In the Kitchen with Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen colour cover

This blogpost is about P.L. Travers’s book “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” first published in 1975.

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” is composed of two parts: the story of Mary Poppins in the Kitchen

MAry Poppins in the Kitchen bright

and the recipes from Mary Poppins’s Cookery Book from A to Z.

MAry Poppins Cookery Book 2

Mr. and Mrs. Banks are on their way to a weeklong planned trip to Brighton. But then Mrs. Brill, the cook, announces that she needs to leave the household to give a helping hand to her niece, whose four children have measles. And, of course, that happens just when Ellen, the maid, is nursing a cold. The question then arises: Can Mary Poppins cook and is she willing to?

‘I have only one pair of hands,’ she said, ‘And those are occupied’. She had lifted Annabel from the floor, and John and Barbara, one on either side of her, were each hugging a leg.

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, P.L. Travers

Jane and Michael rise to the occasion and offer to help Mary Poppins in the kitchen. The matter is settled, and the parents leave for the week.

Each day during that week a special visitor from the gallery of mythical characters from the Mary Poppins books shows up in the Banks’s kitchen to help Mary Poppins and her charges to prepare the meal of the day.

On Monday, Mrs. Corry comes to help with the cooking of a roast beef, a suspicion of cabbage and a Yorkshire pudding. On Tuesday, it is Admiral Boom’s turn to come and cook a shepherd’s pie, carrots and apple charlotte. On Wednesday, Mr. and Mrs. Turvey come to mix the ingredients for an Irish stew and a honey and bananas dessert. Then on Thursday, Mary Poppins’s cousin, Mr. Twigley, shows up to play music with the kitchen utensils while Mary Poppins and the children prepare the beef patties, the green peas and the bread-and-butter pudding. Comes Friday, the Bird Woman appears in the garden outside of the kitchen, carrying herbs for the planned roasted chicken with bread sauce and green beans. And on Saturday, Andrew and Willoughby, Miss Lark’s dogs bring the Park Keeper and Mrs. Lark into the Banks’s kitchen. The dogs are of course intrigued by the smell of the Lancashire hot pot and the cherry pie, but the Park Keeper and Mrs. Lark are of no use in the kitchen. On Sunday, the day on which Mr. and Mrs. Banks come back home, the children are so busy cooking for their parents that even the sound of the bell on the Ice Cream Man’s tricycle outside in the lane can’t distract them from their occupation. No, they are cooking chicken with potatoes and making a salad, and a lemon soufflé for dessert.

Each of these weekday stories has its own illustration depicting the cooking adventures of Mary Poppins and the children. The original Mary Shepard’s illustrations in the first edition of “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” were not colored.

Mrs. Corry Origianl cooking illustration.jpg

(Picture taken from The Left Chapter Blog)

I have the 2006 redesigned edition of “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which reproduces the original vintage illustrations but in colour, certainly making the book more appealing to today’s young readers.

Mary Poppins Monday colour story

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” is the least magical of all the Mary Poppins books and it also, in my opinion, lacks the whimsical feel of “Mary Poppins From A to Z. The episodes with Mr. Twigley and Mr. and Mrs. Turvy are probably the most playful stories in the book.

I can easily imagine young children laughing at the desperate attempts of the Turvies to participate in the cooking activities taking place in the kitchen on Wednesday.

So everybody set to work. And though the guests behaved in a topsy-turvy manner – Mrs. Turvey repeatedly stood on her head and Mr. Turvy insisted on looking for the lamb chops in the broom cupboard – the cooking went under way.

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, P.L. Travers

Topsy Turvey cooking adventure.jpg

It is worth noting here that P.L. Travers chose the Bird Woman as the helper for the seasoning of the chicken on Friday. I would’ve definitely asked P.L. Travers what motivated her choice. Did she want to hint to the young readers that everything that lives eats, and is eaten in its own turn? There is definitely something sacrificial in the Friday cooking story. I never gave any thought about the Bird Woman’s diet until I read “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen”. But now that I have, I kind of doubt that the Bird Woman would eat birds or participate in their cooking. This is really not how I feel the character. Anyway, that would have been an interesting discussion to have with P.L. Travers.

There are other discrepancies of similar nature in “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” that make this book stand apart form the other books in the series, starting with the first scene where Mr. and Mrs. Banks are having tea with the children.

 Mr. Banks, down on all fours, pretending to be an elephant with John and  Barbara on his back, rose, panting, to his feet.

                                                              Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, P.L. Travers

Mr. Banks on all four.jpg

Now, this is uncharacteristic. Mr. Banks is usually rather busy and has no time for frivolities.

Another strange detail in this book is the apparent emotional connection between Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael in the final scene. “Mary Poppins and Jane and Michael exchanged a glance full of meaning.” This is not something a reader encounters in the other Mary Poppins stories. Mary Poppins, always and in all circumstances, keeps her position of authority and of superiority. There is never ever an emotional connection between her and her charges; they are always kept at a distance. Again, this would have been an interesting subject to discuss with P.L. Travers.  

And now about Mary Poppins’s Cookery Book. All the recipes are British Edwardian recipes from P.L. Travers’s own childhood stomach memories*. And, inferring from her testimony that she never used recipes and cooked out of her head, she apparently needed the help of a culinary consultant to give the recipes precision and structure. That consultant was Maurice Moore-Betty, an Irish cook living in Manhattan.  

However, I must say I do have some doubts about P.L. Travers in the kitchen. Somehow, I can’t picture her in front of a stove… But then, she must have fried an occasional egg.

Why did P.L. Travers write a cookery book? This is the official answer she gave:

I think it’s desirable that children should have every opportunity to express their imagination. A child that can help to make a soufflé may be able to make a poem the next day.

Mary Poppins Has Her Own Way Even in the Kitchen, by Lisa Hammel, November 12, 1975, The New York Times

The answer that I believe is closer to the truth is that she wanted to sell more books before the effect from the Dinsey Mary Poppins movie wore off completely.

I decided to try a few recipes from the Mary Poppins’s cookery book, but since I am not an experienced pastry baker (and I got no help from magical friends) even easy child appropriate recipes proved somewhat difficult. 

I can’t really say if the gingerbread stars were a little dry because something is missing in the recipe or because I overbaked them.

My version of the cherry pie was good but not fantastic.  I didn’t have enough dough to cover it nicely.  Again, not sure if the problem was in the recipe or in the cook. I guess I could have played it safe with a store-bought dough but then I wanted to have the full Mary Poppins in the kitchen experience.

Mary Poppins Cherry Pie Montage.jpg

I enjoyed making and eating the bread and butter pudding, even if I only had raisins to put in and no currants. And, I didn’t remove the crusts from the bread either. I just love bread crusts.

Mary Poppins Bread and Butter Pudding

Finally, I can report with confidence that the honey and bananas recipe works without fail (and is the easiest one along with the fruit salad), but I would suggest cutting the bananas in round slices so you can serve them with ice cream. At least this is what I will do next time.

In total in this new redesigned edition there are 30 recipes and wisely, twenty-one of them are for desserts! However, some of the recipes from the original edition are missing. I will have to get a copy of the original first edition.

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

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen back cover.jpg

__________________

* Mary Poppins Has Her Own Way Even in the Kitchen, by Lisa Hammel, November 12, 1975, The New York Times

Mary Poppins From A to Z

Mary Poppins From A to Z Second edition

The Mary Poppins magnum opus is composed of eight books written over a period of fifty years. The first four adventure books, Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943) and Mary Poppins in the Park (1952) are the most popular.

The next two books, Mary Poppins From A to Z, (1962) and Mary Poppins in the Kitchen (1975) are companions to the adventure books and are the least known by the public. Nevertheless, they still deserve attention.

As for the last two Mary Poppins adventure books, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (1982) and Mary Poppins in the House Next Door (1988), P. L. Travers wrote them when she was well into her eighties. Their lack of popularity could easily be explained by the eerie mood of the themes explored in the stories and the evermore shadowy character of Mary Poppins. Understandably, mending broken things and finding lost possessions are not exactly themes appealing to young readers at the beginning stages of life.  However, a fact, even when forgotten or disregarded, still remains a fact; none of the Mary Poppins adventures books were written especially for children, strange as this may sound.

In this post I want to explore one of the lesser known Mary Poppins books, Mary Poppins From A to Z and its new adaptation for the very small, the board book Mary Poppins ABC (2018).

Mary Poppins From A to Z, as the title suggests, is an alphabet book and was first published in the early 1960’s. It was illustrated by Mary Shepard, the illustrator of all the Mary Poppins books.  It contains twenty-six illustrated short tales, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each story is a snapshot of the daily life of the Banks family, outlined in black ink on a colored background.

Vintage Illustration Mary Poppins From A to Z

(I found this picture on the Internet but I couldn’t identify its origin, so I am not able to give the owner any credits.)

After its first publication the book remained out of print in North America until 2006, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a new edition. In this second edition, colors light up the original vintage illustrations and energize the activities depicted on its pages, undoubtedly making the book more appealing to today’s young readers.

Mary Poppins From A to Z Letter A colors.jpg

The tales although rather short keep pace with the eccentric aspects of the adventure books, the magic is palpable. However, the beginning reader will require some assistance from a more experienced one because P.L. Travers generously sprinkles her stories with unusual words.  

In Mary Poppins From A to Z, P.L. Travers definitely displays her love for words and her talent for weaving them into whimsical patterns of her choosing. And anyhow, how is a child to develop a rich vocabulary if not through reading?

My favourite vignette is the one for the letter G. Jane and Michael, chaperoned by Mary Poppins, are feeding the geese on the green by a lake. Mr. Banks happens to pass by and observing the children’s activity remarks that he is glad not to be a goose. To which Jane replies that the geese are not really geese but gallant swans in disguise, that she herself is Goldilocks and Michael a killer of giants. Then Mr. Banks jokingly tells the children he is a grand Duke and that he never needs to pay the grocer.  

Mary Shepard’s illustration of this vignette strikingly reveals the meaning of the story. Behind each character there is a second, astral depiction of the imagined self. Only Mary Poppins’s reflection into the field of potentialities is simply Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins From A to Z Letter G colors

The children are in a state of becoming, with imaginations still unburdened by everyday responsibilities and limitations. There is nothing surprising about them imagining their future selves. The story’s message is lodged in the contrasting projections of the grown-up characters, Mr. Banks and Mary Poppins.

Mr. Banks, appears to use his imagination for a fleeting escape from his unsatisfying state of being, while Mary Poppins appears to be genuinely happy with herself. And that is a nice ideal for children to live up to, to grow up into themselves and be happy with who they become.

Since we are on the subject of Mary Poppins From A to Z, it must be mentioned here that P.L. Travers made special efforts to get the book translated in Latin. Unusual as this may appear at first, there is logic to it. In the 1960’s Mary Poppins was already a children’s classic of the stature of Alice in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh and these two were at that time published in Latin. Not only that, the Latin translation of Winnie-the-Pooh became a favourite with students of Latin and thus an instant bestseller, remaining on Times list for 20 weeks selling 125,000 copies in 21 printings.  No wonder P.L. Travers went out of her way to find a translator during her writers’ residency at Smith College in 1966. Finally, it was Peter Marshal, Professor of Latin and Clas­sics at Amherst College who agreed to work on the Latin translation. 

Maria Poppina

(I found this picture on the Internet but I couldn’t identify its origin, so I am not able to give the owner any credits.)

Now, a word about the new adaptation of Mary Poppins Form A to Z into a board book. In 2018 in anticipation of the new movie, Mary Poppins Returns, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released the board book Mary Poppins ABC in which each tale of the original book is shortened to one sentence.  Again, the original Mary Shepard drawings are animated with bright colors and the overall impression of the book is one of vibrant joy. There is just one small glitch in this new adaptation.

Mary Poppins ABC cover

Some of the original illustrations were altered, in my view quite unsuccessfully, in order to fit the brevity of their corresponding tales. For example, in the illustration for the letter M the bodies of the  Park Keeper and the Lord Mayor are cut in half, and on the illustration for the letter I, one can see the bottom of a window on the second floor of the house but Mary Poppins, who is in the room on the second floor happily ironing her apron, is completely removed from the picture.

Of course, when the original vignette is reduced to a sentence the remaining images contain more elements than the written story, but that allows for animate discussions with the young reader.

Mary Poppins Letter I.jpg

Mary Poppins Letter M

Regardless of this imperfection the book is a nice way of introducing young children to the Mary Poppins books.

P.L. Travers’s note at the end of Mary Poppins Form A to Z is one of the loveliest descriptions of the Banks’s nursery and the perfect conclusion to this blog post. I simply can’t resist the temptation to share it here with the readers:

Mary Poppins From A to Z nursery description

I believe that this is the only book in which Mary Poppins is said to fall asleep. I would have loved to discuss this particularity with P.L. Travers. So many questions remain unanswered.

Mary Poppins in the Publishing World

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

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

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

Mary Poppins She Wrote, Valerie Lawson

Poud Cottage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mary poppins box set

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

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

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

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

mary popins collector edition

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

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

mary poppins abc

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1

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

Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins

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

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

MPoppins_OpenstheDoor

 

MPoppins_Park

 

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

MP_cover-template-01-FINAL-color

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

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

Mary Poppins Tea Party

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

Arts Cafe 1

Art Cafe 2

Art Cafe 3

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

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

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

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

Mary Poppins Laughing Gas

MaryPoppins_HC_INT_Dummyv2-12

MaryPoppins_HC_INT_Dummyv2-13

MaryPoppins_HC_INT_Dummyv2-16

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

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

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

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

Mary Poppins Meets the Little Prince

The Little Prince Mary Poppins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valery Lawson

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

Roses and Thorns, Thorns and Roses

 

Women of The Rope

I wish I could discuss roses with Pamela L. Travers. I wish I had the opportunity to ask her if she knew about Gurdjieff’s opinion of flowers? And if she did, how did she reconcile her spiritual teacher’s peculiar views with her own love for flowers and gardening.

Clearly, Gurdjieff hated flowers, he believed them to be dirty things, fake things.

Flower is dirty thing, is the poison of the earth, is masturbator thing. You know why created? For helping Kundabuffer. In old science it had evil reputation, it was material for black magic. Flowers not grow lawable.

Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, July 29, 1936

After lunch he went over to a pot of dead flowers and smelled them. Gurdjieff: Finish. Nothing they have. Involution. Never was otherwise. Never active element they have, such dirty thing. From birth was only involution. Always they are false.

Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, January 29, 1938

The quotes above are excerpts from the transcripts of certain meetings with Gurdjieff recorded by lesbian writers Kathryn Hulme and Solita Solano, published in 2012, Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope.

My habit was to rush out to the café across the street everyday and write down everything while still fresh in my mind. Katie also, when she was in Paris, did the same. We would then combine our recollections and establish sequences.

Solita Solano in Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope

These women were part of a special group which met regularly with Gurdjieff during the period between 1935-1939. On the back of the cover of Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope one reads:

In allegory he explained: You are going on a journey under my guidance, an “inner-world” journey like a high mountain climb where you must be roped together for safety, where each must think of the others on the rope, all for one and one for all. You must, in short, help each other “as hand washes hand”, each contributing to the company according to her lights, according to her means. Only faithful hard work on yourselves will get you where I want you to go, not your wishing.

Among themselves they called their group The Rope

There was a link between The Rope and Pamela L. Travers. The link was one of Gurdjieff’s disciples, American publisher Jane Heap, who was also the co-editor of the literary journal The Little Review.  The members of The Rope were part of Heap’s lesbian entourage in Paris, before she left for London on Gurdjieff’s instructions, in the fall of 1935. Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, reports that in the spring of 1936, Pamela and Jessie Orage (the widow of A.R. Orage, Gurdjieff’s emissary in New York) attended Heap’s study group of the Gurdjieff’s teachings in London. And, it was in March 1936 that Pamela and Jessie visited Gurdjieff in Paris at his favourite Café de la Paix, and then went to his flat where some of the members of the Rope were present.

It is possible then, that at some point Pamela became aware of Gurdjieff’s radical views on flowers. Luckily for her (she had a special affection for roses) Gurdjieff’s take on roses was more nuanced.  In Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope the image of the rose appears on three different occasions; in one instance as a figurative conduit for Gurdjieff’s idea of objective love, and on the other two occasions, as an illustration of his concept of the process of the acquiring of a human soul (according to Gurdjieff men are not born with a soul).

Gurdjieff’s concept of objective love

Alice: And roses, even roses? The Bible often speaks of roses.

Gurdjieff: For certain things roses are good-but must be in combination. Roses in the Bible are always mentioned with thorns. There is an old saying: ‘You can understand and love me only when you love -have a passion-for my thorns. Then only I am your slave.’ In old poetry, not your poetry but religious poetry, there is a very beautiful song that the nightingale sings to the rose: ‘Even though I hate your dirtiness, I must love you and sing to you.”

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, July 29, 1936

It seems that for Gurdjieff objective love is attained only when one is aware of the flaws in the object of one’s affection, a love that encompasses the good and the bad, conscious unconditional love. At least this is how I interpret his allegory.

Then somewhat in contradiction with his previous statements about flowers:

The rose is king of flowers. Always in Eastern literature is put with nightingale. Rose is loving-loving rose. And besides loving, rose can have many another emotion which idiot English have no name for. Yes, even nature can feel loving-like woman.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, January 30, 1937

Gurdjieff and the creation of the Soul

In Café de la Paix Gurdjieff started talking about roses, roses, how he felt, how next week would be thorns, thorns when the fourteen thousand franks becomes due on the car. But thorns, thorns in outer world were good because then there are roses, roses in the inner world. ‘Is law-for one dissatisfaction, always a satisfaction.’ Then he asked which I think would he rather have roses, roses in his inner world or in his outer world… then when I answered, he decided that was too complicated a question. He said, better I tell you one thing. This will make you rich for life, richer than your Mr. Rockefeller. There are two struggles – inner world struggle and outer world struggle, but never can these two make contact. (…) Only one thing –must make intentional contact between outer world struggle and inner world struggle. Then can make data which crystalize for third world of man, sometimes called world of the soul.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, February 2, 1936

After roses, roses come thorns. Only then with thorns can have man a possibility for happiness.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, June 12, 1936

In this case, Gurdjieff associated roses with his idea of the reconciling factor in our human suffering. The only way to transcend the pain we experience in our dualistic world is to become conscious of the struggles and use this awareness to work persistently on improving the self. Only by conscious suffering and voluntary work can one acquire a soul, or a rose in the inner world. Which means that one must accept that roses come with thorns. As Gurdjieff puts it, for every dissatisfaction there is a satisfaction. And vice versa.

As for Pamela, she loved roses and was moved by their mysterious, secretive nature. She loved the way in which, layer by layer, the rose’s petals protect its center, revealing its inner world only at the very last moment. In Pamela’s writings the rose appears as a symbol of womanhood, by opposition to the daisy, which she perceived as a child’s flower because of its openness.  This is why she chose to name the princess in her retelling of her favourite fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, Rose:

For instance, the Beauty, who has never before been given a name, is here called Rose-having regard not only to the Grimm’s “Dornroschen” (Rose in Thorns or Briar Rose) but also to Robert Graves’ Druidic language of the tress in The White Goddess, where he speaks of the ‘erotoc’ briar.

All the known versions of the story have in them this strong element of eroticism. Indeed, it can be said with truth that every fairy tale that deals with a beautiful heroine and a lordly hero is, among many other things, speaking to us of love, laying down patterns and examples for all our human loving.

Pamela L. Travers, About the Sleeping Beauty

For Pamela, as for most of us, love and sex are intertwined while Gurdjieff’s concept of objective love excludes sex. It seems he deemed it to be something dirty. Or maybe he was talking about how sometimes we mistake lust for love.

But conscious love, that is real love. You have only love based on sex; it is sickness, a weakness. You cannot have love. That which perhaps your grandfather had. Today, for everyone, love is based on sex and sex on polarity. So, if a person has a nose like this you love her; if she hasn’t a nose like that, you don’t love her.  Real love is objective; but in Paris objective love doesn’t exist. You have made the word sentiment for sex, for dirty things; you have forgotten real love.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris,

Although it would have been really interesting to discuss Gurdjieff and flowers with Pamela, what really tickles my curiosity is Pamela L. Travers’s own secretive nature.  Did she believe the only way to entice and keep a romantic partner was to remain elusive and mysterious? Or was this obsession with concealment reminiscent of Gurdjieff’s admonition to his pupils to never reveal their inner world, to be like actors on the stage of Life? 

Feathered Omens

 

Picture of the feather

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

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

Pamela L. Travers, Now, Farewell and Hail, 1985

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

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

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

Brian Sibley:       But you were happy there?

P.L.Travers:        Very.

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

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

P L Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gurdjieff

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

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

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

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

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