Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers

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9780743299503: Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers

The story of Mary Poppins, the quintessentially English and utterly magical children's nanny, is remarkable enough. She flew into the lives of the unsuspecting Banks family in a children's book that was instantly hailed as a classic, then became a household name when Julie Andrews stepped into the starring role in Walt Disney's hugely successful and equally classic film. Now she is a Broadway sensation all over again.

But the story of Mary Poppins's creator, as this first biography reveals, is just as unexpected and remarkable. The fabulous English nanny was conceived by an Australian, Pamela Lyndon Travers, who in 1924 came to London from Sydney as a journalist. She became involved with theosophy and traveled in the literary circles of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Most famously, she clashed with "the great convincer" Walt Disney over the adaptation of the Mary Poppins books into film.

Travers, whom Disney accused of vanity for "thinking you [Travers] know more about Mary Poppins than I do," was as tart and opinionated as Julie Andrews's big-screen Mary Poppins was cheery and porcelain beautiful. "You've got the nose for it," Travers candidly assessed the star. Yet it was a love of mysticism and magic that shaped P. L. Travers's life as well as the character of Mary Poppins. The clipped, strict and ultimately mysterious nanny was the conception of someone who remained thoroughly inscrutable and enigmatic to the end of her ninety-six years.

"Who is P. L. Travers?" the American press inquired of "this unknown Englishwoman" whose creation resulting in Hollywood gold had won her international fame. Valerie Lawson's illuminating biography, Mary Poppins, She Wrote, provides the first and only glimpse into the mind of a writer who fervently believed that "Everyday life is the miracle."

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About the Author:

Valerie Lawson is a feature writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. Her previous books are Connie Sweetheart and The Allens Affair. She lives in Sydney and London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Mary Poppins, She Wrote 1

The Real Mr. Banks


Helen Lyndon Goff had two fathers. One was real. The other she imagined. The traces of both men can be found in a third father, the completely fictional George Banks, the melancholy head of the household in the adventures of Mary Poppins. Mr. Banks was a banker, but he represented more than a pillar of the City of London with bowler and furled umbrella, grumbling about his personal finances and the chaos of his Chelsea household. Mr. Banks hired Mary Poppins to create order from that chaos, and, though he never went with her on one of her heavenly adventures, he knew instinctively that Mary Poppins was magic.

Helen Lyndon Goff said she invented both George Banks and the practically perfect Mary Poppins “mainly to please myself.” Mr. Banks fulfilled many roles. He was the father, and lover, Lyndon wished she had, this whimsical bank manager who lives with his family at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London, where, one fantastic day, Mary Poppins flew in with the East Wind.

But instead of Mr. Banks, Helen Lyndon had Travers Robert Goff. He was nowhere near good enough. Lyndon took the best of him, though—what she remembered from her childhood—and enhanced the rest. The result was a composite Irish hero: glamorous, languid and charming, a father she later described to others as the handsome supervisor of a sugarcane plantation in far away, subtropical Australia, “the deep country,” as she called it. Born in Ireland, this idealized, imagined father strode the cane fields of northern Queensland in a white silk suit, floppy white hat, gold earrings and scarlet cummerbund, surrounded by faithful servants and with a barn stocked with every sort of conveyance: a four-wheeler, hansom cab, old howdah, and an elegant sledge along with carts, wagons and sulkies.1

In truth, her father was a bank manager before he was demoted to bank clerk. He died in his early forties, his life unfulfilled, his family left destitute and forced onto the charity of rich but emotionally chilly relatives. Travers Robert Goff drank too much and wanted too much that he never attained. His legacy was establishing in his daughter’s mind the idea that she was not Australian at all, but a misfit in the Antipodes, a woman destined to spend her life in search of the fairy tales, poetry and romance of her father’s Irish fantasies. She even took his first name as her surname. As a journalist, writer and actress she used the pseudonym Pamela Lyndon Travers.

Travers Goff was a bamboozler. The tales he told his family and friends grew more romantic the more he drank. He liked to boast that his life was drenched in the Celtic Twilight, in the land of Yeats and George William Russell. But as much as he admired the poets and dramatists of the nineteenth century, he was most in love with the myths of ancient Ireland, and of the fictional personification of Ireland, immortalized in a play by William Butler Yeats, Cathleen ni Houlihan. Fairies, pixies and elves meant everything. The Great Serpent of his adopted land meant nothing. Even in Australia “he had Ireland round him like a cloak very much the way James Joyce wrapped Dublin around him even when he was in Paris.”2

Helen Lyndon Goff followed Mary Poppins’s greatest precept: Never Explain. She certainly never explained why she favored the cane-field version of her father’s life. It may have been a case of simple snobbery. Lyndon preferred to be the daughter of a gentleman farmer in the tropical outback than the daughter of a pen-pusher in the back office of a provincial bank. Whatever the reason, false versions of her father and her own early years in Australia shadowed her through life, and even after her death. Her obituary in The New York Times claimed that she was the daughter of a sugar planter, while the Guardian’s obituary writer believed she was the granddaughter of the premier of Queensland, who was also the founder of one of Australia’s biggest companies, Colonial Sugar Refining.

The confusion was understandable, considering Goff’s own reluctance to reveal his origins, even to his wife. She told the doctor who signed his death certificate that he was born in County Wexford, Ireland. Lyndon herself said, “My father came from a very old Irish family, Irish gentry, what we call landed people...He was a younger son, and younger sons were sent to explore the world...what made him go to Australia I don’t know. He was Anglo Irish, and the Irish are great wanderers.”3

Goff was born at home in Queens Road, Deptford, London, in December 1863, the second son of a shipping agent, Henry Lyndon Bradish Goff, and his wife Charlotte Cecilia. He did have Irish connections, though, with relatives whose surname was Davis-Goff, who lived in both County Wexford and near Galway, in the west of Ireland.

As a young man, not yet twenty, Travers Goff sailed from London to Ceylon, where he took up tea planting before drifting on to Australia. He settled in New South Wales, and then, in about 1891, moved to the colony of Queensland. It is possible he was an overseer on a sugarcane farm at some time before his marriage. A portrait dated 1896, taken in a Sydney photographer’s studio, shows him with a droopy, oversized handlebar mustache, posed stiffly in a white suit, white shoes and pith helmet. There are similarities in the costume to photographs of sugar plantation overseers in the 1880s. But his outfit could also be a nostalgic acknowledgment of the clothes he wore in Ceylon.

Whatever his original Australian occupation, Goff did not remain long in any town. His name does not appear in any residential directory of New South Wales or Queensland from the 1880s. But by July 23, 1898, he had settled in Maryborough, where he joined the Australian Joint Stock Bank. As branch manager, he earned a salary of £250 a year as well as a servants allowance of £50.4

For a single man, there were worse places to be than the pretty subtropical town of Maryborough, a river port about 250 kilometers north of Brisbane, named after the Mary River, which flows through it. Like many of the coastal towns of Queensland, Maryborough looked a little like colonial Ceylon, with its wooden buildings—lacy, delicate—built to withstand the worst of the sweltering summer months. Maryborough was proud of its town hall, and Queens Park, laid out in the London manner with ornamental trees. A gun recovered from a shipwreck in the Torres Strait was fired each day at one o’clock. By the 1880s, Maryborough’s diversions included an Orchestra Society, band concerts held in the cool of the night, circuses, vaudeville, and moonlight excursions on the river. Just before Goff arrived, in the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, motion pictures came to town.

Maryborough lived on two industries: timber and sugar. In the decade to 1880, the sugar industry boomed with more than forty juice mills and sugar mills in the district. But the boom gave way to a drought that saw planters forced to mortgage their properties and unable to pay off their loans. Bankers, such as the directors of Goff’s bank, fretted over the low price of sugar and the worrying outlook for the industry. They began to foreclose, to cut plantations into farming blocks and offer them for sale.

Australian banks were badly hung over from the 1880s boom, and the Australian Joint Stock Bank was no exception. By the time Goff joined in 1898, it claimed to be the third-biggest bank in New South Wales and Queensland, but a crisis of the early 1890s was still fresh in the minds of its directors. The AJS Bank relied heavily on London for its deposits. Bank problems in England in the early 1890s led directly to the AJS Bank closing its doors in April 1893, reopening two months later under a scheme of reconstruction.5

The roller-coaster ride of Australian banks in the 1890s continued to affect Travers Goff, professionally and personally, until his death. Lyndon’s father’s experiences, combined with bank problems involving her mother’s family, remained in her mind for life. Both spilled over into her portrait of George Banks, whose personality was as ambivalent as her father’s. In Mr. Banks, Lyndon created a worrier who dreamed of the stars, but had to go to his bank every day except Sundays and bank holidays. There he sat in a big chair at a big desk and made money. The Banks children, perhaps like little Helen Lyndon, thought he manufactured the coins himself, cutting out pennies and shillings and half-crowns and threepences, and bringing them home in his black Gladstone bag. Sometimes, when George Banks had no money for the children, he would say “The bank is broken.” The two oldest Banks children, Jane and Michael, counted their money carefully into their money boxes, prudent like father: “Sixpence and four pennies—that’s tenpence, and a halfpenny and a threepenny bit.”6

In much the same way, Lyndon as an adult scrutinized her investments, asking bankers, lawyers and agents to constantly check the balances, never thinking she had enough. Her fears came not just from her father’s problems, but from the foolish investments of her mother’s uncle, Boyd Morehead, son of a dour, careful Scot. Boyd was the black sheep of the canny Moreheads, a Scottish family described by Lyndon as “very rich.” She boasted that her mother, Margaret Morehead, was “educated in London and Paris and, until she married, always had her own maid.”7 From her mother’s family came Lyndon’s innate snobbery and prudence. Unlike the Goffs—elusive and difficult to pinpoint in their origins—the Moreheads’ story is a wide open book, set out in dictionaries of biography and the records of some of Australia’s oldest companies.

The first Morehead to settle in Australia was Robert Archibald Alison Morehead, the third son of the Episcopal dean of Edinburgh. Morehead, a manufacturer of shawls and cloth in Scotland, decided to move to a warmer climate when he feared he had tuberculosis. Late in 1840 he was appointed manager of the Scottish Australian Company, and with his wife, Helen Buchanan Dunlop, arrived in Sydney the following year. He was twenty-eight. Soon after, two sons were born, Robert Charles in 1842 and Boyd Dunlop a year later. The family moved to 1 O’Connell Street in the heart of the city. There, the Morehead family dining room opened up right into the Scottish Australian Company’s office. Soon to move nearby were two Sydney institutions, the Australian Club (for men only), and the Sydney Morning Herald. At O’Connell Street, Helen Morehead gave birth to two more babies: Helen Christina, and the youngest, Jane Katherine.

The Moreheads traveled often, and in style. P&O liners carried the whole family back and forth from England. The boys were educated in Scotland and at Sydney Grammar, but the girls were taught at home by governesses. Life on O’Connell Street left its imprint on the fictional home of the Banks family, 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Lyndon was told as a child how the four Morehead children lunched with their parents but took their evening meal in the schoolroom with the governess. The servants included a cook, laundress, housemaid and parlormaid. The natural good humor of the children upset their father; they liked to shock him by sliding down the banisters and by singing in bed early in the evening when the bank clerks could hear the racket, downstairs in the office.

In 1861 Helen Morehead died, in her forties, leaving her husband to raise their four children, now in their teens. The youngest, Jane, just thirteen, was sent to boarding school at Carthona in Darling Point. Her big sister Helen learned how to become the matriarch and mothering nanny of the family. “At fifteen,” she later wrote, “I had to take up housekeeping. I was terrified at having to order servants about and I am afraid I was not much of a housekeeper but I did my best for father and he helped me all he could.”8 She never married, unlike all her siblings. Robert was the first of the children to leave home, marrying Maria Jacobs in 1867. Five years later, Jane married the Englishman William Rose. The last to marry was Boyd in 1873. He and his bride, Annabella Ranken, moved to Brisbane. Some of these nineteenth-century Moreheads later appeared in different guises in Mary Poppins books. Two of the Banks children were Jane and Annabel, named after Jane Morehead and Annabella Morehead.

The Moreheads’ comfortable early life was funded by their father’s wise decisions. Robert Archibald Alison Morehead had arrived in Sydney with about £30,000 to invest for the Scottish Australian Company and had quickly moved into the moneylending business. He bought up mortgages and lent at the high interest rate of 12.5 percent. “Reaping the harvest of mortgages,” he called it. In this way, he was able to buy property in Sydney, Melbourne and the country. Morehead also moved into the commission and agency business and advanced money against produce, especially wool. He developed coal-mining interests in Newcastle and bought pastoral land in Queensland and in the Gulf country, including the huge property Bowen Downs.

He retired in 1884, having built up a business empire embracing pastoral holdings, city property and productive coal mines.9 But Morehead’s private life was sadly out of kilter. Not only had his wife died, but his eldest child, Robert Charles, also died before him. Robert, a clerk in his father’s business, was only thirty-two when he died of tuberculosis in 1874. (As an adult, Lyndon continually but mistakenly believed she had contracted tuberculosis and traveled the world in search of warm, tranquil places, dying a hundred deaths in fear of its grip.)

Because of Robert Charles Morehead’s early death, and the subsequent remarriage of his widow, Maria, their daughter, Margaret, was left in the care of her spinster aunt. This unplanned outcome, involving two Morehead wills, affected Margaret deeply. It also affected the upbringing of her daughter, Lyndon, and meant both women came into the orbit of a woman who was the prototype for the character of Mary Poppins.

Robert Charles Morehead knew he was dying. Four days before his death, he signed a will appointing his father as trustee of his estate. He left £700 in trust for his wife Maria and his baby daughter Margaret. At the same time, his father, Robert Archibald Alison Morehead, changed his will. His trustees were to set aside £3,000 to be invested by his son, Boyd, and son-in-law, William Rose. The two men were to be trustees for Maria and Margaret.

Six years later, in 1870, Maria remarried, much to the anger of the old man. That year, in another codicil, Robert Archibald Alison Morehead directed that Maria was to get just £500 from his estate on condition that she surrender “entirely all control over Margaret Agnes Morehead. Failing such surrender, the £500...is to pass into my general estate.” Little Margaret went into his own custody, the victim of very tense relations between her mother and grandfather. She lived with her maiden aunt Helen, and her grandfather, until he died in 1885.

Just before old man Morehead died he added a final codicil to his will, giving Helen the right to bequeath her share of his estate, which amounted to £15,000, in whatever way she wanted. With his death, she “assumed the position and privileges of the head of the family...she retained them until she herself followed him to the vault.”10

After Morehead’s death, Margaret Morehead remained in the care of her Aunt Helen and her servants in Woollahra, one of the most desirable suburbs in Sydney. From then on, Margaret was raised by this substitute mother whom she called “Aunt Ellie.” Aunt Ellie gave her the rules for life,...

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