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The 1934 publication of Mary Poppins launched a series of books featuring the much-loved children’s nanny. Her creator, P. L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers, achieved lasting fame thanks to the Poppins books and particularly thanks to the Disney film, which premiered inAugust 1964. The Library holds her literary papers.
P. L. Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff, on 9 August 1899, in Maryborough, Queensland. She was the eldest of three sisters. Travers’ childhood was marred by the early death of her father in 1907. Soon afterwards, the family moved to Bowral in New South Wales. Depressed following the death of her husband, Travers’ mother attempted to drown herself in a creek near their home, leaving the three girls alone in the house. To comfort her sisters, eleven-year-old Travers created the story of a winged horse travelling the world in search of an unknown destination.
Although her mother’s suicide attempt failed, Travers lost any remaining feelings of childhood security. She later believed that the magic horse was the genesis of the character of Mary Poppins. Influenced by her father’s early tales of Irish folklore, Travers was captivated by European myth and legend and she felt a strong sense of displacement in Australia. She started writing as a schoolgirl in Sydney and turned to journalism in 1923.
Travers left Australia in 1924 for England, and remained ambivalent towards her birthplace, returning only once in 1963. In London, Travers’ writing mainly consisted of essays, reviews and poetry. In 1934, Mary Poppins became her first major literary success. Full of symbolism, the book reflected Travers’ ongoing interest in religion and mysticism. Poppins herself has been variously interpreted as a ‘wise woman’ or ‘mother goddess’, appearing from nowhere when needed and disappearing when her task is complete. The insecurity and transience of childhood is also a recurring theme, perhaps alluding to the instability of Travers’ own youth.
Her literary papers contain interviews, essays and articles relating to the themes found in the Poppins books, and give a strong sense of Travers’ reluctance to 'explain’ the character of the enigmatic nanny.
After her first success in 1934, Travers wrote 10 more books featuring Mary Poppins, (the last published in 1988), but it is Julie Andrews' portrayal of Poppins in the 1964 Disney film that most of us remember. Compared with Travers’ Poppins, the Disney nanny was prettier and much less fierce. Travers wrote lengthy notes explaining how the film script differed from the books, and changed much of the ‘Americanised’ dialogue. Her annotations, correspondence and film memorabilia are contained in her literary papers. Travers’ interference led to tension between author and studio, until finally the relationship deteriorated so much that Walt Disney had to be coaxed into inviting her to the premiere. Travers was never happy with the film version, despite her approval of Julie Andrews as Poppins. Ironically, the film secured her financial future and sparked a resurgence of interest in the Poppins books.
Disney’s film ensured that Travers’ creation, Mary Poppins, would live on in the hearts of children for decades to come. The State Library of New South Wales acquired Travers’ literary papers in 1989 and further material in 1993. Pamela Lyndon Travers died in London in 1996.
Emma Gray, Librarian, Academics and Rare Books
Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back / coloured illustrations by Mary Shephard
- Mary Eleanor Jessie Knox née Shepard was born on Christmas day 1909 and illustrated a number of editions of Travers Mary Poppins books. Her father was E. H. Shepard, a famous illustrator of children's literature including Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne. The Library has a number of illustrations from 'Mary Poppins' and 'Mary Poppins Comes Back' digitised in its online catalogue.
- Guide to the 'Papers of P. L. Travers', held by the State Library of New South Wales