Mary Poppins in the Publishing World

In the early 1930s, a magical nanny popped into the mind of a writer who had just taken up residence in Pound Cottage outside of Mayfield, East Sussex. That writer was Pamela L. Travers and the nanny, Mary Poppins. In her mid-thirties at the time, Pamela was struggling with a respiratory illness coupled with severe anxiety. She had chosen the secluded life in the countryside, following her doctor’s prescription, to avoid London’s smoggy air.

Pound Cottage was not just any cottage. It was a small, medieval, timber-framed construction, thickly glazed with mortar, and lidded with a large, sloping thatched roof. The tiny windows and narrow front door accentuating the whimsical aspect of the cottage. In other words, it was the perfect birthplace for a fairy tale. 

Pound Cottage, just out of Mayfield, might have been the home of the wicked fairy in “Hansel and Gretel,” or Farmer Hoggett and his sweet pig, Babe. …. the cottage looked as though a romantic heroine like Giselle might step through its rustic door to dance among the roses in the garden…..

Mary Poppins She Wrote, Valerie Lawson

Poud Cottage

Picture from the Archive of P.L. Travers and Mary Shepard at Cotsen Children’s Library.

Here is a description of Pound Cottage given by Pamela herself when she was asked where she had written Mary Poppins:

In the country, in a very old house, that was older than William the Conqueror. It was built before 1066, and we know that because William the Conqueror made lists of all the houses that were in England when he arrived, and this house was on that list. It’s called the Doomsday Book.  It’s still there. (…) It was bought by an anthropologist who was very interested in very old things. Maybe he will preserve it and give it to the nation one day. I don’t know.

Pamela L. Travers, Library of Congress Performance. Interview. 1966-11-01. Visit with P.L. Travers, Author of the Mary Poppins stories

One wonders, could the bucolic backdrop and the history infused cottage have been part of the necessary ingredients for Pamela to conjure a character such as Mary Poppins into our world? Or, was it Mary Poppins who summoned Pamela instead? Who can tell? Although, according to Pamela, the latter hypothesis is the correct answer to these questions:

I didn’t even think her up. She just brushed past me and said, ‘You take it down.’ The late Hendrik van Loon, who used to take me out to lunch and draw elephants for me, had the right idea. ‘How you happened to think of Mary Poppins doesn’t interest me,’ he said. ‘What interests me is how Mary Poppins happened to think of you.’  

Mary Poppins by Geoffrey T. Hellman, The New Yorker, October 12, 1962

Be it one way or the other, magic did happen in that small medieval cottage. The proof is that since Mary Poppins was first published in 1934, the stories have never been out of print. By 1965, Mary Poppins was translated into seventeen languages, and in 1968, even a Latin translation of Mary Poppins from A to Z was added to the list of translations. Since then, many more editions were published all over the world demonstrating the everlasting interest of the pubic in this fictional character.

Obviously, I was curious to learn about today’s publishing process of a children’s classic like Mary Poppins. Luck was on my side and I am excited to share with the readers of this blog that Ms. Bethany Vinhateiro, the Mary Poppins editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), kindly accepted to answer a few questions about HMH’s publishing program of the Mary Poppins books in North America. So, without further ado, I lift the curtain and offer you a glimpse of Mary Poppins in the publishing world:

LS: What motivated HMH’s decision to publish a new edition of the Mary Poppins books?

BV: The Mary Poppins series is one of our most prized backlist properties and we tend to it regularly, republishing around major anniversaries and other events, like the debut of the stage show and film adaptations. Our most recent crop of books, new editions of the original by P. L. Travers and movie tie-in editions from Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, were timed for the excitement around the 2018 film.

mary poppins box set

LS: Was the Estate of P.L. Travers involved in the decision?

BV: We work closely with the Travers estate on all of our Poppins publishing. HMH, along with the Estate, feel a responsibility to try to do for her character and work as Travers would have done herself.

LS: Has HMH noticed an increase of interest from the readers in the original Mary Poppins stories?

BV: As with any cultural event like a film adaptation, the source material sees renewed interest from readers. Though Mary Poppins was already a classic and one that sells perennially, our previously published editions of Mary Poppins saw an increase in sales around the film. The increased awareness was an exciting opportunity to get the original story into the hands of new readers, and to bring out a beautiful collector’s edition and a first-ever picture book edition which could be enjoyed by people who may have already loved the story in another format. It’s been wonderful to see the enthusiasm for the original books that inspired the films.

mary popins collector edition

LS:  Do you know how many editions of the Mary Poppins books have been published since the first book came out in 1934?

BV: There have been many editions of the original novels published over the years. We currently offer them in hardcover and paperback, a paperback boxed set, and a hardcover collection. Travers’ novellas Mary Poppins in the Kitchen and Mary Poppins from A-Z are also in print. New in 2018 are the Mary Poppins ABC board book adapted from the A-Z book, the Illustrated Gift Edition of Mary Poppins and the Mary Poppins Picture Book. 

mary poppins abc

LS: Is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt the only authorised publisher of the Mary Poppins books? 

BV: HMH holds publishing rights to Mary Poppins in North America, with other publishers publishing the books around the world.

Now, I hope you enjoyed this post and come back to read more about the original book Mary Poppins From A to Z and the new adaptation for the very young readers, Mary Poppins ABC which will be the subject of the next post on this blog. If you liked this blog post, I invite you to read about my meeting with the illustrator of the very first Mary Poppins Picture Book:  Meeting Geneviève Godbout, the Illustrator of the New Mary Poppins Picture Book.

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Meeting Geneviève Godbout, the Illustrator of the New Mary Poppins Picture Book

Chapter 1

Jane and Michael could see that the newcomer had shiny black hair – “Rather like a wooden Dutch doll” whispered Jane. And that she was thin, with large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes.

Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins’s magic bends and spins reality as a pastry chef twists dough into pretzels. The delicious adventures on which Mary Poppins embarks the Banks children are marvelous treats for the imagination of young readers not yet familiar with the laws of gravity and conventional social norms. Since Pamela L. Travers first channelled Mary on the pages of her book in 1934, Mary continues to come and go through the gates of time and space and into our world in an attempt to expand our minds and connect us to our most potent human feature, our imagination.

In 2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) published a new edition of the first four Mary Poppins books.

MPoppins_OpenstheDoor

 

MPoppins_Park

 

Then in October 2018, in the anticipation of the release of the movie Mary Poppins Returns, HMH published the first ever Mary Poppins picture book destined for the very young readers. A cheerful Mary Poppins with big, almond shaped eyes, red cheeks, and an explicitly playful attitude appears on the pages of the picture book. The illustrator of this fresh vision of Mary Poppins is Genevieve Godbout, who is also an author of children’s picture books.

MP_cover-template-01-FINAL-color

I met Godbout for the first time in October 2018 at a Mary Poppins tea party, an organised promotional event for the launch of the Mary Poppins picture book. The invitation came unexpectedly from a friend who knew about my fascination with Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers.  

The tea party took place in a charming little bookstore in the style of the Shop Around the Corner in the movie You’ve Got Mail.  I don’t know if you have seen this romantic comedy with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but there is a scene where Kate (Meg Ryan), with a princess hat on her head, reads a picture book in her bookstore to a crowd of small kids gathered at her feet (by the way, this is one of my favorite scenes in the movie).  So, there I was in real life, standing amongst small children, magic wands and sparkling tiaras, the tallest kid in the crowd waiting for the reading of the Mary Poppins picture book to begin. A door in the back of the room opened and Mary Poppins walked in followed by a friend who she introduced to the audience as being the illustrator of the Mary Poppins picture book, Godbout.

Mary Poppins Tea Party

A few months later I met Godbout in a small coffeeshop where green plants and various lightbulbs were swaying from the ceiling, sharing the available window space and demonstrating the bohemian allegiance of the establishment. In this artsy atmosphere we talked for more than an hour, between bites of the most delicious blueberry scones, about Godbout’s creative process of illustrating the famous character of Mary Poppins.

Arts Cafe 1

Art Cafe 2

Art Cafe 3

Godbout explained that before illustrating the Mary Poppins picture book she worked on the illustrations of the covers of the first four Mary Poppins books published by HMH in 2015. For this project HMH provided precise guidelines for the elements that needed to be incorporated into the images on the book covers. The choice of colors and style of drawings were left to the illustrator. However, the publisher’s instructions were clear, the goal was to modernise the look of Mary Poppins and make her visually attractive for today’s young readership. Godbout submitted her sketches along with other illustrators and was chosen by HMH to complete the project.

Interestingly, the 2015 edition of the first four Mary Poppins books still contains the original illustrations by Mary Shepard; a fact that rendered Godbout slightly anxious at the beginning of the project. She candidly confided in being intimidated by the task of illustrating the book covers of a classic children’s book that came with its original illustrations. In contrast, at that same time, she was working on another picture book about another famous character, Anne of Green Gables. The difference between these two projects was that the original novel of Anne of Green Gables had no illustrations. There was nothing to compete and compare with. But once the initial self-doubt so familiar to artists was overcome, Godbout materialized a beautiful pastel colored vision of Mary Poppins.

Her successful illustrations of the book covers in 2015 led HMH to contact her in 2017 and ask her to retell in images the Mary Poppins story in a picture book destined to initiate small kids to the fantastic adventures of Mary Poppins.  

The pastel and colored pencil drawings of Godbout’s Mary Poppins are largely inspired by Julie Andrew’s interpretation of Mary Poppins because as it happened, Godbout fell under the spell of Disney’s Mary Poppins when she was a child.

Mary Poppins Laughing Gas

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MaryPoppins_HC_INT_Dummyv2-13

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Because Godbout didn’t want to immerse herself in the original illustrations by Mary Shepard to avoid any influence on her own work, she didn’t read the original stories at the time she illustrated the book covers in 2015. She only recently started reading the books, and as many who are not familiar with the original artwork, she admitted being flabbergasted by the immense gap between the movie and the books. Godbout accurately assesses the situation: “Mary Poppins has a double personality.”  

Serendipitously enough, Godbout, without knowing it, already had connections to the Mary Poppins world even before she became a full-time freelance illustrator and author of picture books.

At the beginning of her career, Godbout made illustrations for Disney commercial products and a big part of her work involved the character of Winnie-the-Pooh. Godbout was pleasantly surprised to learn that Mary Shepard, the illustrator of Mary Poppins chosen by P.L. Travers, was the daughter of Ernest Howard Shepard, the illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh. And what was Godbout’s last assignment before making the leap towards an independent artistic career? Mary Poppins of course!

Mary Poppins has undoubtedly kept Godbout busy with book readings and signing events in bookstores in Montreal and recently at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, where she talked about her illustrations and answered kid-friendly questions from the audience. However, Godbout has also other projects on the go. She recently published, here in Quebec, her first authored picture book titled Malou, which tells the story of a little kangaroo who loses its hop. The picture book will soon be published in France, and in the spring of 2020, it will also be published in the rest of Canada and in the United States under the title What’s Up, Maloo? And, that is not all! Godbout is currently in the process of completing a picture book illustrating a poem about gratitude titled Apple Cake. As for me, I am grateful to Ms. Godbout for taking the time to discuss her illustrations of Mary Poppins, and I sincerely hope that her drawings will bring new readers to the original books of P.L. Travers!

Mary Poppins Meets the Little Prince

The Little Prince Mary Poppins

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry masterfully shaped his story The Little Prince into a fairy tale, illustrated with his naïve, childlike drawings. However, despite the child-friendly appearances of the story, Saint-Exupéry did not, just as Pamela L. Travers, intend to write a children’s book. And, even if The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are enjoyed by children, both characters communicate the life experiences of their authors, and their hard-learned life lessons; they speak to the child within the grown-up reader, they talk about what these authors believed to be true in life.   

Nonetheless, The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are still, more often than not, perceived by many as whimsical stories unrelated to life as we know it, only meant to amuse children. And that is unfortunate. It is unfortunate that today we have no time to ponder on the real meaning of the fairy tales; as the fox in the The Little Prince remarks:

People never have the time to understand anything that is worthwhile. They buy everything ready made in the shops. That’s why people don’t have friends, because they can’t buy friends in the shops.

Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince during his exile in the United States in 1943. The story contains some biographical elements and we can interpret The Little Prince as the expression of the author’s feelings of loneliness and isolation in a world torn by war, a world populated by:

one hundred and eleven kings (including the African kings), seven thousand geographers, nine-hundred thousand businessmen, seven-and-a-half million drunkards, three-hundred-eleven million egoists; in other words, about two billion grown-ups.

And of course, needless to say, these numbers have largely increased since 1943.

But beyond the personal, the journey of the Little Prince can be viewed as an allegory of the death of the inner child; the loss of connection with one’s own heart and with that, the loss of the ability to truly connect with other human beings. All the grown-up characters in the story live alone on their separate planets, unconscious of their pathetic predicament, unconscious of their inability to fully embrace their aliveness and the vastness of the world beyond their limited conceptions.

The Little Prince had to leave the Earth because it was a strange place to live, “It’s dry and sharp and hard. And people have no imagination. They repeat whatever you say to them.

And that is a sad moral, unless of course one succeeds in transcending the death of innocence by keeping an eye on the stars…

Pamela L. Travers was also in the United States at the time when The Little Prince was published in April 1943, and it happened so that she reviewed it in an article that was published in The New York Herald.

Since Pamela L. Travers was a dweller of the fairy tales world, she knew that fairy tales are allegories of our human experiences and that their morals can be applied in our own existence. She wrote in her review:

The Little Prince certainly has the three essentials required by children’s books. It is true in the most inward sense, it offers no explanations and it has a moral. But this particular moral attaches the book to the grown-up world rather than the nursery. To be understood it needs a heart stretched to the utmost suffering and love, the kind of heart luckily is not often found in children.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

Pamela L. Travers also knew that precisely because of its allegorical style the story of The Little Prince had a chance to penetrate deeper into the inner world of the reader, beyond the confines of the mind, and reach the reader’s inner child homeland, the reader’s heart.

We can not go back to the world of childhood. We are too tall now and must stay with our own kind. But perhaps there is a way of going forward to it. Or better still, of bearing it along with us; carrying the lost child in our arms so that we may measure all things in terms of that innocence. Everything Saint-Exupéry writes has that sense of heightened life that can be achieved only when the child is still held by the hand.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

During the Second World War Pamela L. Travers was drawn into the national and international propaganda coordination effort between the Office of War Information Department of the Roosevelt administration and the British Ministry of Information. The network that formed between these two establishments reached out to contributors from the literary and journalist communities. And this is how Pamela L. Travers was asked to do some radio broad casting to all the occupied countries. Interestingly, she used in her radio programs the same communication tactics as the one employed by Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince:

How could I speak to anyone except speaking to their child? And so to every country I did broadcast on their fairy tales, their legends, their folklore.

Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valery Lawson

The Little Prince never explained anything, nor did Mary Poppins, nor Pamela L. Travers for that matter. But truth does not need explaining, what it needs is a childlike-heart because as the fox in the story tells us “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

Feathered Omens

 

Picture of the feather

At twenty-four Pamela L. Travers was determined to be the master of her own destiny. Strong headed, propelled by the need to escape the limited existence commanded by the needs of her family, Pamela decided to leave it all behind and search for that elusive “something else”.

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, when the long rays lay across the earth like stripes on the back of a zebra. ‘There must be Something Else!’ I would say. Achingly, I would say it. But all, I knew, was Here and Now, and if all, then within the all that Something Else awaited me, infolded, 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

The call to adventure, in Pamela’s case, the call to Ireland, was too compelling to be ignored. And according to her, it urged her from her early childhood:

Brian Sibley:       You said to me earlier that from the moment you were born you knew that you would be leaving Australia and you would be coming back to Ireland. What was it that put that idea into your head?

P.L.Travers:         How do you know the idea was put in my head. I am perfectly convinced that I was born saying “Get me out of here.”

Brian Sibley:       But you were happy there?

P.L.Travers:        Very.

Brian Sibley:       So, was it something about Ireland that was calling you as it were?

P.L.Travers:        Well, you like to make that assertion, I don’t. It was just in me, that I wouldn’t be staying there, the others would say we’ll do this and do that when we are grown up and I used to say calmly but I will not be here. And I was always laughed at.

P L Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

At the time of the recording of this conversation, Pamela L. Travers’s biography was not yet written, and not much was known about the details of her life in Australia. And, Pamela disclosed only what she wanted to disclose which, it turned out, was often slightly misrepresented, especially when it came to her father. There are different possible interpretations for the reasons of these distortions, but what is now certain is that her father exerted great influence upon her young and impressionable mind.

By reciting Irish poetry and recounting Celtic myths, her father, quite unknowingly, planted a special seed in Pamela’s oversensitive imagination. The seed grew deep roots of fascination with Ireland and these roots, eventually, reached the Irish soil. As soon as Pamela arrived in Ireland, she contacted George William Russell (A.E.) who not only responded to the poem she sent him but also introduced her to his close friend, the legendary, W.B. Yeats. This is how Pamela, almost by magic, entered into the Irish literary establishment of that time. 

The prospect of her long trip across the ocean to the other side of the Earth must have been unsettling for young Pamela, even if the departure was desired. Fears and doubts must have been her companions, after all she was making a leap of faith towards the unknown. What made her answer the call to adventure? It is an arduous task, shun by most of us. How did she overcome these uneasy feelings? Was it the explosive combination of her inherent rebelliousness along with some youthful naiveté that allowed her to push through her doubts? One thing we do know is that she relied on the guidance from a feather.

A few days before Pamela sailed to England a bird’s feather drifted down to her feet as she was walking on the street. She stopped and scooped it up. Her biographer Valerie Lawson writes “Soft, but finely shaped, the tail feather might have come from a magpie. She tucked it into her handbag. This omen was to travel with her, those fifty days to London.”

The feather remained with Pamela for much longer than the trip to England. She kept it for the rest of her life.

The fact that Pamela saw in it a good omen, a sort of a sign of protection from above, confirms both that she needed reassurance and guidance at that moment in her life, and also that she was sensitive to the spirit world. Shamans believe that a feather from a bird can connect a person with the specific archetypal energies of that bird. Did the magpie have something to communicate to Pamela?

Interestingly enough a magpie is believed to indicate an encounter with the spirit realm and the metaphysical world but in a rather unusual way. Now this strikes me as a “funny” coincidence because Pamela did encounter the spirit world right from her arrival in Ireland. George W. Russell was a member of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society founded by the controversial Madame Helena Blavatsky. And he also claimed to be able to see fairies and enjoyed painting his visions.

As for W.B. Yeats, well, he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to the study of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities. Not surprisingy then, Pamela’s literary initiation was strongly influenced by the esoteric beliefs of George W. Russell and W.B. Yeats.

But that was only the prelude to her spiritual journey. The most unusual spiritual encounter, and the most influential one, was her meeting with the spiritual master and magi G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff

The least that can be said about Gurdjieff’s esoteric system and his teaching methods is that they were unconventional. He himself presented his system as The Fourth Way by distinguishing it from the other three known spiritual paths, namely those of the fakir, the monk and the yogi which all require “the most difficult thing, (…) a complete change of life, with a renunciation of all worldly things.” Gurdjieff’s Forth Way, which he also qualified as esoteric Christianity, did not require such renunciation from his pupils, his followers remained in the usual conditions of their lives.

The teachings, known as The Work were transmitted orally during meetings, often times preceded by a meal and Toasts to the “Idiots”, a ritual remotely reminiscent of the Masonic Toasts. Gurdjieff believed that “Alcohol opens, it shows many aspects of your interior; it is very important for knowing someone”. The Work consisted of these meetings and individually crafted exercises of self-observation and the performance of sacred dances, which Gurdjieff choreographed to music he himself composed with the help of Thomas de Hartmann.

According to Gurdjieff’s theory the average man functions on automatic pilot mode pushed by external circumstances. In order to transcend this ordinary unconscious state of existence, one must first awake to one’s nothingness and the fact that one lacks unity from within. To get his pupils to come to that realisation he used some questionable techniques of humiliation and applied mental shocks. One of his techniques to encourage his pupils to pursue their journey on the path of the Fourth Way was to convince them that man was born without a soul, and unless they developed one they would die as dogs and become food for the moon. He taught that the prerequisite for the development of the individual soul is the achievement of a unified sense of self, which is acquired by practicing self-remembering and total detachment from outside influences. The self-remembering as taught by Gurdjieff consists essentially of the practice of entering into oneself and sensing simultaneously with the body, the emotions and the mind one’s existence. As for attaining detachment, Gurdjieff instructed his pupils to “Create an ideal for yourself. This will save you from automatic attachments. Thinks about this consciously and automatically this will grow and form a center of gravity.”

Did Gurdjieff’s teachings help Pamela find the answers to her existential questions? Nothing is less certain, but he did teach her to be a questioner. Her friend, author Brian Sibley, says that she was an endless questioner and someone who never gave any straight answers. She was an adept of knowledge acquired through experience.

It is doubtful that young Pamela interpreted the appearance of the feather as a sign of her upcoming spiritual journey. She needed hindsight to see the connection. But don’t we all? Doesn’t this seem to be our human predicament? Things often make sense only with hindsight.

Mary Poppins Returns or the Movie Is Not the Book!

mary poppins returns 1

What did you do during the Christmas Holidays? I went to see Mary Poppins Returns. I had to, even though I knew, right from the start, that Emily Blunt’s interpretation of the Mary Poppins character was going to be the exact opposite of the original one, and that, despite Blunt’s preliminary immersion in the original material. (And that is of course none of her fault. She had a script to respect).

Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns just as its predecessor, has absolutely nothing to do with the stories from the books. The movie is simply a continuation of the 1964 big screen adaptation, and then some more. A lot of animated characters there, a lot of what Pamela L. Travers disliked in the first movie.

I don’t know if you watched the Facebook livestream of the World Premiere in Los Angeles presented by HSN (This in itself calls for a separate blog post, but I will probably refrain since it will be just me ranting about the mercantile exploitation of a mythical character) but my imagination nerve was stimulated by the fact that it was raining cats and dogs that evening, when it almost never rains in California. Wasn’t that a funny coincidence? I couldn’t help but think that maybe Pamela L. Travers was crying once more, just as she did at the premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964. And now, after seeing Mary Poppins Returns, I still think that my interpretation of the rain as a meaningful synchronicity remains plausible. Not that Mary Poppins Returns is a bad movie, it’s just not Mary Poppins, not the one conjured up by Pamela L. Travers.

When asked what she thought of the first film Pamela L. Travers replied:

 Oh, now you are asking me a very difficult and delicate question. I wept when I saw it. I thought ‘Oh what have I done’ when I saw that name coming up, Mary Poppins I thought ‘What have I done?’ And you must admit it is not very like the books.

Witness- The Woman Who Wrote Mary Poppins – BBC Sounds

I do admit that the movie is nothing like the books. But I also have to admit that the songs in it are just as lively and catchy as those in the first movie. My favorite song from Mary Poppins is A Spoonful of Sugar. It reminds me of my childhood and how my mother used to crush the Aspirin pill between two teaspoons and then put a drop of water and some sugar. Although she was not inspired by that song, we didn’t have Disney’s Mary Poppins during my childhood in Bulgaria. But that is the subject of another post.

A particular song from the new Mary Poppins Returns stuck with me and if you read the slightly modified version below, you’ll understand why 😉

A movie is not the book

So open up the book and take a look

Cause under the cover one discovers

That the King may be in shtook

Chapter titles are like signs

And if you read between the lines

You’ll find that your first impression was mistook

For the movie is nice

But the movie is not the book

The character of Mary Poppins as imagined or rather channeled by Pamela L. Travers (she insisted that she didn’t create Mary Poppins but felt visited by her) remains largely misunderstood. Both movies failed to reconcile the ambiguities in Mary Poppins. All the coldness, emotional distance and anger in the original Mary Poppins are completely erased. It is obvious then that the goal here was not to understand the purpose of the real character nor the deeper meanings of the original stories but to invent new ones for the entertainement of the public, a sort of visual/auditory fantasy feast.

The question then is which is the real Mary Poppins, the one from the books, the musical or the movies?

And for author Brian Sibley who was also a friend of Pamela L. Travers the answer is this:

Well, that’s the point. They all are Mary Poppins, and they are – together Mary Poppins. They are the whole of the Mary Poppins universe. Like many of the myths of antiquity, they are different tellings of the same essential story as understood by unique individuals, so that each telling has its own meaning. And each of us may prefer one version or another, and each of us may have a different experience and expectation of one medium or another, but all the versions to date exist as the entirety of Mary Poppins. 

Anything Can Happen If You Let It, Brian Sibley and Michael Lassell

Maybe that is so, maybe Mary Poppins can be many different characters. She is a master shapeshifter. And maybe once a fictional character leaves the head of its creator it takes on a life of its own. Maybe Mary Poppins got tired of being plain and vain and set apart from others. Maybe she wanted to experience a loving connection with the Banks family.

Mary Poppins Returns 3.JPG

 

But I doubt it! Just as I doubt that she came to solve any particular problem of the Banks family. Most people see in Mary Poppins a godlike figure coming from above to save the family, but that first impression is misleading. It is this obvious interpretation that transports the character into the fantasy world where it does not belong. By the way Pamela L. Travers disliked the word ‘fantasy’ and she made a distinction between ‘fantasy’ and ‘the work of imagination’.

I don’t think Mary Poppins is fantasy you see. It’s not a word I really like. If you look it up in the dictionary you will, and all of you when you go back to school look it up in the dictionary, and you’ll see what fantasy means, something unreal, phantasm or ghost. No, I think Mary Poppins is really very real, she deals with reality. And in order to, I would call it the work of imagination, and really to have anything to do with imagination and let your imagination have wings and soar you have to have your foot solidly on the earth, in reality. So, I don’t like that word fantasy very much though I know it is very popular.

Library of Congress (Washington DC) Performance. Interview. 1966-11-01, a Visit With P.L. Travers

The adventures in the Mary Poppins books are multilayered metaphors, allegories about our way of perceiving or misperceiving ‘reality’ and about the building blocks of our identities. And precisely because Mary Poppins does not come to help the Banks family with a particular problem that there is no plot in the books.

mary poppins returns 2

If you put aside the entertaining aspect of the movie, what would be the message of Mary Poppins Returns?  Keep the fire of childish hope alive? Maybe that way all your problems will be solved by some magical apparition from above? Or is it to remember that you were once a child? Let me tell you this is not the sort of remembering Pamela L. Travers was writing about. Her remembering was reminiscent of her spiritual beliefs. It had to do with the awakening of one’s consciousness, the awareness of one’s whole self in the present moment. But of course, you couldn’t find that in the movie, even if you looked between the screencaps. 

Corresponding with a Friend of Pamela L. Travers

Mary Poppins Anything Can Happen If You Let It

Last November marked the end of the second year of my blog project. The Mary Poppins Effect is now officially two years old and what started as a part-time hobby has now become an all-consuming fascination with the inner world of Pamela L. Travers and her Mary Poppins. Now, after spending two years with Mrs. Travers, I am giving myself the permission, at least for this blogpost, to call her simply Pamela.

One of Pamela’s friends, author Jenny Koralek, wrote about the character of Mary Poppins “…that as far as this so-called nanny is concerned “Appearances are Deceptive,” well, I dare say, the same conclusion can be drawn about Pamela herself.

She seems to have led quite an unconventional life, but unfortunately, the unusual aspects of her personal life are presented to the public in a rather narrow-minded way. However, her complex, rebellious nature deserves to be examined in a more compassionate manner.

Obviously, I would have loved to meet Pamela, but since that wish will remain just that, a wish, I consoled myself for the last two years with her writings. However, at one point it simply became imperative for me to reach out to someone who knew her well. So, after some hesitation, I mustered up my courage and a wrote a long email to British author Brian Sibley. I wanted to get closer to Pamela with the hope of gaining some new insights, and Brian Sibley is, in my opinion, one of the rare people who seemed, judging by the interviews I saw, to have had an enormous respect for her. What’s more, in the 1980s, Brian Sibley and Pamela worked together on a sequel to the Mary Poppins movie (unfortunately, that project never came to be).

You can imagine my exhilaration when I saw Brian Sibley’s name pop up in my inbox!

In my correspondence to him, I expressed the concern that people who have documented Pamela’s life, be it in a book or on screen, seem to have completely misunderstood her and simply labelled her as being an eccentric person. Brian Sibley responded quite wisely that even if my assertion was true, the fact is that “Of course, few of them knew her… Indeed, few of us who thought we knew her, truly did...”

And, this is exactly what is so upsetting and at the same time so fascinating about Pamela. Who was she? She was so self-contained and yet her vessel was so deep. Luckily, her writings remain and, as she said on many occasions, if one wants to learn about a writer one must study the writings. Only she did her best to cover her tracks.

I wanted to know what it was to be a friend of Pamela; especially when her friends and acquaintances who were interviewed for different documentaries seem to agree that she was not an easy person to be friends with. Even Brian Sibley mentioned in an interview that Pamela was a “demanding friend.” But she had great wisdom and great knowledge of so many things: literature, life, love, faith. She was prickly and difficult at times. But she was also someone of a towering intellect whose friendship I really valued.”  I asked Brian Sibley if he could share an anecdote or two to illustrate the nature of her expectations in a friendship relationship? This is what he generously accepted to reveal:

 B.S.     I guess I mean that she expected you to be the one who did all the running in the relationship and she could be prickly, or act ‘hurt,’ even with people she knew well if they said or did something that displeased her. I remember getting a note after I had not turned up for afternoon tea, following what had been a vague and unconfirmed invitation. The note said, in words to this effect: “For some reason, I had taken it into my head that you were coming for tea yesterday. If I were mistaken, I apologise.” The implication, of course, was that I needed to apologise!  There was always a sense in which you were ‘courting’ her… Also, although she made much of only being a ‘conduit’ for her writings, she was vain enough (like Mary Poppins) to enjoy praise even as she brushed it aside.

This last comment reminded me of what Jenny Koralek wrote about the character of Mary Poppins:

 Brusque as well as brisk, unbending, a “snappy dresser,” extremely vain, with absolutely no sense of humor and easily offended, she never “tells anyone anything” and is a convincing incarnation of the author’s deep understanding that not answering, not explaining leaves the possibility of going further.

I can’t help it but think that there is a lot more of Pamela in Mary Poppins than Pamela ever wanted to admit.

Difficult as she might have been, Brian Sibley was a true friend.

B.S.     Her friends – her real friends – were amused by and tolerated her eccentricities; others could find her overbearing, apt to play the grande dame. Despite these occasional irritants, I loved her and only now realise how privileged I was to spend so much time with her and just how many opportunities I missed to ask the right questions – to discover, as she might have said, “What the Bee Knows.”

Well, maybe Brian Sibley didn’t ask her the right questions (and even if he did, who knows if she would have answered), but he must have done something right because one thing is certain: Pamela liked him. Or why would she introduce him to her family? From what I have learned about her, she was an extremely private and secretive person.

B.S.     There was one very curious afternoon when I was invited to tea and turned up only to find Camillus (Pamela’s adopted son), his wife, and their children all present. In fact, the wife opened the front door to me: I was taken aback and made apologies and tried to excuse myself. But, “No,” I was told Pamela is expecting you.” I then realised that she had engineered the meeting for some reason of her own…

Well, the reason is obvious isn’t it? She wanted to let him in her inner circle, and this peculiar and clumsy way of doing it could be suggestive of her fear of rejection. It seems to me that she simply didn’t leave him the chance to refuse the invitation. I suspect that in general intimacy must have been a challenge for Pamela.

When I asked Brian Sibley if Pamela talked about Gurdjieff’s Work and her spiritual beliefs or spiritual work, he responded that their conversations were mostly about story, myth, and poetry.

B.S. She talked a lot about the Irish poets: Yeats, of course, and her beloved ‘AE’ and James Stephens (author of The Crock of Gold and 19 years Travers’ senior) who, she once told me in a uncharacteristically candid moment, had made an unwanted romantic overture to her. I asked her how she handled it and she replied: “I simply told him that the fragility of my youth would be crushed beneath the weight of his talent and intellect.”   

This memory reveals a quick-witted and funny Pamela and the response is definitely not something Mary Poppins would have said. Of course, intertwined as they may be, Pamela and Mary Poppins are two different characters.

Mary Poppins feels at home wherever she is. But, when in a recorded conversation with Pamela, Brian Sibley asked her where her true home is, she said that she would like to be able to answer just as Mary Poppins, but that she hadn’t achieved that yet!

This caused me to ask Brian Sibley if he would say that Pamela was a happy person.

B.S      Ah! Were you to have asked her that question, I suspect, you would have been given a lecture on unanswerable questions! I think she was ‘content’ which is not quite the same thing...

And indeed, it is not the same thing…

I am infinitely grateful to Brian Sibley for these lovely anecdotes and for making me feel a little closer to Pamela. Needless to say, my mind is now fired up with more questions to which I must find the answers.

A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers

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Christmas is just around the corner, which means that now is the right time to revisit Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable “The Fox at the Manger”.

It’s Christmas Eve in postwar London. The narrator along with three young boys takes part in the carol service at St. Paul’s cathedral. The young boys have brought their old toys for the poor children. Only, when the time comes to part with their toys, the boys swiftly change their minds and run off remorselessly in the opposite direction. The narrator witnessing their selfish behaviour affirms that “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere”. But the meaning of the story of the fox at the manger expands beyond this aphorism about love.

Right from the start, the title of the story hints of its unusualness, as Pamela L. Travers’s friend and collaborator, Brian Sibley, accurately noted when he first discovered the book: “What a bizarre, almost blasphemous idea: the wild, rough, red-haired chicken-thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.” The idea is certainly provocative and the fox’s discourse throughout the story challenges our well accepted ideas about good and evil, love and service. I can assure you that Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable is definitely unlike any other Christmas story you have ever read or listened to. The story begins in a Christian religious context, but then quickly veers off and dives into the author’s inner world of esoteric beliefs, such as this poetical reference to the mysteries of time and space, to the Akashic records where all past, present and future human events, thoughts, emotions and intents are encoded in the non-physical etheric plane of existence:  

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 remain forever, as they say, invulnerable and invisible – surely these children were dancing now through forgotten board-meetings, and shades of accountants. lawyers, clerks. Or, if one went back further, through the flames of the Fire of London in 1666. Further still, the marble floor would be mud and marshland and all around us brontosaurs; 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 little 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.

When one of the boys asks the narrator “Why weren’t there any wild animals at the crib?” the narrator tells the story of the forgotten verse in the Carol of the Friendly Beasts, the one about the visit of the fox at the manger. The fox comes with a special gift for baby Jesus. The fox presents the Son of God with its cunning.  The idea is subversive as it goes against the teachings of the Bible where the fox is portrayed rather negatively. But in Pamela L. Travers’s story, the fox appears in its positive aspect: wisdom and discernment. And at the end, wild and cunning and selfish as it may appear to be, the fox proves itself capable of the ultimate act of love, self-sacrifice. “‘It was not sudden, the fox said, coolly. ‘I was a long time coming to it and it was not easy.’”

Of course, when the fox arrives at the manger, it is not welcomed by the tamed animals, but their rejection does not deter it from its plans. In response to the common disapproval of its character the fox says:

Reynard you called me, and that is my name. But if you use it to threaten me, ass, I bid you remember its meaning. It comes from Raginohardus, a name that means ‘strong in counsel.

The farm animals see the fox from a narrow perspective. They see the selfish predator, the thief of chickens, but then the fox turns the tables around on them and confronts them with the idea that man is no different than the fox and that chickens are made to be stolen. The fox did not invent the laws of nature it simply lives by them. “I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from the air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve, I do not know.” Does man really know? Nothing is less certain…

The dialogue between the farm animals and the fox also questions man’s place in Creation:

You speak like a slave, said the fox, mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forests 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 on it?

The fox also directs our attention to our all too human failure to see our life situations for what they are and the price we pay for not thinking for ourselves: “What would it profit me to run with the flock, shoulder to shoulder with woolly brother, when all it leads to is the basting dish.”

And as for the nature of the fox’s gift, well, it is ingeniously confounding, isn’t it? What use can Jesus have of cunning? I was dumbfounded by the fox’s gift, just as the farm animals in the story. Dumbfound and at the same time amused by Pamela L. Travers’s obstinate refusal to give explanations.

But what will you do with such a gift? I am puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” Pamela L. Travers’s answer to the questions of the ass is that it is not important to understand but to simply let it be. Although this is a wise advice, especially when confronted with unanswerable questions, in this particular case, I couldn’t let it be. Knowing a little (just a little) about Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual beliefs I was convinced that there was some hidden meaning to the fox’s gift, some allusion to something deeper. This was not an unanswerable question.

My doubts were confirmed. I learned that:

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff believed that in order to make progress in the world it is necessary to have the devil on one’s side.” and also that “St Paul speaks of the cross as a trick against the Devil whose own cunning failed to make him aware that by crucifying the Lord of Glory he was thus caught in a trap which would see his end. Jesus’s crucifixion releases the end time: the end time for the wicked angels who have governed mankind. The cross is then a kind of trick, an act of pre-ordained cunning, played on Satan.”**

Pamela L. Travers must have been aware of the ambiguities and subtleties of the issue, or why would she write: “ For wild and tame are but two halves and here, where all begins and ends, everything must be whole.”

If you are interested in the story of “The Fox at the Manger” you could listen to Brian Sibley’s radio adaptation. Music is omnipresent throughout the dramatization and it beautifully enhances the emotional tonalities of the story. British actress Dame Wendy Hiller lends her voice to the narrator in the story, and I am almost certain that she must have prepared herself for the role by listening to interviews given by Pamela L. Travers (or maybe they even met), because the intonations of her voice are strikingly similar to the dramatic way of expression of Pamela L. Travers.

And one last comment, Pamela L. Travers had a somewhat analogous difficulty relinquishing the character of the fox in the hands of Brian Sibley as she did with her Mary Poppins and Disney, but of course with lesser intensity, the stakes were not the same. Only in this case the adaptation is loyal to the original creation.

She, who didn’t bother with radios or television found it almost as difficult to entrust the Fox at the Manger’ to me as the children in the story found it to relinquish their toys. ‘How is the child going to speak? How can you possibly give Him a voice? Why don’t you call the children X,Y and Z, as they are in the book? I don’t want them to be given names, you understand, but how will we know which one’s speaking? Does quite so much of the narrative have to go? Couldn’t someone just read the story? I’ve read it many times – in cathedrals too! Does it have to be a play…?*

One must admire Pamela L. Travers’s constancy.

Happy Holidays!  

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*  Excerpt from “A Good Gift, Thoughts on The Fox at the Manger” by Brian Sibley

** Tobias Churton, author of “Deconstructing Gurdjieff”