Caitlin Flanagan, who started out writing about modern motherhood for the Atlantic Monthly before landing a coveted staff position at the New Yorker, is about as non grata as a persona gets among many, many bloggers I admire and personal friends I, well, adore. I’ve found many of her pieces bracing, even–or especially–when I’ve disagreed with her premises or conclusions. And I’ve always found the level of invective she draws to be a little astonishing.
Flanagan’s latest piece approaches her usual territory, the conflicts and contradictions faced by working moms, comparatively obliquely: through a look at the author of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers, and her losing battle against the Disneyfication of her most famous book. Even Flanagan’s detractors might like this one. Travers, it turns out, was a fascinating woman:
“Mary Poppins” advocates the kind of family life that Walt Disney had spent his career both chronicling and helping to foster on a national level: father at work, mother at home, children flourishing. It is tempting to imagine that in Travers he found a like-minded person, someone who embodied the virtues of conformity and traditionalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. 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.
Her mother, Margaret, who was pretty and feckless, soldiered on for a few years [after Travers’s father’s death], and then, when Helen was ten, she did what a mother is never supposed to do. She gave up.
One night, in the middle of a thunderstorm, Margaret left Helen in charge of the two younger children, telling her that she was going to drown herself in a nearby creek. As an old woman, Travers wrote about the terrifying experience: “Large-eyed, the little ones looked at me–she and I called them the little ones, both of us aware that an eldest child, no matter how young, can never experience the heart’s ease that little ones enjoy.” Helen stirred the fire and then they all lay down on the hearth rug and she told them a story about a magical flying horse, with the small ones asking excited questions (“Could he carry us to the shiny land, all three on his back?”). As she tried to distract her siblings, she worried about the future. She later wrote, “What happens to children who have lost both parents? Do they go into Children’s Homes and wear embroidered dressing-gowns, embroidery that is really darning?”
I highly recommend Flanagan’s affectionate and colorful portrait. This woman went head to head with Walt Disney and never flinched, but ultimately rued the way her book was finally adopted for the screen. She did, however, quite enjoy the proceeds of her contractual 5% share of the movie’s gross. I must admit I’ve never thought twice about who P. L. Travers might be, even whether she was a man or a woman. I suppose that now I am going to have to read Mary Poppins, too.