Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (Part II)

 

 

Pamela L. Travers Moscow

Lenin discovered that bears dance naturally and Stalin knew well how to put rings in their noses and lead them through the streets. But somewhere behind all the cunning exploitation, is there not the bear’s own desire to be so led? Haven’t the people themselves chosen the tyranny that flatters their deepest instincts and relives them of the necessity of thinking for themselves?” 

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion 

Pamela L. Travers’s travelogue, Moscow Excursion, is a written record of the author’s astute observational insights into the soul of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Pamela L. Travers’s observations, despite their accuracy, might not have been well received by the critics of her time. Here is one extremely negative review of her book which appeared in The Saturday Review on August 17, 1935. 

Pamela L. Travers Book Reveiw

Not long after its publication, the book fell into the abyss of collective oblivion.  It was briefly mentioned by Valerie Lawson in her biography of Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins She Wrote, but its importance was, regrettably, downplayed.   

Anyhow, a Russian librarian and translator, Olga Maeots, resuscitated Pamela L. Travers’s book for the Russian readership in 2016. Not only did Olga Maeots translate Pamela L. Travers’s book but she truly infused it with a fresh breath of life by uncovering the undisclosed identities of the people Pamela L. Travers met during her visit.   

During the Holidays I read this Russian edition of Moscow Excursion and learned some fascinating facts. I truly hope that one day soon Maeots’s discoveries will be translated in English for the benefit of a larger audience. 

Now back to Pamela L. Travers and her Moscow Excursion. The book reveals Pamela L. Travers’s depth of perception and her capacity to think for herself. This is not surprising though, for Pamela L. Travers was an authentic rebel, never allowing the opinions of the majority to influence her own take on things.  

The trip to Russia was organized by Intourist, an organization created by the Soviet State in 1929 for the purpose of hosting organized and controlled visits by foreign tourists. I don’t know if Pamela L. Travers was aware of that fact, but it is obvious that she sensed the controlling grip of this organization right from the start: 

It seems that everybody goes to Russia in a Tour – it is against Soviet principles, if not Soviet laws, to travel about alone. (…) A sheaf of questionnaires, all identical, were handed to me. (…) I am no longer the cheerful tourist but somebody who has asked for a job and is waiting for his references to be taken up. Not a human being, as I had mistakenly thought until now, but an entry in a “T” file. 

It did not take long either for Pamela L. Travers to realize that what the tourist guides were showing her had nothing to do with the real life in Russia.  

“Properly to see Russia one must not be a tourist. One must know the language, move about alone and dispense with the questionable blessing of the State guides. With these the traveler with any sense of history finds himself often at variance, for few historical events are recognizable once they have been doctored with Marxism and Expediency.” 

During her trip Pamela L. Travers visited Leningrad, Moscow and almost Nizhny-Novgorod, but the visit to the latter was cancelled at the last minute. Intourist explained that all the boats were broken down. The real reason was probably the desire of the authorities to hide the rampant famine in the city from the tourists’ eyes.  The cancelled trip to Nizhny-Novgorod was replaced by a visit to a Collective Farm and a ballet: The Swan Lake. 

In Leningrad Pamela L. Travers visited the House of Culture, the Winter Palace, the Smolny Institute, the Summer Palace, Alexander Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter and Paul Forteresse and the Hermitage. And in Moscow, the Kremlin Tomb, a Creche, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow Prison, a Courthouse, the House of Prostitutes (a rehabilitation center of a sort to which Pamela L. Travers resolutely refused to go), the National Gallery, the Moscow Aerodrome, the Stadium and a theater.   

Although under surveillance (all foreigners were closely watched) Pamela L. Travers managed to escape the tourist guides and to make a few independent visits. (In England, prior to her trip, a friend provided her with letters of introduction).  In Leningrad Pamela L. Travers spent an evening in the company of T, Z and a Young Poet, on another day she visited the Nevsky Cemetery with T, the Young Poet and a man from the Cheka (the first secret police of the Soviet State). She even succeeded in having brief conversations with two local women, one in a store and another one during a secret church service. She also met a movie director in a cinema studio and went to see a member of the communist party and his wife at their apartment. 

Moscow Excursion reveals young Pamela L. Travers as a free thinker, a rebellious and independent spirit with a great sense of humor and a taste for Vodka. Bored by the visit at the Collective Farm and of all the insipid statistics about lettuce production, she decides to go back to the coach and wait until the rest of the group returns. This is what happened next:  

As I got in he (the driver of the coach) coughed gently, struck his chest and flung out his hand questioningly. I took this to mean that he saw I had a cough and wanted to know was it very bad. (Pamela L. Travers was recuperating from TB right before she left for Russia.) I nodded, smiling. With that he dived into some recess under his seat and brought out a grimy bottle and a cup. Beaming he held them up before me. ‘Vodka?’ he enquired. I became a mandarin. I could hardly stop nodding and smiling and bowing my appreciation and acceptance. (…) We sat there gleaming at each other, utterly happy, the horizon gradually becoming blurred, the trees doubling themselves and dancing, and somehow there seemed to be four mules instead of one on the green, moving rather unevenly in a row. The cottages were going up and down the sky like swings at a fair. It was lovely.” 

It surely does sound lovely. Pamela L. Travers was really talented for descriptions. All the descriptions in all her writings are simply exquisite. Never too long and always giving rise to vivid images in the reader’s mind’s eye. Here is Pamela L. Travers’s elegant description of Leningrad: 

Leningrad came towards us, swimming like a faintly colored water-bird over the flat swampy sea. It was a solemn moment when we drew into the quayside flanked by beautiful eighteenth-century chrome-colored buildings.” 

(In this post I am using more quotes from Pamela L. Travers than usual because I really want you to hear her voice!) 

Pamela L. Travers saw the communist regime for what it was, a new (for the time) fanatical religion. 

One sees at once that the Soviet is not concerned with atheism, but with throwing over one god to deify another –  Man perhaps with the ultimate ideal Paradise, here and now, Heaven on Earth, the symbol Lenin, and the choir of angels the Communist Party. ” 

The rebel in her immediately realized that the State did not encourage individualism but aimed to control people; and that control was achieved by the use of brainwashing propaganda and the exercise of tight surveillance. 

We are beginning to merge. The drabness, the universal grey, the complete sameness of the people is having its effect on us.” 

Grey, grey, grey – nothing but grey on the faces of the people and in the whole width of the sky.  

I met a woman in the Torgsin stores yesterday. She was gray and pinched, but there shone in her eyes that curious fanatical gleam I am beginning to know so well. She had been to America, she told me, and had returned to Russia after the Revolution. Her faith in the Soviet Regime was supreme. ‘We can endure the present’, she said proudly, ‘for the time that is to come’ (…) She talked gently, in a series of slogans.” 

That’s what one misses in Russia-the person in the eyes. The faces are so still and blank and the eyes glazed and empty. And dangerous, too, for one feels that any mood, cruel or fanatical, might blow in upon them and take up residence. One wants persons, not reiterated Soviet States.” 

And what did Pamela L. Travers think of Lenin, the great revolutionary? The visit to Smolny Institue, Lenin’s residence during the October Revolution of 1917, gave rise to this intuitive observation: 

Such an emptiness was there, an emptiness that was not merely the lack of the room’s inhabitant.  Could it be that even when he lived something was missing, some warmth, some central sun? Genius is light and heat. Had Lenin really that rare and twofold fire? Was it not rather a fierce and single light in which he burned? Consumed by mind – that is the impression one has when one looks at portraits and photographs of him. The only purely human quality in them seems to be a certain self-satisfaction, and amid such inhuman intensity one welcomes that with relief.”  

And then, at the Kremlin Tomb, where Lenin’s preserved body was (and still is apparently) exposed for public display 

But the nothingness of that figure was pitiful, a statue of pure flesh, preserved against its own will and against all law. It wasn’t death, which is dynamic and immediate. It was nothing. The resolute materialism of the Soviet State finds its end in this. This emptiness could not move one except to anger, perhaps, against those who defrauded a great man of his body’s disintegration and made it a thing for tourists to gape at and peasants to pray to.” 

In Moscow Excursion, Pamela L. Travers called things by their names, told it as she saw it, for those who wanted to see and hear. 

My favorite book from Pamela L. Travers is truly Moscow Excursion (along of course with the Mary Poppins books.)  Her voice sounds so authentic and young and rebellious and feisty. In her later writings that voice morphs into one of resilience and endurance in the face of life. And that makes me sad… 

Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (Part I)

Mary Poppins in Moscow

Few people know that the first book ever written by Pamela L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was not Mary Poppins but Moscow Excursion. And it was not a story about magic but a travelogue about her not so magical discoveries of Stalin’s Russia in the autumn of 1932 (at that time Pamela was in her early thirties).  

The book is composed of letters addressed to some unknown friend whom I personally suspect to have been her literary mentor George W. Russell (AE).  Extracts from these letters were published in The New English Weekly in 1933 and the book was published in 1934 by the Soho publisher Gerard Howe 

At the very beginning of Moscow Excursion, Pamela L. Travers confides that her entourage was quite flabbergasted by her decision to travel to Russia.

My forthcoming trip seems to be either the Chance of a Lifetime or a Piece of Utter Recklessness.” And she adds: “Nobody, it appears, can conceive that a person who is admittedly neither for nor against the Soviet regime should want to go there. And it is an acid comment upon the Communist State that both sides are at one in their conviction that it is impossible for anyone to go to Russia for purposes of enjoyment.  

So, was it for her personal enjoyment or was there some other reason for her trip to Russia? This she does not discuss in Moscow Excursion. But, if one carefully reads the facts chronicled in her biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote, it appears, somewhere in between the lines, that at that particular time in her life she was trying to establish herself as a serious writer (or what she believed a serious writer should be). Until then Pamela L. Travers was publishing the occasional poem in the Irish Statesman (whose editor was her beloved mentor George W. Russell) and she was a contributing drama critic for the Australian magazine The Triad. Her initial aspirations of becoming a great poet were withering with time. The romantic/erotic poems of her twenties were not infused with the timeless sensibility expressed by the great poets she admired  

Her biographer Valerie Lawson reports that in the late 1931 Pamela L. Travers sent two poems to George W. Russell only to receive a polite rejection. He wrote to her that the poems were “well phrased but a little artificial in comparison with others of yours. You say they are simple. Yes, simple in expression but I feel they are artificial beneath that. You seem to have a hankering for Biblical symbolism which I doubt is natural. Quality is the thing my dear, not quantity. This must have been disappointing… 

(By the way, Biblical references find their way in Moscow Excursion but that will be explored in the following posts on this blog.) 

The political atmosphere in Europe in the early thirties of the last century was disrupted by the rise of the fascist and communist regimes, as described in Pamela L. Travers’s own words: 

In a world rocking madly between Fascism and Communism the writer (herself) prefers the latter form of tyranny if the choice must be made. But it is a desolate alternative, for Communism in Russia is for one class of the community only and thus is hardly on bowing terms with Communism as defined in the dictionaries. 

Significantly interesting fact, visits to Russia appear to have been somewhat of a trend among the constellation of renowned intellectuals Pamela L. Travers orbited around. The writer/poet Hubert Buttler, a friend of George W. Russell went to Russia in 1931. Another influential intellectual of that time who was also a contributing writer to The Irish Statesman, George Bernard Shaw, traveled to Russia where he personally met with Stalin. Shaw wrote about his observations of the Soviet State in a most positive light and it is quite possible that Pamela L. Travers had read his praise for the communist regime before undertaking her own trip to Russia. 

The idea of writing political articles with the intent of establishing herself as a serious journalist could very well have been the major motivation for her visit to Russia. According to her biographer a year after her visit to Russia Pamela approached Russel for “names and phone numbers of contacts for a series of articles on Irish politics which she planned to sell to Australian magazines. Pamela was unhappy with the result.”  Even Russell told her that writing political articles was a complicated matter. I believe that she would have been a great political reporter judging by what she wrote in Moscow Excursion. I can’t help but think that the real reason for her not succeeding in the endeavor was because she was a woman, although she had said in interviews to have never felt cast aside because of her gender. But then again, she published under the name P. L. Travers….  It was also in the autumn of 1933 that Pamela L. Travers asked Russell to introduce her to his friend Alfred Richard Orage the editor of The New English Weekly where the extracts from her letters were first published. Her contribution to The New English Weekly span from 1933 to 1949, but she mainly wrote about theater, books and films.   

Pamela L. Travers was apparently so eager to find her place as a writer that even her serious health issues could not stop her. In the early 1932, the same year of her Russian trip, she had to stay in a sanatorium because of a tuberculosis infection, a condition that without any doubt must have caused her deep feelings of anxiety. Her biographer, Valerie Lawson, reports that starting in her late twenties Pamela began to experience serious bouts of anxiety which escaladed to sheer feelings of dread. Going through serious health issues must have only exacerbated her mental condition.  

In the light of these circumstances her decision to undertake a long trip to a controversial country can be viewed as a personal affirmation of her determination and zest both for life and writing A young woman travelling alone in a dangerous foreign country, the idea must have appealed to her romantic, adventurous mind.     

But was it that dangerous to travel to Russia in 1932? According to her biographer, Valerie Lawson, it was not: “The journey was in fact a carefully packaged experience with little risk. Pamela traveled with a party of English tourists herded about in boats, trains and museums by a guide following a strict schedule. This organized tour was to take Pamela L. Travers to Leningrad-Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod.  

The trip might not have been extremely perilous but it was definitely not devoid of risks. Pamela L. Travers strayed away a few times from her appointed group of tourists and the tourist guide to go and explore Russia on her own. She wrote: 

I never go out by myself without being told by a guide where I have been. How is it done? Have I a special bit of the Cheka to myself. And which is he –or she? The woman in the tram yesterday carrying one of those eiderdown bags which (judging from the faint muffled protests one hears coming from within) contain slowly suffocating babies? Or the man who was knocked down by an ambulance and left on the road to die or recover as he wished? It is no good explaining to Intourist that I have friends here and letters of introduction and that anyway even if I hadn’t I should want to be alone sometimes. That to them is the worst of evils. A good Bolshevik never wants to be alone. 

However, before I tell more about her Russian adventures I must share a most interesting and contemporary piece of information.  While I was trying to find a copy of Moscow Excursion (which was not easy but proved to be possible) I stumbled on a YouTube video posted by Pushkin House in 2017, The Russian Travels of Pamela Travers: A Talk by Olga Maeots. The video is a recording of a conference given by Olga Maeots , a Russian librarian and translator, who  in 2016 published a Russian annotated translation of Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion.  I was amazed! Olga Maeots performed an incredible investigative feat and succeeded in identifying the people whose identity Pamela L. Travers willingly disguised in her book by only identifying them by single letters: T, Z, V.   

It is perhaps necessary to stress the fact that the characters in the book are all synthesized personages and that I have studiously given fictitious initials for names throughout. So that should anyone, slipping among the paragraphs, imagine that he has come face to face with himself, I take this opportunity of courteously assuring him that he is mistaken. It is always someone else.   

Was this a safety precaution on Pamela L. Travers’s part? Maybe, some of the characters she met in her book were persecuted shortly after. And maybe her reasons for mystifying the identity of the characters were of a totally different nature. Regardless, I believe that Pamela L. Travers, wherever she might be in the beyond, is pleased with Olga Maeots‘s work. I will tell you more about Maeots’s discoveries and about Pamela L. Travers’s adventures in Russia in the following post on this blog.  

Hope you stay tuned!

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

Beatrix Potter 2

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

The Hidden Child, Pamela L. Travers.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as I grew, amidst all the abundance, I began to feel a wanting. Lacking nothing, I came to now lack – a longing, even nostalgia for something I had never known. In all the completeness, I was incomplete, a cup only half full. This ache, this lonely weight of heart came upon me always at sunset. There would be Something Else! I would say. Aching, I would say it. But all I knew was Here and Now, and of all, then within the all that Something Else awaited me, unfolded, implicate. Was it an answer to an unheard question? If a question, how would I know the answer? 

Pamela L. Travers Now, Farewell and Hail 1985.  

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

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

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

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

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

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

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

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

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

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

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

Beatrix Potter1

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

Pamela L. Travers 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pamela L.Travers

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

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

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

 

 

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 II)

Sleeping Beauty 2

This week we’ll continue the analysis of Pamela L. Travers’s book “About the Sleeping Beauty”. Pamela’s retelling of the Grimm’s version of the fairy tale takes place somewhere in Arabia, in the palace of the Sultan and the Sultana. (The curious choice for the setting of the story was discussed in last week’s post.)

Before we continue with the analysis here is an outline of Pamela’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

Outline of Pamela’s retelling

Just as the King and the Queen in the Grimm’s fairy tale, the Sultan and the Sultana desperately want a child. One day the Sultana, grieving by a lake, encounters a frog who tells her that she will soon have a child. As prophesised by the frog, a daughter is soon born; The baby must be christened and the Wise Women of the kingdom must be invited to the christening. Unfortunately, the Sultan has only twelve golden plates to offer to each of the Wise Women and, there are thirteen of them living in the kingdom. A decision is made, one of the Wise Women must stay at home. But which one is to be excluded from the gathering is left to chance. The Sultan orders his servant to give the golden plates to the first twelve Wise Women he crosses on his path. On the day of the christening the Thirteenth Wise Woman arrives at the gathering and avenges the injustice she has suffered by casting a fatal spell on the princess.  On the day of her fifteenth birthday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The Twelfth Wise Woman, who still has a gift to bestow, modifies the curse. Instead of death, the fate of the princess is changed for one hundred years long sleep. At the end of this period a prince is to arrive and kiss the princess back to consciousness.  

After this unfortunate incident, the Sultan, a man of action, forbids the use of spindles in the kingdom and all such devices are destroyed. Obviously, the Sultan’s wit is not sufficient to counter the magic spell and the fateful day arrives. The princess, alone in the palace, begins to explore the surroundings. Her investigations lead her into a courtyard which she has never seen before. In the courtyard, there is a tall tower. Curious, she climbs the stairs to the top of the tower where she finds a door with an old key in the keyhole. She unlocks the door and walks into a room where a mysterious figure in a cloak is spinning a thread upon a spindle. The princess fascinated by the strange tool wants to try to spin it. But as soon as she touches the spindle she pricks her finger, and falls asleep. Then, the entire Kingdom follows her in her sleep and a thick hedge of thorns grows out of nowhere and surrounds the palace.

Pamela L. Travers goes on to tell the reader the story of a family of woodcutters living at the edge of the hedge of thorns. They become the guardians of the fairy-tale and witness the trials of many princes who find gruesome deaths trying to cross the hedge of thorns.

When the hundred years are finally over the right prince arrives. The woodcutter warns him of the danger but the prince, set on his life quest, cannot be dissuaded. As soon as the prince approaches the hedge the thorns untangle and make way for him to pass. And this is how the prince, effortlessly, enters the castle and finds Sleeping Beauty.

As you can see Pamela L. Travers did not change much to the plot of the story. Her variation on its theme is a sort of elaboration of details around the different characters. These details are what I want to explore here.

We’ll begin with the analysis of the female characters in the story mainly because they seem to be the most revealing of Pamela L. Travers’s emotional states.

The Sultana

We meet the Sultana at the very beginning of the story, a woman desperate to have a child.

Each morning she grieves by a lake until one day a frog comes out of the water and asks her for the cause of her grieving. The Sultana’s response caught my attention: “I ache for what I lack.”

Didn’t Pamela herself ache for what she lacked? Wasn’t she always trying to fill an inner void? Wasn’t she always searching for that mysterious “something else”? Didn’t she cross the ocean to come out on the other side of the world hoping to find comfort?  

Pamela L. Travers never had a child of her own and adopting one did not change her inner discomfort. In fact, the adoption of her son Camillus only further complicated matters but that is a subject for another post.

Back to the retelling of Sleeping Beauty. When the frog announces to the Sultana that she is to have a child in less than a year, the Sultana exclaims:

‘How can you know that?’ she protested, with a shade of irritation. For the truth was that all unknown to herself she had become so fond of her sorrow that now the mere thought of loosing it made her feel naked and bereft.

This passage stopped me in my reading tracks. The phenomenon of identifying oneself with one’s suffering is not easily grasped unless one has experienced it first hand or has witnessed someone close grapple with such a problem. Therefore, I can only conclude that this insight comes from her own experience. It is possible that she held on to her anxieties and her depression for fear of being left naked and vulnerable and without any clear identity.  This may have contributed, at least in part, to her failure to heal her emotional wounds. Maybe some part of her refused to get better. Maybe it felt safer to play the role of the sleeper awaiting the awakening.

It is rather remarkable that all her writings, especially the Mary Poppins stories, are infused with a dreamlike state quality. Could it also be that Pamela L. Travers feared losing her writing if she was to lose her sorrow?

And there is the question of the timing of the awakening. In Sleeping Beauty, time has no effect on the princess while she sleeps, but in our so called “ordinary” world time does have an impact. The stages of life through which we all must progress cannot be stretched infinitely without dire consequences. It is then important to notice that Pamela wrote “About the Sleeping Beauty” in her seventies. Isn’t that a little late to be still waiting for a prince, or some other outside intervention to awaken? Which makes me wonder, is there such a time as too late of a time to awaken to one’s life? Wouldn’t the realization of all the wasted time and all the wasted opportunities be too painful to endure? 

At the end of her life when we did talk together a great deal she did not feel that she had come to a point of completion. I think she still felt that there were many many things that she wished to do, much more to understand.

(Patricia Feltham, friend of P.L.Travers, Documentary “The Shadow of Mary Poppins”)

At the end of Sleeping Beauty’s story it is the Sultana that ponders on all that has happened to her daughter.

And the more she thought about it, the more it seemed that her daughter had stepped, as it were, into another dimension – into, in fact, a fairy-tale. And if this were so, she told herself, she would have to look for the meaning. For she knew very well that fairy tales are not as simple as they appear; that the more innocent and candid they seem, the wilier one has to be in one’s efforts to find out  what they are up to.

So, pondering, she would sit under the cypress tree, secretly telling herself the story and hoping that the story at last would tell its secret to her. Who was the maiden, who the Prince, and what the thorny hedge.

No one can say that Pamela lacked in willingness to interpret the meaning of Sleeping Beauty. However, what can be said is that she failed to interpret it in the context of her own life. Because that is what she needed fairy tales for, to find a map for her own life experiences.

Four inevitably if the fairy tales are our prototypes – which is what they are designed to be – we come to the point where we are forced to relate the stories and their meanings to ourselves…what is it in us that at a certain moment falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us, what aspect of ourselves.

(P. L. Travers, Afterword, “About the Sleeping Beauty”)

I believe that what was hiding deep within her was little Helen Lyndon Goff (P.L.Travers’s real name), all scared and lonely and feeling unworthy of love.

In conclusion to this post, the character of the Sultana can be viewed as an expression of Pamela L. Travers’s feelings of lack and her desire to understand the meaning of her own life story.

 

Pamela L. Travers and The Fox at the Manger (Part II)

Mary Poppins 2

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…