effort and voluntary sacrifice are at the core of his teachings. Although inspired by Eastern philosophies, his system is uniquely different and articulated in a negative sort of way.

The students are challenged to question their perceptions of reality and of their identities, and at the same time, they are constantly reminded of their incapacity to see reality; thus locking them in a loop of endless questioning and confusion without any hope of finding an answer. I believe that Pamela’s emotional needs made her vulnerable to these teachings and although she was looking for solace, I believe these teachings exacerbated her survival anxieties and identity issues.

So, when the fox questions the farm animals’ perception of the reality of things as they know them, I can’t help but imagine Gurdjieff talking to his followers. The following exchanges between the animals are self-explanatory.

You speak like a slave, said the fox mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forest no man has seen – do they not still go on growing?  Will the fire at the core of the earth go out because man cannot warm his hand at it? I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve I do not know.

And when the farm animals confront the fox about his cunning techniques, the fox replies wisely:

Foolish creatures (his victims), I remember them well. They did not trouble to think for themselves. They deserved what they got.

The need for unconditional love

The fox’s gift to baby Jesus illustrates Pamela L. Travers’s idea about the nature of true love, which she rightfully attributes to the act of giving. The problem with Pamela’s concept of true love is that she seems to have conceived giving as an act of painful self-sacrifice; an all or nothing affair. This notion of intrinsic pain associated to the act of loving is present in her other writings and was briefly examined in the analysis of the story of “Johnny Delanney.”

In “The Fox at the Manger,” the fox gives up the only thing that has value for him: his survival tool, his essence, his cunning. In Pamela’s eyes, the gifts of the farm animals are of a lesser value compared to the fox’s gift. Did she believe that true love must necessarily imply self-annihilation? To me, the fox’s gift is ambiguous. He gives up on his own nature and I don’t believe this is a loving act. To love another does not mean to stop loving oneself. To me, the fox’s gift looks more like a co-dependant impulse and it makes me wonder:  Did she lose herself in others? Did she expect from others self-sacrificing as proof of their love for her? Either way, if that was her mental representation of love, it is no wonder she experienced love as suffering. It is possible that she ended up believing that most people are incapable of true love. That somehow, she was one of the few people capable of true love and that others have somehow failed her….

The story ends on a lonely note:

And always, among the sleepers, there must be somebody waking – somewhere, someone, waking and watchful. Or what would happen to the world….

At the time when Pamela wrote the story she was herself acting as a guru and receiving people in her home to discuss Gurdjieff’s teachings. Did she see herself as one of the awaken few watching over the lost souls…? How lonely she must have felt…and how hopelessly burdened by the task…

 

Pamela L. Travers and The Fox at the Manger (Part I)

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The last two posts on this blog (analysis of the story of “Ah Wong” published in 1943 and analysis of the story of “Johnny Delaney” published in 1944) revealed Pamela L. Travers’s religious upbringing and the signs of her losing her religion after the early and sudden death of her father. These two stories were written during Pamela L. Travers’s war time evacuation to the United States, and as Christmas gifts for her friends; thus published privately.

The story of “The Fox at the Manger,” which is the subject of this week’s post, was published at large in 1963, almost twenty years after the end of the war and in my opinion, it expresses the same sentiment of rejection of the main-stream Christianity and the spiritual void experienced by Pamela L. Travers as the stories of “Ah Wong” and “Johnny Delaney“.

The “Fox at the Manger” is an account of the first Christmas service at St. Paul’s cathedral in post-war London when people were just beginning to settle back into their normal lives. The narrator (who is obviously Pamela L. Travers) takes three boys to the Christmas service. One of the little boys is dear to her heart and is obviously her son Camillus. By the way, the story is dedicated “To C. to remind him of his childhood.” 

Each of the boys are bringing one of their favorite toys with the intention of offering them as presents for the poor children in London. But when the moment comes for the boys to part with their precious possessions, they remorselessly change their minds. To this, the narrator (Pamela L. Travers) wisely concludes “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere.” 

Obviously, the story is about giving and about loss. As Patricia Demers writes in her book, “P.L. Travers,” “The Fox at the Manger” is “an affective meditation on gift giving.” But there are also other layers woven into the story which deserve closer exploration. So, let’s explore them.

The story begins with, and is wrapped around, the Christmas carol of the Friendly Beast.

Carol of the friendly beast

(Here sang by Peter, Paul and Mary)

 Jesus, our brother, strong and good

Was humbly born in stable rude

And the friendly beasts around him stood

Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

 

I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown,

Carried his mother uphill and down,

I carried her safe to Bethlehem town,

I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

 

I, said the cow, all white and red,

Gave him manger for his bed,

I gave him my hay to pillow his head,

I, said the cow, all white and red.

 

I, said the sheep with curly horn,

Gave him my wool to keep him warm,

He wore my coat on Christmas morn,

I, said the sheep with curly horn.

 

I, said the dove, in the rafters high,

Cooed him to sleep with a lullaby,

We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I,

I, said the dove in the rafters high.

 

Thus, every beast by some good spell

In the stable dark was glad to tell

Of the gift he gave Immanuel

Of the gift he gave Immanuel.

 As a side note, I learned that this song probably originated in 12th-century France and was sung during the Fete de l’Ane (Festival of the Ass or Donkey), and the focus was the flight into Egypt by the Holy Family. At some point over the centuries, the scene shifted from the flight into Egypt to the journey to Bethlehem. Robert Davis (1881-1950) is attributed with writing the English words, probably in the 1920s. 

And now back to the story. The children in the story prove themselves to be keen observers. When the Church choir sings I, said the donkey, shabby and brown one of the boys remarks that the donkey in the Nativity scene is actually quite grey and smooth. Then another boy candidly demands: “Why, he asked, are they (the clergymen) wearing nightgowns? They look like Wee Willie Winkie.

Now, I didn’t know who Wee Willie Winkie was, so for those who may be ignorant of the character, here is a link to Wikipedia. Basically, Wee Willie Winkie is a character from a nursery rhyme (Pamela loved nursery rhymes) dressed in a night-gown and running around town tapping on windows and reminding children to go to bed. Therefore, it is not  exactly a dignifying comparison for the clergymen.

Although seemingly embarrassed by the attention from the congregation caused by the children’s comments, the narrator does not find the words to contradict them. She herself wonders, looking at the bishop lip-syncing the carol, “through what town of the mind this paunchy Wee Willie Winkie was running.” And then, to continue with her own meditation on the nativity scene:

 The rose-bloom faces of the kings gave no hint of the discipline, the labors, that must surely be the lot of any group of Magi.

And what disappoints her the most, is the absence of a black sheep amongst the white lambs:

And I dearly wanted a black lamb. For without him, where are the ninety and nine? Flocks, like families, have need of their black sheep he carries their sorrow for them. He is the other side of their whiteness. Does anybody understand I wandered, that a crib without a black lamb is an incomplete statement?

This passage in the story reminded me of another one of Pamela L. Travers’s essays published in Parabola in 1965, “The Black Sheep:”

What was a black sheep, I asked myself. Obviously, in the general view, one full of iniquity. If so, might I not be one myself, in spite of the tireless efforts of parents, teachers and friends.

The expressed feelings of not belonging to a tribe and being somewhat flawed are so obvious and ever recurring in her writings; even in the stories of Mary Poppins. But that will be explored at another time on this blog.

So, from the dialogues between the boys and the narrator, and the narrator’s own reflections of the religious service, one can easily deduce Pamela L. Travers’s general dissatisfaction with the religious concepts from her childhood. The worship rituals are portrayed in the story as a thoughtless mimic and mindless repetitions by some slightly ridiculous clergymen.  Clearly, Christianity did not provide answers to her questions nor did its teachings reflect what she perceived as being the truth.

So again, as in the previous stories, we can trace Pamela L. Travers’s rejection of the Christian religious beliefs. Yet, at the same time, the reader can feel a deep sense of her spiritual sensibility. She writes about the passage of time, which is associated to the flow of life, as something deeply mysterious and undisturbed by human actions:

Whenever the bombs fell in London, reinforcements in the shape of sycamore, rose-bay     willow, and fern came to fill the gaps. …. What had been here- some stately office? A bank?   A merchant’s hall? And before that, what? I wondered. If it is true the print and form of things remains forever, as they say invulnerable and invisible -surely these children were dancing now through long forgotten board meetings, and shades of accountants, lawyers, clerks. Or if one went back further, through the flames of the Fire in London in 1666. Further still, the marble floor would be mud and marshland and all around us brontozors; and beyond that we would whirl in lava, turning fierily through the air, nothing but elements.

Contrariwise, would not the City lords to come, in rooms that would rise from this fern and rubble start up in astonishment at the fancied sight of willow-herb breaking through the carpet. And old cashiers scratch their heads, wondering if they were out of their wits or whether they had really seen three boys run through the cash desk? Are we here? Are we there? Is it now? Is it then? They will not know and neither do we (Insert last name of author, page of quote).

Reading this, one feels the brevity of one own’s life and the impermanence of our human creations (or destructions for that matter). Pamela L. Travers must have felt rather small and insignificant, lost in a vastness of something beyond human comprehension. What is the meaning of it all? Pamela L. Travers does not know but the pain of the question remains forever present in her writings.

 After the service, the children ask the narrator why there were no wild animals at the crib. “Haven’t they got something to give?  In response, the narrator finds herself, like in a dreamlike state, telling the children the missing verse in the carol; the verse about the Fox.  She then proceeds to tell them the story of the “Fox at the Manger,” which can be compared to a sort of fable where the dialogues between the animals convey a moral to the reader. What is the moral? And who does the Fox personify?  I will tell you more in next week’s post.

Pamela L. Travers and Johnny Delaney

Pamela L. Travers Johnny Delaney 2

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.

Pamela L. Travers and Ah Wong

Mary Poppins Ah Wong

Pamela L. Travers stemmed from a religious soil. She heard readings from the Bible and attended church services on Sundays at St. David’s Anglican Church of England in Allora, Queensland, Australia.

Her parents were pious churchgoers; thus, God was an absolute and uncontestable part of Pamela’s reality:

…God ubiquitously worked among us, forever unespied – playing the organ on Sundays, his feet bare on the pedals…..Once He looked me at through the gap in the fence with the face of a golden sunflower, awesome, quizzical, resolute. I put up my hand and I picked Him.

Curious enough, despite her parents’ piety, this almost transcendental experience once shared was dismissed as inappropriate: No one, they said, could pick God and if they could they would not. It was socially, if not ethically, unacceptable and not the kind of thing people did.” 

Yet, it was not these insensitive comments but her father’s sudden death that shook the foundations of Pamela L. Travers’s religious beliefs. She had no choice but to accept her father’s death, even if the process took her several years. What she failed to accept, however, was a God who allowed for such a loss.  By losing her father she also lost her religion.

Alas, she did not lose her spiritual needs. A deep inner void remained to be filled. And that explains her lifelong following of the esoteric teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (whom she met in her late thirties), as well as her general restlessness and search for spiritual masters.

Strangely, despite her rejection of the God from her childhood, Pamela kept a faint connection to her Christian upbringing. Some of her less known writings (“Ah Wong,” “Johnny Delaney,” “I Go By Sea, I Go By Land,” and “Fox at the Manger”) contain religious references which leave a vague impression of an ambiguous belief system.  And it is to be noted that Gurdjieff himself called his system esoteric Christianity because of his ideas about sacrifice and voluntary suffering. A similar conclusion can be drawn about her interest in the Durkheim’s system which is a combination of Christian and Zen concepts.  

However, the major difference between her earlier religious training and the Gurdjieff’s and Durkheim’s teachings is that in these teachings the divine is described in a more mystical manner. There is also a strong emphasis on physical exercises as a gateway to a higher level of consciousness; ritual dances in the case of Gurdjieff and yoga and breathing exercises with Durkheim. In both systems, the process of personal growth is entirely the individual’s responsibility; an experiential inner process to be discovered by the individual on the spiritual path. Truth is to be experienced not known.

In 1943, Pamela L. Travers (at that time already a follower of Gurdjieff) wrote the story of “Ah Wong” as a Christmas present for her friends. She did not intend the story for the public eye and it was only in November 2014 that it 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.” The story of “Aunt Sass” was previously discussed on this blog. It features Pamela L. Travers’s great-aunt Ellie (under the name of Aunt Sass) who was, to a certain extent, the inspiration of the character of Mary Poppins.

Also, just as in “Aunt Sass,” a child’s voice tells the story of “Ah Wong” and again, as in “Aunt Sass,” it contains some biographical elements form Pamela’s Australian childhood.

The Travers’s household in the early years, before her father’s death, employed a Chinese cook who left a lifelong impression on Pamela’s heart.

In the story, Ah Wong arrives out of nowhere, as an angel of providence, just at the right time when the family has lost their incompetent Chinese cook to a work-related injury.  Ah Wong, thin and wrinkled with a long, black pigtail swinging underneath his hat, is described as a benevolent, energetic, and caring force:

 For Ah Wong did not merely cook for the family. It soon became apparent that he owned the family. He darted like lightning about the house, dusting, making beds, sweeping and polishing.

Pamela L.Travers presents Ah Wang as the ultimate house elf: “Flowers bloomed, green rows of vegetables appeared, watermelons swelled like balloons. It was our belief that Ah Wong blew them up at night.”    

Now, this sweet man remained profoundly engraved in Pamela’s memory not only because of his loving care for the family, but also and probably more so, because he was different in a time and place of Christian homogeneity. Something mysterious was hidden behind a beaded curtain in his room; Ah Wong was bowing to a “heathen idol.

Mary Poppins Ah Wong 2.PNG

Thus, Pamela and her siblings found themselves on a quest:

We were going to convert Ah Wang. At this period, we were immersed in those old stories wherein small children of extreme physical debility set so saintly an example that grown-up sinners were thereby brought to repentance.

The rest of the story goes on in a humorous way to describe the children’s efforts to teach Ah Wong the basics of Christianity and get him christened, of course, all without any success. It is in this story of Ay Wong that we glean Pamela L. Travers’s early religious education:

First, she mentions The Book of Common Prayers which I learned is a compilation of related prayer books used in the Anglican Communion, as well as by the Continuing Anglican, the “Anglican realignment,” and other Anglican churches. The book also includes the complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship.

Book_of_Common_Prayer_1760.jpg

Then, she tells us that her Bible primer was the Peep of Day and that Ah Wong succeeded in learning the prayers. So, I looked it up, and Peep of Day turns out to be a series of religious instructions for young children with illustrative verses written by Favell Lee Mortimer.

Peep of Day

The book is separated in sections as follows:

Section 1: My Family and Me – Body, Parents, Soul

Section 2: Angels – Good Angels, Wicked Angels

Section 3: God’s World – The World (3 lessons), Adam & Eve, The first sin, The Son of God

Section 4: Jesus has Arrived – Virgin Mary, Birth of Jesus, Shepherds, Wise Men, King Herod

Section 5: Jesus at Work – The Temptation, 12 disciples, First miracle, Several miracles, Sinner & Simon, Storm at Sea, Jairus’ daughter, Loaves and fishes, Kindness of Jesus, Lord’s prayer, Jesus foretells his death, Lazarus, Jesus in Jerusalem, The Temple, Judas

Section 6: The Last Meal – The Last Supper (3 lessons)

Section 7: The Final Night – The Garden, Peter’s denial, Pontius Pilate, Death of Judas

Section 8: Jesus Dies – The Cross (3 lessons), The Soldiers, The Grave

And here is a verse from the Peep of Day which we can imagine Ah Wong and the Children sang together:

My little body’s made by God

Of soft warm flesh and crimson blood;

The slender bones are placed within,

And over all is laid the skin

My little body’s very weak;

A fall or blow my bones might break;

The water soon might stop my breath;

The fire might close my eyes in death.

 But God can keep me by his care.

 Ah Wong indulged the children by playing and listening to their stories, but when they described to him the glorious picture of their father at the Church service, trying to convince him to come with them, Ah Wong found the idea of giving money at the end of the service completely ludicrous.

 ….our father, in his white silk suit with the crimson cummerbund, taking round the plate. This, to us, was a sight ever glorious. Sunday after Sunday we thrilled with pride as, singing the last hymn in a roaring baritone, Father took up the collection.

Whassa dam-silly-fellow nonsins? he shouted wrathfull. ‘Boss take-im money? I don’t tink so. Boss not take-im Ah Wong’s money.”  

After this incident, we learn that Ah Wong is saving his money to return to China. Soon after that, the tone of the story abruptly changes and becomes darker. The father suddenly dies and the family must leave its sugar plantation and its Chinese cook. Many years later, the child narrator, now a young journalist, meets Ah Wong on board of a ship sailing to China. Ah Wong is part of the ship’s cargo, a dying stock of old Chinese men on the way to their homeland. The story ends on a somewhat lyrical reflection about life and death being one river: “The same flood that was flinging me into life was taking Ah Wong home…

Pamela L. Travers and the Explorer

What the bee knows Mary Poppins

Following on the theme from last week’s post, Pamela’s search for that enigmatic “something else” began early in her childhood.

The ordinary day-to-day of the Travers’s household appears to have had a numbing effect on her sensitive little heart.

And as I grew, amidst all the abundance, I began to feel a wanting. Lacking nothing, I came to know lack – a longing, even nostalgia for something I had never known. In all the completeness, I was incomplete, a cup only half full. This ache, this lonely weight of heart came upon me always at sunset. There would be Something Else! I would say. Aching, I would say it. But all I knew was Here and Now, and of all, then within the all that Something Else awaited me, unfolded, implicate. Was it an answer to an unheard question? If a question, how would I know the answer?

This longing for that something she had never known could very well have been the expression of her unsatisfied need for affection and validation from her parents.  She felt the pain of her heart but she didn’t understand its calling; the call for self-love, compassion, and self-acceptance. Her inquisitive mind took her, on what Mark Nepo calls, the longest journey, the journey from one’s mind to one’s heart. In Pamela’s case, this journey proved to be lifelong and sadly uncompleted.

In 1985 (when she was 86 years old) she wrote again about that “something else:

I am here, Now, a lost child found, with that Something Else, that painful riddle, again at work upon me. Perhaps it is not, indeed, a riddle but rather an intimation. There are things that may not be understood, except by standing under them, watching, waiting and empty, as a shell that the bird has flown.

But for now, let’s go back to her early childhood when Pamela’s inner explorer manifested itself for the first time.

Pamela’s recollections of her precocious attempts to embark on her hero’s journey of exploration are so well written that I would not dare to retell them in my own words. I am transcribing here Pamela’s own writings so you can appreciate the depth of her longing to escape her ordinary life experience and the charming combination of a child’s naiveté and fierce audacity. 

I was also very pleased to read Patricia Demers’s description of Pamela’s childhood memories in her book “P.L. Travers” because it translates perfectly my own perceptual experience while reading Pamela’s childhood memories.

Among the most engaging of Travers’s essays are those which, without resorting to any contemporary event or pretext, reanimate scenes from her childhood. The perspective is that of the adult looking back. The sense of disclosure and drama is writerly. But for all these marks of the professional, such essays as “Name and No Name” and “Miss Quigley” preserve a certain ingenuousness which takes the reader directly into the world of the child.

Patricia Demers

So, here we go!

The Children’s Encyclopedia episode from Pamela L. Travers’s childhood  can be found in What the Bee Knows.

 “One (opportunity to leave home) came when a special issue of the Children’s Encyclopedia – sent by some relative from England -slipped from the postman’s saddlebags and disgorged a letter addressed to me “Dear Child”, it began sweetly, in a manly human hand, and went on to outline the delectable subjects the editor was preparing, inviting me to explore with him the worlds that were opening up before me and earnestly wishing for my future happiness. It was signed affectionately, Arthur Mee. I had received my first love letter. In vain did the grown-ups rudely assure me that it wasn’t written to me. Thousands of children would receive the same letter which, moreover, was not written by hand but by some sort of machine. I did not believe them. To do so would be to accept betrayal. Here was a man who understood exactly what I needed. So I wrote to this Arthur Mee, explaining my situation -as far as I then understood it – and asked him to send me the fare to England.  (How else could I go exploring with him?) He would not have to provide for me, I assured him, for I planned to sweep crossings, like Little Joe.

The answer was long in coming – and when it came unsatisfactory. He had no real wish, apparently, to go with me anywhere, he had no continuing concern for my welfare; there was no sign of cheque or postal order; merely an injunction to – great’s aunt rather than a lover’s – to be a good girl and help my mother. Signed Somebody Something, Secretary. And not even by hand.

Naturally, I was reprimanded. Not for Soliciting Strange Men but for Bothering That Dear Mr. Lee.

Years later, I was to learn that Dear Mr. Mee had detested children but, according to someone who had worked with him, had delighted in Mary Poppins.”

“It was a setback. But children take such things in their stride. They are familiar with the word NO from the time they are in the womb. Another door, I knew, would open.”

How I wish I could read that letter…

 The Gypsies Episode can also be found in What the Bee Knows.

 Walking on the hillside one day, I came upon a group of gypsies. Now, gypsies, I knew, were apt to steal children. The juxtaposition of two such facts seemed to me auspicious. But these were not tinker gypsies. They were creatures such as I had never seen – tall, stately men in blue gowns and women veiled in black. Looking back, I see that they must have been Mohammedans, with their peaked tents and a camel browsing. Any child stolen by such people would be taking part in a pilgrimage – or perhaps a circus, I wasn’t sure which, that would, without doubt, end up in England. So, I stationed myself on the edge of the camp, waiting, like something on a bargain counter, to be speedily snapped up. Nothing happened. The noble people went about their chores, quietly, taking no notice of me and addressing each other in some strange tongue. Shocked at this lack of enterprise, I took the affair into my own hands, marched towards the tallest man and – prompted by an atavistic impulse very far from childish – unlatched my sandals and offered them to him. If he took those-obscurely, I was sure of it – he would certainly take me. A veiled woman gave me a kindly smile as he turned the sandals in his hands to see how they were made. Then he bent down, deftly buckled them on my feet and gently but determinedly directed me to the road. It was impossible to misunderstand. They were not going to take me across the world. I was there for the plucking and the gypsies did not want me.

Not surprisingly, was the dry comment when I reached home.

There are two significant elements in these episodes. First, there is Pamela’s intense and precocious desire to leave her home and her family which suggests that her bond to her parents was deficient. And second, the inadequate reactions of her parents which also suggest of a flawed bond.  

I would have asked Pamela what beliefs did she think she might have formed as a child from these experiences? Was it a confirmation of her parent’s inability to understand her emotional life? Or was it a confirmation that she was somewhat strange and flawed? Or both?

Apparently though, it was clear to Pamela that her parents were not supportive of her dreams:

Families, perhaps luckily, have a unique facility for minimizing capacities and aspirations simply by disbelieving in them, making of them butts for witticisms. The wise child quickly learns to dissemble and keep its dream safe and intact.”

While reading the episode about young Pamela’s encounter with the Gypsies, a passage from Friend Monkey (another book written by Pamela L. Travers) came to mind:

And at last she (Mrs. Brown-Potter as a child) came to realise that what she wanted most in the world was to go and explore those places. She would have to approach her parents, of course and ask for their permission. They would think it a very odd idea, even unsuitable perhaps. But eventually they would agree – and never miss her she was sure.

I am convinced that Pamela was talking about herself and of her parents. How conscious this link was for her when she wrote these lines will remain forever a mystery.

Her parents (doubtlessly with no such intention) failed her by not allowing her to create a clear self-image. They failed to acknowledge her strengths, her sensitive heart, her inquisitive mind, and her whimsical imagination and thus they failed to reinforce her self-esteem. Her desire to explore the world was, in fact, a symptom of this need to find herself, to feel grounded in her own person. Pamela never explored the world for the sake of its beauty and wonders. She never really praised those in her writings. She traveled the world compulsively asking questions about her own existence.       

The realization that this outer exploration might have been a road towards an inner place entered her mind only at the very end of her life.

Back then, the stubbornness of her inner rebel was all the support she needed.

“Never for a moment was my intention shaken. But gradually I came to see that “Ask and ye shall receive” is no penny-in-the-slot affair, request at one end, gift-package at the other.”

 

 

 

 

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

brothers-grimm

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

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

Grimm 2.PNG

As a young child, Pamela L. Travres believed in magic; as an adult, she wrote about it.

As a young child, she believed that everything was possible; as an adult, she deemed nothing was to be expected from life.

As a young child, she believed in God; as an adult, she practiced a more impersonal cosmic oriented spirituality.

The reasons for theses drastic changes in her outlook on life will be explored in future posts. For now, let’s concentrate on her childhood experience of magic.

Pamela L.Travers was the oldest of three children. Her younger siblings occupied most of her mother’s time while Pamela was dispatched to her great aunt Ellie (the inspiration of the Mary Poppins character) and to other friends and relatives. As for her father, he struggled with his alcohol addiction, a battle which cost him his life.

Pamela was a lonely child, misunderstood, and often cast aside by her parents. She always knew her mother favoured her sister Biddy, the prettiest one, and she secretly hoped to be her father’s favourite. 

Her biographer, Valerie Lawson, reports that Pamela found solace in books. Stories stirred her soul, and the first stories she heard came from the washerwoman of the household, Matilda, who was notorious for telling the “Grims.”  

As soon as Pamela learned to read (at the early age of three or four), she discovered that “Grims” was not a generic word for narrative but a collection of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. And were a collection of two volumes, “squat, red, sturdy volumes, coarse of paper, close of print, discovered in my father’s bookcase.”

Now, I don’t know if you are familiar with the folk stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, I am only discovering them now, and let me tell you, they are grim and sometimes downright bizarre: a nightmare kind of bizarre or subconscious waters bizarre.

Children cannot easily grasp the meaning of these folk stories. And, even as adults, we can find the task difficult. To understand folk stories and myths, one needs to have accumulated at least some life experience.

Pamela held that: “Fairy -tale is at once the pattern of man and then chart for his journey.

That might be so; however, young children are incapable of understanding patterns of human behaviour, even less so when they are expressed in metaphors. Pamela admitted that she was left to deal with the “Grims” as well as she could:

 “…I seem to remember that I was grateful for books that did not speak to my childishness, books that treated me with respect, that spread out the story just as it was – Grimm’s fairy-tales for instance- and left me to deal with the matter as well as I could.”

Pamela fancied the idea that “children have strong stomachs” and that they can handle “the unbowdlerized truth of the fairy tales” . I lovingly disagree with her. Young children are not equipped to understand metaphors and allegories. Thus, when she read the Brothers Grimm, she wasn’t equipped either.

It is quite possible that her knowledge of fairy-tales and myth, acquired later in her life, influenced her recollection of her early reading experience. Scientific research indicates that memories are not stored somewhere in our brain but reconstructed each time, and that with each reconstruction we alter the structure of the memory. How exactly we reconstruct the memories is still a mystery, but it appears that our knowledge influences our recollection. We alter memories to reflect our current understanding of the recollected circumstances.  

Nevertheless, these folk-tales had a strong imprint on Pamela’s fertile imagination and it is probably because of this early experience that later in her life she wrote:

Those who have heard the fairy-tales have a very different understanding of what they hear from those who have only read them. As a child listens, the story goes in simply as a story. But there is an ear behind the ear which conserves meaning and gives it out much later. It is then that the listener, if he is lucky, understands the nature of the dragon, the necessity of the hero’s labors and who it is that lives happily ever after.

She admits that the meaning of these stories was revealed to her many years later, under the mentorship of George Russel (AE). And, what is notable is that after his death, she spent the rest of her life studying myths and fairy tales.

Luckily for us, when Pamela, in her later writings, slightly opened the door to her childhood, she allowed us a few glimpses of the inner workings of her imaginative little head; glimpses that appear to have remained authentic and unaltered by her life experience.  And what’s more:  these recollections prove exactly my point! Back then she was not equipped to interpret the information she was ingurgitating so avidly through her reading. Everything was taken literally on its first level of meaning, which is quite charming and endearing. 

This is how Pamela described the dynamics of her inner child: “By putting two and two together – fragments of talk and his own logic -he (the child) will fashion the themes for himself.” And this is how she solved this mathematical equation:

Go and play, children” Grown-up talk was not for our ears. Therefore, since like all children we were natively scandalmongers, we lusted eagerly after it. So, we crept back, whenever we could, to hear how they lived in that other world – how for instance Major “Bingo” Battle had a habit of lifting his elbow, which mysteriously was why he was so often seen holding on to tree or fence as he staggered along the road; how Mrs. Scott-Campbell’s baby not being wanted by Mrs. Scott-Campbell – the nods and becks made it clear to us- was not allowed to be born; we thought of that infant with commiseration, sitting forever in its cramped dark place, no exit allowed to it through Mrs. Scott-Campbell’s navel; how Mr. Farquhar “wasted his substance away”, and yet, to our eyes, grew not thinner but fatter. And how Mrs. Quigley’s broken heart had to do with a fair-haired soldier whose portrait hung on her drawing room wall. Crack! Like a Dresden cup it fell; we could almost hear it shattering against the wall of her bosom.

Or:

One of them (talking about one of her great aunts), it was said – or rather, it was whispered, the rumour being so hideous – one of them lived on her capital. What was capital, I wondered, wild with conjecture, full of concern. And the dreadful answer came bubbling up – it was herself, her substance. Each day she disappeared to her room, it was not to rest, like anyone else, but secretly to live on her person, to gnaw, perhaps a toe or a finger or to wolf down some inner organ.

Well, believing that a baby is trapped in a dark whole without any hope of ever seeing the light, or imagining her aunt eating her bodily parts must have been a profoundly terrifying experience. And reading the “Grims” and other apparently dark writings (Twelve Deathbed Scenes and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwepeter) only increased her fears.  At night, Pamela watched the shadows climb up the walls and slip along the ceiling and listened to the old house’s noises. She imagined that a cruel army captain was hidden behind the bedroom door, scraping the wall with a pencil. Her mother’s reassurances were lost on her. Pamela’s mind was filled with the most frightening monsters and creatures.

Pamela wrote once that she might have taken away her anxiety by taking the questions to her parents. They could have explained things as they are but she didn’t. She seems to imply that it was by choice; she didn’t want a rational explanation because she liked her own world, “this world is infinite, the sun shines up from the abyss as well as down from the sky, the time is always now and endless and the only way to explain a thing is to say that it cannot be explained.”

And then she goes on and adds:

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.”

Friend Monkey

Friend Monkey 2.jpg

 

The writing of Friend Monkey

In 1966, when Pamela L. Travers was just starting to write the story of Friend Monkey, some friends asked her to look after a family of three Tibetans visiting London. The visitors stayed in her writing studio for a few weeks and after they left, her manuscript of two-hundred pages had mysteriously vanished.

Her biographer, Valerie Lawson, reports that Pamela even called in two dowsers, who went over the house with two pendulums. They searched everywhere, even in hatboxes and luggage, in the bathroom, the garden, under the sofa. Nothing.” The manuscript was gone. Pamela was dispirited.

However, whoever or whatever wanted to prevent Pamela from writing that book underestimated her zeal. Eventually, she rewrote Friend Monkey and the book was published in 1971.

The book did not attain much success at the time of its publishing, especially in the United States, and today few people know about the story of Friend Monkey. This lack of success crushed Pamela and she wrote to  friends:

Here it is not understood except by rare people…I feel that I have written a sort of testament. In England, it is much better understood but the U.S. reception has thrown me into the deeps. That something so clear, so obviously to do with love and loving isn’t seen!  So that I have lost a lot of faith in myself. Am I a writer? Do I know anything about the myths? Who am I? And what? Shall I ever write anything else? (This is a common sickness among writers but I am having a bad bout of it and no medicine or reassurance seems to assuage it. I need a whole new set of impressions, I expect.)

Pamela L.Travers

The reference in the last sentence in the quote above about the “set of impressions” alludes to the teachings of Pamela’s spiritual teacher Gurdjieff but her allegiance to his work and its influence on her writings will be explored in future posts on this blog.

The story of Friend Monkey

The main characters of the story are Friend Monkey, a little monkey abandoned by its tribe, and Mr. Alfred Linnet, a ship-checking clerk. Mr. Linnet is a powerless family man living with his wife and three young kids in the house of the old and grumpy Uncle Trehunsey. One day, Mr. Linnet discovers in the cargo of one of the ships on dock a little monkey and takes him home instead of giving him to the suspicious Professor McWhirter who presents himself as animal fancier and collector. While in their home, Friend Monkey, quite unintentionally, sets the house of Uncle Trehunsey on fire. Mr. Linnet’s unconventional neighbor, Mrs. Brown-Potter (a former explorer), shelters the family. Meanwhile, Professor McWhirter follows Friend Monkey and tries to snatch him from his adoptive family. Then, one day, Friend Monkey runs out of the house and disrupts the Jubilee Parade of the Queen which becomes the cause of Mr. Linnet’s down fall. The family is left without resources and no one wants to hire disgraced Mr. Linnet. Thus a difficult decision must be made. The family, along with Friend Monkey, Mrs. Brown-Potter, and her adoptive little African boy Stanley, embark on a ship sailing to Umtota with the intention of starting a new life in a new place. In a turn of fortune, the ship never reaches the intended destination. The ship’s crew is employed by Professor McWhirter who is in the business of stealing animals from zoos and freeing them on a deserted island. At the end of the story, Mr. Linnet’s new job is to be the watchman of the island. And as for Friend Monkey, he is greeted by his monkey tribe and treated as their King.

The plot is  not particularly engaging and the stories has some slow moments. It also lacks the magic of the Mary Poppins stories because, in my opinion, Pamela L. Travers is at her best when she channels her unconsciosuness. And this book was a more consciously directed writing. The descriptions of the characters and their emotional states sounded a little preachy at times.  I can see why the book did not receive the expected praise. It is not Pamela’s best work; although, it was her favorite one.  

Nevertheless, there are a lot of interesting hints about Pamela’s inner workings that seem to have escaped everybody’s attention.

First, let’s talk about the character of Miss Brown-Potter.

Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, finds similarities between Mrs. Brown-Potter, Mary Poppins, and Pamela’s Great Aunt Ellie.  

And, although it is true that the personality of Mary Poppins reflects to a certain extent that of Aunt Ellie as discussed in a previous post, and that some aspects of Aunt Ellie’s upbringing coincide with the upbringing of Mrs. Brown-Potter, the resemblances stop there. The discrepancies between the temperaments of Mary Poppins and of Mrs. Brown-Potter make this assumption implausible.

Instead, the similarities between Pamela L. Travers and Mrs. Brown Potter are much more striking.

Mrs. Brown-Potter is unconventional just like Pamela L. Travers, she travels to explore the world just like Pamela (although Pamela traveled the world to explore herself), and lives alone with her African adopted son just like Pamela lived alone with her adoptive Irish boy Camillus.

At the same time, there are striking opposites in the characteristics of Pamela L. Travers and Mrs. Brown Potter and these contradictions in character make me believe that Mrs. Brown-Potter plays a double role and thus expresses an ideal Pamela L. Travers was striving to achieve.

Mrs. Brown Potter is calm and content. Pamela was anxious and restless. Mrs. Brown-Potter is loving and compassionate, even to the unlovable Uncle Trehunsey. Mrs. Brown-Potter has no expectations of reciprocation, she just does what needs to be done. Pamela was demanding and self-pitying at times.

Another interesting aspect in Friend Monkey is the relationship between Mrs. Brown-Potter and her adoptive son, Stanley. Stanley is deaf and cannot speak but he and Mrs. Brown-Potter share a deep connection and understanding which lacked in Pamela L. Travers’s relationship with her son Camillus. Pamela L. Travers’s heart must have ached when she wrote: 

For twelve years they have lived together in harmony and mutual affection…

She and Stanley exchanged glances, and at once, working as one person, they set about getting bowls of soup, gathering up the scattered bundles, lighting lamps, making beds.

The part about little Mrs. Brown-Potter is the most unconscious expression of Pamela’s psyche in the book. Little Mrs. Brown-Potter is the portrait of Mrs. Brown-Potter at the age of ten. The little girl comes momentarily alive and steps down from the frame to commiserate with Friend Monkey.

He wrapped his arms more closely about him, not so much remembering as feeling in his whole body that he had been left alone.

And Miss Brow-Potter at the age of ten, mumpish in her white muslin, stepped down from her portrait frame and came and stood beside him. For a long time or a short time-neither could have measured it – the two of them communed together, motionless as a painted child and a painted monkey.

It is conspicuous that the little girl in the story is framed in time and space at the age of ten, the age at which Pamela’s mother attempted suicide. It is almost as if little Helen Lyndon (Pamela’s real name) was showing a glimpse of herself. I believe both Friend Monkey and little Mrs. Brown-Potter express the emotions of the inner orphan child.

 

 

Aunt Sass, by P.L.Travers

 

Aunt Sass Pamela Travers.jpg

AUNT ELLIE

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!

Or

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.”