A Spoonful of Sugar Won't Help

By Benson Bobrick,
who received the American Academy of Arts and Letters literature award in 2002 and is the author of "The Fated Sky: Astrology in History"
Wednesday, December 6, 2006


The Life of P.L. Travers

By Valerie Lawson

Simon & Schuster. 401 pp. $25

P.L. Travers, of Mary Poppins fame, was a much-loved and respected figure in the world of humane letters when she died in 1996. Well into her 90s, she remained a woman of regal presence, and to those who knew her, as I did, as luminous as the Northern Lights. Her pronouncements were always to be heeded and had an oracular kind of wisdom drawn deep from the well of folklore and myth. That wisdom seemed almost incarnate in her, and she was like the Wise Old Woman of many a fairy tale.

Unfortunately, you won't find her in this book.

P.L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Queensland, Australia, on Aug. 9, 1899. Her father, Travers Robert Goff, was a tea planter, plantation overseer (perhaps) and bank clerk who died when she was 7, after which she moved with her mother and two sisters to New South Wales to live with a great aunt. By her own account, her childhood was loving, and she grew up on folk tales and the star lore of the hugely expansive southern skies. By her early 20s, she had begun to publish poems and articles in newspapers and periodicals, took up theater and dance ("Pamela Travers" was first a stage name), and toured with an acting troupe.

The romance of Ireland was in her blood, and in 1924 she sailed for England with Ireland in her sights. She sent some poems to the brilliant poet A.E. (George Russell), who edited the Irish Statesman. To her surprise he accepted them and asked for more. She embarked for Ireland to meet him, and he became her literary guide for many years. Through him she also met W.B. Yeats, James Stephens, Sean O'Faolain, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Padraic Colum and other leading lights of the Irish Renaissance. They all "cheerfully licked me into shape," she wrote, "like a set of mother cats." For a time, Travers worked as a film and theater critic, drafting stories on the side. Then in 1934 she published the first of her Mary Poppins books, about a magical nanny, which began her fabled enchantment of readers worldwide. In 1964, Walt Disney turned her stories into a hit film. Over the years, she wrote a number of other books (essays as well as stories), including "I Go by Sea, I Go by Land," "Friend Monkey" and "What the Bee Knows."

At the outbreak of World War II, Travers came to the United States, worked in the Office of War Information and lived for two summers with Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo Indians in the Southwest. Meanwhile, she had come under the influence of the esoteric teachings of P.D. Ouspensky and George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Although she remained their unwavering adherent to the end, her understanding belonged as much to the allusive world of story and symbol as to any spiritual school. In this, Shakespeare was her guide: "By indirections find directions out."

To this rich and exalted life, Valerie Lawson, whose previous book concerned a scandal at a law firm, brings the jaded instincts of a debunking journalist. The result is a frivolous and shabby book largely concocted out of loose conjecture and undigested fact. Her unsupported theme is that Travers spent her whole life looking for a father figure (whom she takes to be Mr. Banks of the Mary Poppins tales), and every time a man of influence comes into Travers's life, Lawson announces, with mechanical certitude, that it was on to "her next Mr. Banks." Throughout Lawson implies that various men beguiled or seduced Travers but somehow fails to show it in a single case. She exerts herself to the utmost to uncover a lesbian affair, but, after much assertion and innuendo, admits she can't come up with "conclusive proof." Travers's deep study of religion worldwide (she was a great student of Islamic, Zen Buddhist and Hindu teachings) is reduced to a "constant search for gurus"; her profound friendship with A.E. is made to resemble a cheap pickup; spiritual seekers are dismissed as naive or "emotionally needy"; and so on, with gossip and derision. In one typical passage, she tells us that "the late 1960s and the 1970s went by in a daze of meditation as [Travers] gazed at Buddhas"; in another, that Travers and Walt Disney were somehow alike because "both spent a lot of time worrying about defecation." Lawson's own obsessions are perhaps more clear.

Given the chance to make the most of a worthy life, she made the least.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company