In last year’s Saving Mr. Banks, audiences were introduced to a character who was just as likely to make them smile at her quirky personality as she was to make them roll their eyes in annoyance. She was lovable yet terribly frustrating, imaginative yet woefully arrogant. The character, based off the real life person of P.L. Travers, went head to head with Walt Disney over the portrayal of her Mary Poppins books in film. While Travers viewed the now-iconic nanny as being stiff and proper and holding deep truths about the universe, Disney envisioned her as a cheery figure who simply wanted to restore a family. It was the classic case of a creation becoming larger than the creator.
This conflict inevitably revealed just how opinionated and eccentric Travers could be. But how close was this to her real life behavior? In Valerie Lawson’s book, Mary Poppins, She Wrote, she delves into the truth about Travers, from her early days in Australia to her rise and eventual decline from fame. Lawson does a good job of pulling her story together into a cohesive and detailed narrative, allowing the reader a glimpse inside the mind of Travers as she goes throughout her life. Yet Travers herself is undoubtedly the book’s weakest point. With her infatuation for being perceived as esoteric and mysterious, her endless facades and her superior attitude, she is hardly the type of person most would want to spend 350 pages with. Only an enthusiast such as Lawson could truly appreciate an individual like Travers.
That is not to say Travers was always pretentious and irritating, or that she never had an interesting moment in her life. Lawson perfectly captures just how imaginative and creative she was, especially as a young girl, when she still went by her given name of Helen Lyndon Goff. The early chapters of the book show a girl who is quite a character of her own, a daydreamer who could do little but feel everything around her so deeply. In spite of the family issues that challenged her spirit, she continued to use her imagination in remarkable ways. This remained true even into her teen years and beyond. Lawson writes how Travers spent time in London during the 1920’s, when poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were coming to prominence—still she remained fixated on the romantics of the 1890’s.
Fans of Mary Poppins will be pleased to read about the various influences that played into Travers’ work. Though Saving Mr. Banks touched on a few of these influences, Lawson takes her research much further. From the house of Cherry Tree Lane to the contents of Poppins’ famed carpetbag to the characters themselves, Lawson leaves no stone unturned. For those who may have grown up with Mary Poppins, Lawson’s account of the story’s history will no doubt be an enjoyable read.
Yet Travers’ life is not always as magical or interesting as the stories she wrote. As the book progresses into her adult life, there’s a significant change in the way she thinks. She’s still very imaginative, yes, but there’s an element of pretense and snobbery that makes her far less fascinating than before. She matures into someone who is more concerned with being seen as deep and wise than the playfulness that characterized her previously. Imagine Emma Thompson’s depiction of Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, only without the support of a screenwriter to make her more likeable. How much would you be willing to read about her until you grew tired of it?
It’s here that the book begins to drag, weighing the reader down with tedious and unexciting details. Though the biography is incredibly well-researched, Lawson likely could have left out a full fifty pages without sacrificing any of its merit. Even the most devoted Poppins fans will have difficulty getting through parts. And speaking of Saving Mr. Banks, the edition given to The Daily Runner for review claims on the book’s cover that it “explores the events that inspired the major motion picture Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks.” In truth, these events only make up a small portion of the book—unarguably the most interesting portion.
All complaints aside, however, Lawson does well considering the individual she is writing about. She clearly knows Travers inside and out, and has a passion for telling her story. Also, this edition (released this past December) includes an extensive index for those who wish to use the book as a reference and a collection of glossy images that help to complement the narrative, which is a nice touch. Despite this, readers will need a strong will to look past Travers’ shortcomings, inflated personality and general vapidity to enjoy this one.