Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods (Part III)

 

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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obsession with Pamela L. Travers, Donna Coonan, Commission Editor of Virago Press, undertook to uncover Pamela’s unpublished works  after seeing the documentary The Secret Life of Mary Poppins a BBC culture show narrated by Victoria Coren Mitchell.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.

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Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods (Part II)

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HER MOTHER, MARGARET GOFF

The subject of today’s post is Pamela L. Travers’s ambiguous relationship with her mother, Margaret Morehead Goff.

♥  Pamela’s biographer reports that as a child, Pamela often wondered if her mother was more like a doe or a serpent.

Pamela portrays the mother of her childhood as a busy, distracted, and frankly overwhelmed, self-centered housewife; just like Mrs. Banks in the Mary Poppins stories and Mrs. Linnet in Friend Monkey. When I heard Mrs. Linnet constantly complain and ask for help because she has only two hands, I wondered how many times Pamela heard those same words coming out of her mother’s mouth.

♥  Except in her books, the mothers, although weak and overwhelmed, are never prone to angry outbursts as her mother was.

Pamela remembered the time when her mother, exacerbated by the chore of picking up toys, became fiercely crossed and seized Pamela’s favorite porcelain doll and tossed it across the room yelling at her to put it away herself. The doll’s face struck the iron bedstead and broke. “Mother you’ve killed her!” cried Pamela, “feeling the crack in her own body. Her mother, sobbing, gathered the pieces and asked for Pamela’s forgiveness.  

There was the memory of her mother reading aloud the story of the crucifixion from the Bible. Pamela, drowned in sorrow, began weeping uncontrollably for Jesus. Her mother, annoyed and irritated, snapped: I take the trouble to read to you and all you do is cry and feel sorry…dry your eyes, it was a long time ago.”

Pamela was a lonely child: I was allowed to grow in  the darkness, unknown, unnoticed, under the earth like a seed.” She indulged in a bizarre game of pretending to be a mother hen. This is her remembrance of it:

And I remembered how, for a long period in childhood, I was absorbed in the experience of being a bird. Absorbed not lost, knowing, had I been faced with it, that I was also a child. Brooding, busy, purposeful, I wove the nests and prepared for eggs as though the life of all nature depended on the effort.”

Bizarre as this game may appear, there seems to be some meaning to it. For thousands of years the hen has been viewed as a paragon of motherhood, the iconic image of the overly protective mother. The First Century A.D. Roman historian and biographer Plutarch wrote praisingly of the hen in De amore parentis:

What of the hens whom we observe each day at home, with what care and assiduity they govern and guard their chicks? Some let down their wings for the chicks to come under; others arch their backs for them to climb upon; there is no part of their bodies with which they do not wish to cherish their chicks if they can, nor do they do this without a joy and alacrity which they seem to exhibit by the sound of their voices” .

Did Pamela pick up (somewhat unconsciously) the parental symbol of the hen by observing the interactions of the chickens in the family yard?

I wonder if this peculiar game could have been an expression of Pamela’s desire for more nurturing from her mother. Or, was it an attempt to attract her attention? Pamela often got so absorbed in the game that she frequently forgot to join the family meals forcing her mother to notice her absence.

 “She can’t come, she’s laying, the others would say, arriving for a meal without me. And my mother, deep in her role of distracted housewife would come and unwind my plaited limbs and drag me from the nest: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times, no laying at lunchtime!” Not “you are mad. I fear for your future. We must find a psychiatrist.” Simply not at lunchtime. “

♥  Pamela kept her mother’s suicide attempt buried in her secret heart for the bigger part of her life, providing interviewers and readers with glimpses of her past only in the last years of her life.

This gloom event occurred sometime after her father’s death when Pamela was about ten years old. Her mother feeling helpless and alone needed Pamela’s help and support even to the point where Pamela had to keep her hand on her brow if she had a headache. The strain on Pamela was so intense that her hair began falling out in little red patches.

One rainy evening her mother stood by the door her blue robe hanging from her shoulders, hair in a walnut braid down her back, her face white and distraught.I have had enough. I can stand no more. I am going down to the creek. And she went out, closing the doorPamela terrified sat down by the fire with her two little sisters. And I knew that what they needed from me was what we all needed from her – security, reassurance. In an effort to distract her little sisters from the horror of what was happening to them all, Pamela began to tell a story about a magic white horse.

All the while, terrifying questions flooded her mind.

The creek is not deep. There are crayfish in it. Surely no one could drown in it, unless like Ophelia in the picture, they lay down and let it cover them.

But the creek flows into a wide pool. Nobody knows how deep it is. We are not allowed there without a grown-up. A thrown stone has many rings around it.”

What happens to children who have lost both parents? Do they go into Children’s homes and wear embroidered dressing-gowns, embroidery that is really darning?”

Perhaps they will send us to different places, one here, another there. No one will be a little one.”

Maybe she has gone from the creek to the pool. How long does it take a person to drown?”

And then, her mother came back. “The little ones leapt and ran to her, crying, laughing, embracing her...”

But Pamela turned away without a word and went to heat up the kettle; she filled a rubber hot-water bottle, flung it at her mother and went straight into her room.

Oh, you cold-hearted child” cried her mother, “The others are so pleased to see me. What has happened to you?

Pamela’s heartbreaking answer to her mother’s selfish question was silent.

 I could not answer. It was true, however, that I was cold, not only in my heart but throughout the whole of my body. I lay in my bed still as a stone, feeling and knowing nothing….”

In the story of Johnny Delaney, Pamela wrote this, which I believe applies to her own experience of being a child: Children have strong and deep emotions but no mechanism to deal with them. What I feel she meant to say was that she experienced loss and betrayal in early childhood and that she was left alone to deal with the intensity of her emotions.

Now, I will ask you to stop for a minute and do an exercise in empathy. Close your eyes, if you will, and go back in time, back to when you were ten years old. Reconnect with your younger self. How did it feel to be you at that age? When you get to that point of emotional recollection, imagine that it is your mother standing in the doorway saying she’s had enough and that she is going to end her life. How do you feel? Terrified? Confused? Disoriented? Abandoned? Betrayed? Sad beyond words description? All of the above? Do you think you would’ve been the same kid after such an incident? Would you see your mother in the same way? Would you grow up to trust others? To believe that you deserve their love and faithfulness? 

It is difficult for me to find sympathy for Margaret. It seems to me  that often times Pamela’s reactions, thoughts and emotions  were kind of boomeranged back to her mother, back to how she felt about them and not how and why her daughter expressed them. At the same time, I am aware that people cannot be seen only in black and white and that I don’t have access to the “objective” truth.  And to be fair, it must have been extremely hard to be a young widow with three young children to take care of. And Margaret had her good moments too.

She had too flashes of inspiration, when the streak of poetry in her Scottish blood broke up the daily pattern. Picnic breakfasts miles from home; or a tablecloth spread out on the carpet and supper on the floor. The sudden lively moments! She would have called them merely moods, but they seem to me now a kind of wisdom, as though she knew instinctively that nothing brings so much energy as the brakes in a regular routine.  Full of the saws and customs that are handed down from the generations, innocent honest predictable –  it was from her we learned, far more than from our less dependable father, to be ready for the unexpected, even to the point of knowing that truth can be juggled with.”

Pamela’s parents appear to have been very emotionally unstable and overwhelmed by life. They were too deeply involved in their own sufferings to have been able to provide emotional security to Pamela.  Sadly, emotional neglect, even when unintentionally inflicted, produces its own life-lasting bruises.

Alas, it was not only her parents who interacted with her in an ambiguous manner; there was also the domineering presence of great-aunt Ellie, the suspected prototype of the character of Mary Poppins. You’ll meet this memorable lady in next week’s post. 

 

 

Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods (Part 1)

 

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This week’s post explores Pamela L. Travers’s childhood’s wounds. I am using information from her biography Mary Poppins She Wrote as well as some of Pamela’s own recollections from her childhood which she chronicled in a few essays compiled in her last book What the Bee Knows.

I believe that Pamela was deeply wounded in her early childhood and that these wounds exerted tremendously destructive powers over her life. Out of these wounds stem Pamela’s beliefs system which governed her life choices. I will go as far as to assert that her entire literary work is about these early wounds and her effort to heal them.

♥  Simply put, Pamela L. Travers experienced the devastating powers of Helen Lyndon’s (Pamela’s real name) shadow. The unsatisfied child’s needs remained somewhere hidden in the darkness of the unconscious mind. And how can you see a shadow in the dark? Well, you can’t. You need light, light of consciousness, just as much as the shadow does, because  by leaving it in the dark you are denying its existence. And we all know that it hurts not to be seen and not to be heard.

Pamela expressed this truth beautifully in her essay, About the Sleeping Beauty:”

Powers such as these, at once demonic and divine, are not to be taken lightly. They give a name to evil, free it, and bring it into the light. For evil will out, they sharply warn us, no matter how deeply buried. Down in its dungeon it plots and plans, waiting like an unloved child, the day of its revenge. What it needs, like the unloved child, is to be recognized, not disclaimed (not refused acknowledgment). Given its place and proper birthright and allowed to contact and cooperate with its sister beneficent force. Only the integration of good and evil and the stern acceptance of opposites will change the situation and bring about the condition that is known as Happy Ever After.” 

I suspect that little Helen Lyndon felt as the unloved child, not worthy of love and at the same time longing for it. Wronged and revengeful, she also felt shameful and deserving of the mistreatment. Coming up with a new name did not relieve the inner torment.

♥ Torn between opposites, this is how I believe Pamela would have summarized her experience of being alive.

LACK OF NURTURING PARENTS

Pamela’s parents kept her warm and fed but that was the extent of their nurturing skills. They were her landscape and she was part of theirs. The following quote encapsulates succinctly their parenting style. Arguments yes but no explanations. I cannot remember that he, or anybody else, ever explained anything. It was clear from their general attitude that our parents had not very high opinion of our intelligence but at the same time, apparently, expected us to know everything.

Undoubtedly, Pamela’s parents sent ambiguous and confusing messages which, combined with the emotionally charged events of her father’s early death (Pamela was seven years old) and her mother’s suicide attempt (when Pamela was ten), could not have done otherwise, but leave permanent marks on her developing psyche.  Yet Pamela’s resolute refusal to blame her parents for the pain they caused little Helen Lyndon is remarkable. And even though she says that the “…parents are the child’s first gods and responsible, whether they know it or not, for many seeds of fate she also says that “with awareness blame arises.” And then in another essay she asks rhetorically,  But why lay all our troubles on parents? They provide a door for us into life; that, and nurturing, is their function. Afterwards, it is up to us. We can’t blame them if the door opens on scenes we hadn’t bargained for.

Maybe it was her love for her parents and maybe it was her own failings as a mother (adoptive mother) that prevented her from acknowledging her parents lack of nurture. Nevertheless, little Helen Lyndon remembered…

HER FATHER, TRAVERS GOFF

Travers Goff loved to tell his family and friends tales of ancient Ireland filled with elves, fairies, and pixies, and apparently, the more he drank the more romantic the stories became. He had Ireland round him like a cloak”.  But Goff was not Irish. He was from London, a city he left in his early twenties for the tea plantations in Ceylon. From there he relocated to Australia where he founded his family.

I wonder, did he ever dream of becoming a rich plantation owner? It is quite possible, but we’ll never really know. Maybe it was just Pamela’s imagination, but she liked to confuse people and tell them that her father used to be sugar plantation owner.  Nevertheless, it is plausible to say that his dreams whatever they were, never came true. Travers Goff worked in a bank, climbing down the ladder from a branch manager to a simple employee. The man was doubtlessly disillusioned with his life and chose to escaped in the land of fairy tales and alcohol.

♥  Pamela’s memories of her father are somewhat romanticized and embellished. This is probably because he was not around for long enough to “dwindle down to human stature” and, because of his storytelling and his love for poetry. His lyrical side must have appealed to the imaginative part of Pamela’s innate personality.  

Anyhow, the poetic Goff compensated for his feelings of powerlessness by dominating his household with his bad temper.

Pamela wrote about the time when her father got furious with her because she left her rag dolls, Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson, outside in the rain. Scared she denied forgetting them outside.His righteousness frightened and shamed me“. 

She wrote of another incident when her father gave a beating to their dog Tippu because the dog had the insolence (frankly, the misfortune) to sit on his chair. Pamela and her sisters tried to explain that the dog believed he was a little boy, a rightful member of the family. And so, her father decided to teach everybody in the household a lesson. He was the king of his castle and he was to be obeyed.

He was Irish, too, in argument, determined to have the last word, even – or perhaps specially– with children. Criticism he did not like. And from his own flesh and blood- really it was too much.

Pamela’s biographer, Valery Lawson, reports “Lyndon was never sure whether her father would respond to her mishaps with a joke or an explosion” or even worse, sometimes dismiss her with ridicule.

♥  How could a little girl predict and understand the impulsivity and mood swings of a heavy drinker? Nobody was there to tell her she was not responsible for his reactions, that there was nothing wrong with her. Nobody was there to protect her from his abusive behavior.

I was never made to feel that I was anything special. Her father, the poet at heart, rejected her first poems as insignificant. “Hardly Yeats!” His love for poetry failed to stretch itself wide enough to encompass Pamela’s first writing attempts. It seems like in all occasions he made her feel inadequate and not good enough.

♥  Maybe she tried to write poetry to please him, to connect with him or maybe it was an attempt to attract his attention, or all of the above…whatever the motives her father failed to understand her needs. 

Her biographer tells the story of Pamela’s fifth birthday. Her parents sent her away from home into the custody of stern aunt Ellie.  Her father wrote her a letter saying that he has learned that Lyndon had grown “very fat. ” “Why, little woman, you will be like a prize pig when you get home again. Never mind, we will all be delighted to see you home again after your nice long holiday. As you will be back soon we are not going to send your birthday present to you but you will get it when you return.

Her biographer adds: ” Back home the fat little girl had only just opened her present when her mother told her she must stay with friends until things settled down. Baby Moya needed all her attention. Lyndon later wrote that she always suffered from being the eldest of three girls.”

♥  Truth is she suffered from her parent’s coldness.

Next week you’ll meet Margaret Goff Pamela’s weak and emotionally needy mother.

Lyndon Invents Pamela L. Travers

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Before Pamela L. Travers, there was Helen Lyndon Goff, a lonely child with vivid imagination.

Helen Lyndon Goff discovered the world of dramatic arts in her teen years, at the time when she finally accepted her father’s death, a painful experience exacerbated by the mental breakdown of her mother and the domineering presence of her spinster great-aunt Ellie.

Although, at first, her mother and her aunt opposed to her acting attempts, in the spring of 1921 (when she was about 22 years old) Lyndon joined an acting company and briefly toured Australia and New Zealand.

According to her biographer, Lyndon felt her name was not romantic enough and decided to take up a stage name. She chose Pamela, a name apparently in vogue at that time, and she chose as her last name her deceased father’s name, Travers.

Now, it is not unusual for artists to choose a stage name. Often the motivation behind such a choice is the perceived unattractiveness of the performer’s name, the difficulty to pronounce or spell the name, or because another notable individual uses a similar name, or simply because the name in question projects an undesired image.

At first glance, in the context of her acting debut, Lyndon’s change of name fits well into this concept.

♥ But the curious thing about her stage name is that it remained even though her acting career was short-lived. Indeed, in 1922, Pamela met a young journalist in New Zealand who lead her to a new life as a journalist and a poet. So from a stage name, Pamela L. Travers, appears to have morphed into a pen name.

Pen names, in a similar way to stage names, are usually used to make the author’s name more distinctive, to disguise his or her gender, to distance an author from some or all of his or her previous works, to protect the author from retribution for his or her writings, to combine more than one author into a single author, or for any of a number of reasons related to the marketing or aesthetic presentation of the work.

♥ Yet, somehow, I feel that her pen name is more than a pen name.  To me, there is a deeper meaning, a symbolic meaning, in the decision of changing her name. And I got the confirmation of the correctness of that feeling while reading one of Pamela L. Travers’s interviews published in The Paris Review, No. 63:

I have a strong feeling about names, that names are a part of a person, a very privative thing to each one. I am always amazed at the way Christian names are seized upon in America as if by right instead of as something to be given. One of the fairy tales, Rumpelstiltskin, deals with the extraordinary privacy and inward nature of the name. It’s always been a big taboo in the fairy tales and in myth that you do not name a person.

And then again in “Name No Name”, published in Parabola in 1982:

So-the name discovered, the named one is lost, or at least deprived of his power.

Could it be then, I asked myself, that by taking up a new name she was trying to come up with a new identity, to start afresh and release inner feelings of inadequacy? Could it be that she never felt comfortable enough in her real name, as if Helen Lyndon was just not good enough and needed to be hidden from the world ? Why else would she experience an inner trembling” when people used her Christian name?

I believe that Pamela L. Travers’s name change was an attempt to escape the painful experiences of her childhood: the early loss of her father, the weakness of her mother, the heavy burden of the family financial needs, and what seemed to be her  future role as her mother’s helper.

Discussing Pamela’s acting experience in Mary Poppins She Wrote, Valerie Lawson makes the following comment: “The stage fulfilled cravings in Lyndon for applause. Somebody, even if it was an audience of complete strangers was now paying attention to little Lyndon. She longed to do this all the time.”

If Pamela appreciated the applause, I believe that was because the audience’s  attention operated as a temporary substitute for  love and emotional connection. The truth is, she didn’t crave applause, she craved love. And isn’t it a curious coincidence that the Greek translation for Pamela is “all sweet” or “all loving”?

When her father was still alive, she and her sisters were just like lumps in the family porridge. The family life was organised around her parent’s moods. It was clear that they had their own existence – busy, contained, important.

♥ Her parents never truly paid attention to her emotional needs. And when they did pay some attention to her, it was not in a positive way.

After her father’s death (Lyndon was 7 years of age) everything began to revolve around her mother’s emotional needs and the survival needs of the family.  So in the following years, from a lonely child Lyndon became, as the oldest of her siblings, a sort of pillar for her mother; That seemed to be my role and I wondered if there was anything else for me in life.”  She ended up rejecting this role on February 9, 1924 at 11:30 am as she sailed off to England in search of a new meaning for her life.

As the years went by, her pen name gradually changed from Pamela L. Travers to P.L. Travers, and in the late years of her life, to simply PLT.

♥ It is as if she never gained enough strength to drop the pseudonym she was using as a mental hiding place and as if the mental hiding place needed to be continuously reinforced. Why? My theory is that Pamela L. Travers was a mental construct, a protective shield Helen Lyndon Goff needed to function in the world.

 I believe that Helen Lyndon Goff experienced a major blockage during the maturation process  of her psyche caused by unattended childhood wounds. What were those? That will be the subject of my next post.

What the Bee Told Me

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Today, as promised in last week’s post, I am sharing my thoughts on What the Bee Knows, Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story , the book which Pamela L. Travers was willing to discuss with her biographer, Valerie Lawson. Unfortunately, this discussion never took place. 

This blog is an attempt to perform a postpartum inner viewing. Maybe the ideas discussed here will have some healing power, maybe, somehow, they can travel beyond time and space and bring healing on the other side, wherever that might be.

Pamela L. Travers was of the opinion that if you wanted to know a writer you had to study his or her works. She also said, In everything I write one can read between the lines.” So I started my reading of her works with the fervent desire and hope to receive some insight into her psyche, connect somehow with her, and gain a deeper understanding of her personality.

What the Bee Knows, Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story, published for the first time by Aquarian Press in 1989, is a collection of literary, and somewhat spiritual, essays most of which were written for and published in Parabola, The Magazine of Myth and Tradition, founded in the 1970’s by a friend of Pamela’s, D.M. Dooling. The focus of the magazine was (and still is) mythology and spirituality. Most of the writings compiled in What the Bee Knows were composed during the “crone” stage of Pamela’s life. She was 77 years old in 1976 when she wrote The World of the Hero for the inaugural issue of Parabola.

♥  To begin with, I was expecting to read a scholarly work. To my surprise, this collection of literary essays revealed itself to be of a different nature; not at all scholarly in a traditional sense. Actually, I experienced this book as a sort of encoded personal soul diary. 

In these writings, Pamela L. Travers explores mythical themes with poetical virtuosity and occasionally opens up and recollects events from her childhood, something that she was extremely reluctant to do in the earlier stages of her life. And maybe because her work on myth seems to be so closely entangled with her subjective experience of life and her personal beliefs system, she never gained a serious status as a scholar, at least not to the extent of her aspirations. 

Anyhow, I had to read some of the articles more than once and I do not claim to have grasped all of their meaning or appreciated all the subtleties of the mythological references.

♥  After some initial confusion, I sensed that to find what I was looking for I needed to pay close attention to the feelings and emotions expressed by her words instead of focusing on (and being almost intimidated by) the mythical references and sometimes hermetic links.

By the way, I was comforted to learn later on while reading Lively Oracle, The Centennial celebration of P.L.Travers Creator of Mary Poppins that the difficulty that I experienced in reading these essays was not a case of my own ignorance on the subject of myth; even the editorial staff of Parabola sometimes puzzled over her texts. Regardless of these initial difficulties a major theme came into view.

♥  Reading What the Bee Knows, one realises that Pamela was embarked on a quest for self discovery.

What makes me say that? Her constant, compulsive questioning, put in Pamela’s own words, I will not cease from mental fight”.

what-the-bee-knows-2

 Here, read for yourself:

Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “How can I live in accordance with reality?”

Perhaps myths are telling us that these endeavors are not so much voyages of discovery as of rediscovery. That the hero is seeking not for something new but for something old, a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity.”

The World of the Hero, 1976

Who walks the world under my name?

Fear No More The Heat Of The Sun, 1977 

Who am I? What is my purpose? Why through me, Leda, should the fuse have run that exploding, toppled Illium’s towers and made of Sparta a name of shame must cause ever carry on its back effects so much greater than itself, as a grain of sand carries the sea? 

Leda’s Lament, 1982

I am lost and astray in the universe.

Walking the Maze at Chartes, 1983

 Who am I? I inquired of myself and nothing reply. Oh, then, indeed, I was upside-down, a meare head walking the earth.  What shall I do? … Then deep within me something wept – I who had never wept before nor needed the gift of weeping – and I knew what had to be done.

The Hanged Man, 1984

I who had been a mere particle, a scantling of the whole I knew, had now become an entity, separate, a thing in itself, whose reflections threw themselves back at me from a glassy hall of mirrors. Surprised at my new infinity, I turned among the images, delighting in each pose and posture, trying them on as though they were garments to see which was most becoming. Is this I? Or this? Or this?

Now, Farewell and Hair, 1985 

♥  In the light of these examples (and many more), it is my humble opinion that Pamela L.Travers was experiencing profound identity issues.

This troubled me because she was the one to believe that For where we know it or not, or wish it or not, we all – like the hero- live in myth, or rather the context of myth. “ So, she knew she was the hero of her own life story but apparently knowing it was not enough to succeed in the endeavour.

♥ All of the above questions formulated at such an advanced age indicate that Pamela L.Travers never successfully completed her journey of finding herself. She never found inner peace.  

In the Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about the journey of the hero on a spiritual path, the path on which Pamela traveled. This is what he said,The other kind is the spiritual deed, in which the hero learns to experience the supernormal range of human spiritual life and then comes back with a message.”

♥  Pamela L. Travers’s overall message (as I heard it) is one of anxiety and confusion.

For now, let me just say that she never became the wise crone, a concept which she so admired and I assume aspired to embody.  She hinted of wisdom, she hinted she might know more than what she chose to reveal…but did she? 

No one seems to have been interested in understanding the why,  what sort of psychological torments she experienced,  what caused them and why they remained unresolved despite all her efforts to heal herself. 

♥  I beleive that her obsession with myth, fairy tales, and her spiritual gurus are only that, failed attempts to heal her mind and her body .

Throughout her life (and it was a long one, she died at the venerable age of 97) she struggled with anxiety and possibly depression and other physical ailments. And in spite of all these weaknesses, she remained strong in her fragility.

People simply assume she was difficult and self-centered for the sake of being difficult and self-centered. At best, she was and still is qualified as an eccentric.

It was one of her eccentricities that captured my attention. In the article, Name and No Name published in 1982, she made a strange statement:

But, familiarity to wrench from another his personal name before he has had the chance – or, indeed, the wish – to offer it, is to degrade him, to snatch away his dignity, his private innerness. If there is alive in him some of his old ancestral stuff, it will quiver with apprehension – and withdraw.  … The door has to be knocked at gently if we want to know who is within.

She didn’t like to be called by her real name, Helen Lyndon. Why was Helen Lyndon hiding? I started thinking about the way Pamela L. Travers seemed to have related to her real name throughout her life and how her pen name morphed from Pamela L. Travers to P.L. Travers to finally become PLT.

Then, another question arose as I read the last paragraph of the essay, What Aileth Thee, published in 1983. Here it is:

For the question is our own question. In our rational, fragmental, technological world, it is we, seeking deliverance, that needed to be asked; we ourselves must become the Grail hero who will set the waters free, not only in ourselves but in others. Secretly we are all sore wounded and need that the wound be noted and the necessary words of power spoken.”

♥ So I asked the question, “What aileth thee Helen Lyndon?” In response, an idea started forming itself.

Could Helen Lyndon’s change of name be more significant on a psychological level than a mere taking on of a pen name? 

And, this is where I will pick up from next week. I will explore how Pamela L. Travers related both to her Christian name and her pen name throughout the different periods of her life and where that led me in my explorations.

Reviewing Mary Poppins She Wrote

So here I go, my first post. But before we start I must tell you that, although I am an avid reader from the early age of four, I have no formal education or training in literature, psychology or mythology. It’s just that lately my heart goes naturally towards these fields.  And now that I have grown a little (just a little) older, and a little wiser (just a little), I allow myself to listen to my heart more often.

♥  This blog is my answer to my heart’s calling and it is intended as a personal creative outlet for my impressions and ideas about Mary Poppins and her controversial author, Pamela L. Travers.

Why did I choose this subject for my blog?  Well, it was not intentionally planned and kind of happened gradually.

My interest in Pamela L. Travers and her literary creation was aroused by Valerie Lawson’s book, Mary Poppins She Wrote, a book that landed in my hands by pure fluke. It was at the time when Saving Mr. Banks was coming out on the big screen and I was planning to go see it. I decided to read the Mary Poppins book in preparation for the movie. (I didn’t know that there were six Mary Poppins books written over a period of more than 50 years.) It turned out that my local bookstore did not have the Mary Poppins books in stock. However, the clerk did not return empty handed. She kindly handed me a book titled Mary Poppins, She Wrote which of course I ended up buying because of the inscription on its cover: “Explores the events that inspired the major motion picture Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks.” That was even better!

And this is how my obsession with Pamela L. Travers and Mary Poppins began developing: ♥   I was simply struck by her imagination and her fiercely rebellious nature.

♥  Above all, I was deeply moved by the first part of the book which describes her difficult childhood experiences. I fell in love with little Helen Lyndon Goff (Pamela L. Travers’s real name), an extremely sensitive, exceptionally perceptive, imaginative and creative little girl as you will discover in future posts.

♥  I was saddened by the fact that this beautiful soul got trapped in the maze of illusions of the outer world and ended up alienated and alone. I wanted to understand why such an intelligent and creative woman could not heal her wounds. These issues were unfortunately not explored, at least not in serious depth, by Valerie Lawson. The more I read the book the more irritated I became.

Before I explain what drove me nuts about Mary Poppins, She Wrote I must admit that Valerie Lawson did an incredible job as an investigative journalist, which she is by profession.

It took her five years or so, and many trips to England, Ireland and Australia to uncover the life of Pamela L. Travers. If you have read the book, you know she succeeded in gathering many details about Pamela, her family, friends and acquaintances and even about the family and acquaintances of these acquaintances. Many people now know that Pamela had tumultuous, intimate relationships with men and women, was a follower of the peculiar spiritual guru Gurdjieff, and adopted a son without ever telling him that he was adopted (or that he had a twin brother). Lawson also made many links between real people from Pamela’s childhood and some of the characters in the Mary Poppins stories. And in my opinion that was the most enjoyable part of the book.

Disappointingly, Lawson failed to connect emotionally with Pamela L. Travers, although in the Preface of the book she tries (unsuccessfully in my opinion), to draw some similarities between herself and Pamela Travers:

My search for Pamela Travers began with the discovery that she was an Australian. Like myself, she had been a dancer, actress and writer. Going on “the Pamela hunt” [the underline is mine] became a five-year journey of discovery that took me down unexpected paths, both geographically and emotionally.”

However, Lawson never explains the emotional impact of writing Pamela’s biography on her personal life.

And honestly, is it only me that has an issue with the expression “the Pamela hunt?” It is certainly a funny concept, and a funny choice of words, of wanting to hunt her down. Doesn’t sound like an empathic endeavor, does it? It doesn’t even sound like a discovery quest.  Funny choice of words and the true meaning lies in the subtle nuances of language.

The most upsetting thing about this biography is that it could have been more insightful if only Lawson had a genuine interest in Pamela’s literary work as a gateway to her psyche.

Instead, this is what Lawson writes about her interest in Pamela:

For me, Travers became more fascinating the more I learned of her mystery. That was what intrigued me most, not her subject matter…

Overall, I was left with the uneasy feeling that Lawson purposefully decided to avoid meeting Pamela in person.

Lawson first contacted Pamela through her agent in 1994, Pamela was 95 years old. This was Pamela’s response:

 “Dear Miss Lawson,

I don’t like personal publicity but I’m willing to talk about my work any way you like.”

She also inquired if Lawson read her latest book What the Bee Knows.

Of course, Lawson didn’t know anything about the book because she was not interested in Pamela’s work; she was interested in the “Pamela hunt,” the hidden facts of a private life.

This is what she did after receiving Pamela’s response.

From an obscure Californian publisher I ordered a copy of What the Bee Knows, a book I quickly cast aside…I had no time then for Travers’s mythological references and search for heroes. One morning eighteen months later I woke knowing this was the right time of my life to write the book.” Seriously…

So in 1996, when Pamela was 97 she wrote again to her agent. The agent replied that Pamela was extremely ill and the day after the agent’s letter arrived in the mail Pamela died.

It seems to me that Valerie Lawson almost waited for Pamela to die before starting her biography. She probably thought it would be easier to write the book. What makes me say that? Lawson’s own words:

Despite her (Pamela’s) wish that no biography be written, I believe her death meant the ground rules changed. I took the same point of view as the biographer Michael Holroyd, who has said “I discriminate between the rights of the living and the dead…” When we are living we need all our sentimentalities, our evasions, our half-truths and our white lies, to get through life. When we are dead different rules apply.

I personally believe that we can’t truly know a person by only learning the facts of their lives. The facts are not the truth, just as Pamela used to say.

♥  Observable events are the outer reflection of an inner phenomenon. If you understand the inner phenomenon, you have a chance to interpret more accurately the facts and get a clearer image of the person. Even then, we all remain a little elusive; we all dwell in the world of perceptions and images. So how can we rely simply on other people’s perceptions about Pamela Travers? How can we get a clearer image of her, especially now, that she is irreversibly unavailable for an interview? Pamela gave the answer to Valerie Lawson. Read What the Bee Knows.

And this is where I will pick up in my next post, with my thoughts on Pamela’s last book What the Bee Knows.