BookTown Australia Convenor Paul McShane sets out a summary of the main reasons why Bowral can confidently claim to be the Birthplace of Mary Poppins…
Author PL Travers was persistently asked one question in particular over the course of her long life: Where did Mary Poppins come from? She was invariably evasive, ambiguous or simply mysterious in her replies. Her stock answer when pressed, even to most of her friends, was that Mary Poppins had come “unbidden” and fully formed to her during a period of convalescence in Pound Cottage Suffolk during 1934. In fact she often made references to Mary Poppins discovering her, rather than the other way around.
Travers’ Australian origins were also shrouded from most of her friends, even Patrica Feltham, who knew her for over 30 years during the latter part of her life. In fact it was only a truly remarkable coincidence that revealed these origins to her longtime friend. Feltham’s sister, Reay, had moved to Bowral in the early 1990s. A year or so later Patricia Feltham told Travers that she was travelling from the UK to Australia to visit her sister. Travers queried Feltham as to where in Australia and she answered to the effect: “A small town in NSW, you won’t have heard of it, a place called Bowral.” Immediately the author exclaimed “The Gib!” (The Gib is the abbreviated name Bowral residents have traditionally given to the dominant local landform, Mount Gibraltar). It was only then that Travers told Patricia of her Australian origins and some of her Bowral memories. In recent conversation with Patricia Feltham, she agreed that if it had been any other place in Australia she was travelling, other than Bowral, she is sure Travers would have continued to remain mute on the matter.
But research has now shown that it was not just Travers’ own origins that were guarded by her. Valerie Lawson’s definitive biography of PL Travers (Out of the Sky She Came, 1999), which is the source for much of our research, has peeled away many layers of mystery in not just the life of Travers, but the origins of Mary Poppins. Specifically, the first Mary Poppins story by Travers was actually published as a freelance article in 1926 by the Christchurch Sun newspaper in New Zealand, some 8 years before the first book that Travers claimed as the first incarnation of Mary Poppins. This freelance item, called Mary Poppins and the Match Man, was about an outing between Mary Poppins and Bert. It became the first chapter of the first Mary Poppins book and also the basis for the “Jolly Holiday” sequence in the Disney movie.
My daughter Melissa McShane and I have now researched many of the same primary sources used by Valerie Lawson, especially Travers’ personal papers at the Mitchell Library and other texts, including books kindly given to us by Patricia Feltham.
We are convinced that the Mary Poppins character was created in the imagination of Helen Lyndon Goff (later to change her name to PL Travers) while she was a teenager when her family lived in Bowral during the period 1908-1917.
There are number of compelling points of evidence for that claim:
- As reported in Lawson’s biography, in private and confidential correspondence and a later journal article Travers revealed a highly emotional episode involving the threatened suicide of her mother while living in Bowral and the telling of a story to her younger sisters as a way to comfort them. On both occasions she linked the symbolic creation of Mary Poppins to that dramatic event, even though the main character of the story took the form of a flying white horse. For a magical figure like Mary Poppins, who in the books could talk to animals and could dance with the sun and the stars, taking the form of a flying white horse would hardly be challenging. That episode, when she was around the age of 11 or 12, also became for her a transitional experience as the end of childhood; she realised at that moment that she had to begin directly caring for sisters, given her recently widowed mother’s emotional fragility. Melissa and I believe the most likely date for that dramatic event is 19-20 July 1910 based on our own original analysis of local weather records and other evidence.
- At least one, if not both, of Travers’ younger sisters claim to have been told the story of Mary Poppins while they were small children. That period corresponds with the decade when they lived in Bowral and when she and her sisters were old enough to be told stories and to remember them.
- Although Travers was prone to dismiss her sisters’ claims, she contradicts herself in one article she wrote when she admits that later in life she found a book she had owned since the age of seven (she moved to Bowral when she was eight) and inside the front cover was scrawled the name “M. Poppins”.
- The Disney company has its own extensive research archive relating to Mary Poppins and PL Travers as they dealt with the author extensively from the period 1938 through to the creation of the movie in 1964 and afterwards. That archive produced the baldly stated “fact” for the 40th anniversary DVD of the movie: As a girl, Travers told Mary Poppins stories to her sisters
- Valerie Lawson’s biographical research emphasises the significance of Bowral in the Mary Poppins books. Characters such as the sweetshop proprietor Mrs Corry and her twin daughters, Miss Quigley, ‘Uncle’ Dodger Woods and his daughter Nellie Rubina were real-life people in Bowral in the early 1900s and were transported as characters into the books without even changing their names.
- The most critical piece of evidence came during an interview in July 1979 with Jonathan Cott, a trusted friend and associate editor of the journal Travers co-founded. When Cott specifically asked if the genesis of Mary Poppins was actually in the Suffolk countryside in 1934, Travers responded: When I was in my teens, I wrote a small story about someone named Mary Poppins putting children to bed. I can’t remember what paper the story appeared in, but the name was a long time a-growing, a long time in existence, perhaps. Not only did Travers’ teenage years overlap with the decade that the Goff family lived in Bowral, but putting her sisters to bed was one of the tasks the young Lyndon regularly did on behalf of her mother when they lived in Bowral. Later in her life, a month before her 24th birthday, Travers published a poem in The Bulletin -one of the most prestigious publications at the time in Australia – called ‘The Nurse’s Lullaby’ featuring a mother figure called Mary.