Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers
by Valerie Lawson
Review by Colleen Cahill
Simon & Schuster Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780743298162
Date: 10 October 2006 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Anyone who only knows Mary Poppins from the movie is shocked when they read the books: far from a sweet, loveable nanny, the real Mary Poppins is cantankerous, complex and shows many more layers than her cinematic clone. The author is also full of surprises: she was not from England, P.L. Travers was not her birth name and she lead a life that many, perhaps even Miss Poppins, would find a bit radical. In this first ever biography of Travers we get a look at the complicated life of a classic children's author and find a person who is just as starting her books.
My first shock was to discover that Travers was born in Australia: the creator of these quintessentially English books never set foot on that island until she was twenty-three years old. Secondly, although Travers gave us the oh-so proper Mary Poppins', her originally career was as an actress, something not totally respectable in the 1920's. Unhappy with her name, she changed from the boring Helen Lydon Goff to Pamela Travers, a much more popular and sophisticated name. She may have done this partly because her early life was not generally happy: living with an ne'er-do-well alcoholic father life was exciting, but also unpredictable. Occasionally she was housed by a Great Aunt, one of the models for Mary Poppins. Always right and with a cultivated superior attitude, this relation would also bestow lovely gifts with the air of a fairy godmother. Her upbringing left Travers restlessness and searching for a spiritual home. After longing for England and Ireland through her youth, she was somewhat disappointed by the reality of living there. In a constant search for inner peace, Travers also tried numerous paths, exploring various philosophies and world views. As Valerie Lawson points out, the all these experiences were woven through the various Mary Poppins stories, giving them a depth beyond many other children's books.
This biography is an honest view of a complicated woman. With understanding and even a touch of sympathy, Lawson describes Travers various attempts to fit in society, most of which seemed to fail even after she became a famous author. Lawson also points out that many of the plots in the books come directly from Travers' life. On her third birthday, Travers received a Royal Doulton bowl with three boys playing horses which later appeared in "Bad Wednesday", a story in Mary Poppins Comes Back. As a child, Travers would make miniature parks, much as Jane Banks does in "The Park in the Park" from Mary Poppins in the Park. It is certain that had Travers lived a different life, we would have received a totally different kind of Mary Poppins. The author and her creation were very closely bound and Lawson does a good job of showing the many sides of this complicated puzzle.
While not a book for children, this biography is recommend for adult fans who remember Mary Poppins and want to delve into how this curious creature, one of respectability and magic, was formed. Just like the stories she wrote, P.L. Travers' life is full of surprises.