Pamela Lyndon Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia, on 9 August 1899, in a residence over the Australian Joint Stock Bank, of which her father was branch manager. Her father died when she was seven years old, and the bereaved family moved to Bowral, in New South Wales.
In 1907, Lyndon went to live with an aunt in Sydney, where she attended high school. Reading Shakespeare and taking part in school theatricals led to a passion for theatre-going and a longing to act. Her aunt and mother resisted this ambition (it was considered too risqué); but, in her 20s, after a spell as a secretary with the Australian Gas Light Company, Lyndon joined a travelling theatre group, taking a stage name by which she would be known for the rest of her life.
She chose ‘Pamela’ because she thought it pretty and actress-like; kept her own name, ‘Lyndon’, with its Irish associations; and, for a surname, took ‘Travers’, the first name of her late father.
While touring in Australia and New Zealand, Pamela began publishing poems, articles and stories. A career in journalism eventually led her out of the theatre, although her love of drama – and especially dance – never left her.
It was as a journalist that she travelled to London in 1926, leaving Australia forever. In later life, Travers did not admit to being Australian, preferring to identify with what she saw as her “true home beyond the Irish Sea”, although something of the mysterious Dreamtime of her native land is discernible in her writings.
Making the first of many pilgrimages to Ireland, she became a friend and protégé of George William Russell, editor of The Irish Statesman, who published her poems and introduced her to the Russian thinker Gurdjieff, whose philosophy became a significant influence.
It was in 1934, while living in Pound Cottage in Mayfield, Sussex, that she wrote the book that was to make her famous. In publishing Mary Poppins, the first of six books of stories about an enigmatic nanny and the Banks family, Pamela used only her initials, hiding her gender to avoid being dismissed as an archetypal female author of children’s books.
Travers did not think of them as such. They contained universal themes, and Mary Poppins was in one person a pretty young woman, a nurturing mother, and a wise old woman. Plain looking and plain speaking, Mary Poppins permits neither disorder nor disharmony in her nursery; but she is also a magician, whisking the children into a world of fantasy and misrule, presided over by her mystical friends and relations.
“If you are looking for autobiographical facts,” Pamela once said, “Mary Poppins is the story of my life.” Indeed, much in the books was inspired by memories from her Australian childhood, such as the family maid who had a parrot-headed umbrella, while a strange little storekeeper in Bowral with two towering daughters would become Mrs Corry, the ancient vendor of curious, magical sweets.
During the war, Travers worked in America for the Office of War Information, at a time when Hollywood was beginning to show an interest in filming Mary Poppins. Samuel Goldwyn and MGM pursued the property, but it was finally Walt Disney who tenaciously courted Pamela for nearly 20 years until she eventually agreed to his proposals.
Although some aspects of the film did not satisfy her exacting standards for her beloved character, she adored Julie Andrews, the financial arrangements gave her security, and the film continued to reintroduce her literary character to generation after generation.
Although famous as the author of the Mary Poppins stories, Travers wrote a number of other adult books, including The Fox at the Manger, a fable in which the newborn Christ-child receives, from a foxy visitor to the stable, the gift of cunning; Friend Monkey, a novel (her best, she always thought) inspired by the character of Hanuman, the monkey god of Hindu mythology; and About the Sleeping Beauty, in honour of her favourite fairy tale (and the one in which, as a pantomime, she had made her professional debut as a dancer, a lifetime and half a world away).
Pamela remained fascinated by myth and fairy tales and travelled widely, living for a time with the Navajo Indians. She was a regular contributor to the magazine Parabola: the Magazine of Myth and Tradition (later collected in a volume entitled What the Bee Knows).
In 1977 she was awarded the OBE and, in 1978, was delighted to be given an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters by Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From then on she called herself ‘Dr Travers’, a form which pleased her Poppins-like vanity. She also universally answered to ‘Mrs Travers’, for, although unmarried, in 1939 she had adopted a child, Camillus, from an Irish family, and raised him as her own. She had three grandchildren.
In 1993 she met Cameron Mackintosh, and the two liked one another enormously. Cameron Mackintosh had given her a cherry tree, and she felt that she had found someone she could entrust with the rights to produce a stage musical version of Mary Poppins that would respect her original work. She was by that time very frail, and died on 23 April 1996, before her dream of a stage show could be realised.
She lives on, however, through her spit-spot, no-nonsense, practically perfect nanny: on the page, on film, and now on the stage – working strange, memorable magic and dispensing, in equal measure, wisdom and love.
The cherry tree Cameron Mackintosh gave her flourishes in the garden of a friend.