The below post was kindly provided by Miranda Marraccini, a Princeton University graduate student in the English department. In addition to specializing in Victorian poetry and the history of radical lady printers, Miranda works with us at Cotsen and, as you will see, lends us her more than capable scholarly and archival skills.
More than Mary Poppins: The Archive of P.L. Travers and Mary Shepard at Cotsen Children’s Library
by Miranda Marraccini
Mary Poppins is one of the most recognizable characters in English children’s literature. Most of us who have seen the 1964 Disney film imagine her looking and sounding like Julie Andrews: holding out a spoonful of sugar, then flying off over the rooftops with the aid of her parrot-handled umbrella. But what happens after Mary flies out of our lives? What is the consequence of her stern magic, the residue of her mysterious influence?
Well, as one collection at Cotsen shows, what happens post-Poppins is just as interesting as the familiar story of the book and film. In the 1990s, Cotsen acquired a collection of papers belonging to P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, and illustrator Mary Shepard. The collection contains personal letters, annotated drafts of stories, artist’s proofs of illustrations, legal documents, family photographs, and interesting scraps of every description.
Cotsen’s newly created Mary Shepard and P. L. Travers Archive is only a fraction of the global Travers archive. In 1989, when she was 90 years old, Travers sold most of her papers to the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, near her birthplace (Lawson 350). Cotsen’s collection, though smaller, is still illuminating. Consisting mostly of materials from her later life, it shows the post-Poppins Travers as she was: a deep and mystical thinker, a conflicted mother, a harsh critic, and unrelenting on what she considered points of principle.
These photos from our collection show Travers as a young woman. She moved to England in 1924, and spent formative time in Ireland with the writer and mystic George Russell, known as AE. AE fostered what became Travers’ lifelong passion for mythology. At different periods, she studied with gurus in India, lived on a reservation in the American Southwest, and was a dedicated student of the esoteric Russian spiritual teacher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Travers saw commonalities in the fairy tales and ancient stories that children know around the world. She later developed her deeply personal theories in articles for Parabola Magazine, collected in What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story (1989).
Travers always imagined Mary Poppins as more than a children’s story. Mary herself, Travers believed, emerged from a rich tradition of female wisdom, living outside of time and somehow beyond the reach of human perspective (Lawson 155). Travers used the eight Mary Poppins books to reach a wider audience with her ideas about mythology. Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (1982) is Travers’ most myth-infused story, and also the most well-represented book within the Cotsen collection. In this story, Mary Poppins leads the Banks children on an adventure on Midsummer’s Eve, “the most magical night of the year.” It’s a night when the laws and rules dissolve like rain in the grass, and when anything can happen, possible or impossible.
In the sketches below by Poppins illustrator Mary Shepard, the Park Keeper of the story, normally a sensible man, begins to believe in the power of “Old Wives’ Tales,” which “were apt to turn out to be true.” The lovelorn Park Keeper follows the directions of a wiser character, who advises: “… if you walk backwards on Midsummer’s Eve, after putting an herb or two under your pillow—Marjoram, Sweet Basil, no matter what—you’ll back into your own true love as sure as nuts are nuts” (27).
Disappointingly, the Park Keeper backs into Mary Poppins, who is as likely to be his true love as a “gooseberry bush.” Shortly, however, he stumbles into a nighttime world of celestial magic, where constellations come down to Earth to gather herbs for their midsummer revels. By the end of the story, the Park Keeper recovers his childhood knowledge: his belief in magic, the mystery of the universe, and the possibility of impossibility. In the familiar sunlit park, he had forgotten. “It needed the dark to show things plain” (63).
In the sketch on the right above, the Park Keeper is overwhelmed by the rediscovery of his childhood knowledge: “He had known those figures when he was a boy, and many more besides. And he had forgotten what he had known, denied it, made it a thing of naught, something to be sneered at! He put his hands up to his eyes to hide the springing tears” (60).
The visible back-and-forth between P.L. Travers and Mary Shepard (later Mary Knox) in the margins of these sketches suggests that the two collaborated very closely on the Poppins illustrations. By all accounts, this is true. Our collection includes many professional letters between Travers and Shepard, from 1935, when the partnership started with Mary Poppins, onward. There are also tender personal letters in which Travers inquires after the health of Shepard’s husband, E. V. “Evoe” Knox.
The author/illustrator collaboration was not always amicable, however. Our collection documents a particularly longstanding disagreement between author and illustrator: the issue of copyright for the Mary Poppins illustrations. Although Travers maintained strict control of the content, Mary Shepard always retained the copyright on her own illustrations. Yet after the Mary Poppins movie came out, Shepard did not receive any portion of the multimillion dollars in box office profits (Lawson 257-258). (See Box 1, File 34.)
The dispute ended in Mary Poppins’ toes. In their original discussions about the first book, Mary Shepard had suggested that Mary Poppins should stand with her feet turned out in the “fifth position” of ballet, while Travers imagined them at right angles (Ross Lipson). In the movie, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins stands with her feet in the fifth position. Shepard eventually won a small payment as compensation for this artistic contribution. The image below shows a legal decision in our collection, on the first page of which Mary Shepard explains the outcome of the case (with a sketch of Mary Poppins’s feet).If Travers’ interactions with Mary Shepard are sometimes thorny, so were her letters to other acquaintances. Our collection includes dozens of letters that Travers wrote to schools and amateur theaters refusing their requests to stage Mary Poppins plays and musicals.
At crux of this refusal was the Mary Poppins film. Travers feared that any musical or play might mix elements from her books with popular elements from the film (for instance, the songs). For her this fusion was an unacceptable compromise. Since Travers held the rights to the story, Disney referred all requests to her. And she turned them all down, firmly. Travers’ relationship with Disney was chronicled in the recent film Saving Mr. Banks (2013).
Business correspondence like this makes up about half of our collection. Some documents in the collection, however, are intensely personal. P. L. Travers was always close-lipped about her private life, believing that her stories spoke for themselves. She once told an interviewer that her favorite author was “anonymous.” In Cotsen’s documents Travers emerges in slips and scraps, on hotel stationery and in ragged journals.
In her typewritten dream journal Travers records the nocturnal presence of important people in her life: her family, left behind long ago in Australia, as well as mystics Gurdjieff and AE. But she also dreams about “minced meat” and the Prince of Wales. One of her dreams (above) has an “erotic overtone.”
Overtones aside, Travers seems to have been involved in romantic relationships with women and men (Lawson 117). She was very close to, and lived with, her friend Madge Burnand. Among the houses they shared was Pamela’s idyllic Pound Cottage in Mayfield, Sussex.
Our archive contains other records of P. L. Travers’ family life. In 1939, months after war had been declared, Travers adopted a son, Camillus, from a family she had known in Ireland. The baby’s grandfather, Joseph Hone, had been an important publisher and biographer working with Ireland’s most illustrious literary figures, including AE (Lawson 189). Travers consulted an astrologer in California who told her Camillus was a better match for her than his twin brother. She took Camillus back to England. Some of the pictures below are from the war period, when Travers and her son were evacuated to New York.
Our archive compiles evidence of what was at times a complicated relationship between Camillus and his mother. It includes dozens of letters that Camillus wrote home from school, telling his mother about his grades and his classes, his little worries and triumphs. It includes a document Travers signed, releasing Camillus from jail where he was held on a drunk driving charge as a young man. And it includes a letter to Camillus that Travers wrote in the last year of her life, in the loose, unspooled writing of very advanced age. She begs Camillus to come see her, reminding “I will be 96 in August—not long!”
Travers felt that young Camillus connected her with the world of fairy tale, which lives on in the imaginations of children, through generations. As a character in Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane explains: “Didn’t your grandmother tell you nothing? Mine told it to me and hers told her. And her grandmother told it to her, and away and away, right back to Adam” (28).
In Cherry Tree Lane, “night changes the world and makes the known unknown” (75). Our archive makes us rethink the familiar, brightly colored world of Mary Poppins, shadowing it with the obscurities of myth and symbol that absorbed Travers all her life.
Lawson, Valerie. Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Ross Lipson, Eden. “Mary Shepard Dies at 90; ‘Mary Poppins’ Illustrator,” New York Times, October 2, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/02/arts/mary-shepard-dies-at-90-mary-poppins-illustrator.html.
For more information about the paper of P. L. Travers see the guide to her papers in the Mitchell Library of New South Wales:
You can find Cotsen’s Mary Shepard and P. L. Travers archive on the Princeton University Library Finding Aids website at: