Whether you know her from the 1964 Disney movie, the Cameron Mackintosh stage musical, or the original series of books first published in 1934, you might be tempted to think of Mary Poppins, as a quintessentially British character.
But you’d be wrong.
Instead, the origins of the magical nanny, who blows in on the East wind and lands at number 17 Cherry Tree Lane, can be traced back to rural Australia.
Mary Poppins’ author, Pamela Lyndon Travers (P.L. Travers), was born Helen Lyndon Goff on the 8th of August 1899 in Maryborough, Queensland.
Born in a bedroom above the bank her father managed, little Helen grew into an avid reader fascinated with fairy tales, poetry, and astronomy. She also loved a trip to the park, and was particularly fond of the Fairy Fountain in Maryborough’s Queen’s Park. (Although it is unclear whether she ever flew a kite there.)
At the age of 7 tragedy struck when Helen’s father, Travers Robert Goff, died of pneumonia leaving the family penniless. With no money, ailing mental health and three girls to raise, Helen’s mother, Margaret, moved the family to Bowral, New South Wales and into the home of the “stern and tender” Great Aunt Ellie.
These events obviously had a profound influence on the author. Although she did not discuss the family tragedy much as an adult (Travers disliked speaking about herself or her creative process) the connections between her early childhood experiences and the events and characters in Mary Poppins are undeniable.
Aside from the trips to the park and the books abundant references to banks (the name of the family and the place Mr Banks spends all his time) there is Mary herself.
Like Traver’s Great Aunt Ellie, the book version of Mary Poppins is “stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving.” She is a woman who brings whimsy, humour and much needed escape into the lives of the Banks children: Jane, Michael, and the twins, John and Barbara.
To Traver’s, Mary Poppins was a mix of “concrete and magic”, a fact she felt Walt Disney fundamentally did not understand about the character when he adapted the story into the 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews.
Travers felt that Julie Andrew’s interpretation of the character was “too nice”. She hated the animation sequences in the film and, according to her biographer, Valerie Lawson, cried in embarrassment at the film’s premiere.
Interestingly, Travers had fought selling the rights to Walt Disney for 20 years before eventually acquiescing apparently out of financial necessity and this period of her life is the depicted in the heavily fictionalised film, Saving Mr. Banks.
Which was also made by Disney. So, watch it with a pinch of salt.
Although Travers didn’t like the film adaptation of Mary Poppins, it did make her rich and while she could have continue to ride the gravy train, selling her other books to Hollywood and hitting the talk-show circuit, the author instead returned to her first loves: stories and storytelling.
By the time she died in 1996, she had written 8 Mary Poppins books, as well as volumes of poetry, short stories, newspaper and magazine articles and non-fiction books. She had also earned an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her service to the arts, and an honorary doctorate from Chatham College, Pittsburg.
P.L. Travers spent her life writing, studying, lecturing on, and exploring stories and their influence on our lives. How very fitting then that the building in which she was born has been transformed into a museum that celebrates the author, her iconic character and the process and pleasure of storytelling.
Even if Travers herself, who expressed a desire not to be memorialised or discussed after her death, would probably have hated it.
The Story Bank is located on the corner of Kent and Richmond Streets, Maryborough, Queensland. At the time of writing this post, entry costs $15 for adults and $7.50 for children.
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