P.L. Travers

A Remembrance of the Author of “Mary Poppins” (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

PL Travers in the 1950s. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

P. L. Travers died recently, at the age of 90. Perhaps it was wrong for me to think that she would always be here for us, for me. She was the wisest woman I ever met.

Travers wrote the “Mary Poppins” books. They are brilliant and profound works, but few people seem willing to overcome their prejudices and entertain that possibility. When I’ve pressed those books on friends, their eyes seem to fill with saccharine memories (of Disney’s film and Julie Andrews and her umbrella) and they smile indulgently as if this is one more proof of my eccentricity.

I once asked Travers what she thought about the Disney film, and she replied obliquely: “When I left the theater, I was weeping.” That was her conversational manner. She left it for you to consider whether they were tears of joy or (as I assumed) prompted by some other emotion. In any event, she later said, the book and the film occupy two different worlds.

I never had the audacity to call her by her given name of Pamela. She told me once how she abhorred the American custom of seizing on people’s first names (“as if they were a right rather than something to be given”). This came up as she was discussing the “sacred and inward nature of the name”–something she had learned while living for several years with the Navajos, something she linked to the name-guessing in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. She was always making those kinds of links. Throughout her life she took E. M. Forester’s famous words as her mission statement: “Only connect.”

And so she saw all of life, even current events, as reincarnations of ancient and timeless stories. She once wrote about Patty Hearst:

“It seems to me that she has embodied the myth of Persephone: kidnapped from the sunny fields of rich living, taken into the underworld, eating its fruit, falling in love with her dark Symbionic lord, and all the time her mother searching the upper world for her.”

We met when I was a graduate student and she was a visitor to the University of Connecticut. After dinner, I presumed to enlighten her with my bookish wisdom about yoga and Zen and mysticism. I was full of myself in a youthful way, and she was silent and polite and curious. Later, to my chagrin, I learned how well-versed she was on these topics: how she did yoga daily, had studied for several years in Kyoto under a Zen master, and had been an intimate of Gurdjieff and was a practicing teacher in that circle.

Nonetheless, and in a perhaps forgiving way, we hit it off. And I asked whether I might come to New York to interview her. She agreed and had only one suggestion: that I first read the work of “AE”–the Irish poet and mystic George Russell. Doing my homework, I was surprised to learn how as a young person she had been part of the “Celtic Twilight,” good friends with Russell, William Butler Yeats and others.

The afternoon of our interview, sitting on the rattan furniture in her Manhattan apartment, I felt like a character in “Mary Poppins” when the children go to the zoo and listen to the wise snake, the Hamadryad. Irish by birth, Travers offered her wisdom in stories. When I asked about her writing habits, for example, she told me this anecdote:

I was a young woman traveling by train to Dublin when I realized I would be passing by the Isle of Innisfree, the place Yeats had written about in his famous poem. And I was seized by an idea. I got off the train in a rush and hired a boatman to take me across to the island. On the way, a great storm came up and I didn’t know whether we would survive the crossing. But we reached the shore and I found a roan tree and broke off a huge bundle of branches. Then we made our way back again.

Soaked to the bone, I pulled this huge bundle of branches onto the railway carriage, much to the amazement of the other passengers. And when I got to Dublin, I rushed to Yeats’ home. His housekeeper met me at the door. I’m afraid I was a sorry sight, dripping wet, clutching this huge gathering of branches. The housekeeper took the branches from me and ushered me into another room to dry off. By the time my clothes were dry, I had grown mortified by my behavior and was about to slink out when the housekeeper said, ‘The master will see you now.’

Yeats was bubbling over with enthusiasm. His canary had just produced an egg and he was eager for me to see it. As we talked, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there was a vase on his desk with a tiny slip of roan from the huge bundle of branches I had brought. That’s when I learned you can say more with less.

The afternoon passed like that. We spoke of Humpty Dumpty, the sensuality of Mary Poppins, how her book Friend Monkey had been inspired by the Hindu myth of Hanuman, the Zen expression “summoned not created,” her notion that her books may be appealing to children since she had never forgotten her own childhood (“I can, as it were, turn aside and consult it”), and the fact that she never wrote for children but was “grateful that children have included my books in their treasure trove.” It was one of the richest afternoons of my life.

Hesitantly, I finally advanced my own interpretation of “Mary Poppins.” Taking a clue from AE and his remark that Mary Poppins reminded him of Kali, the mother goddess of India, I laid out an elaborate interpretation of the book in terms of myths of the mother goddess. Such a moment, an encounter between an author and a critic, can be awkward. The author can explode and say that the critic is talking nonsense: What do critics ever know! But Travers sat on the edge of her couch in rapt attention, pondering every idea. Then after some moments of some silence, she began:

The book was entirely spontaneous and not invented, not thought out. I never said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll write a story about the Mother Goddess and call her Mary Poppins.’ It didn’t happen like that. But let me tell you. . . .

Once, when I was in the United States, I went to see a psychologist. It was during the war, when I was feeling very cut off from England and couldn’t get across those mine-swept waters. I thought, well, these people in psychology always want to see the kinds of things you’ve done, so I took as many of my books as were then written. I went and met the man, and he gave me an appointment. And at the next appointment the books were handed back to me with the words: ‘You really don’t need me. All you need to do is read your own books.’

That was so interesting to me. I began to see, thinking about it, that people who write spontaneously as I do, not with an invention, never really read their own books to learn from them. And I set myself to reading them. Every now and then I found myself saying, ‘But this is true. How did she know?’ And then I realized she is me. Now I can say much more about Mary Poppins because what was known to me in my blood and instincts has now come up to the surface in my head.

So, I am interested in what critics have to say about my books; I read everything I can get my hands on. And I’ve spent years pondering the questions I’ve been asked, very perceptive questions by readers, because they can sometimes reveal myself to me.

P. L. Travers will be missed. I will miss her. But as her remarks suggest, what it is that is her does live on in her books. “Mary Poppins” is the place to begin. “Friend Monkey” is an unrecognized masterpiece. And What the Bee Knowsis a collection of essays, full of her stories and ideas and conversational voice, and perhaps the closest thing to her autobiography.

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 16, 1996). For a discussion of the Disney movie about her, see my “Saving Mr. Banks, But Throwing P.L. Travers Under the Bus.” My interview with Travers appeared in the Paris Review (Winter 1982).

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01. October 2016 by
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