Thursday, March 18, 2010

Women in Folklore Month: P. L. Travers

Most likely if you are at all familiar with P. L. Travers, you know her as the author of Mary Poppins.

I'll admit that for once I much prefer the Disney version of Mary Poppins to Travers' original. Perhaps it was order of exposure, but I was disappointed in the books when I finally got to them. My experience wasn't improved by seeing the more recent stage musical that tried to keep more in line with Travers' original vision per her instructions. The giant menacing toys left a bad taste in my mouth, for one. And I really wish the Sherman Brothers had been allowed to write the newer songs although I admit the new "Practically Perfect" does make a good earworm. But come on, the Sherman Brothers also gave us The Slipper and the Rose, another soundtrack I love as much as I love Mary Poppins. I really think they are undervalued all too often. And don't get me wrong, I understand Travers' sense of betrayal over the changes made to her characters and stories. I just think Disney actually made some good decisions on that one. He was thinking a few generations ahead of her in parenting styles and disciplines and such.

However, trying to steer myself back on track, I share Travers' fascination with fairy tales--so many fantasy authors get their start there!--and appreciate her work in that area. She actually wrote two books directly about fairy tales and myths. The first is About the Sleeping Beauty (1975) in which she wrote an essay about the tale and then shared five versions from around the world. Not groundbreaking stuff for scholars, but considering its aim at the armchair reader, the audience that the publisher hoped would buy the book because her name was on the cover, well, that was rather innovative. It's rare to see books collecting variants of tales for armchair readers with the possible exception of Cinderella tales.

About the Sleeping Beauty (1975)

Five versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale are accompanied by the author's own version and an essay on the meaning of fairy tales, "The Sleeping Beauty" in particular.

The book is usually very expensive, but never fear, except for the essays, versions of the tales are also found on the web:

Briar Rose
La Belle au Bois Dormant
Sola, Luna, e Talia
The Queen of Tubber Tintye or The King of Erin and the Queen of the Lonesome Island
The Petrified Mansion

Travers took a more scholarly bent with her other title What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story (1989).

A collection of essays, stories and reminiscences, many of which were first published in the US magazine "Parabola". The essays are often reflections on the themes of myth and folklore: The Heroic Quest, The Black Sheep, The Foolish Young Son, drawing on a lifelong immersion in world mythology. Ranging from Hindu creation stories through Celtic legend and the "Dreamtime" of the Australian Aborigines to Central European tales of wicked fairies and miller's daughters, the author sets out her faith in the poetic truth of these fables. Interspersed are memories of her Australian childhood, of the friendships she formed as a young woman in Ireland with AE and Yeats and of her stay on an American Indian reservation where she was driven about by a surly cowboy.

If you would like to read more about Travers, there is a fairly recent biography by Valerie Lawson.

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

Review from Publishers Weekly:

The original Mary Poppins was not as "saccharine" as the movie character, says Lawson, and her bittersweet biography of the supernanny's elusive creator, Travers (1899–1996), convincingly portrays a writer who created her character out of the childhood sorrows that haunted her. Drawing on archival sources and private papers, Lawson, a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, sensitively traces Travers's emotionally deprived girlhood in Australia, where she was raised largely by an elderly aunt; her early career as an actress and columnist; and her 1924 emigration to London, where she worked as a journalist and theater reviewer. Emphasizing how Travers's desire for the father who had died when she was seven affected both her life and work, Lawson explores mythological and literary influences on the six Mary Poppins stories, written over 54 years (the first was published in 1934). Never married, Travers adopted an Irish baby boy; Lawson movingly reveals the emotional fallout of their failed relationship. After detailing Travers's fussy movie negotiations with Walt Disney and the downplaying of her authorship in the 1964 hit film, Lawson captures the melancholy of Travers's retreat into isolation and old age.

Review from Booklist:

This ambitious biography of P. L. Travers was first published in Australia in 1999. The occasion for this American edition is the imminent opening of the Broadway musical version of Travers' timeless, "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" tales of Mary Poppins, the imperious nanny who arrived one morning on the East Wind. It turns out there was a lot of the difficult Travers in Poppins. The early death of Pamela's father (she was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia) left the family dependent on wealthy Great-Aunt Ellie, another early inspiration for Poppins. The untimely bereavement also inspired Travers' lifelong search for a father substitute, first in the Irish poet AE (George Russell) and later in such dubious gurus as Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti. The translation of the Poppins stories into the celebrated Disney film brought Travers a decade of international fame, which had declined considerably by the time of her death at age 96 in 1996. This meticulously researched but overlong biography may help restore a diminished literary reputation, but its unsparing portrait of an exceedingly unsympathetic human being will win Travers no new posthumous friends.

In other words, Travers was a prickly personality and not as charming or even warm and fuzzy as her alter ego, but she is fascinating all the same.

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