The Miraculous in Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Miraculous

As children, we readily believe in magic without any need for explanations. Then, as we grow older, we begin to question the world around us, and no matter how vast and mysterious this world may be, most of us fall into the trap of labeling, categorising, defining, and shrinking the infinite to our human and limited capacity of understanding. In a way, we can’t help it. The fact is that the day comes, for all of us, when we realize that wishful thinking does not solve our problems. Some of us lose the connection to the miraculous gradually, walking down the stairs of life’s small disappointments. For others, the loss is sudden and traumatic. 

Then, there are the few, who even after losing their childish understanding of magic, and despite all the surrounding madness, remain connected by some invisible thread to an inner belief; a particular combination of knowing and feeling all at once, that despite all the chaos of our outer world there still remains the possibility of encountering  the “miraculous.” Somehow, they can embrace the elusive, unpredictable and unexplainable phenomena that links us to a larger reality, to an expansive consciousness, which if we could connect to it, has the capacity to enhance our experience of life and maybe give it meaning. The question then becomes, what is this unknown reality and how can one find the miraculous in everyday life?  In which direction should one go? What path should one take? Or perhaps any road can lead to the miraculous? P.D. Ouspensky offered a beautiful definition of the miraculous:

The ‘miraculous’ is very difficult to define. But for me this word had a quite definite meaning. I had come to the conclusion a long time ago that there was no escape from the labyrinth of contradictions in which we live except by an entirely new road, unlike anything hitherto known or used by us. But where this new or forgotten road began I was unable to say. I already knew then as an undoubted fact that beyond the thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us. The ‘miraculous’ was a penetration into this unknown reality. (1)

However, beautiful as this definition may be, it remains a subjective attempt to define the indefinable. How can one define the unknown and inexplicable? Yet, if experienced, it needs to be shared with the rest of humanity.

Our ancestors realized the imperfections and the limitations of our ordinary language to convey inner insights. So, they demised a way in which to use language for the purposes of transmitting experientially acquired inner knowledge. Essentially, they found the language of the heart. They began to tell stories. They gave us myths and fairy tales.

Pamela L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, although she did not like being called her creator nor assuming that role, (she felt, very much as C. S. Lewis, that she was merely mixing the elements she was given by the one true creator from which we all emanate (2) )  walked on the road of myths and fairy tales. She lived and breathed myth. As Staffan Bergsten, who knew her personally and studied her work said, she experienced reality as a mixture of everyday realism and a form of mythical stylisation where the everyday occurrences blend with mythical allusions (3).   And this is probably why Pamela L. Travers succeeded in conjuring for us Mary Poppins, a fictional character who embodies the essence of the “miraculous,” and of its manifestation in our ordinary life. At the same time, the Mary Poppins stories illustrate our innate capacity as children to both rejoice in and accept the miraculous without the need for any logical explanations. 

Mary Poppins arrives unexpectedly into the Banks family at the exact moment when she is most needed. No one knows where she comes from although it is clear that she existed before the beginning of the adventures in the books. Her ways of being in the world defy all known natural laws: she slides up banisters, speaks with animals, dances with the Sun, glues stars with a brush on the night sky, is able to shrink her size at will and go into plasticine parks and pictures drawn with chalk, just to name a few of her magical abilities.

The strength of her magic resides precisely in the mysteriousness of these faculties. Truth is, if Mary Poppins explained, all magic would have disappeared. Once explained, the miraculous becomes mundane and mechanical. Its power to expand our consciousness consists in its mysterious nature and in its hints of infinite possibilities. Let’s hope that there is no other way, no end to expansion, no end to growth, no end to the mystery. One uncovered secret shows us the infinite vastness of what remains to be explored; it gives us breath and spaciousness.

When Walt Disney decided to make the Mary Poppins books into a movie, he entrusted the project into the hands of the Sherman Brothers (Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman) who were confronted with the contemplative, dreamlike states of the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. They saw the books as “an incredible treasure trove of delightful characters and wonderful incidents” (4) that somehow needed to be weaved into a story line, which of course from a movie making perspective makes sense, but by doing so the power and meaning of these stories were reduced to mere entertainment. Mary Poppins was scaled down to fit the American pop-culture understanding of magic: entertainment and a temporary escape from mundane realities.

The movie industry is dabbling now more than ever in the making of modern myths, exploring a mixture of science and magic, and using today’s technologies for visual feasts.  Sadly, our modern myths appear to be quite one dimensional. Maybe that is because few of us today are interested in symbols, paradoxes, and multiple layers of meaning. Who has time for contemplation? Serious matters need to be attended to, but what are these matters that we chose to label as “serious?”

Endnotes:

  1. P.D. Ouspensky. In Search of the Miraculous. Harcourt Inc., 2001, p.3
  2. Brian Sibley, P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins, a recoding of P.L. Travers in conversation with Brian Sibley.
  3. Staffan Bergsten. Mary Poppins and Myth. Almqvist & Wiksell International Stockholm – Sweden, 1978, p.32.
  4. Brian Sibley and Michael Lassell, Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It. Disney Editions, New York, 2007, First Edition, p.33

 

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Reviewing Mary Poppins and Myth by Staffan Bergsten

Mary Poppins and Myth 1Mary Poppins and Myth was written some forty years ago by Staffan Bergsten, a Swedish scholar who after reading the Mary Poppins books* to his young daughter became aware of certain connections which appeared to him to be pointing in the direction of the possible inspirational sources for the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. Bergsten decided to explore these connections. With that purpose in mind, he initiated a correspondence with Pamela L. Travers which lasted for a period of three years until the publication of his thesis in 1978 by the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.  Bergsten tells the reader right from the start that his book is a comparative and analytical study and that some of his ideas “were knocked on the head by Pamela Travers, but others were confirmed”.

So, where did Pamela L. Travers find the material for her stories? Bergsten did not provide a definite answer to the question.  He concluded that it was:

highly doubtful that she had any clear conception of what sources she was drawing upon. Her comprehensive reading had sunk into the depths of her mind and the ideas, forms and happenings rose into her consciousness in the shape of spontaneous imaginative creations.  

This reminded me of a comment made by Pamela L. Travers herself in a recorded conversation with British author Brian Sibley that took place many years later. In that recording Brian Sibley commented that in the Mary Poppins stories “there is also a number of very serious adult concepts and thoughts” to which Pamela L. Travers responded:

They are underlined, I find those afterwards. I don’t put them in. Not long ago I was reading for the first time since it was published Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and I was overcome, how did this writer know my inmost thoughts, they are not said, they are not spoken, but they underlie the texts. And then with surprise I realised it was me. Well, I suppose it was me.

                                                                           P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

I enjoyed reading Mary Poppins and Myth, the writing style is fluid and without any scholarly stuffiness. Bergsten had a genuine interest in the subject of his thesis and he wished to share his understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s literary work. He examined the Mary Poppins stories from three different perspectives: psychobiographical, literary and mythological.

Psychobiographical perspective

Bergsten perceived Pamela L. Travers as someone who looked at everyday life in the light of myths and fairy tales, a habit he speculated, she acquired early in childhood through her extensive reading of fairy tales.

So, in Pamela Travers’s childhood memories we find everyday figures and objects together with literary and mythical allusions, and this is the blend we find in all her books. Everyday realism and mythical stylization infuse each other not according to some worked out scheme but simply because this is the author’s own way of experiencing reality.

The accuracy of Bergsten’s remark is confirmed by Pamela L. Travers’s childhood recollections written in some of her essays published in Parabola years after the publication of Bergsten’s Mary Poppins and Myth. The descriptions of Pamela L. Travers’s childhood experiences are original and appear to have happened in some borderline reality between the world as we know it and the world of the fairy tales. Now, of course one can question the authenticity of theses memories and argue that Pamela L. Travers romanticized the facts and retold them many years later, after she had acquired vast knowledge about myths and fairy tales.  That may be, but the sensitivity and love for the fairy tales was in her blood and that explains the longevity of her Mary Poppins.

Staffan Bergsten also sensed that Mary Poppins encapsulated a “whole series of projections of more or less unconscious, sometimes contradictory, tendencies and ideals in the author herself.” But then he admitted that to speculate in that direction it will “lead into psychological and biographical questions and in the meantime at least there is not enough material of the kind that would let us discuss them further.” Pamela L. Travers was notoriously secretive, and the personal details of her life became public only after her death with the publication of her first biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lawson. Consequently, the psychobiographical examination is quite brief in Bergsten’s book. However, it is clear that Bergsten regretted the lack of available biographical material.

Literary perspective

Bergsten classified the Mary Poppins books in the category of the fantastic tale because the adventures take place in the everyday reality which exists alongside a supernatural reality. And, although the natural laws do not apply in this parallel reality, logic remains present in all the adventures.  Bergsten also explored the possible links between other children’s books which were popular during Pamela L. Travers’s childhood such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan but the connections, he concluded, were quite thin.

Bergsten also noticed the poetic influences of Yeats, Blake and Wordsworth (Pamela L. Travers’s favourite poets) in the Mary Poppins stories in the themes of the “the glorification of the child” and its “innocence and imaginative power”. This probably motivated his interpretation of the main purpose of Pamela L. Travers as a writer, namely, to awaken and stimulate the inner child of the reader. Now I wonder if this was one of his ideas that was knocked on the head by Pamela L. Travers. 

Mythological perspective

Bergsten underlied the fact that Mary Poppins was articulated clearly around mythical elements. She comes down from the heavens and then at the end of each book she ascends up into the upper realms. She is eternal, her home is everywhere and nowhere. She can fly and be free from any confinements. Her magic is inexplicable, and above all, intrinsic. Mary Poppins doesn’t need a wand to perform her magic. The adventures also have mythical notes expressed in cosmic dances and celebrations of the whole of creation. Bergsten linked these to Pamela L. Travers’s Christian sympathies, to Gnostic traditions and to theosophical teachings and Hinduism. This mixture of inspirational sources explains Bergsten’s description of Pamela L. Travers as “a genuine and convinced syncretist who enthusiastically borrows from the most disparate cultures, religions and mythologies”.

In my opinion, Mary Poppins and Myth should be reprinted and made available to the public. It is of course possible for the fans of Pamela L. Travers and the Mary Poppins stories to find this book in a library or to purchase an old copy online.

* Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1944), Mary Poppins in the Park (1952)

 

 

Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part III)

Grimm Fairy Tales

Pamela L. Travers (the author of Mary Poppins for those who are not familiar with this blog) believed that all female archetypes were contained in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales and that any woman in need of a female role model could find hers in these tales.  

Today we’ll explore the fairy tales of The Goose Girl and All Fur (Allerleirauh) along with Pamela L. Travers’s interpretations of these stories.  

Again, just like in the stories of Cinderella and Snow White, the major theme in The Goose Girl and All Fur is the process of maturation of the main characters from helpless little girls into fully blossomed maidens. However, each story describes a distinctive pattern of psychological development with its corresponding stumbling blocks depending on the particular family circumstances of each of the female characters.  

The Goose Girl 

The story tells us, right from the start, that the Queen is old and her husband dead for many years, suggesting that the young princess is fulfilling the role of the companion in the Queen’s life 

The time comes when the young princess must leave her mother and travel to a distant kingdom to marry her fiancé. Before she leaves, the Queen provides her with a chambermaid, a horse that can speak and a handkerchief with three drops of the Queen’s own blood. The princess puts the handkerchief into her bosom, a gesture symbolizing her need for protection and also, a clear indication for those who listen to the story, that the princess is not ready to face the outside world on her own.  

Unfortunately, the princess loses the handkerchief on the way to her fiancé’s kingdom, and when she arrives at destination, her identity is already stolen by the evil chambermaid who marries the prince. The true princess is given the task of tending the royal geese by the old king who notices her beauty and takes pity on her. 

Falada, the talking horse is killed because the evil chambermaid is afraid that the truth might come out. The head of the horse is nailed on the wall of the gateway through which the princess, now Goose Girl, passes every day with her geese; and every time she passes through the gate the dead horse laments itself: Dear princess, is that you really there? Oh, if your mother knew, her heart would break in two! 

One day, the boy who tends the geese with Goose Girl, complains to the old King about the strange lamentations of the dead horse. The old King takes the matter in his hands and reestablishes justice: Goose Girl‘s true identity is revealed and she marries the prince. 

According to Pamela L. Travers, Goose Girl is “a passive heroine to whom good fortune seems to happen through no connivance of their own“. (She included Cinderella in that category too.) But their passivity is only apparent. ” Goose Girlwould still be tending geese if it were not that she could understand the prescient lamentations of her dead horse Falada.”  

In my view, Pamela L. Travers‘s interpretation is only partially accurate. I wish it was possible for me to discuss this with her but then maybe she would not have been pleased to be contradicted… 

The horse’s lamentations, I agree with Pamela, are the embodiment of the lesson Goose Girl needs to learn in order to become a fully-grown woman However, Pamela L. Travers’s conclusion about Goose Girl’s ability to understand Falada’s message is wrong 

Goose Girl remains a passive victim until the very end of the story, unable to cross the threshold into womanhood, precisely because she is unable to understand Falada’s message. In order to uncover the essence of this story, I believe one must ponder on the cause of this inability. 

In my opinion, The Goose Girl is an allegory of a co-dependent relationship between a mother and her daughter. The story vividly illustrates the inability of the enmeshed daughter to grow and lead an independent life of her own.  The mother’s love in this case is disempowering and causes the daughter’s misfortunes.  

All Fur (Allerleirauh) 

This is a story about incest and its devastating effects on a young girl’s psyche.  

The Queen dies and the King decides to marry his own daughter who reminds him of his lost wife. The night before the wedding, the princess Allerleirauh puts on a fur coat made from the skins of many different animals, covers her face and hands with dirt and runs away from her father’s kingdom. She brings with her, folded in a nut, three beautiful dresses: one that shines like the sun, one silvery as the moon, and one that sparkles as bright as the stars. She also takes the three gifts she has received from her fiancé, the king of the neighboring kingdom: a golden ring, a little golden spinning wheel, and a little golden reel. 

The princess falls asleep in the forest where her fiancé happens to be out hunting. His huntsmen find her and take her to the castle where she is ordered to work in the kitchen.  At night, before the king goes to bed, she must go upstairs and pull off his boots. The king, of course does not recognize his bride and amuses himself by throwing his boots at her head. And so, she leads a miserable life for a long time.   

Eventually a ball is held in the castle and the princess dresses in her beautiful gowns and goes off to dance with the king. After the dance she must go back to the kitchen and prepare the soup for the king’s supper. Then, she intentionally drops one of his gifts into the soup. So, it goes for three nights, a dance and a bowl of soup where the king finds the gifts he has given to his destined bride. As expected, the king summons Allerleirauh and asks her “Who are you and what are you doing in my castle? Where did you get the ring (the wheel and the reel) that was in the soup?” To which she responds: “I’m nothing but a poor child whose mother and father are dead. I am nothing and no good for nothing except for having boots thrown at my head. I also know nothing about the ring (the wheel).” The third night of the ball the king slips a ring on Allerleirauhs finger without her noticing it. Once more, at the end of the dance, Allerleiraugh  runs away  and changes back into her dirty attire and prepares the kings meal in which she drops the golden reel. This time the king is convinced that the person who put the reel in his soup is his bride. He summons Allerleirauh who tries to run off but the king sees the ring on her finger and tares off the ugly fur coat and the true identity of Allerleirauh is discovered.  

Reading the story, I wondered why didn’t Allerleirauh look for shelter in the arms of her fiancé right from the start? Why didn’t she abandon her disguise once she was out of her father’s kingdom? Why didn’t she tell her fiancé what happened?  

The answer is given by Allerleirauh herself: I am nothing and no good for nothing except for having boots thrown at my head.”  

And why would she feel so unworthy of love and respect? The story suggests that she felt responsible for her father’s actions, she felt dirty and deserving of severe punishment. To heal her wounded soul, she needed her fiancé to recognize her worth underneath all that animal disguise. 

Pamela put Allerleirauh in the category of the heroic roles. ” …and Allerleirauh, who to escape the concupiscent advances of her father put of her regal habiliments and became – until her true condition was discovered – a lowly kitchen maid.  

Allerleiraugh’s fate is indeed tragic and her escape as well as her desire to be rescued heroic.  However, there is more about this story than what Pamela L. Travers wrote

Her interpretations of The Goose Girl and All Fur lack depth. Clearly, she did not realize that both Goose Girl and All Fur are two girls who undergo major identity crises caused by the poor parenting skills of their caregivers How could have she missed this aspect in the stories?  

For me, the fact that Pamela L. Travers interpreted stories which so obviously deal with the passage from childhood to womanhood without ever mentioning it and without seeing that the condition of the heroines was caused by the actions of their parents is conclusive of her own misunderstanding of her personal story.  

I believe that Pamela L. Travers was unable to consciously make the link between her inner torments and her childhood experiences. I also believe that however traumatic and sad her experience of losing her father might have been, it was the unresolved conflict with her mother that was at the root of all her sufferings. 

Sadly, Pamela L. Travers never understood the nature of her inner torments. Just like Goose Girl and Allerleiraugh,  she needed help, but receiving the right help is never guaranteed in life as it is in the fairy tales.

Also, another very important detail that deserves to be mentioned here, the heroines in these fairy tales show signs that they are ready to receive the help, something I am not sure Pamela L. Travers was ready to do. (To be explored in future posts.) 

Maybe Pamela L. Travers’s advice to her friend (see Part I) could have been more accurate if she formulated it this way: Read the Grimm’s fairy tales in search of a pattern that corresponds to your childhood experience of your parents. Maybe the fairy tales can help you uncover the causes of your inner blocks. Maybe Pamela L. Travers needed to follow this advice too…

 

  

Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part II)

Grimm's Women II

 

Pamela L. Travers believed that all prototypes of womanhood were contained in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, or at least, that is what she wrote in her essay “Grimm’s Women”.   

To persuade her readers to accept her point of view she presents in her essay, albeit briefly, her interpretation of the meanings of a few of their stories. Like a dexterous magician, she masterfully shuffles the meanings of these stories to the point of presenting a seemingly knowledgeable standpoint.  But did she see that clearly into the meanings of these stories?  

In order to answer this question a careful examination of Pamela L. Travers’s understanding of the meanings of the fates of the female characters in these fairy tales is required. I believe that Pamela’s appreciation of these stories can give us an indication about how she might have experienced her own womanliness.   

It is true that the Grimm’s fairy tales date back to a time when the roles of women and their living conditions were much different from our current ways of living. And yet, despite our technological and scientific discoveries and social advancements, the human dynamics depicted in these stories not only remain the same but they underlie all aspects of our modern lives.   

Now, I must admit (and I wrote about it in my last post) that I thought that Pamela’s advise to her friend to model herself on the Grimm’s women seemed quite peculiar. The Grimm’s princesses appear, for the most part, to be passive victims and what woman in her right mind would want to be a victim? But then I realized that the problem with these old fairy tales is that we all get side tracked by their most obvious interpretation. Yes, back then women were powerless and their survival depended greatly on men (and in many parts of the world today this is still true.) So, of course the fairy tales reflect the social reality of their times. However, if you peel off that first layer of meaning another one appears. The Grimm’s stories which Pamela examined in her essay can be separated into different categories depending on their major themes. There is the theme of the passage from childhood to maidenhood and theme of the passage from maidenhood to motherhood.   

From child to maiden  

The narrative in all of these fairy tales is about a female character in a psychologically dire situation. The obstacles that must be surmounted could potentially prevent the heroine’s passage from one stage of her life into the next. Another common element in these stories is the role played by the parental authority figures as the threshold guardians to the passage leading to maidenhood.   

I do agree with Pamela, now that I have read the Grimm’s fairy tales, that the Disney versions of these tales are quite superficial and do not take into account the psychological dynamics in play.   

Now let’s revisit the original versions of two of these stories:  Cinderella and Snow White, and ponder on Pamela L. Travers’s interpretation of their meanings.  

Cinderella  

When I read the first English translation of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales I was amazed at how different the original Cinderella story was from the story most people know today. Surprisingly what is left out from the story is what I believe to be its most significant element, the key that allows to unlock its meaning.    

Just before she dies Cinderella’s mother makes a promise and a request. She promises Cinderella that she will look after her from heaven and then asks Cinderella to plant a tree. The tree, her mother tells her will give Cinderella everything she wishes for, all she has to do is to shake it. After her mother dies, Cinderella plants a tree on her grave and waters it with her tears. Then, eventually, her father remarries and from that point on in the story he disappears from the narrative.   

As we all know, Cinderella is forced by her stepmother and stepsisters to do the heavy chores around the house, which she accepts without complaining (and without shaking the tree). Then, the time comes in the fairy tale when the prince must find a bride. A ball, which is to last three nights is organized for that purpose and Cinderella’s sisters are attending. Not only is Cinderella left behind, but before the stepsisters leave, they throw lentils in the hearth and order Cinderella to separate them from the ashes. Unexpected help comes in the form of white pigeons who also encourage Cinderella to go to the tree and ask to go to the ball.   

Cinderella follows their advice and shakes the tree making her plea: “Shake and wobble little tree! Let beautiful clothes fall down to me“.  Beautiful clothes and a carriage appear and Cinderella goes to the ball and dances all night with the prince.  The third night of the ball the prince wants to make sure Cinderella does not escape him when midnight strikes, so he paints the stairs of the castle with black pitch and posts guards on the road. But again, Cinderella runs away, only this time one of her golden shoes (not glass!) remains stuck on the stairs of the castle.  The prince announces that he will marry the maiden who fits the shoe. The two evil sisters try to force their feet into the small shoe by following their mother’s advise. One sister cuts off a piece from her heel, the other cuts of her toes and each time the prince brings them back because their bloody deceit is uncovered. Then Cinderella must try the shoe… well we all know how that ends.  

Now, what did Pamela write in her essay about Cinderella? She wrote: “Cinderella, in Grimm’s at least is wise enough to know that nothing is to be got by wishing. It is only by performing the necessary rites at her mother’s grave that she goes to the Prince’s ball.”  

What?   

What is, according to Pamela the feminine prototype embodied by Cinderella? What should a woman who wants to model herself to Cinderella do? What proper rites must she perform?   For one thing Pamela was right though, nothing can be achieved simply by wishing.   

Clearly Pamela’s convoluted interpretation does not unveil the meaning of the story but it is articulated around its key element: the relationship between Cinderella and her mother.  

Cinderella’s story is a story about the blooming of an orphan child into a beautiful confident woman. I believe that Cinderella’s story teaches us that the successful transition from childhood to womanhood is closely linked to the quality of the nurturing a little girl receives from her mother at the very early stages of her life.  

In this story both the mother’s promise and the tree symbolize the healthy bond between a mother and her daughter and the life-giving force of the mother even from the beyond. The story is truly about the most important gift a mother can give to her daughter: a strong sense of self-worth.  

It is this early imprint of self-worth that allows the young Cinderella to outstand the attacks of the outside world. Her mother’s love taught her that she deserves to be loved regardless of her condition. Cinderella is resilient and patient but when the opportunity knocks on her door she rises up to cease it and all this is possible because of the love she received from her mother. She doesn’t tell herself things like:  I am not worth it! It is impossible, so why even bother? My stepsisters are right I am ugly and dirty!  The Prince will never pay any attention to me, why would he?

Judging by what she wrote about Cinderella, it is obvious that Pamela did not fully understand the meaning of the story. This fact is not the least surprising. Pamela’s bond to her mother was severed early in her life (See blog post Pamela L. Travers’s  First Gods (Part II)) and this may have been the cause of the inner torments and physical ailments she experienced until the very end of her log life.

Snow White 

Another surprise here too. The original story is about a narcistic Queen and her beautiful little daughter. It is not the stepmother who wants to kill Snow White but her real mother. When Snow White turns seven years old, her mother orders a huntsman to kill her. 

The huntsman takes pity on the little girl and leaves her in the forest where he believes she will be devoured by the wild animals. Instead, Snow White finds her way to the house of the seven dwarfs who offer her shelter in exchange for her help around the house. Eventually the Queen finds out that Snow White is living with the seven dwarfs in the seven mountains and decides to go there and kill her herself. She makes three attempts on Snow White’s life and each time her disguises allow her to deceive Snow White.

The first time she pretends to sell laces and laces Snow White’s dress so tight that Show White loses consciousness. In the evening when the dwarfs return home they untie the lace and Snow White recovers her breath. The second time the evil Queen combs Snow White’s hair with a poisonous comb but again, the dwarfs find it and remove it and Snow White is safe one more time. The third time the Queen makes a poisonous apple. This time Snow White cannot be helped. The dwarfs build a glass coffin and write Snow White’s name on it in golden letters. Time passes but unexplainably Snow White remains fresh and beautiful in her glass coffin. One day a prince comes into the dwarfs’ house and falls in love with dead Show White. The dwarfs let the prince carry her to his castle. The prince, infatuated with Show White, orders his servants to carry her everywhere he goes. One time, one of the servants gets really upset with the absurdity of the situation, opens the coffin and shakes Show White. The poisonous piece of the apple pops out of her mouth and Snow White becomes the prince’s bride.   

What did Pamela L. Travers have to say about this female heroine?  Not much: “...before becoming a candidate for Happy Ever After  (she) had to surmount inordinate obstacles.” Fine, but what are the obstacles Pamela?  

In this story the mother hates her daughter and does all she can to destroy her. Snow White in her child’s innocence cannot protect herself even if the dwarfs warn her about the evil ways of her mother. The child is prevented from maturing and crossing over the threshold to maidenhood because she is unable to truly recognize the meanness of her mother. Snow White is not awaken from her unconscious state by the prince’s love but by the servant’s anger. The prince’s love was not enough to heal the damage caused by the evil Queen. Snow White needed to be shaken in order to awaken. It comes a time in everyone’s life when one must see people (including and especially family members) for what they are and not what they look like they are, or what one wants them to be, this is the adult way. To disengage from an unhealthy relationship, one must first be able to see it for what it is.   

What fascinates me personnaly is the fact that despite all the life shaking events in Pamela L. Travers’s life nothing seems to have succeeded in totally awakening her to life. It is significant that the fairy tale that appealed the most to her was the tale of Sleeping Beauty.  Another story of girl stuck at the threshold to maidenhood and unconscious of all the gifts bestowed upon her by the good fairies at her christening. Pamela  even wrote her own retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty which I examined in detail on this blog see: About the Sleeping Beauty Part I, II, III, IV, V and VI.  

In conclusion to this post, I must point out that to a certain extend Pamela L. Travers was right, the fairy tales can teach us about womanhood however, it is not a question of modelling oneself to the characters as she believed, as it is a question of understanding the patterns of human emotion and behaviour in play in these tales and use them as road maps.  

In my next post I will continue exploring Pamela L. Travers’s analysis of the Grimm’s tales: Goose Girl, All Fur, The Twelve Princesses and Rapunzel. Hope you stay tuned.   

  

Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part I) 

Brothers Grimm 2

This blog post begins the exploration of Pamela L. Travers’s beliefs about womanhood. According to her biographer, Pamela L. Travers loved the threefold concept of the Mother Goddess: maiden, mother, crone. For that reason, Lawson cleverly organized Pamela L. Travers’s biography in three parts: The Nymph (1899-1934), The Mother (1934-1965), The Crone (1965-1996). 

Although, I doubt that Pamela spent much time pondering on how this progression from one stage to the other occurred in a woman’s life. She wrote in her short essay “Grimm’s Women that the mere fact of having been born on the side of Yin was sufficient. A woman was what you inevitably, and willingly, became as the seed becomes a flower“.  

Well, this assertion clearly implies that Pamela believed in a naturally unfolding process of maturation comparable to the blooming of a flower or the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Human’s growth though is not linear nor smooth. The natural aging of the body does not necessarily equate to a mature mind and heart. Many factors in a woman’s life can prevent a healthy maturation. And it is quite possible that Pamela L. Travers’s own maturation process was interrupted by painful childhood experiences such as the early and sudden death of her father and her mother’s suicide attempt

In her essay “Grimm’s Women” Pamela recounts being caught up in the street by a female acquaintance who wanted to learn how to be a woman, so she asked Pamela for advice. After a brief introspection, Pamela responded Read Grimm’s Fairy Tales and then, without any further explanation, left her acquaintance standing, flabbergasted, on the corner of the street. 

At first, knowing about Pamela L. Travers’s childhood, this response did not surprise me. Pamela was brought up (or more accurately brought herself up) on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and kept a lifelong love for their collection of folk tales. References of these tales appear time and time again in her essays and interviews.  

However, reading the essay (which is only 3 pages) felt like trying to snorkel in murky waters.  What was Pamela L. Travers trying to communicate to the reader?  I could read the words, and although they read like there was some sense in them, I couldn’t figure out the message. Was she trying to articulate in a poetic fashion that there were many different ways of being a woman? That was not a satisfactory response for me. But then I thought, if this essay was first published in The New York Times then maybe the reason for my incomprehension was  my lack of knowledge of the Grimm’s tales. So, I decided to educate myself and cross over from the Disney Hemisphere of the World into the Old World of the original Fairy Tales.  

Luckily for me there was only one available edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in my local book store. I say luckily because if there was another one with a prettier cover I would have chosen it over the one I ended up buying, and I would have probably ended up with the seventh edition of these tales. It turns out, the Brothers Grimm, mostly one of them, Wilhelm kept adding and modifying the tales that were first published in 1812. So, this is how I accidently bought the first translation in English of the first edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The collection of folk tales in this edition is probably the truest one to the oral tradition which the Brothers Grimm wanted to preserve, at least at the beginning of their project. (The story of the brothers Grimm is also interesting but that is another subject.)  

This of course means that I did not read the exact versions which Pamela read as a child and reread later on in her life. This first English translation of the first edition of the Grimm’s fairy tales was undertook in 2012, some 16 years after Pamela’s death, but that doesn’t change much for the purposes of this post.  (I know Pamela would have loved to read it.) And besides, even after six more editions the Grimm fairy tales remain renowned for their grimness. 

Most people know the Disney versions of only a hand full of the Grimm’s stories and these new versions are largely sanitized for entertaining purposes. All of the original violence is completely left out. Pamela disliked the inflation of the animal world in the Disney animated cartoons and the corresponding deflation of the human impulses depicted in these stories. 

However,  these tales are not and were not specifically meant for children. The folk tales were something of a house tale, people would recite them in social gatherings.   

The Brothers Grimm relied on many people to bring  these stories to them and the surprising (at least to me) fact is that many of these stories were told to the brothers by women, some from aristocratic families and other simple peasants. Why is it surprising?  

Because in most of these stories the violence is more often than not directed towards women. For the most part the princesses (the maidens) in these fairy tales are passive victims, betrayed by their own parents or by an evil stepmother, waiting to be saved by a valiant prince. Even the ones that have more active roles in the stories somehow end up naked in a forest or a cave and must endure incredible trials in total silence under penalty of death, and for what? For the sake of saving lost brothers or to get back lost lovers. Yes, some of the princes in these stories forget their princesses and get a second bride.  

I know that Pamela preached that fairy tales should be experienced in order to grasp their true meaning but isn’t it a strange advice to tell a woman to model herself on the female heroines of the Grimm’s stories? Either you remain a passive victim and hope for rescue or you chose the evil side and die in dire pain.

I believe these tales to be descriptive of human dynamics and also of hopes for justice in life but they no longer apply to the realities of modern women. This is why there are so many new adaptations of these stories in movies and books.  

There are only 2 stories out of 156 about intelligent women. The story of The Clever Farmer’s Daughter in which an intelligent woman of lower ranking becomes the king’s wife but then almost gets killed by her husband when he realizes that she might be even smarter than him. And then there is the story of the lazy wife, The Lazy Spinner, who dislikes spinning yarn and finally gets her own way by outsmarting her husband.  If I had to model myself to any of the Grimm’s Women these would be my chosen examples. But Pamela never spoke of those.  (Maybe they were not included in the seventh edifion, I will have to verify…) She spoke of other heroines and they will be the subject of the next post on this blog. Hope you stay tuned. 

 

Pamela L. Travers and the “Tale of Beatrix Potter” (Part II)     

Beatrix Potter 2

Her rigorous Victorian childhood reads like the record of life on an island rock. Year after year, alone in a nursery in Bolon Gardens, she lunched on a daily cutlet and a plate of rice pudding much as a castaway might regale himself from a single clump of lichen.  

The Hidden Child, Pamela L. Travers.  

This week’s post delves deeper into the reasons which might have inspired Pamela L. Travers’s lifelong reverence for Beatrix Potter.  

I believe that Pamela L. Travers’s admiration was probably sparked after she read Potter’s biography “The Tale of Beatrix Potter”. I doubt that it could have been any other way. “The Tale of Beatrix Potter”  by Margaret Lane was Potter’s first biography published only a couple of years after her death. Prior to that not much was known about her personal life. And without the details of her life I am not sure Pamela would have had the same interest.  

I believe that Pamela L. Travers admired Potter not only for her artistic talent, but because she felt that, just like herself, Potter gave expression in her stories to the hidden child within (see Pamela L. Travers and the “Tale of Beatrix Potter” (Part I)).  

Pamela L. Travers and Beatrix Potter both experienced, early in their childhoods, the neglect of their emotional needs.  Potter’s biographer, Margaret Lane, put it in a nutshell by writing that Beatrix was born in a time and a social class that had very little understanding of children. This affirmation pretty much encapsulates Pamela’s own situation.   

That being so, both girls grew up unnoticed, somewhere on the fringes of the lives of the grown-ups around them, only to find themselves later on burdened by selfish parental expectations. Pamela L. Travers had to give up on her pursuit of higher education and her acting dreams to work as a secretary to help support her widowed mother. As for Potter, she was expected to dedicate her life to the care of her parents who, for that reason, opposed her plans to marry and have a life of her own.  However, there is yet another reason for which, I believe, Pamela L. Travers held Beatrix Potter in high regard.  

Beatrix Potter succeeded in reinventing her life exactly the way she wanted it to be, and contrary to Pamela, without any excess or overt rebellion.   

It is the second act in Beatrix Potter’s life that must have struck Pamela’s psyche.  At the same age at which Pamela wrote her book review of Potter’s biography, Potter was already married and happily living in her estate in the countryside enjoying her life as a farmer, her illustrated stories no longer occupying her mind. As for Pamela, she was single, living with her adopted son in London and still looking for that elusive “something else” from her childhood.   

And as I grew, amidst all the abundance, I began to feel a wanting. Lacking nothing, I came to now 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? 

Pamela L. Travers Now, Farewell and Hail 1985.  

While Pamela spent her long life chasing after something she could not articulate, Potter had a clear understanding of what would be the right life for herself. Pamela judiciously noted that fact herself.

To begin with she (Beatrix Potter) knew exactly what she wanted. Her first glimpse of the countryside, Miss Lane tells us, aroused in her the lifelong passion that became articulate only with the purchase of Hill Top Farm.

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

So, one girl completely reinvented her life in alignment with her inner nature and the other continued her search for herself, following one guru after the other, desperately looking for guidance. 

At the end, it was the determined, quiet and patient Beatrix, not the rebellious and mischievous Pamela, who succeeded in creating her ideal life.   

Although Pamela did break out of her expected role as the provider of her widowed mother and her younger siblings, and made a life of her own as journalist and writer, her life was not a fulfilling one.  

What intrigues me is Pamela’s failure to heal the hidden child within? Why was it that little Lyndon (Pamela L. Travers’s real name, of which she was quite protective) never found peace? How was it that Beatrix Potter succeeded in healing her childhood wounds while Pamela only exacerbated them throughout her life?  

This post is an attempt to answer this question by examining a little closer what appears to have been emotionally similar childhood experiences.  

Both girls felt lonely but it was Beatrix Potter who was the one leading the most confined existence. She was not schooled, it was not expected nor required for girls of her social class. Beatrix spent her days alone in the silence of her nursery only to escape briefly for a daily walk with her governess. Pamela on the other had went to school and to Church and played with her peers.    

However, despite the lack of interest of her parents, Beatrix Potter was luckier that Travers because she had a governess, Miss Hammond, who “encouraged her awakening interest in nature and drawing and gave her that feeling of loving confidence in an older presence which she otherwise night have missed“.   

Potter’s secluded childhood, despite its smothering atmosphere, provided a sense of unshakable stability. Her parents were predictable, living in calm routine and without the stress of financial troubles. There were no uncertainties, no ambiguities in Beatrix’s childhood that could have prevented her from forming a firm sense of self. Beatrix was introverted by nature, and the secure, undisturbed home environment allowed her to concentrate all of her attention on her own fantasies and interests: nature and painting.   The family summer vacations to Scotland also played a major role in Beatrix’s grounding in nature. These regular trips provided Beatrix with a basis of comparison of a different way of living than the one adopted by her parents in London.  

..and from the first moment of wandering out into the lanes and fields her imagination found the food it had been waiting for. Everything that she saw was suddenly ‘real’…. Here, in white-washed cottages and among rick-yards, whole families lived in a way which her instinct told her was sensible and right.  

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

Beatrix Potter loved the natural world and surrounded herself with many pets who soothed her lonely days in her nursery. She had a hedgehog, a mouse, a rabbit and a bat in a birdcage. She spent innumerable hours painting, in extraordinary detail, her pets and the flowers she gathered and dried during her summers in Scotland. 

Things were different for Pamela.  As a child, she did not benefit from a benevolent older presence nor a stable environment. She was often times dispatched to relatives, her mother busy with her two younger sisters. Pamela was often scolded and criticized and even ridiculed by her parents.  Pamela’s father was emotionally unavailable due to his heavy drinking, which also caused his early and sudden death when Pamela was only seven years old (see Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods Part I).  

The unexpected loss of her father caused Pamela intense pain which was amplified by what she perceived as God’s betrayal of her trust. From then on things did not get any better. Her mother attempted suicide when Pamela was only ten years old. Travers’s memory of the event (which she kept secret for the bigger part of her life) is heart breaking (see Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods Part II).   

Pamela L. Travers’s loneliness was of a different kind. She was left alone to deal with difficult psychological experiences and her trust in people and life was shattered. There was no guiding presence and no stability to develop a clear identity. She spent her adult years swinging between opposites. Why else would she write:    

For in the children’s world there must be no uncertainties, no might-be, maybe cloud of grey but only the solidest black and white”  

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

And this is how, most likely, Mary Poppins came into life, she was born from the unmet emotional needs of Helen Lyndon Goff, the hidden child within Pamela L. Travers. Pamela’s inner child was fragmented and needed a mediator to make sense of life so, she kept summoning Mary Poppins back into her life…

Pamela L. Travers and “The Tale of Beatrix Potter” (Part I)

Beatrix Potter1

I have long held that the secret of the successful children’s book is that it is not written for children. … Outside appreciation of any kind is of secondary importance to the true children’s writer. For him the first and ultimate requirement is that the book should please himself. For he is the one for whom the  book is written. With it he puts to sleep his wakeful youth and tells the story of the hidden child within him. Such works are more often than not the results of an imaginative mind playing its light over lonely childhoods. What the child lacked in those tender years the imagination gives back to it. 

Pamela L. Travers 

This is what Pamela L. Travers wrote, under the pen name of Milo Reve, in her review of Beatrix Potter’s biography “The Tale of Beatrix Potter” written by Margaret Lane.  

When Beatrix Potter died in 1943, few knew the full story of her life and the “Tale of Beatrix Potter“, published in 1946, was the first account of her life. I wish I could ask Pamela if she was assigned to read and review the book or was she the one who chose the subject of her article. Anyhow, the tales of Beatrix Potter were part of Pamela L. Travers’s childhood reads, so in either case I believe she very much enjoyed the task. 

Pamela L. Travers’s book review was entitled “The Hidden Child” and was published in the New English Weekly on April 10, 1947 and luckily for me, it was reproduced in its entirety as an Appendix in Patricia Demers’s book “P.L. Travers“, a scholarly book I purchased some time ago on Amazon.  

The apparent intensity of Pamela’s deep understanding of the essence of the children’s writer is worthy of attention since all who knew her unanimously attest that she was quite self-absorbed and somewhat alienated from others. Pamela L. Travers was not particularly empathetic and her intimate relationships seem to have been quite tumultuous and complicated. Then, probably, any insight that she might have had of another human being’s experience must have been a resonance of an experience of her own.   

I knew about Pamela L. Travers’s lifelong admiration for Beatrix Potter, her biographer Valerie Lawson skimmed through the subject in her book “Mary Poppins She Wrote” but never dove into what might have motivated such veneration. Sadly, Lawson missed the significance of Pamela L. Travers’s appreciation of Beatrix Potter. Instead, she made condescending comments about both Pamela’s life and artistic choices. Seeing that Pamela never explained herself, that she wrote her first Mary Poppins book in a beautiful cottage in the country side, and that she loved to garden, Lawson concluded that Pamela was trying to imitate Potter in every way. Lawson never met Pamela L. Travers, yet, she went as far as to affirm that Pamela undertook to write her version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale simply because she wanted to follow into Potter’s footsteps who wrote her detailed version of the Cinderella story. (Pamela L. Travers’s retelling of the Sleeping Beauty was explored in depth on this blog, see About the Sleeping Beauty Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V and Part VI.)  

It is somewhat strange and disappointing that the only thing that Lawson retained from her reading of the “Hidden Child” was that Pamela loved the sweet femininity of the female animal characters in Beatrix Potter’s stories for their ability to nurture and put things to right…  

Never before and probably never after did Pamela reveal so plainly the pattern of her inner torments and somehow it remained totally unnoticed by the outside world.

What makes me say that? Well, for one, at the time when Pamela L. Travers wrote “The Hidden Child“, she was 48 years old and she had successfully published three of her Mary Poppins books, and was herself considered as a successful children’s writer (despite the fact that she always denied having written the Mary Poppins stories with the intention to please children). And, what’s even more significant is that she continued to write children’s stories until late into her eighties. Listed below is the chronology of her fiction writings… 

  • Mary Poppins, London: Gerald Howe, 1934 
  • Mary Poppins Comes Back, London: L. Dickson & Thompson Ltd., 1935 
  • I Go By Sea, I Go By Land, London: Peter Davies, 1941 
  • Aunt Sass, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941 
  • Ah Wong, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943 
  • Mary Poppins Opens the Door, London: Peter Davies, 1943 
  • Johnny Delaney, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1944 
  • Mary Poppins in the Park, London: Peter Davies, 1952 
  • Gingerbread Shop, 1952 
  • Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party, 1952 
  • The Magic Compass, 1953 
  • Mary Poppins From A to Z, London: Collins, 1963 
  • The Fox at the Manger, London: Collins, 1963 
  • Friend Monkey, London: Collins, 1972 
  • Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975 
  • Two Pairs of Shoes, New York: Viking Press, 1980 
  • Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, London: Collins, 1982 
  • Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, London: Collins. 1988 

What does that signify? It means that Pamela L. Travers’s inner child was never appeased, she did not succeed to set herself free to find her fate in the grown-up world. And this is where Beatrix Potter succeeded in her life journey. I believe that this is the main reason for Pamela’s fascination.  

After reading the “Hidden Child” I decided to read the “Tale of Beatrix Potter”   and see if I could find some evidence supporting my perception of the emotional connection that Pamela L. Travers must have felt when reading the “Tale of Beatrix Potter“. And indeed, reading the book, I realized that there were some obvious similarities between the early emotional experiences of both writers. 

As children, they were both kept fed and sheltered, but other than that they were pretty much ignored by their parents and were left to their own devices. Both girls experienced the neglect of their emotional needs and their budding talents were disregarded.  Both loved and felt a deep connection with nature. Both were destined to take care of their parents and both desperately wanted to find and did find their way out. As young adults they both suffered from bouts of depression and both ended up writing stories that appealed to children.  

But I believe that Beatrix Potter’s transformation in the second half of her life, from a timid and lonely child to a farmer, conservationist and a business woman caused Pamela L. Travers’s admiration. 

Once Potter married, she lost all interest in writing and devoted herself to her husband and her true love, nature.  Beatrix Potter became Mrs. Heelis, a sheep farmer, nature conservationist and an estate owner. 

Pamela L. Travers’s interpretation of Potter’s metamorphosis gives a glimpse of her own inner yearning

And this retrospective (the story of the child within) my go on for book after book until the time comes when the child is appeased and freed. That the tales cease then is not necessarily a sign of failing imagination but rather that the writer has set himself free to find his fate in the grown-up world. …Beatrix Potter’s life is a perfect example of this pattern. … Full and rich with immediate life she had no overspill for the hidden child; indeed, because of that late fullness the child no longer needed her. She became what she had instinctively longed to be…  

Pamela L.Travers

Here it says it all…for those who listen…and do not judge… 

Pamela L. Travers continued, book after book, in her attempt to soothe her inner child, little Lyndon, (Pamela’s real name) without ever succeeding to move genuinly into the next stages of her life. 

The next post will examine in more detail  the similarities and the differences between the childhood experiences of  Pamela L. Travers and Beatrix Potter. Hope you stay tuned.