Is There a Love Connection between Mary Poppins and Bert the Match-Man?

Mary Poppins and Bert Movie Poster

Movie Poster, Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins

The 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins certainly suggests such an interpretation. However, Mary Poppins’s author P.L. Travers had a different opinion and denied any romantic relationship between these two fictional characters. Who was right? Disney’s screenwriters or the author herself? The answer is not as straightforward as you may think. With the help of Irish historian Brian McKernan, I will attempt to offer a possible answer to this question.

The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934, but a character in the name of Mary Poppins first appeared in 1926,  under the pen of twenty-seven years old P. L. Travers, in the short story  Mary Poppins And the Match-Man, published on November 13, 1926 in Christchurch’s newspaper The Sun. The story is about a seventeen years old girl, Mary Poppins, the underneath nurse of Jane and Michael and John and Barbara Banks, who on her Day Out, embarks on a magical adventure in a picture drawn by her friend, Bert the Match-Man.

A few years later P.L. Travers redrafted the story and included it in the first Mary Poppins book under the title “The Day Out”.  (If you want to read the two versions of the story side by side, click here.) “The Day Out” is also the basis of the song-and-dance sequence “It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary” in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins movie.

Mary Poppins and the Match Man

Valerie Lawson, P.L. Travers’s biographer, wrote that the fact that Disney chose this particular story as an important scene in the movie always irritated P.L. Travers.

She later called “The Day Out” chapter “false” and the weakest of all her Mary Poppins adventures, but never explained why.    

Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson

Both versions of the story are rather similar. Bert has not made enough money from his paintings to take Mary Poppins out for tea and raspberry-jam-cakes. Mary Poppins tries to hide her disappointment behind a smile “with both ends turned up” and then Bert has an idea. Why don’t they go into one of his pictures? “Puff!” They go into a picture where it is “all trees and grass and a little bit of blue sea in the distance”. There they have tea, eat raspberry-jam-cakes and go for a Merry-go-Round ride. In the first story they also eat two plates of mussels which in the second version of the story are transformed into two plates of whelks. In one story the tea is served from a brass urn, and in the other from a silver one. In one story they each ride a black and white horse and in the other black and grey. In one story the Merrie-go-Round takes them to Margate and in the other to Yarmouth. But these are minor changes.

Mary Poppins and the Match Man modern

Illustration by Julia Sardà

However, there is one significant change, and that is the way P.L. Travers portrays the relationship between Mary Poppins and Bert. In the first story the romantic aspect is clear:

“Mary!” he cried, and you could see by the way he cried it that he loved her.

Mary Poppins smoothed out her dress and looked hard at her shoes and smiled at the Match-Man all at once, and you knew by that that she loved him too.                                                                                                      

In comparison, the 1934 version is not as explicit.

“Mary!” he cried, and you could tell by the way he cried it that Mary Poppins was a very important person in his life.

Mary Poppins looked down at her feet and rubbed the toe of one shoe along the pavement two or three times. Then she smiled at the shoe in such a way that the shoe knew quite well that the smile wasn’t meant for it.

Why did P.L. Travers change the story? Why was she so adamant about the absence of romance between Mary Poppins and the Match-Man? The answer, at least in part, can be found in McKernan’s reading of the 1926 version of the story.

Mary Poppins board (1)

According to McKernan, the character of Mary Poppins is a personification of young P.L. Travers and Bert the Match-Man the embodiment of her literary mentor George W. Russell (AE). The romance between Mary Poppins and the Match-Man reflecting Travers’s heart felt love for AE at that period in her life. (insert a link to previous post about AE)

McKernan combines other elements from AE’s life to support his interpretation of the story.  It appears from his research that young P.L. Travers nicknamed AE the “Match-Man” gently mocking his habit of leaving behind a trail of spent matches from the constant relighting of his pipe.

AE himself discussed his matches problem in a letter to his friend Lucy Kingsley Porter:   

I think I’ll get my own matches in Letterkenny. I would exhaust any stock you would lay in. I know myself. It’s nearly a box of matches to one pipeful. Mrs. Law used to know where I had been painting when she found a box-full of burnt out matches around a center where I had been sitting. I will let you provide the floor space.

Bert’s painting of pictures on the pavement also supports McKernan’s interpretation of this fictional character. AE had many talents and painting was one of them.  He loved to paint landscapes as well as magical figures inspired by his spiritual visions, and he used to carry chalks in his pockets and draw on pavements, walls and rocks.

AE loved to spend his summer holidays in the northwest county of Donegal in the village of Breaghy, where he rented a room in a hillside cottage, Janie’s-on-the-Hill.  At twilight he would gather his crayons and sketch pad, and head for the hills. 

8MB Women on Hillside.jpgWomen on Hillside, by George William  (AE) Russell

Young P.L. Travers accompanied AE on a few holidays during the 1920’s and went on painting excursions with him. She wrote about how he would paint “no sooner finishing one picture than starting on another. But one felt that this was less a series of emotional excursions than his way of finding out about the world he lived in.

Once, AE offered P.L. Travers a paint-box, chalks and sketchbook affirming that if one has one gift then one has them all.

So, having arrived at his chosen position, a long yellow tongue of sand, laced with a thread of moving water that changed its colour as the sky changed, I sat beside him, making an occasional sweep of a crayon but more intent on watching his way of working than on what was in my sketch book.

The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic, P.L. Travers

P.L. Travers not really interested in drawing herself, climbed on the branch of a nearby tree to observe AE’s crowding the canvas “with creatures from some other world”.  Somehow, busy as he was painting his visions, AE managed, without her noticing it, to sketch a picture of her resting on the tree branch.

…and there was I upon my branch, not at all a part of the scene but in a way a witness to it. As if one stood, unseen, at the portal of Paradise.

The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic, P.L. Travers

Pam sketch by AE

Maybe on that particular day she was not able to see what he saw but she did become part of the magical scene in the story Mary Poppins And the Match-Man. 

Why then did P.L. Travers deny the love connection between Mary Poppins and the Match-Man? Well, by the time she wrote the stories for the first Mary Poppins book, her relationship with AE had evolved and deepened without ever becoming a romantic relationship. And, I also believe she had an additional reason. Mary Poppins had changed too and so had P.L. Travers.

In the first story Mary Poppins is not magical, the magic adventure clearly initiated by the Match-Man, and she dreams a very human dream of a life shared with a partner in a small house with a garden:

 They passed a little red house with sun flowers in its front garden.

“Just the sort of little house I always wanted! said Mary Poppins kissing her white-gloved hand to it.

Mary Poppins And the Match-Man, P.L. Travers, 1926

In the books Mary Poppins is no longer the shy young girl in need of a mentor. In the books Mary Poppins is herself the initiator of the magical adventures and the one dispensing the lessons. She is a self-sufficient, magical creature beyond the laws of our world. She is the “Great Exception”, the Starling in the story “John and Barbara’s Story tells us. She is the only human who has transcended its human nature and accessed to a higher state of being.

P.L. Travers imagined Mary Poppins as a self-sufficient, independent and mysterious creature who feels at home wherever she goes. There is simply no place for the Match-Man next to such a powerful Mary Poppins. At least not in the mind of P.L. Travers.

Hope you enjoyed this post and that you will come back to read more about P. L. Travers and her magical Mary Poppins.   

Re-examining the Relationship between Irish Poet and Mystic AE and Young Pamela L. Travers

2019 Lurgan Book cover

By some serendipitous coincidence Irish historian Brian McKernan found my blog and read one of my very first blogposts: The Lover Archetype and Friend Monkey (I).

I wrote back then that George W. Russell’s (AE) did not reciprocate the romantic feelings of young Pamela and that he failed to make her feel special as a woman, a statement I based on the fact that he wrote to her about his other interests and flings. From that assertion I extrapolated that his attitude reaffirmed Pamela’s childhood experience of not being lovable enough, and then, I concluded that the relationship remained platonic because AE was emotionally unavailable.

My assumption about AE’s emotional unavailability as the primary reason for the platonic nature of the relationship between him and young Pamela prompted McKernan, who has spent the last couple of years researching AE’s life, to reach out and offer a different perspective. The ensuing correspondence gave nuance to my understanding of their relationship. But, before I offer you some snippets from our correspondence, a word about McKernan’s work. 

McKernan’s initial goal was to read about AE “to build up a basic story about him so that his birthplace-Lurgan, could hear his story.”  It appears that AE despite his numerous contributions to the Irish society has been largely forgotten by the public.

AE Exhibition 1

 

AE EXIBITION, Rushmere Shopping Centre, Septembre 2019, Curated by Brian and Michael McKernan

McKernan hopes that the memory of AE’s life and achievements will inspire the younger generations and maybe even reverse the sad reality of Lurgan. Today, says McKernan, Lurgan is “socially divided (Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist) and the suicide rate locally among young people is so high, the place needs a role model, a hero they can all celebrate together, and which tells them their town has some greatness in its DNA.” An honorable mission.

AE Exhibition 2

After spending considerable amount of time immersed in the world of AE, McKernan developed a true appreciation of his genius. His admiration grew as he realised that AE “acted differently from most men” because of his spiritual beliefs and visions which made him experience life on a different level than most men.

McKernan explains that AE considered ordinary human love to be of an ephemeral nature. He aspired to a higher, more lasting spiritual connection:

AE understood, as we all generally do, about romance, lust and temptation, but he believed so much in a higher love, where two people’s spirits meet, that he forced himself to hold back from the lower base human lust. He wrote a poem ‘The Spell’ in which he directly addresses the opportunities coming his way (sex, lust, romance) and how feeling that he is too old for this is pretty annoying. He regretted letting Pam (P.L. Travers) down. He regretted letting others down. Sometimes he wished he could just let himself succumb to temptation.

THE SPELL   

Now as I lean to whisper

To earth the last farewells,

The sly witch lays upon me

The subtlest of her spells:

Beauty that was not for me,

The love that was denied,

Their high disdainful sweetness

Now melted from their pride:

They run to me in vision,

All promise in their gaze,

All earth’s heart-choking magic,

Madness of nights and days.

These gifts are in my treasure,

Though fleeting be the breath;

Here only to wild giving

Is love made fire by death.

This spell I put upon thee

Must, in thy being burn,

Till from the Heavenly City

To me thou shalt return.

About AE writing to Pamela about his other crushes, McKernarn writes:

As for his ‘other flings’ and writing about them, that was not something he did a lot, but with Leah Bernstein, Simone Tery and Pamela he enjoyed their attention, like forbidden fruit, and they enjoyed this little bit of nonsense and fun too.

There was nothing false about the relationship says McKernan. “AE was simply reluctant to romance the outer Pamela and preferred the more lasting spiritual bond to Pamela’s inner self. And Pamela was reluctant to “jump all over him for a brief breaking down of a slightly awkward and hindering barrier”. The bond between Pamela and AE was strengthen by their shared similarities. “Pamela shared so many similarities with AE – like her sharp wit, innate intelligence, deep and sincere spiritual outlook.”

Anyhow, one thing is certain, AE’s influence was transformative and tributary for setting the course of Pamela L. Travers’s life as a writer and for the creation of Mary Poppins. McKernan writes:

He (AE) completely welcomed her into his world and circle of friends – something she needed. Before this transformative friendship began, she was floating quite aimlessly, with no sense of place. He gave her full acceptance and status.

In her essay The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic, Pamela writes about her relationship with AE. “I do not know in which role he saw me, as a daughter, acolyte, apprentice, or as all three…” “Was he intentionally educating me, I wondered! No matter: it was being done, with or without intent.

Despite the initial infatuation, the relationship evolved into one between a teacher and his student and lasted until AE’s death ten years later. Their bond extended to AE’s son Diarmuid Russell who became Pamela’s literary agent and then to Diarmuid Russell’s daughter Pamela, who was named after her.

All this indicates that AE appreciated young Pamela enough to resist the initial temptation. He was wise enough and aware enough of his personal situation, age, his marriage to his ailing wife and, of course the fact that Pamela wanted a life he couldn’t give her. It is possible then that he wrote to her about his ‘other flings’ precisely because he wanted to maintain a certain distance in order to preserve a lasting relationship. He played the role he knew he could fulfill, that of the guiding mentor.

Pamela wanted to be a poet and it was through poetry that she met AE. However, McKernan notes, it was AE who finally moved her from poetry to prose, “just like he moved his friend William Butler Yeats from Art (painting) to poetry”. If it was not for AE, McKernan believes, there would be no Mary Poppins for us.

He helped her to develop the characters, plots and stories which became the Mary Poppins’ books. Although he had never accepted any financial gain for helping his protégés, he did accept a share of her first Mary Poppins’ royalties in 1934 as he had been so involved in the process.  

In my next blogpost I will tell you more about the connections between AE and Mary Poppins as revealed by McKernan.

Hope you’ll come back to read more about Pamela L. Travers and her Mary Poppins.