By P.L. Travers
Read by Catherine Clarke
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These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P. L. Travers' great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories. Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations.
The spirit is there too, and many of the ideas: predominantly, that children know darkness. P. L. Travers disliked the Disney version of Mary Poppins because she found it too cartoonish and sunny. Her own books made room for the fear and sadness of children, their natural and tragic awareness of impermanence. As she says here, in the story of Johnny Delaney: 'Children have strong and deep emotions but no mechanism to deal with them.'
Because these tales were printed privately as Christmas gifts for the author's friends and family, and because of their tone, one assumes that they are autobiographical. There is some poetic licence but P. L. Travers, who had a keen sense of the spiritual and often dreamed of worlds beyond this one, might not approve of such literal distinctions.
For example, in Ah Wong Travers explores (as she does so often in the famous nanny novels) the deep unknowability of people. What may read as racial discrimination today bespeaks a fascination with difference, rather than a rejection of it. The story's end is deeply moving; is it true? Did the young Travers (then Helen Lyndon Goff ) really, in later life, meet an old Chinese cook from her childhood on his deathbed? Was there ever such poetic closure? In her genuine Australian childhood, her father worked in a bank rather than a sugar plantation. Travers added the spoonful of sugar, and possibly a lot more, but it doesn't matter. The magical, tragical and real have always been mixed up in her work.
It is the story of Aunt Sass that will bring the most joy to Poppins fans, offering clues to the inspiration for that immortal character. Aunt Sass (surely a version, if not an exact portrait, of Travers' own great-aunt Ellie) is a grand, sharp, mysterious and contradictory woman, 'stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving'. Like Mary Poppins, she twinkles and snaps in spits and spots.
It seemed to me, when I was researching P. L. Travers for a documentary, that the great author was just such a woman herself. She loved her adopted son and grandchildren deeply, but refused to express this in a sentimental or traditionally maternal way. She brought her granddaughter to live with her for several years–and yet, at home in London, she once refused entry to her daughter-in-law and infant grandchild because it was lunch-time.
Travers was 'secret and proud', certainly. She relished her public success and occasionally gave interviews, but then hated to be asked about either her own life or the genesis of Mary Poppins. She felt that this got in the way of the story. She preferred to suggest that everything came from the stars. I almost felt guilty reading the following Christmas-gift chronicles, redolent with childhood truth in the feeling, if not every last detail, but it was the guilt one feels when gobbling a delicious cake. Nothing so tempting could possibly have been left on the plate.
Of Aunt Sass, Travers writes beautifully: 'The sleepless humanity behind that crusty exterior reached out to every heart that came in contact with her.'
It is clear that a sleepless humanity surged in the breast of P. L. Travers, expressing itself in a myriad of wondrous characters, and no heart that's come into contact with her writing could remain untouched by it. I feel I know her better for reading these three stories, though she didn't necessarily want to be known better. I suspect that she, like Aunt Sass and Mary Poppins, was challenging to love–but, to my mind, all the more lovable for it.
Victoria Coren Mitchell, 2014
To Eugene and Curtice
Her name was Christina Saraset. She was a very remarkable person. Her remarkableness lay in the extraordinary and, to me, enchanting discrepancy between her external behaviour and her inner self. Imagine a bulldog whose ferocious exterior covers a heart tender to the point of sentimentality and you have Christina Saraset.
She was my great-aunt and the oldest person I ever met. This is hardly surprising since she was born in 1846 and died last year at the age of ninety-four, grievously disappointed that she could not make the century. Her life, both in the living and the recounting of it was, in the eyes of her family, compact of adventure and romance. Only those six years were lacking to make the picture complete.
It was in 1844 that my great-grandfather, with his young wife, sailed from England to Australia to recover health after a long illness. On arrival he made a prompt recovery, seized a huge tract of virgin forest with the grandiose simplicity of a robber baron, and built himself a mansion in the wilderness. Whether he really intended to live there nobody now knows, but the biennial appearance of the inevitable new baby compelled him to settle down. Soon there was a large Victorian family growing up among the Bushmen in rugged, pioneering splendour. Christina headed the list.
It was at her instigation that all the children were sent backward and forward on the voyage between Australia and England to be educated. 'I refuse to be brought up like a Savage!' she is reported to have said. And her father, already sensing the bulldog in her, hastened to charter a vessel. Aunt Sass, as we all called her, would remember for her numerous great-nieces and nephews wonderful excursions when a ship took three months sailing to England; when there was no Suez Canal; and the desert between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean had to be crossed on muleback.
- "Beautiful and charming."—The Independent (UK)
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- Oct 20, 2015
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