The friendship between P.L. Travers and Helen Keller is a little-known fact and one that was brought to my attention by a generous reader of this blog. I am forever grateful to my readers who share my interest in the world of P.L. Travers and Mary Poppins and freely share their knowledge with me.
A few letters kept in the archives of Helen Keller reveal that she and Polly Thomson stayed at P.L. Travers’s home during their visit to the UK in 1946. Helen Keller recollects the visit in these words:
“How often Polly and I recall the cozy evenings we spent with you, Camillus, and Moya by the fire in that dear, war-tried little house, surrounded by objects upon which your artistry has bestowed a fairy grace! “
And in another letter:
“I prefer to tell you how two pilgrims in search of ways to succor the war-blinded of Europe were rested and cheered by their visits with you, Moya and darling Camillius. Besides taking you to our hearts we loved your house, bomb-wounded yet warm and sweet to the core, your fire crackling with a cheery message of peace that shall someday inundate all homes, the simple hospitality making us feel natural and free instead of feeling “guests,” and the talk on whose wings the hours flew unnoticed.“
The connections I make from reading P.L. Travers’s interviews and writings usually require time and effort, and although I enjoy the process, I must admit that it is immensely satisfying, albeit I feel a little mischievous, to read P.L. Travers’s private thoughts on matters she never discussed in interviews.
Her correspondence with Helen Keller contains candid details about her relationship with her son, Camillus, and her feelings about single motherhood. In her interviews P.L. Travers rarely talked about Camillus and when she did, it was indirectly, by making references to a boy she knew well or a boy dear to her heart. This may appear strange, but I believe that she was trying to avoid questions about his adoption.
The adoption of Camillus is discussed in P.L. Travers’s biography Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lawson, as well as in the documentaries about her life, and so I am not going to delve into the details of the adoption here, but just mention briefly, for those of you who are not familiar with the story, that P.L. Travers never told Camillus that he was adopted and that he had a twin brother, and other siblings. At the age of seventeen he discovered the truth when his twin brother came knocking on P.L. Traver’s door.
As you can imagine Camillus was hurt and felt betrayed by the person he trusted most in life. His anger was mighty, and he never completely forgave her. This was a terribly sad and tragic event for both and P.L. Travers’s biggest regret in life was that she had not been a good enough mother for Camillus.
And maybe from the outside one can say that she should have made better choices when it came to her son, the truth is she could not have done differently because she did what she could, what she thought was best, based on the level of awareness she had at the time.
In her letters to Helen Keller, P.L. Travers writes about teaching Camillus how to swim and row during their summer vacation in Ireland and in the Wales, and how she is teaching him to handle a canoe on the Regent Park Lake. She mentions that he is taking violin lessons and “being very musical and with a good ear.”
But what I find most interesting in this correspondence is that P.L. Travers appears to have been nostalgic of Camillus’s earliest childhood years. It is almost as if she was grieving the loss of their deepest connection, feeling the bond between them beginning to weaken as he was growing up and losing touch with the dreamland of fairytales. In a way they no longer shared a common way of perceiving the world. Camillus, like most of us when growing up, was interested in the external affairs of life and of becoming, whereas P.L. Travers always kept one foot in the land of myth and fairy tales, and looked for a deeper meaning of life, beyond the illusion of the ordinary. She wrote to Helen Keller:
“He, when he first heard poetry, was enchanted by it, but now at the age of eight only wants it now and then. He is so busy being a gangster one moment, supervisor another, a policeman the next. Everything now is acting and there is very little dreaming. The house shakes with his thundering feet, he is always coming from or going somewhere and only at night remembers that he has a mother and is still small enough to sit in her lap and be rocked in the rocking chair.”
This sentiment of hers was so strong that it made its way in Every Goose a Swan in Mary Poppins in the Park. Camillus is the Boy in the story. The Boy is engrossed in pretend play, he is a fearsome one- eyed pirate, but then when the Tramp dares him to go to Dead Man’s Drop he suddenly remembers that he has a mother, that if he leaves she would be anxious and that after all she was making pancakes and it was better for him to stop acting and be his other self.
Another interesting aspect of this correspondence with Helen Keller is P.L. Travers’s frankness about her difficulties as a single parent, the frustrations of domestic life, and her difficulty at reconciling it all with her deep need to write.
“Helen, you will understand how sad I have been at having to face the possibility of sending Camillus to boarding school. I aways wanted to keep him at home with me and let him go to a day school. But daily living becomes ever more difficult in England and the almost impossibility of finding anybody to help in the house will probably make it imperative. (…) I have broached the subject with him and his cheerful reply was “I will hit you if you do send me away!” However, as he grows I think he will quite like the idea and I hope to find a simple loving school which will not try and mould his abundant nature into too conventional a pattern. Then perhaps I shall have time to write.”
The boarding school she chose for Camillus was Dane Court Preparatory School for boys in Surrey. Joy Davidson, the wife of C.S. Lewis, sent her own two sons there after consulting P.L. Travers over tea. P.L. Travers’s high praise confirmed Joy Davidson’s impression of the school.
“The one she liked best was Dane Court, in Surrey, about twenty miles southeast of London. It was the most expensive, “gracious, well-established, comfortable without being luxurious and modern without being faddist,” having adopted a progressive policy of not “whack(ing) the children.”
Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis, by Abigail Santamaria.
In conlusions, P.L. Travers did what she could to give Camillus a good education and a good start in life.
There are other things in the letters that will probably prompt me to write other blogposts, but this is it for this one, and I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading it.