By Verdun Ball
P. L. Travers, author of the acclaimed children’s classic ‘Mary Poppins’ was the pen-name of Helen Lyndon Goff. She’d strong links with Ireland. In the 1960’s she lived in Upper Leeson Street, Dublin, in the house that had once been her father’s home.
“I was brought up Irish, where there was room for my own private world,” Helen once remarked.
Born on 9th August 1899 in Marlborough, Queensland, Australia her mother was Margaret Agnes Goff. Her father, Travers Robert Goff, was of Irish descent. He’d often speak to her about his Irish childhood. Sadly he died of influenza when he was in his early forties.
As a child Helen loved animals and reading fairy tales. When she was 17, using the stage name Pamela Lyndon Travers, she travelled throughout Australia and New Zealand, acting in Shakespearian plays. She’d poems published, some of which had Irish themes.
In 1925 she visited Ireland where she met the well-known writer George William Russell, editor of ‘The Irish Statesman’ who published some of her poems. She was introduced to W.B. Yeats and Oliver St. John Gogarty who fostered her life-long interest in Irish mythology.
In her twenties she went to London where she worked as a Fleet Street reporter. One winter she fell ill. When some children visited her in her Sussex cottage, to entertain them she made up a story about an extraordinary, eccentric nanny, who carried her belongings in a carpet-bag and had an umbrella with a parrot’s head on the handle!
And so, ‘Mary Poppins’ was born. It’s believed Mary Poppins was based on her formidable aunt, Mary Morehead, who looked after the children when their mother died. Like the fictional Mary Poppins, aunt Helen was both ‘bossy and stern’.
Dedicated to her mother and published in 1934, Mary Poppins was a runaway success, selling thousands of copies. After its publication, when she was forty, Helen adopted a baby boy from Ireland who she called Camillus.
However when Walt Disney wanted to make a film based on her work, she flatly refused. But eventually she gave in – after it had taken him almost twenty years to persuade her!
Although Disney advanced her $100,000 for Mary Poppins when she first viewed his adaptation of her book she cried… tears of rage.
“She didn’t like the use of animation in the film and sternly objected,” recalls one film critic.
And later, Helen remarked, “The movie’s script was too pretty. It lacked elements of Mary Poppins’ character.”
Nevertheless, Mary Poppins was undoubtedly one of Disney’s greatest movie triumphs. In 1965 it won five Oscars – including Best Actress for Julie Andrews, Best Music and Best Song for the unforgettable catchy tune, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’.
P.L. Travers, author of ‘Mary Poppins’, died in London on 23rd April, 1996 aged 96.