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

Mary Poppins in Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope you stay tuned!

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

Beatrix Potter 2

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

The Hidden Child, Pamela L. Travers.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pamela L. Travers Now, Farewell and Hail 1985.  

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

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

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

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

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

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

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

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

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

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

About the Sleeping Beauty (Part V)

Sleeping Beauty 5

When I wrote the post About the Sleeping Beauty (Part I) I did not expect to have material for more than a couple of posts. Yet, here we are, Part V with the subject still not exhausted… There are simply so many things to be said…about the book and about Pamela L. Travers.

It is of course impossible to get a completely undistorted image of another person, especially when one does not have the opportunity of a direct experience. Fortunately, in the case of writers we have their work to dissect and investigate.  Willingly or not, they always leave something of themselves in their works and Pamela L. Travers was no exception to that rule.

Sleeping Beauty’s inability to cross the threshold in to maidenhood

Pamela L. Travers was not the only one interested in the meaning of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, Joseph Campbell, the renowned American mythologist and writer, was also amongst those who commented on its meaning. Although, his vision, in opposition to Pamela’s, was quite clear and affirmative. He saw in this fairy tale the pattern of a little girl refusing to grow up. (I wonder, did Pamela know of Campbell’s work? What did she think of it? Wish I had the answers…) Anyhow, in my opinion, Campbell’s interpretation is probably closer to the truth of the fairy tale than Pamela’s fabrications, original as they may be.

Yet, can we really talk about a refusal to grow up? Doesn’t the word refusal imply a conscious decision not to do something? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Sleeping Beauty was unable to move on to the next stage in her life? The question then is why? What caused her inability?

Sleeping Beauty is locked into her childhood by the power of the Thirteenth Wise Woman’s spell, but the spell is the consequence of something else. And that something else is directly related to Sleeping Beauty’s inability to grow.

Why didn’t Pamela L. Travers consider these questions in her Afterword? Maybe because she failed to properly identify, both, the nature of the threshold which the princess had to cross, and the identity of the guardians of that threshold. Pamela, in my opinion mistakenly, saw the Thirteen Wise Woman as the guardian of the threshold in Sleeping Beauty’s fairy tale:

The Thirteenth Wise Woman stands as a guardian of the threshold, the paradoxical adversary without whose presence no threshold may be passed.  …. Without the Wicked Fairy, there would have been no story. She, not the heroine, is the goddess in the machine.”

But isn’t the purpose of thresholds and their guardians to test the heroine’s ability to move on to the next stage of her journey. Aren’t they the psychic growing pains of the heroine?  Thresholds and their guardians are intimately linked to the heroine and not to the story. Without the heroine, there is no story. And, if it was for the Thirteenth Wise Woman, there would have been no story, her spell was one of death. It was the Twelfth Wise Woman who modified the spell to a hundred-year sleep.

Who are then the guardians of the threshold in the story? Well, since the princess is arrested in her childhood it is only logical to turn our attention towards her parents and to examine their roles in the story.

The Sultan and the Sultana as the threshold guardians in the story

The true cause of Sleeping Beauty’s stunted growth is caused by her parents’ inadequate nurturing skills. After all, it was her father’s error of judgment, his lack of consideration for the Thirteenth Wise Woman that aroused her vengefulness to which the unfortunate Sleeping Beauty happened to be the recipient?  

And in Pamela L. Travers’s retelling, the Sultan was not quite happy with the birth of the child:

The Sultan received the news with satisfaction tempered with disappointment. “I could have asked for nothing better, except, of course, a son. … we need a successor to the throne and a son would have been very useful.” At that, as though she felt herself to be unwelcomed, the baby set up a doleful weeping…

Now after this, how can one expect the Sultan to be fully involved and interested in his daughter’s growth?

Why did Pamela add this detail to the story? Was that her experience too? It is possible. She was the eldest of three daughters. Maybe her father longed for a son too…Maybe this is why Pamela felt inadequate…

Still, the responsibility of Sleeping Beauty’s fate does not all fall on the Sultan’s shoulders. The Sultana does have a role to play even though Pamela L. Travers does not dwell much on it in her Afterword. But curiously enough, in her retelling, she elaborates on the  Sultana’s longing for a child:

Here,” she (the Sultana) said touching her belly. “And here,” she said, touching her breast. “And here” she said, touching the inner crease of her elbow, “I ache for what I lack”.

And then after the baby is born:

“…the Sultana holding her baby in her arms, was utterly content. She had no ache anywhere and she felt that she lacked nothing.”

Now, if Sleeping Beauty was filling the hole in her mother’s heart how can one expect the Sultana to be willing to let go of Sleeping Beauty and set her free when the time comes? Isn’t the passivity of the Sultana and her unwillingness to contradict her husband in the story just that, the unwillingness to lead her daughter into maidenhood.

Could it be that the story is telling us that Sleeping Beauty’s fate is the consequence of her parents’ mistakes; that no matter how many virtues a child may posses if those virtues are not recognized by the parents, chances are the child will remain unconscious of its intrinsic value, unless brought to its attention by some loving presence, in this case the prince. 

The Sultan’s and Sultana’s absence from the palace on the fatidic day of Sleeping Beauty’s fifteenth birthday is another representation of their inadequate parenting, their inability to lead their child to the next stage of her life.

And by choosing to turn the key on the door leading to the unknown, Sleeping Beauty begins her adventure into the underworld of her unconscious mind. The adventure to which Gurdjieff, Pamela’s guru, called his followers:

The real adventure to which he (Gurdjieff) calls any man courageous enough to attempt it is that of daring to look down into the abyss of his own unconscious. Can we, like Theseus, enter our inner labyrinth, at the risk of never meeting the Minotaur, of never seeing daylight again, deceived by an infernal game of echoes and false exits as in a never-ending course of psychoanalysis.

René Zuber, “Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?

What goes on in Sleeping Beauty’s unconscious mind?  The story doesn’t tell, but the fact that the princess needs the prince’s help suggests that she was lost into her inner labyrinth. Why didn’t Pamela explore that aspect? I wish someone asked her that question?

Another thought comes to mind. I read an excerpt somewhere from one of Gurdjieff’s talks (which unfortunately I cannot trace back now and quote) and which is relevant here because it deals with family history and karmic bonds. The basic idea was that we all, in our lives, pay for our ancestors’ actions. It would have been interesting to ask Pamela about that too…

Now, why was it that Pamela L. Travers did not see the most simple and obvious interpretation of the story? Why was she looking for some other mystical explanation?  Could it be that she was Sleeping Beauty in her own life?