July 22, 2004

The Occult Origins of Mary Poppins

I've probably given today's entry an overly dramatic title, but I was intrigued to read this Telegraph article about P.L. Travers, the Australian author best known for her series of Mary Poppins books. Poppins, the article argues, wasn't quite as saccharine and bland as the Disney movie would suggest, and Travers herself was stranger still:

A year after [Travers arrived from Australia], the Irish intellectual George William Russell (known as AE) accepted some of her verse for his weekly, The Irish Statesman. Then 57, AE liked to surround himself with attractive, aspiring women writers. A follower of Madam Blavastsky and the theosophists, he believed that he and Travers had met in a former life and that, with her wild frizz of hair, she was one of the fairies he regularly envisioned. Their friendship was lasting. He introduced her to the meaning of folklore, spirits and esoteric eastern religions, and to his neighbour in Merrion Square, WB Yeats. She swapped sonnets with Yeats and once sang him versions of his poems (which must have been curious, as both were reportedly tone-deaf).

It was AE who suggested that Travers write a tale using all her powers of fantasy, weaving into it stories of inanimate objects coming to life. Mary Poppins first appeared in a series of early stories written for children in 1926, though by the time the first book was published in 1934 Travers had begun to adopt a rather peculiar authorial pose, insisting that her famous nanny had arrived unbidden that very year. Just as the crucial ingredient in her stories was a clever blend of reality and fantasy, she set out to refashion herself. She had literary pretensions, but her difficulty was that she did not believe that "real'' writers wrote for children. So, although she was already obscured by her pseudonym, she decided to use only her initials, a protection against being labelled a silly woman writing unimportant stories. In addition, she always maintained that her books were not written with children in mind.

I found this article especially intriguing because I'm now reading a novel based, in part, on nineteenth-century theories about theosophy and fairies. It's one of Harold Bloom's favorite novels, and I'll probably write about it here once I'm done reading (if I'm not completely swamped by my library research here in Chicago, that is...)

Posted by Ed at July 22, 2004 02:07 PM


From what I remember of the Poppins books--not having read them since I was, oh, seven or eight--Mary Poppins is one tart and prickly lady. Not the Disney version at all.

Posted by: Miriam at July 25, 2004 01:40 PM
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