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 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. 

 

 

About the Sleeping Beauty (Part III)

Sleeping Beauty 3

This week we continue with the analysis of Pamela L. Travers’s book “About the Sleeping Beauty”, and more particularly, with the study of the character of Sleeping Beauty. 

In her Afterword, Pamela tells us of the reason behind her decision to write her own version of Sleeping Beauty:

It was written not at all to improve the story – how could one improve on the Brothers Grimm?  – but to ventilate my own thoughts about it.

Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, speculates that Pamela wrote her own version of the fairy tale in imitation of Beatrix Potter whom she admired enormously. According to Lawson, since Beatrix Potter wrote her own extensive version of Cinderella, Pamela L. Travers felt compelled to write her own version of Sleeping Beauty. Somehow, I doubt that this was the driving force behind Pamela’s writing.  I believe that her interest in the story had something to do with her own inner conflicts and the influences of her spiritual teacher Gurdjieff.  Now, let’s see what points us into that direction.

For Pamela, the character of Sleeping Beauty is as a mysterious symbol from which emanate many possible meanings. Since Pamela believed that fairy tales conceal their secrets behind the obvious interpretations, she did not see in Sleeping Beauty a pretty girl waiting to be awaken by the right lover; at least that is what she said.

To uncover the possible meanings of Sleeping Beauty’s fairy tale, Pamela researched its origins and then reported her findings in her Afterword. She describes the different interpretations given to the story of Sleeping Beauty: (i) for some this fairy tale is a nature myth in which Sleeping Beauty symbolises the Earth in spring, awakening to life under the warm kiss of the sun; (ii) for  others the story holds elements of forgotten ancient secret initiation ceremonies in which one dies on one level only to awaken on another, “like the chrysalis waked into butterfly”; and (iii) there are those who read in it a myth about the death and resurrection of a goddess as in the myth of Persephone.

What is remarkable in Pamela’s Afterword is that she does not provide the reader with her own original interpretation of the story, and yet one could feel that the interpretations rendered by others were not sufficient in meaning for her. She was looking for a deeper unveiled spiritual meaning. However, that meaning seems to have eluded her because she only asked questions without providing any answers.

All who have studied Pamela L. Travers’s work (including her Mary Poppins) have noticed her fascination with the polarities in life. Pamela herself said on many occasions that as a child she believed in a place where the opposites meet and reconcile.  A place where the wolf is friend with the sheep. What could be the meaning of this fascination?

Pamela, from her early childhood, was plagued by feelings of unworthiness and of inadequacy . At the same time, she felt special and craved recognition. In her teen years, she rebelled against the repression of her artistic talents and the role her mother and her great-aunt had chosen for her. Is it possible then that these contradictory emotions caused her to experience what she described as being Sleeping Beauty’s experience of maidenhood?  

And at length the time of maidens was upon her. …she seemed to waver in the wind, hardly knowing where she was, bending this way and that. Sometimes she would sigh for no reason at all, and of she smiled and became thoughtful, again it would be for no reason. …Thus swung between one thing and another, dipping and swaying like a flag in the breeze, she came to her fifteenth birthday.

Pamela left her Australian homeland in search of that reconciling “something else”, not knowing if it was a place, a person, or an occupation? Just like in her description of Sleeping Beauty’s emotional states she herself wandered in her maze of maidenhood. What she sought she did not know. She only knew that not to find it would leave her incomplete.”

Searching for that elusive “something else” in the hope of filling her emotional inner void, Pamela L. Travers found (in her late thirties, past the time of the maiden) the esoteric teachings of the charismatic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. His peculiar teachings were inspired by Eastern philosophies and resembled the theosophical ideas instilled in Pamela in her mid-twenties by her mentor, George W. Russel.

Why do I bring Pamela’s spiritual teacher here? Because his teachings were based around the theme of the sleeper, and because this same theme appears continually in Pamela’s writings throughout her life, including in the Mary Poppins stories.

Gurdjieff conceived man as a sleeping machine, lost in life and unconsciously reactive to his environment. According to him, to escape the imprisonment of his automatism, man needs to practice the act of what he called “self-remembering”. This concept is similar to the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness”. Gurdjieff thought his students that man is born with an essence and that this essence is formed by the impressions it receives in the first years of life. For him “impressions” meant experiences that are simultaneously processed and understood by all the centers in the human being. These centers are: Intellectual Center, Emotional Center and Moving Center (the body).

For Gurdjieff, the only true understanding of reality consists of information perceived and processed in unison by all these centers. He affirmed that this ability is lost around the age of five or six. So, as the human being grows older these centers become at odds with each other thus opposing the body to the mind and vice-versa. The result of this opposition is a human being which is fragmented into many different parts and only having the illusion of being one person.  

Gurdjieff explained that the way to self-remembering consists of remembering one’s highest possibilities; that is remembering what one opens to when one comes back to oneself. Maybe this is why Pamela concludes her Afterword with these words:

Are we dealing here with the sleeping soul and all the external affairs of life that hem it in  and hide it ; something that falls asleep after childhood, something that not to awaken would make life meaningless. To give an answer, supposing we had it, would be braking the law of fairy tale. And perhaps no answer is necessary. It is enough that we ponder upon and love the story an ask ourselves the question.

Two elements in Sleeping Beauty seem to have particularly fascinated Pamela. First, the unescapable fate of the princess and second, the spell of sleep:

But perhaps – is this what the story is telling us? – perhaps it is not a simple thing to faithfully follow one’s fate. Nor is it really a simple fate to carry such a wealth of graces and to fall asleep for a hundred years.

Did she herself find her fate difficult to follow? Probably. I believe she experienced her life as an ordeal. Was she aware of her own blessings and talents?  Most likely not, at least not completely…

It is conceivable to think that the character of Sleeping Beauty resonated with Pamela, who as a true follower of Gurdjieff, saw her fate as the fate of a sleeper trying to awaken to a higher reality. Sadly, what she needed to awaken from was her trance of unworthiness and feelings of not belonging to this world. How I wish she could have awaken from her feelings of separateness and fallen in love with all of life…with her life…

About the Sleeping Beauty (Part I)

Sleeping Beauty.jpg

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.”

 

 

 

 

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