Bowral - Birthplace of Mary Poppins?

A website site that answers the question:

Where did Mary Poppins come from?

A storyteller is born in dramatic circumstances and the magical essence of Mary Poppins is created in a fireplace...

The following extract is from Valerie Lawson's biography, Out of the Sky She Came : the life of P.L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins (Sydney, Hodder 1999). The episode described took place in Bowral, around the hearth of the house at 45 Holly Street. Recent renovation has uncovered the original fireplace and it has been restored to working order.

For all the rich lode of characters she found in Bowral, the focus of Lyndon's life remained her mother, Margaret, a woman who had never been mothered herself, except by Aunt Ellie, and who was now a widow in her thirties. At 10, Lyndon still did not believe her father was really dead. If things went badly wrong, she reassured her mother, 'Don't worry, it will all be all right when father gets back from God'. At this, Margaret's grey eyes turned black.

Lyndon feared her mother would remarry, yet she might have suffered less if Margaret had found a man. She resented the burden of being the oldest child, the confidante. 'I was the eldest and that is a very difficult place. So much is expected of you, an example to set.' Her mother even needed Lyndon's hand on her brow if she had a headache. Gradually, the child came to feel inadequate to the task, resentful, as growing children do of a parent's needs. Her hair began falling out in little round patches; the family doctor, Dr Throsby, said it was all too much strain on the girl.

A continuing metaphor for her absent father was Halley's Comet, which she mistakenly knew as Harry's Comet. Waiting for Harry 'is one of the things I've been doing all my life, imagining him out there on his appointed course, trailing his tail among the galaxies'. When the comet came into view in 1910, the red-dressing-gowned Goff children were plucked from their beds to see the miracle and told, 'You won't see him again… he won't come again for 76 years.'

In two accounts, one given in a letter in 1977, the other published in a magazine 11 years later, Lyndon told a story which was engraved on her mind. It concerned a magical white horse, but much more than that, the story signified the end of her childhood and explained, at least to her own satisfaction, this mystery: where did Mary Poppins come from? One night when Lyndon was about 11, her mother turned in anguish from her children and rushed from the house threatening to drown herself in the creek. She had not recovered from her husband's death and knew no one well enough to share the pain. The rain was drumming onto the tin roof of the cottage, the trees outside were heavy with the day's downpour.
Lyndon was already mature enough not to panic. She stoked the fire, dragged an old feather quilt from the bedroom and wrapped it around herself, then Biddy and Moya. The three girls sat before the fire, watched over by the carved wooden fox on the mantelpiece, lit by their mother's china lamp. As they perched on the hearthrug, Lyndon told her anxious sisters a story of a magical white horse.

The horse might have been Pegasus, a symbol of poetry which would have appealed to the poet in Lyndon, but while it had no wings, it could still gallop over the sea like a shimmering comet, 'its hooves flicking the foam'. The colt was finely made with a neatly trimmed mane and tail. Was he going home, the girls wanted to know? No, the horse was coming from home to a place with no name. He could see that place in the distance as a great cloud of light. Can he do anything? Fizzle the world in a frying pan, fly into the air even without wings and dive to the bottom of the sea? Yes, yes, yes! Perhaps he will never even get to the light. What will he eat, what will he drink? Years later, Lyndon believed the magic horse ran underground, and came up eventually as Mary Poppins.

The three girls cuddled tightly together as Lyndon thought of the creek. While her imagination flew to describe the horse's adventures, her logical mind considered the reality. How deep was the creek? Surely not deep enough for a woman to drown? And yet, if you lay down and let the water cover your face, like Ophelia…But the creek does become a wider pool downstream. Anyway, what would happen to us if she never came back? Would we go to a children's home and wear dressing gowns embroidered over to hide the worn holes in the fabric, or would Auntie Ellie take us back to Sydney? Maybe she would send Biddy to Aunt Jane and I would have to stay with Aunt Ellie and Moya would go to one of the cousins? No one would be the 'little one' then. How long does it take to drown? Oh God, I will be good, if only Mummy comes back.

As the logs slipped sideways in the fireplace, the door opened. Margaret stood like Ophelia revived, her hair wet around her face, her clothes clinging to her body. Biddy and Moya rushed to embrace her, around the waist, the knees, tried to kiss her cheeks, crying and laughing, pulling at her clothes, pulling down the bedclothes for her, but Lyndon held back. She went to the primus stove, a place forbidden to the children, and boiled a kettle to fill the hot water bottle, which she silently took to her mother's bedroom. Moya and Biddy were already tucked into bed with her, one on each side, giggling and whispering the story of the magic white horse.

Margaret looked up at her eldest daughter. Lyndon threw the hot water bottle onto the bed with as much strength as she could muster, just as Margaret had once smashed the china doll on the iron bedstead. 'Oh, you cold-hearted child. The others are so pleased to see me. What's the matter with you?' cried Margaret. Lyndon couldn't answer. She went to her own bed and lay cold, in her heart and body, and still as a stone. The pain, then relief, were impossible to bear. She could not even weep.

She had seen herself as a tight green bud, unable to bend to another's grief. Only as an adult, writing a letter to a friend, could Lyndon acknowledge the depth of Margaret's grief, that what 'had been borne by two now had to be carried by one. Fullness had become emptiness.' The empty bed symbolised the loss- the bed that once resonated with all the intimacies of marriage: 'Yin breath and Yang breath flowing together, naked foot over naked foot, the day dissolved, absolved by night'. She realised that, far from being innocent, her mother knew a great deal. One day she saw Margaret looking down at her as she lay in the bath. Her mother was quietly weeping. 'All the love had rushed to the grey eyes, they were black with concern and love and anguish and compassion, the desire to comfort. She said nothing. Neither of us could speak.'

Extract reproduced with permission from OUT OF THE SKY SHE CAME by Valerie Lawson, Hachette Australia, 1999.

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Acknowledgements: The content on this website is indebted to many sources and attribution is given where possible. In particular, it draws on the biography of PL Travers by Valerie Lawson Out of the Sky She Came (1999) and conversations with a longtime friend of P.L. Travers, Patricia Feltham. But no inference should be drawn that this or any other attribution indicates endorsement by those individuals of the website's content. In particular, neither individual is making the claim that Bowral is the birthplace of Mary Poppins. Responsibility for that claim and all the website content is accepted by Paul McShane, Convenor - BookTown Australia info@booktown.com.au

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