P. L. Travers

P. L. Travers

Travers in the role of Titania in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, c.1924
Born Helen Lyndon Goff
(1899-08-09)9 August 1899
Maryborough, Queensland, Australia
Died 23 April 1996(1996-04-23) (aged 96)
London, England, UK
Resting place St Mary the Virgin's Church, Twickenham, England, UK
Occupation Writer, actress, journalist
Nationality Australian
Citizenship Australian, British
Genre Children's literature
Notable works Mary Poppins book series
Children Camillus Travers Hone

Pamela Lyndon Travers, OBE (/ˈtrævərs/; born Helen Lyndon Goff; 9 August 1899 – 23 April 1996) was an Australian-born British novelist, actress, and journalist.[1] She is known best for the Mary Poppins series of children's books featuring the magical English nanny Mary Poppins.

Upon emigrating to England in 1924, Goff began to write under the pen name P. L. Travers. In 1933, she began writing the novel Mary Poppins, first of the Poppins books. Travers travelled to New York City during World War II while working for the British Ministry of Information. At that time, Walt Disney contacted her about selling to Disney Studios the rights for a film adaptation of Mary Poppins, whose sequel Mary Poppins Comes Back was also in print. After years of contact, Walt Disney did obtain the rights and the Disney film Mary Poppins premièred in 1964. In 2004, a new British musical theatre adaptation of the books and the film opened in the West End; it premièred on Broadway in 2006.

For services to literature, Travers was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1977.

Early life

Helen Lyndon Goff, known within her family as Lyndon, was born 9 August 1899 in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia. Her mother Margaret Agnes Goff (née Morehead) was Australian and the sister of Boyd Dunlop Morehead, Premier of Queensland from 1888 to 1890. Her father Travers Robert Goff was of Irish descent and born in Deptford, South London, England. He was unsuccessful as a bank manager due to his chronic alcoholism, and was eventually demoted to the position of bank clerk.[2] The family lived in a large home with servants in Maryborough until Lyndon was five years old, when they relocated to Allora in 1905. Two years later, Travers Goff died at home at the age of 43.[3]

Following her father's death, Goff, along with her mother and sisters, moved to Bowral, New South Wales, in 1907, living there until 1917.[4] She boarded at Normanhurst Girls School in Ashfield, a suburb of Sydney, during World War I.[5]


Helen Goff began publishing her poems while still a teenager. She wrote for The Bulletin and Triad and during that time began gaining a reputation as an actress under the stage name "Pamela Lyndon Travers". She toured Australia and New Zealand with Allan Wilkie's Shakespearean Company, before leaving for England in 1924. There she dedicated herself to writing under the pen name P. L. Travers.[6] In 1931, she and her friend Madge Burnand moved from their rented flat in London to a thatched cottage in Sussex.[2] It was here, in the winter of 1933, that she began to write Mary Poppins.[2]

Travers greatly admired and emulated J. M. Barrie, author of the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. Her first publisher was Barrie's ward Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of the five Llewelyn Davies boys who were the inspiration for Peter Pan.[2]

While in Ireland in 1925, Travers met the poet George William Russell (who wrote under the name "Æ") who, as editor of the Irish Statesman, accepted some of her poems for publication. Through Russell, whose kindness towards younger writers was legendary, Travers met W. B. Yeats, Oliver St. John Gogarty, and other Irish poets who fostered her interest in and knowledge of world mythology. She had studied the Gurdjieff System under Jane Heap and in March 1936, with the help of Jessie Orage (widow of Alfred Richard Orage), she met the mystic George Gurdjieff, who would have a great effect on her, as well as on several other literary figures.[7]

At the invitation of her friend, US Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, Travers spent two summers living among the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples studying their mythology and folklore.[8][9] After the war, she became Writer-in-Residence at Radcliffe College and Smith College.[10]

She returned to England, making only one brief visit to Sydney in 1960 while on her way to Japan to study Zen mysticism.

Travers' literary output other than Mary Poppins and its sequels included other novels, poetry collections and works of non-fiction.

Mary Poppins

Published in London in 1934, Mary Poppins was Travers' first literary success. Seven sequels followed, the last in 1988.[11]

While appearing as a guest on BBC Radio 4's radio programme Desert Island Discs in May 1977, Travers revealed that the name "M. Poppins" originated from childhood stories that she contrived for her sisters, and that she was still in possession of a book from that age with this name inscribed within.[12] Travers' great aunt, Helen Morehead, who lived in Woollahra, Sydney, and used to say, "Spit spot, into bed", is a likely inspiration for the character.[13][14]

Disney version

Main article: Mary Poppins (film)

The musical film adaptation Mary Poppins was released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1964. Primarily based on the original 1934 novel of the same name, it also lifted elements from the 1935 sequel Mary Poppins Comes Back. Travers was an adviser in the production, but she disapproved of the Poppins character in its Disney version, with harsher aspects diluted; she felt ambivalent about the music; and she so hated the use of animation that she ruled out any further adaptations of the series.[15] She received no invitation to the film's star-studded première until she "embarrassed a Disney executive into extending one". At the after-party, she said loudly "The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence'." Disney replied, "Pamela, the ship has sailed", and walked away.[16] Travers so disliked the Disney adaptation and the way she felt she had been treated during the production that when producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her years later about making the British stage musical she acquiesced only on conditions that English-born writers alone and no one from the original film production were to be directly involved.[17][18] This specifically excluded the Sherman Brothers from writing additional songs for the production. However, original songs and other aspects from the 1964 film were allowed to be incorporated into the production.[19] These points were even stipulated in her last will and testament.[20][21][22]

In a 1977 interview Travers remarked, "I've seen it once or twice, and I've learned to live with it. It's glamorous and it's a good film on its own level, but I don't think it is very like my books."[23]

The 2013 motion picture Saving Mr. Banks is a dramatised retelling of both the working process during the planning of Mary Poppins and also that of Travers' early life, drawing parallels with Mary Poppins and that of the author's childhood. The movie stars Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Regarding Travers' portrayal in the film, critic Margaret Lyons wrote, "what was presented as a joyless, loveless pedant finally giving herself over to the delight and imagination of the Wonderful World of Disney could just as easily have been presented as a creative, passionate person, with dignity and real emotions, getting steamrolled by one of the most powerful companies in the world."[24]

Personal life

Though Travers had numerous fleeting relationships with men throughout her life, she lived for more than a decade with Madge Burnand, daughter of Sir Francis Burnand, a playwright and the former editor of Punch. They shared a London flat from 1927 to 1934, then moved to a thatched cottage in Sussex, where Travers published the first of the Mary Poppins books. Their friendship, in the words of one biographer, was "intense," but equally ambiguous.[3]

At the age of 40, two years after moving out on her own, Travers adopted a baby boy from Ireland whom she named Camillus Travers Hone. He was the grandchild of Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats' first biographer, who was raising his seven grandchildren with his wife. Camillus was unaware of his true parentage or the existence of any siblings until the age of 17, when Anthony Hone, his twin brother, came to London and knocked on the door of Travers' house. He had been drinking and demanded to see his brother. Travers refused to allow it and threatened to call the police. Anthony left, but soon after, Camillus, following an argument with Travers, went looking for his brother and found him in a pub on Kings Road.[3][25][26]

Travers was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1977. She lived into advanced old age, but her health declined toward the end of her life. Travers died in London on 23 April 1996 at the age of 96.[27]

Her son Camillus died in London in November 2011.[28]






  1. PL Travers (British author). Encyclopedia Britannica.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Picardie, Justine (28 October 2008). "Was P L Travers the real Mary Poppins?". The Daily Telegraph (telegraph.co.uk). London. Retrieved 25 November 2010.
  3. 1 2 3 Jones, David (25 October 2013). "How the sexual adventuress who created Mary Poppins wrecked the lives of two innocent boys: Exploits of P L Travers that you won't see in new film Saving Mr Banks". The Daily Mail (online ed.). London. Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  4. Lawson 1999.
  5. "The truth behind Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers" by Time Barlass, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Januray 2014
  6. "P. L. Travers", Notable biographies
  7. Lawson 2005, p. 185.
  8. Burness & Griswold 1982.
  9. Witchell, Alex (22 September 1994). "At Home With: P. L. Travers; Where Starlings Greet the Stars". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 November 2013.
  10. Lawson 2006, p. 290.
  11. Cullinan, Bernice E; Person, Diane Goetz (2005), Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Continuum, p. 784, ISBN 978-0-82641778-7, retrieved 9 Nov 2012
  12. "P L Travers". Desert Island Discs. BBC Radio 4. 21 May 1977. Audio recording of the episode featuring Travers with Roy Plumley.
  13. McDonald, Shae (18 December 2013). "PL Travers biographer Valerie Lawson says the real Mary Poppins lived in Woollahra". Wentworth Courier. Sydney: The Daily Telegraph [dailytelegraph.com.au].
  14. Nance, Kevin (20 December 2013). "Valerie Lawson talks Mary Poppins, She Wrote and P.L Travers: Biography reveals original character's sharp edge". Chicago Tribune. p. 2. Retrieved 12 January 2014.
  15. Newman, Melinda (7 November 2013). "Poppins Author a Pill No Spoonful of Sugar Could Sweeten: Tunesmith Richard Sherman recalls studio's battles with Travers to bring Disney classic to life". Variety (variety.com). Retrieved 7 November 2013.
  16. Flanagan, Caitlin (19 December 2005), "Becoming Mary Poppins: P. L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the making of a myth", The New Yorker
  17. Ouzounian, Richard (13 December 2013). "P.L. Travers might have liked Mary Poppins onstage". The Toronto Star (thestar.com). Retrieved 6 March 2014.
  18. Rainey, Sarah (29 November 2013). "Saving Mr Banks: The true story of PL Travers". The Daily Telegraph (telegraph.co.uk). Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  19. Rochlin, Margy (6 December 2013). "A Spoonful of Sugar for a Sourpuss: Songwriter Recalls P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins Author". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  20. Norman, Neil (14 April 2012). "The real Mary Poppins". Daily Express (express.co.uk). Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  21. Fryer, Jane (11 April 2012). "A spoonful of spite: New film set to reveal truth about Mary Poppins' creator ... she was a vile woman and abusive mother". The Daily Mail (dailymail.co.uk). Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  22. Erbland, Kate (26 December 2013). "The Dark, Deep and Dramatic True Story of Saving Mr. Banks". Film.com. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  23. http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/saving-mr-banks.php
  24. Lyons, Margaret (26 December 2013). "Saving Mr. Banks Left Out an Awful Lot About P.L. Travers". Based on a True Story. Vulture.com. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
  25. Minus, Jodie (10–11 April 2004). "There's something about Mary". The Weekend Australian. p. R6.
  26. Kelleher, Lynne (19 January 2003). "Mary Poppins writer took baby because she 'loved Ireland': Sugar and spice not so nice for twin separated from brother by author". The Sunday Mirror. London: The Daily Mirror. Retrieved 5 December 2013. Archive copy at The Free Library (thefreelibrary.com).
  27. Rochlin, Margy (3 January 2014). "Not Quite All Spoonfuls of Sugar: Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson Discuss Saving Mr. Banks". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 January 2014.
  28. Rice, Katy (14 July 2012). "In a most delightful way". The Argus (theargus.co.uk). Retrieved 12 December 2013.


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