Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part II)

Grimm's Women II

 

Pamela L. Travers believed that all prototypes of womanhood were contained in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, or at least, that is what she wrote in her essay “Grimm’s Women”.   

To persuade her readers to accept her point of view she presents in her essay, albeit briefly, her interpretation of the meanings of a few of their stories. Like a dexterous magician, she masterfully shuffles the meanings of these stories to the point of presenting a seemingly knowledgeable standpoint.  But did she see that clearly into the meanings of these stories?  

In order to answer this question a careful examination of Pamela L. Travers’s understanding of the meanings of the fates of the female characters in these fairy tales is required. I believe that Pamela’s appreciation of these stories can give us an indication about how she might have experienced her own womanliness.   

It is true that the Grimm’s fairy tales date back to a time when the roles of women and their living conditions were much different from our current ways of living. And yet, despite our technological and scientific discoveries and social advancements, the human dynamics depicted in these stories not only remain the same but they underlie all aspects of our modern lives.   

Now, I must admit (and I wrote about it in my last post) that I thought that Pamela’s advise to her friend to model herself on the Grimm’s women seemed quite peculiar. The Grimm’s princesses appear, for the most part, to be passive victims and what woman in her right mind would want to be a victim? But then I realized that the problem with these old fairy tales is that we all get side tracked by their most obvious interpretation. Yes, back then women were powerless and their survival depended greatly on men (and in many parts of the world today this is still true.) So, of course the fairy tales reflect the social reality of their times. However, if you peel off that first layer of meaning another one appears. The Grimm’s stories which Pamela examined in her essay can be separated into different categories depending on their major themes. There is the theme of the passage from childhood to maidenhood and theme of the passage from maidenhood to motherhood.   

From child to maiden  

The narrative in all of these fairy tales is about a female character in a psychologically dire situation. The obstacles that must be surmounted could potentially prevent the heroine’s passage from one stage of her life into the next. Another common element in these stories is the role played by the parental authority figures as the threshold guardians to the passage leading to maidenhood.   

I do agree with Pamela, now that I have read the Grimm’s fairy tales, that the Disney versions of these tales are quite superficial and do not take into account the psychological dynamics in play.   

Now let’s revisit the original versions of two of these stories:  Cinderella and Snow White, and ponder on Pamela L. Travers’s interpretation of their meanings.  

Cinderella  

When I read the first English translation of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales I was amazed at how different the original Cinderella story was from the story most people know today. Surprisingly what is left out from the story is what I believe to be its most significant element, the key that allows to unlock its meaning.    

Just before she dies Cinderella’s mother makes a promise and a request. She promises Cinderella that she will look after her from heaven and then asks Cinderella to plant a tree. The tree, her mother tells her will give Cinderella everything she wishes for, all she has to do is to shake it. After her mother dies, Cinderella plants a tree on her grave and waters it with her tears. Then, eventually, her father remarries and from that point on in the story he disappears from the narrative.   

As we all know, Cinderella is forced by her stepmother and stepsisters to do the heavy chores around the house, which she accepts without complaining (and without shaking the tree). Then, the time comes in the fairy tale when the prince must find a bride. A ball, which is to last three nights is organized for that purpose and Cinderella’s sisters are attending. Not only is Cinderella left behind, but before the stepsisters leave, they throw lentils in the hearth and order Cinderella to separate them from the ashes. Unexpected help comes in the form of white pigeons who also encourage Cinderella to go to the tree and ask to go to the ball.   

Cinderella follows their advice and shakes the tree making her plea: “Shake and wobble little tree! Let beautiful clothes fall down to me“.  Beautiful clothes and a carriage appear and Cinderella goes to the ball and dances all night with the prince.  The third night of the ball the prince wants to make sure Cinderella does not escape him when midnight strikes, so he paints the stairs of the castle with black pitch and posts guards on the road. But again, Cinderella runs away, only this time one of her golden shoes (not glass!) remains stuck on the stairs of the castle.  The prince announces that he will marry the maiden who fits the shoe. The two evil sisters try to force their feet into the small shoe by following their mother’s advise. One sister cuts off a piece from her heel, the other cuts of her toes and each time the prince brings them back because their bloody deceit is uncovered. Then Cinderella must try the shoe… well we all know how that ends.  

Now, what did Pamela write in her essay about Cinderella? She wrote: “Cinderella, in Grimm’s at least is wise enough to know that nothing is to be got by wishing. It is only by performing the necessary rites at her mother’s grave that she goes to the Prince’s ball.”  

What?   

What is, according to Pamela the feminine prototype embodied by Cinderella? What should a woman who wants to model herself to Cinderella do? What proper rites must she perform?   For one thing Pamela was right though, nothing can be achieved simply by wishing.   

Clearly Pamela’s convoluted interpretation does not unveil the meaning of the story but it is articulated around its key element: the relationship between Cinderella and her mother.  

Cinderella’s story is a story about the blooming of an orphan child into a beautiful confident woman. I believe that Cinderella’s story teaches us that the successful transition from childhood to womanhood is closely linked to the quality of the nurturing a little girl receives from her mother at the very early stages of her life.  

In this story both the mother’s promise and the tree symbolize the healthy bond between a mother and her daughter and the life-giving force of the mother even from the beyond. The story is truly about the most important gift a mother can give to her daughter: a strong sense of self-worth.  

It is this early imprint of self-worth that allows the young Cinderella to outstand the attacks of the outside world. Her mother’s love taught her that she deserves to be loved regardless of her condition. Cinderella is resilient and patient but when the opportunity knocks on her door she rises up to cease it and all this is possible because of the love she received from her mother. She doesn’t tell herself things like:  I am not worth it! It is impossible, so why even bother? My stepsisters are right I am ugly and dirty!  The Prince will never pay any attention to me, why would he?

Judging by what she wrote about Cinderella, it is obvious that Pamela did not fully understand the meaning of the story. This fact is not the least surprising. Pamela’s bond to her mother was severed early in her life (See blog post Pamela L. Travers’s  First Gods (Part II)) and this may have been the cause of the inner torments and physical ailments she experienced until the very end of her log life.

Snow White 

Another surprise here too. The original story is about a narcistic Queen and her beautiful little daughter. It is not the stepmother who wants to kill Snow White but her real mother. When Snow White turns seven years old, her mother orders a huntsman to kill her. 

The huntsman takes pity on the little girl and leaves her in the forest where he believes she will be devoured by the wild animals. Instead, Snow White finds her way to the house of the seven dwarfs who offer her shelter in exchange for her help around the house. Eventually the Queen finds out that Snow White is living with the seven dwarfs in the seven mountains and decides to go there and kill her herself. She makes three attempts on Snow White’s life and each time her disguises allow her to deceive Snow White.

The first time she pretends to sell laces and laces Snow White’s dress so tight that Show White loses consciousness. In the evening when the dwarfs return home they untie the lace and Snow White recovers her breath. The second time the evil Queen combs Snow White’s hair with a poisonous comb but again, the dwarfs find it and remove it and Snow White is safe one more time. The third time the Queen makes a poisonous apple. This time Snow White cannot be helped. The dwarfs build a glass coffin and write Snow White’s name on it in golden letters. Time passes but unexplainably Snow White remains fresh and beautiful in her glass coffin. One day a prince comes into the dwarfs’ house and falls in love with dead Show White. The dwarfs let the prince carry her to his castle. The prince, infatuated with Show White, orders his servants to carry her everywhere he goes. One time, one of the servants gets really upset with the absurdity of the situation, opens the coffin and shakes Show White. The poisonous piece of the apple pops out of her mouth and Snow White becomes the prince’s bride.   

What did Pamela L. Travers have to say about this female heroine?  Not much: “...before becoming a candidate for Happy Ever After  (she) had to surmount inordinate obstacles.” Fine, but what are the obstacles Pamela?  

In this story the mother hates her daughter and does all she can to destroy her. Snow White in her child’s innocence cannot protect herself even if the dwarfs warn her about the evil ways of her mother. The child is prevented from maturing and crossing over the threshold to maidenhood because she is unable to truly recognize the meanness of her mother. Snow White is not awaken from her unconscious state by the prince’s love but by the servant’s anger. The prince’s love was not enough to heal the damage caused by the evil Queen. Snow White needed to be shaken in order to awaken. It comes a time in everyone’s life when one must see people (including and especially family members) for what they are and not what they look like they are, or what one wants them to be, this is the adult way. To disengage from an unhealthy relationship, one must first be able to see it for what it is.   

What fascinates me personnaly is the fact that despite all the life shaking events in Pamela L. Travers’s life nothing seems to have succeeded in totally awakening her to life. It is significant that the fairy tale that appealed the most to her was the tale of Sleeping Beauty.  Another story of girl stuck at the threshold to maidenhood and unconscious of all the gifts bestowed upon her by the good fairies at her christening. Pamela  even wrote her own retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty which I examined in detail on this blog see: About the Sleeping Beauty Part I, II, III, IV, V and VI.  

In conclusion to this post, I must point out that to a certain extend Pamela L. Travers was right, the fairy tales can teach us about womanhood however, it is not a question of modelling oneself to the characters as she believed, as it is a question of understanding the patterns of human emotion and behaviour in play in these tales and use them as road maps.  

In my next post I will continue exploring Pamela L. Travers’s analysis of the Grimm’s tales: Goose Girl, All Fur, The Twelve Princesses and Rapunzel. Hope you stay tuned.   

  

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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’s First Gods (Part III)

 

Aunt Sass Pamela Travers.jpg

AUNT ELLIE

This week’s post will introduce you to Helen Morehead, the third (but not the least) influential presence in Pamela L. Travers’s early life. The post is inspired by the story of “Aunt Sass”, a semi-autobiographical and truly exquisite testimony about Pamela’s memorable great aunt.

♥  “Aunt Sass” was published privately in 1941 in a limited edition of five hundred copies and it was intended as a Christmas gift for friends, although the theme had nothing to do with Christmas.

I wonder what her friends’ reactions were. Were they touched? Did they care about her childhood memories? Did they discuss the story with her? Or, did they toss it somewhere on a shelf and forgot it existed? And I wish I knew why she dedicated the story to Eugene and Curtice. Who were they? Maybe someone out there having that piece of knowledge will read this post and give me the answer…

Fortunately, for the purposes of this blog and my personal obsession with Pamela L. Travers, Donna Coonan, Commission Editor of Virago Press, undertook to uncover Pamela’s unpublished works  after seeing the documentary The Secret Life of Mary Poppins a BBC culture show narrated by Victoria Coren Mitchell.  In November 2014, Virago Press, with the authorization of Pamela’s estate, published “Aunt Sass” along with two other stories: Ah Wong” and “Johnny Delaney.” (Stories that will be explored in future posts.)

Now back to the subject of this week’s post, Great Aunt Ellie.

From the moment Pamela L. Travers’s father passed away, Great Aunt Ellie, a wealthy spinster with a bullying tendency, became the controlling force of Pamela’s life. She was a born ancestress and matriarch and used the children and grandchildren of her brothers and sisters for her own dynastic purposes.”  “She was like the central shaft of a merry-go-around. When her whistle blew the family revolved about her like so many wooden horses.

Pamela’s mother, Margaret, found herself financially unsupported and overwhelmed by the task of raising three young children alone. Great Aunt  Ellie (the sister of Pamela’s grandfather) came to the rescue and took the role of  the directing and protecting figure in Margaret’s and her children’s lives. The grieving family, anxious about its future, moved in temporarily with Ellie and her two dogs, Badger and Tinker.  The first meal at Aunt Ellie’s house seems to have been forever carved into Pamela’s psyche:

The next thing we knew we were all sitting at the luncheon table hearing Aunt Sass (Ellie) descant unfavorably on our table manners, upbringing, personal appearance and ghastly futures. One after another the children melted into tears and were ordered from the table. Eventually, my mother could bear it no longer and left the room, weeping. I alone remained. She glared at me and through a maddening haze of tears I glared back.

And now, I suppose, you’ll break down and go too.

I will not, you old Beast! I shouted to her. I am not crying, it’s only my eyes.

This was hardly a warm and comforting welcome.  Not only that, but according to Pamela’s biographer, the children, when visiting, would be sent to sleep on a cot in the attic while the best spare room would be reserved for the dogs, Tinker and Badger.

♥  The story doesn’t tell us explicitly, but it is possible that Ellie herself was overwhelmed by the events and by the long-term task of assisting the financial and moral needs of her niece and her three young children.

Here, take the cherries to the little ones and tell your mother Aunt Sass is a bitter old woman and that she didn’t mean a word if it.

Nevertheless, Ellie’s manners were cold and her mean words stuck in young Pamela’s mind for many years to come. If that was not the case, there would not have been a story about Aunt Sass and no Mary Poppins, for that matter.

♥  Aunt Ellie appears to have had somewhat of a split personality; a rough exterior and mean demeanor with some occasional sentimental deeds.

 “Her remarkableness lay in the extraordinary, and to me, enchanting discrepancy between her external behavior and her inner self. Imagine a bulldog whose ferocious exterior covers a heart tender to the point of sentimentality (…).

♥  Reportedly, extremely opinionated, Ellie viewed the world in either black or white. She also believed herself to be (or wanted others to think so) the retainer of all truth and expected, as “a general in a War Office,” to be obeyed on the spot.

The grim face was stony with conviction, the deep voice rumbled and you felt a delicious tremor of fear and anticipation fly through you. Any minute, any second some terrible miracle might happen. Would the world fall in two if you brought her the wrong knitting needles? Would you go up in smoke if you tweaked Tinker’s tail or Badger’s ear?

♥  For little Pamela, the ambiguity of Aunt Ellie proved itself frightening, but at the same time, her presence  provided a sense of safety, of being taken in charge by someone who appeared almighty and powerful; just like the Banks children in the Mary Poppins stories.

Ellie’s power resided in her wealth and in her use of constant criticism and gossip as her weapons of coercion and disempowerment. I suspect that she was being bullied by her own inner fears and disappointments, and that whenever guilt arose she tried to compensate for her exteriorized bullying by the occasional fairy godmother kind of attitude, which her financial resources allowed her to do. She did pay for Pamela’s boarding school, her typewriter, and her fare to England. As the years passed by, little Pamela grew up to become a young woman with artistic talents and a mind of her own.

♥  Now, this is just a hunch, but I feel that when Pamela, in her budding femininity, began to express her artistic tendencies more assertively,  her Great Aunt’s insecurities only increased and maybe even gave birth to some feelings of jealousy. I wish I could travel in time to see and hear for myself how things really happened. Instead, all I have are little bits and pieces of information to titillate my imagination with, just like these examples of exchanges:

I will not go out with you in that hat!”

Very well, Aunt Sass. I’ll go by myself.

Why do you have to turn yourself into a monstrosity? I am ashamed to be seen with you. Get into the car!

Or

“Writing? Faugh! Why can’t you leave that to journalists?”

 What’s all this I hear about you going to England? Ridiculous nonsense! You were always a fool.”

Anyhow, Ellie and Pamela never truly got along. “For the rest of her life we fought with all the bitterness of true affection.”

Ellie became ill right after her last visit to England. She was ninety years old. The illness “stretched her on her bed and drew a curtain of unconsciousness over her.”  When, against all expectations, she came briefly back to life she was a different woman.

The old gruffiness, the fierce egotism were gone. She was concerned and anxious now to reveal the heart that had hidden so long behind it. It was as if, knowing her time to be short, she must hasten to let the light appear through the thinning crust of flesh. … That stretch of dark unconsciousness had taught her how not to be self-conscious. Her defenses were down at last.

It was on their last meeting that Pamela gave Ellie a copy of the first of the Mary Poppins books. Her aunt took it to read it on her voyage back home. I wonder if she recognized herself in the traits of Mary Poppins. Could that be the cause of her softening of the heart? We’ll never know the answers and I can only speculate.

♥  I also couldn’t help but notice something else, a similarity of fortunes. It is almost as if Pamela in some way professed her own future. She too lived well into her nineties, she too was quite self-obsessed and self-conscious, and it was only in her later writings that she expressed this same willingness to open up and at last  be vulnerable; something that she resisted during her entire life.

“I had to learn that to be vulnerable, naked and defenseless is the only way to safety.”

(Letter to a Learned Astrologer, 1973)

It is true then that Pamela L. Travers wrote more than she knew, although when she said: “We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit” she was referring to the resemblance between Mary Poppins and her Great Aunt Ellie. Strangely enough, when interviewed, Pamela always maintained that she didn’t know where Mary Poppins came from.

♥  A comment made by Camillus Travers, Pamela’s adoptive son, comes to mind. Talking about his mother he said:  “My mother was Mary Poppins.” And if Mary Poppins was based on the character of Helen Morehead, then it is only logical to assume that as Pamela grew older she ended up reproducing her bitter aunt’s behavior.

I also wonder if Pamela ever became aware of the irony of this condition. I can only hypothesize that Pamela, experiencing her life as an ordeal, modeled “the giantess, the frightening fairy-tale figure who” in her “childhood seemed immense enough to knock against the stars and hold counsel with God.” She modeled what she believed to be strength and resilience. She remained forever unaware of the wounded/orphan child archetypal energies in play in her psyche. What these are will be explored in future posts.