Order From Chaos

If you have watched Saving Mr. Banks or read many reviews from your friends who have, you know that the author of the Mary Poppins books had a very difficult childhood and became a very difficult woman.

One of the themes, probably the most important theme, of SMB is that creative work, particularly writing, is one way of coming to terms with a difficult and painful past, perhaps even to rewrite it.

The Disney film itself does a touch of rewriting, mainly by omission, and others have repurposed Travers’ life to their own ends as well.  Consider these two different accounts of the same event in Travers’ life:

Caitlyn Flanagan on P. L. Travers:

Travers was a woman who never married, wore trousers when she felt like it, had a transformative and emotionally charged relationship with an older married man, and entered into a long-term live-in relationship with another woman. As she approached forty, she decided that she wanted a child. After a bizarre incident in which she attempted to adopt the seventeen-year-old girl who cleaned her house, she travelled to Ireland and adopted an infant, one of a pair of twins, and raised him as a single mother. Her reverence for the delights of family life was perhaps as intense as Disney’s, but her opinion about the shape such a life might assume was far more nuanced.

From Wikipedia:

“At the age of 40, Travers adopted a baby boy from Ireland named Camillus Hone. He was the grandchild of Joseph Hone, who was W. B. Yeats’ first biographer. Hone and his wife were raising their seven grandchildren. Camillus was one of twins, but Travers did not adopt his twin brother, Anthony, or any of their other siblings. She selected Camillus based on advice from her astrologer. Anthony remained with his grandparents. Camillus was unaware of his true parentage until the age of 17, when Anthony met Camillus unexpectedly at a bar in London. According to her grandchildren, Travers died not loving anyone and nobody loving her.”

The story of the twins meeting varies, other versions that seem more likely have Anthony coming to the house to meet Camillus and confront Travers for leaving him behind. At any rate, it didn’t end terribly well for any of them.

I don’t see the nuanced view of family life that Flanagan desperately looked for. If her view was so nuanced, I don’t think she would have told Camillus that he was her biological child and his father a wealthy sugar baron (she didn’t look far for this description- it described her own maternal grandfather), nor would she have insisted on the Mrs. And that ‘transformative and emotionally charged’ relationship with a married man is one Travers herself described as ‘the first in a long chain of men who would, in her words, pass her from one to the other,’ according to her biographer Valerie Lawson in Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers.  That’s a dreary, depressing, and tragic description.

The movie omits just how miserable her adult life was, and how miserable she made things for others and I am just fine with that.   The very deft writing made it quite clear that there was much more to her story. There was a world of suggestion regarding her familial relationships in the single line she gives to her limo driver, when he asks her about whether or not she has family, and she hesitates and says, “Let’s just say that there is nobody who cares.”  I knew immediately that she did have family and that they were harshly at odds, whoever that family might have been.

All the details and ongoing tragedies of Travers’ life are not in the movie.  That is not the story the movie was telling. It was not a documentary, nor was it a story of Mrs. Travers’ entire life- it was a story about one small slice of her life and how she attempted to rewrite both herself and the story of her childhood story. Writing Mary Poppins was therapeutic for her. It was her way of writing out the misery.

Travers’ story reminds me much of Louisa May Alcott’s rewriting of her own family history in Little Women where she rewrites her own father into a benevolent pastor, actively concerned for his family even while away in the war. In reality, Alcott Bronson was an impractical, often absent father of four, quite willing to let his daughters and wife do all the physical labor while he dreamed up strange philosophies and impractical plans for running a commune with no more advanced tools than spades and no animal labor. He was a man whose hapless ideas finally shattered the family’s trust of him when he attempted to get his family to join a Shaker commune, which would require breaking up the family (one of his friends wrote that her objections to ending the family bond was just sheer selfishness on the part of Mrs. Bronson).

Louisa May Alcott and Travers both rewrote themselves as well as their childhoods in their children’s fiction, and Mrs Travers particularly did this in her life. Travers wasn’t her name, it was her father’s first name. She never married, although she seems to have insisted on the ‘Mrs.’ title.

Sometimes that is the only place writers are able to restore order, but I don’t think we should think any less of them for the attempt. I also feel think feelings of charitable regret are more wholesome responses to their failures to restore order outside the written world than anger or resentment or accusations of dishonesty.

This is what writers and other creators do.  For many people it’s what writing is for, rethinking, rebuilding, redoing, changing what was and should not have been into what should have been, what could have been. Like all acts of creation, it’s an attempt at some sort of redemption, restoring order to the chaos, as Disney puts it in Saving Mr. Banks.


(more backstory here for those of us who dig this sort of thing)

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