Quick: Which wind brought Mary Poppins crashing into No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane? What kind of umbrella did she have? What was her bag made of? Who starred in the movie? Now, who wrote the books? (No fair peeking at the title.)
In terms of authors who are eclipsed by their creations, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had nothing to complain about compared with P.L. Travers, the Australian-born author of the eight "Mary Poppins" books. Like Doyle, Travers longed to be taken seriously as a writer, but felt her most popular character inhibited that. (Maybe she should have tried flinging the magical nanny, carpetbag and all, off Reichenbach Falls.)
As biographies of everyone from E. Nesbit to Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) have proved, caution is wise when delving into the life of a beloved children's writer. Travers is no exception. As Valerie Lawson shows in her book Mary Poppins, She Wrote, the first complete biography of the writer, it would take more than a spoonful of sugar to sweeten Travers's childhood.
Born Helen Lyndon Goff in Queensland, Australia, in 1899, she was the oldest daughter of Margaret and Travers Goff, a bank employee who drank heavily and died when she was 7. After Goff's death, his widow was left with precarious finances and three girls. When Travers was 10, Margaret threatened to drown herself and leave Lyndon (as she was called) to raise her sisters. She never followed through on the threat, but it's easy to see why a grown-up Travers would spin tales about a being who came from the sky to protect and nurture children.
As a teenager, Lyndon briefly worked as an actress in minor roles before turning to bad poetry and journalism. She finally left Australia for England in 1924 (adopting the name "Pamela Travers") where she pursued a career as a journalist and drama critic. There, she was befriended by the poet George William Russell, who gave her encouragement on her writing and introduced her to a literary circle that included William Butler Yeats. Mary Poppins was published in 1934 to immediate acclaim.
Travers was hardly all sweetness and light. She could be imperious and dictatorial – she bullied illustrator Mary Shepard when they worked together – and was notoriously tough to interview. She would blithely lie about her age and upbringing (she liked to claim her dad owned a sugar plantation). Like her famous creation, she boasted that she "never explained" anything. Lawson, a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, spent a decade working to piece together the facts about Travers, and the heavy lifting involved is impressive.
But there are still areas that remain murky. Travers's troubled relationship with her adopted son, Camillus, is more hinted at than detailed. (She failed to adopt his twin brother and then never told him that he was adopted or had a twin. The twins found each other by chance in a pub when they were 17.)
Also, while Travers had a series of crushes on men and several long-term relationships with women, the nature and extent of those remain sketchy. Travers never wanted a biography of her life to be written and seems to have succeeded in keeping certain areas private.
Where there is clear documentation, such as her relationship with Russell and the Irish literary circle and her "uneasy wedlock" with the Walt Disney Studios, the book takes flight. After long coveting the rights to "Mary Poppins," Disney finally got what he wanted. The deal made Travers a millionaire, but she was deeply conflicted about the movie. She harangued Disney and the writers with pages of notes about items she felt were untrue to the spirit of her books. At the première (which she attended, although not at Disney's invitation), the 65-year-old Travers wept.
In other places, Lawson, who sometimes adopts a rather swooning tone toward her subject, serves up too much. It's wonderful to learn that the Goffs had a maid with a parrot-headed umbrella and that there were real-life versions of Nellie-Rubina, Uncle Dodger, and Mrs. Corry, but long pages explaining why the Poppins stories resonate are less enthralling.
For a biographer of a woman best known for her children's books, Lawson doesn't seem knowledgeable about the field. She wrongly credits the Grimm brothers with writing both "The Little Mermaid" and "The Snow Queen" – commenting that Travers preferred their fairy tales to the "blander saccharine whiteness" of Hans Christian Andersen's. This isn't a major slip-up, but it's striking, as Lawson repeatedly stresses the importance Travers placed on fairy tales. Other errors include classifying "Aladdin" as European and calling "Bambi" a "feel-good film about childhood" (apart, one assumes, from the murder of Bambi's mother).
The 1980s and 1990s were lonely years for Travers. Her Disney fame had faded, her new books got savaged if they weren't about Mary, and she had few friends. She did, however, long for a stage version, and would no doubt be immensely gratified by this month's Broadway debut of "Mary Poppins." Then she'd probably sit down and write nine pages detailing changes the producers needed to make.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.