Issue 86, Winter 1982
P. L. Travers’s terraced house in Chelsea has a pink door, the color of the cover of Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane. In the hall is an antique rocking horse. Her study is at the top of the house: a white-walled room, crowded with books and papers, its austerity relieved by a modern rocking chair. Pamela Travers, tall and handsome, with short whitish hair, is a strong woman of great humor and charm. Once a dancer, she moves smoothly and gracefully; once an actress, she speaks with the deep clear tones of another era. Before answering a question she sometimes closes her eyes as if in meditation. There is something both mythic and modern about her. She was wearing a blue-and-white flowing dress and white pumps and silver ethnic jewelry. As she spoke, her tongue sometimes darted from the corner of her mouth, reminding one perhaps of the hamadryad in Mary Poppins—the wise snake that lectures to the transfixed Banks children. She is a master of pith and anecdote, as shown in the story she tells about paying a visit to Yeats. A young woman then, traveling by train in Ireland, it occurred to her to stop and bring a gift to the poet. She persuaded a boatman to take her to the Isle of Innisfree, where she collected great branches of rowan for her gift. A storm came up as she struggled with her branches into the train car. Finally, at Yeats’s door in Dublin, a startled maid took her in and dried her clothes by the fire. By this time, Travers, quite embarrassed, was planning an opportune escape, but as she made for the door the servant told her that Yeats was ready to see her. She ascended the stairs to meet a grandfatherly Yeats who proudly showed her an egg his canary had just laid. As they talked, Travers noticed on his desk a vase with a small slip from the colossus of branches she had brought. “That’s when I learned,” Travers concludes, “that you can say more with less.”
That recalls your meeting with Æ [George Russell]. You must have had great courage as a young woman to call on these venerable Irishmen.
P. L. TRAVERS
I read Æ’s poems when I was a child in Australia. Later I came to England to see my relatives. But before I did that, I sent a poem to Æ, who was then editing The Irish Statesman, and with all the arrogance of youth I didn’t put any letter with it explaining myself or saying that I was Irish or anything. I just sent it with a stamped addressed envelope.
And sure enough, the stamped envelope came back. But in it was a check for two guineas and a letter that said, “I’m accepting your poem, which is a very good one, and I think it could not have been written by anyone who wasn’t Irish. If you’re ever coming to Ireland, be sure to come and see me.” Since I was going to Ireland, I did go to see him and was greatly welcomed and more poems were taken. I felt immediate mutuality with him, this great elderly man bothering about me. But he bothered about all young poets. They were always welcome.
After our visit he said to me, “On your way back through Dublin you come and see me again.” I said, “Of course, I will.” But when the time arrived and I was back in Dublin, an awful timidity came upon me. I thought he was a great man and I shouldn’t take up his time; he was doing this for politesse. And so I refrained from going to see him and went back to England. Sometime later when I opened the door, there was Æ. He said to me, “You’re a faithless girl. You promised to see me on your way back through Dublin and you didn’t.” And he added, “I meant to give you my books then and, as you weren’t there, I brought them.” And there were all his books.
He sought you out, then?
Oh, he didn’t come to London specially to see me. He had come to see his old friend George Moore. But he took me in during that time, and had time for me. I often went out to Dublin after that and saw a good deal of Æ and Yeats and James Stephens. Among the young people like myself was Frank O’Connor, who used to be called Michael O’Donovan. He was one of Æ’s protégés. There were many of them.
Æ’s reaction to Mary Poppins is very interesting. You report his saying, “Had [Mary Poppins] lived in another age, in the old times to which she certainly belongs, she would undoubtedly have had long golden tresses, a wreath of flowers in one hand, and perhaps a spear in the other. Her eyes would have been like the sea, her nose comely, and on her feet winged sandals. But, this age being the Kali Yuga, as the Hindus call it, . . . she comes in habiliments suited to it.” It seems that Æ was suggesting that your English nanny was some twentieth-century version of the Mother Goddess Kali.
Indeed, he was throwing me a clue, but I didn’t seize upon that for a long time. I’ve always been interested in the Mother Goddess. Not long ago, a young person, whom I don’t know very well, sent a message to a mutual friend that said: “I’m an addict of Mary Poppins, and I want you to ask P. L. Travers if Mary Poppins is not really the Mother Goddess.” So, I sent back a message: “Well, I’ve only recently come to see that. She is either the Mother Goddess or one of her creatures—that is, if we’re going to look for mythological or fairy-tale origins of Mary Poppins.”
I’ve spent years thinking about it because the questions I’ve been asked, very perceptive questions by readers, have led me to examine what I wrote. The book was entirely spontaneous and not invented, not thought out. I never said, “Well, I’ll write a story about Mother Goddess and call it Mary Poppins.” It didn’t happen like that. I cannot summon up inspiration; I myself am summoned.
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. 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 another appointment. And at the next appointment the books were handed back to me with the words: “You know, you don’t really 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 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 that 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.
Has Mary Poppins changed for you over the years?
Not at all, not at all.
Has she changed for other people, do you think? Has their attitude to her altered at all?
I don’t think that she must change for other people very much; I think that they would be bitterly disappointed. The other day two little boys accosted me in the street and said to me, “You are the lady who wrote Mary Poppins, aren’t you?” And I admitted it, and said, “How do you know?” And they said, “Because we sing in the choir, and the vicar told us.” So, clearly, they had thrown off their surplices and rushed after me to catch me. So I said, “Well, do you like her?” And they both nodded vigorously. I then said, “What is it you like about her?” And one of them said, “Well, she’s so ordinary and then . . .” and having said “and then” he looked around for the proper word, and couldn’t find it. And I said, “You don’t have to say any more. That ‘and then’ says everything.” And the other little boy said, “Yes, and I’m going to marry her when I grow up.” And I saw the first one clench his fists and look very belligerent. I felt there might be trouble and so I said, “Well, we’ll just have to see what she thinks about it, won’t we? And in the meantime, my house is just there—come in and have a lemonade.” So they did. With regard to your question about her altering, I do not think that people who read her would want her to be altered. And what I liked so much about that—I felt it was the highest praise—was that the boy should say, “Well, she’s so ordinary.” But that’s what she is. And it is only through the ordinary that the extraordinary can make itself perceived.