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Mary Poppins She Wrote: The Extraordinary Life of Australian writer P.L. Travers by Valerie Wilson

Mary poppins she wroteTitle: Mary Poppins She Wrote: The Extraordinary Life of Australian writer P.L. Travers

Author: Valerie Wilson

Genre: Biography

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 1st June 2010

Format: Paperback

Pages: 392

Price: $22.99

Synopsis: Discover the true story behind the creation of the world’s most beloved nanny, now appearing in Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns.

Mary Poppins flew into the lives of the Banks family and secured her place in the hearts of generations of children. Published in 1934, the book was instantly hailed as a classic. By the time Julie Andrews graced the screen in Disney’s 1964 adaptation, Mary Poppins was a household name.

The quintessentially English nanny was conceived by an Australian, Pamela Lyndon Travers, whose troubled childhood bore little resemblance to the cheery optimism that is associated with the beloved children’s tale.

Fiercely independent, Travers left Australia for London in 1924 to work as a journalist and found herself rubbing shoulders with literary elites such as W.B. Yeats and T.S. Elliot. Travers famously clashed with Walt Disney, reluctantly selling him her film rights, and then slamming the resulting movie as ‘all fantasy and no magic’.

Like her mysterious character, Travers remained inscrutable and enigmatic to the end of her ninety-six years. Valerie Lawson’s detailed biography provides the only glimpse into the mind of a writer who fervently believed that ‘Everyday life is a miracle’.

Valerie Lawson’s illuminating biography examines the extraordinary life of the woman behind one of our most treasured characters.


In 1934, the firstMary Poppins novel was published, written by Pamela Lyndon Travers, who went on to write another five in the series. In 1964, Disney finally won the battle to turn Mary Poppins into a movie – with obvious changes that Pamela objected to – as chronicled in the movie that was released several years ago, Saving Mr Banks –  a story that is only part of this book, and that in the movie is quite simplified from the complexities of Pamela’s life. From her early life in Maryborough and Allora, to her life in Sydney and Bowral later in childhood, and her travels across the world as an adult, seeking for something that she never really found, and the events that led her to write the Mary Poppins books.

P.L. Travers’ life was a complex one – and there are ma y things that many people might not know – like that she started her writing career with poetry in the UK, or that she felt she did not belong in Australia, despite being born there. Or that she suffered or seemed to suffer from a myriad of illnesses that often were not diagnosed.

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This biography posits Pamela as very independent, someone who saw two world wars and the Great Depression, Federation, suffrage in Australia, and many other key events. It gives great insight into what led to her writing Mary Poppins, even though Pamela claimed that Mary had just appeared one day – and she did not like to call herself a children’s writer, even though her books have always been enjoyed by and aimed at children.

The final chapter of the book covers the time Cameron Mackintosh spent negotiating live stage show rights with Disney – so he could connect the original stories with the movie and the books with a few additions that stayed true to the essence of Mary that Pamela insisted on for the movie, but never achieved. This takes place about fourteen years after Pamela died in 1996 – on the same day that Shakespeare was born and died – the 23rd of April.

I’ve read the firstMary Poppins book and seen both movies and the Saving Mr Banks movie – as well as the stage show. Each brings something unique to the character of Mary and her the other characters in the books and movies. Each is its own interpretation but at the same time, Pamela fought hard for certain things in the movie and lost on some grounds – but each still exists and we can enjoy the stage show, the movies and the books for what they are and at the same time. This book, in shedding some light on Travers, shows that everyone who has experienced the story in whichever format will experience it differently. One can also understand Pamela’s reluctance to allow Disney the rights to her stories and worried about what may happen. It would be another twenty-thirty years before the second book was optioned, with someone like Maggie Smith as Mary Poppins. Eventually this would become Mary Poppins Returns with Emily Blunt, released last year, with a shift in time. It mirrored some events that were in other books that I am yet to read, and other characters – but still retained many of the aspects Pamela hated about the original.

Biographies of authors are interesting because we get to see where they came from, and what led them to writing the work or works they are most well-known for. For PL Travers, this is the only biography that we have exploring the life of this author, that goes beyond what everyone knows her for – she led a complex life and one that many people would not have realised she led, or what she had to deal with at a young age – a very insightful and interesting book.

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