The Real Mary Poppins – The Inspiration Behind ‘The Perfect Nanny’

One of the most celebrated fictional characters made her return on the big screen via Disney’s recent film, “Mary Poppins Returns” starring Emily Blunt which was shown last December. This is the anticipated sequel of the 1964 feature film, “Mary Poppins” which starred Julie Andrews.

But before the British nanny rose to fame and loved by generations around the world, she came to life in the books written by the Australian author P.L. Travers. It is an eight-book series of the same name, the first one being published in 1934. But did you know there was a real Mary Poppins?

Let’s go over the life of P.L. Travers and her inspiration in making one of the most celebrated fictional characters of all time, Mary Poppins.

1. P.L. Travers was born on August 9, 1899, in Queensland, Australia. Her wide imagination allowed her to write stories and poems at an early age. She moved to London to pursue a literary life.

2. Her birth name is Helen Lyndon. She is the daughter of Margaret Agnes Morehead, the sister of the Premier of Queensland and Travers Goff, an unsuccessful bank manager and a heavy drinker who died when she was 7.

3. Frequently called as Lyndon in her younger years. She moved with her mother and siblings in New South Wales. She lived there for 10 years and was heavily supported by her great Aunt.

4. In her teen years, Travers developed her writing skills by publishing poems in Australian Periodicals. She then adopted the stage name Pamela (a popular name that time) Lyndon Travers, or P.L. Travers for short.

5. She has gained reputation as Shakespearean Actress and dancer. However, her rich relatives were unsupportive since they felt that Australian audience lacked humour and lyricism. She then flew to England to pursue her literary dream.

6. Travers started submitting and publishing articles through “The Irish Statesman” when she reached England. The editor George William Russell, known as AE, became her avid supporter and has given her connections which can help her throughout her literary career.

7. She has published her first book, Moscow Excursion in 1934. The main inspiration of her first book was all her travel-writing experiences from her native land Australia until she has reached England where she became a full-time writer.

8. On her recovery from a lung ailment in 1934, she entertained two visiting children in the countryside with stories of a mysterious, magical nanny with parrot head umbrella as transportation and has the ability to spearhead tea parties at the ceiling. Then later that year she released Mary Poppins.

9. Mary Poppins was an instant success and seven more books followed over the next years. The last one being published in 1988 while the first one was adapted into a movie in 1964.

10. Due to Travers popularity and being motivated to draw-off a bigger audience, a nosy publisher in the name of Virago’s Donna Coonan was looking through unpublished works by the mysterious author.

11. She came across a short, semi-autobiographical which was entitled, Aunt Sass. This book was written by Travers in 1941. Aunt Sass’ real name is Christina Saraset which believed to be Mary Poppins’ inspiration.

12. This written work depicts Aunt Sass as a “bulldog with vicious exterior” but with “soft yet emotional heart”. She portrays a strong and independent woman who was an important part of the narrator’s life.

13. Upon reading the book, Ms. Coonan wasn’t expecting too much; she thought it would be too personal and might not be appealing to the audience. But it completely blew her away after reading it.

14. Aunt Sass’, a semi-autobiographical, is a combination of fact and fiction. According to Travers, Aunt Sass was inspired by her great Aunt who has been an important part of her life growing up.

15. Her aunt’s real name is Helen Morehead, the sole inspiration in creating the ferocious yet sentimental Aunt Sass which was also the inspiration of the mysterious and magical Mary Poppins.

16. She described her Aunt Helen as “compact with adventure and romance yet mysterious” as she keeps her own secrets closely. She is tough yet so gentle that you can tenderly feel her love.

17. Among Morehead’s quirky qualities was her love of small dogs. Just like Poppins, Morehead can make spontaneous rhymes and songs to control, discipline and reward children of their naughty antics.

18. Almost all of the children are infected with the fear and happiness of Morehead’s manner and defined her as something more than human. She was like a “central shaft of a merry-go-round”.

19. Her Aunt Helen can turn any emotion from being serious to quirky. She was also an enchantress that can scold a child but rewarding him an evening trip around the world through her stories.

20. She was driven to write this semi-autobiographical when she heard of her Aunt’s death. It is her way to pay a tribute to their resilient relationship and has promised to write a book as a commemoration.

21. However, she wasn’t aware that her semi-autobiographical is already an excellent way to commemorate. This book only contains 35 pages and was finished in the course of World War Two.

22. Travers printed 500 copies of Aunt Sass and gave them to her family, relatives, and friends during the Christmas of 1941 as a gift. However, it didn’t reach a wider audience until now.

23. Virago will release the story to a wider audience for the first time along with Ah Wong (1943) and Johnny Delaney (1944). Both stories were written by PL Travers and sold on Christmas of 2014.

24. Before Virago’s interest in selling classics from Travers, Walt Disney was able to capitalize on the writer’s unripe success by buying the rights of Mary Poppins and making it a full-feature film.

25. However, it took 20 years of persuading Travers to sell Poppins’ rights to Walt Disney because she is afraid that the studio might romanticize her chilly, dark tales of Edwardian nursery life and might change her vision towards Mary Poppins.

26. Eventually, P.L. Travers signed the deal but only if she will be given a cut of gross earnings and has the full right in approving the script before it will be ready for production. She was also in touch with the whole movie production.

27. At the film’s premiere, P.L. Travers cried out of anger and not with joy because she thought Disney Pictures didn’t give justice to her work. They have changed her beloved Mary Poppins for the worse.

28. Despite Travers’ sentiments, Mary Poppins was critically-acclaimed and box office success. It was named as one of the most aesthetically, culturally and historically significant films in the history. It was nominated for 13 Oscars and won 5 awards.

29. In spite of the film’s success, Travers’ continued to sell the theatrical rights of Mary Poppins; felt that adapting her work in theatres would be closely resemble to her original work. She died in 1996 at the age of 96.

30. In 2018, Mary Poppins’ anticipated sequel was shown in theatres after 54 years. This is the longest gap between sequels in cinematic history. Just like the first film, it was critically-acclaimed and box office success.

31. With the release of 2014’s Aunt Sass and 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns, Travers may no longer be around but her excellent work and her Aunt Helen’s memoirs will be remembered by everyone and the few generations to come.