Goff was born in Maryborough, Queensland, and grew up in the Australian bush before being sent to boarding school in Sydney. Her writing was first published as a teenager, and she also worked briefly as a professional Shakespearean actress. Upon emigrating to England at the age of 25, she began to write under the pen name P. L. Travers. In 1933, she began writing the novel Mary Poppins, the first of eight Poppins books.
Travers travelled to New York City during World War II while working for the British Ministry of Information. At that time, Walt Disney contacted her about selling to Disney Studios the rights for a film adaptation of Mary Poppins, whose sequel Mary Poppins Comes Back was also in print. After years of contact, which included visits to Travers at her home in London, Walt Disney did obtain the rights and the Disney film Mary Poppins premiered in 1964. In 2004, a new musical adaptation of the books and the film opened in the West End; it premiered on Broadway in 2006.
Helen Lyndon Goff, known within her family as Lyndon, was born on 9 August 1899 in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia. Her mother, Margaret Agnes Goff (née Morehead), was Australian and the sister of Boyd Dunlop Morehead, Premier of Queensland from 1888 to 1890. Her father, Travers Robert Goff, was of Irish descent and born in Deptford, south-east London, England. He was unsuccessful as a bank manager due to his chronic alcoholism, and was eventually demoted to the position of bank clerk. The family lived in a large home with servants in Maryborough until Lyndon was five years old, when they relocated to Allora in 1905. Two years later, Travers Goff died at home at the age of 43.
Following her father's death, Goff, along with her mother and sisters, moved to Bowral, New South Wales, in 1907, living there until 1917. She boarded at Loreto Girls School in Normanhurst, a suburb of Sydney, during World War I.
Helen Goff began publishing her poems while still a teenager. She wrote for The Bulletin and Triad and during that time began gaining a reputation as an actress under the stage name "Pamela Lyndon Travers." She toured Australia and New Zealand with Allan Wilkie's Shakespearean Company, before leaving for England in 1924. There she dedicated herself to writing under the pen name P. L. Travers. In 1931, she and her friend Madge Burnand moved from their rented flat in London to a thatched cottage in Sussex. It was here, in the winter of 1933, that she began to write Mary Poppins.
Travers greatly admired and emulated J. M. Barrie, author of the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. Her first publisher was Barrie's ward Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of the five Llewelyn Davies boys who were the inspiration for Peter Pan.
While in Ireland in 1925, Travers met the poet George William Russell (who wrote under the name "Æ") who, as editor of the Irish Statesman, accepted some of her poems for publication. Through Russell, whose kindness towards younger writers was legendary, Travers met W. B. Yeats, Oliver St. John Gogarty, and other Irish poets who fostered her interest in and knowledge of world mythology. She had studied the Gurdjieff system under Jane Heap and in March 1936, with the help of Jessie Orage (widow of Alfred Richard Orage), she met the mystic George Gurdjieff, who would have a great effect on her, as well as on several other literary figures.
At the invitation of her friend, the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, Travers spent two summers living among the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples studying their mythology and folklore. After the war, she remained in the USA and became Writer-in-Residence at Radcliffe College and Smith College.
She returned to England, making only one brief visit to Sydney in 1960 while on her way to Japan to study Zen mysticism.
Travers's literary output other than Mary Poppins and its sequels included other novels, poetry collections and works of non-fiction.
Published in London in 1934, Mary Poppins was Travers's first literary success. Seven sequels followed, the last in 1988.
While appearing as a guest on BBC Radio 4's radio programme Desert Island Discs in May 1977, Travers revealed that the name "M. Poppins" originated from childhood stories that she contrived for her sisters, and that she was still in possession of a book from that age with this name inscribed within. Travers's great aunt, Helen Morehead, who lived in Woollahra, Sydney, and used to say, "Spit spot, into bed," is a likely inspiration for the character.
The musical film adaptation Mary Poppins was released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1964. Primarily based on the original 1934 novel of the same name, it also lifted elements from the 1935 sequel Mary Poppins Comes Back. The novels were loved by Disney's daughters when they were children, and Disney had spent 20 years trying to purchase the film rights to Mary Poppins, which included visits to Travers at her home in London. In 1961, Travers arrived in Los Angeles on a flight from London, her first-class ticket having been paid for by Disney, and he finally succeeded in purchasing the rights. Travers was an adviser in the production, but she disapproved of the Poppins character in its Disney version, with harsher aspects diluted; she felt ambivalent about the music; and she so hated the use of animation that she ruled out any further adaptations of the series. She received no invitation to the film's star-studded première until she "embarrassed a Disney executive into extending one". At the after-party, she said loudly "The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence'." Disney replied, "Pamela, the ship has sailed", and walked away.
Travers so disliked the Disney adaptation and the way she felt she had been treated during the production that when producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her years later about making the British stage musical she acquiesced only on conditions that English-born writers alone and no one from the original film production was to be directly involved. This specifically excluded the Sherman Brothers from writing additional songs for the production. However, original songs and other aspects from the 1964 film were allowed to be incorporated into the production. These points were even stipulated in her last will and testament.
In a 1977 interview Travers remarked, "I've seen it once or twice, and I've learned to live with it. It's glamorous and it's a good film on its own level, but I don't think it is very like my books."
The 2013 motion picture Saving Mr. Banks is a dramatised retelling of both the working process during the planning of Mary Poppins and also that of Travers's early life, drawing parallels with Mary Poppins and that of the author's childhood. The movie stars Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.
Though Travers had numerous fleeting relationships with men throughout her life, she lived for more than a decade with Madge Burnand, daughter of Sir Francis Burnand, a playwright and the former editor of Punch. They shared a London flat from 1927 to 1934, then moved to Pound Cottage near Mayfield, East Sussex, where Travers published the first of the Mary Poppins books. Their friendship, in the words of one biographer, was "intense," but equally ambiguous.
At the age of 40, two years after moving out on her own, Travers adopted a baby boy from Ireland whom she named Camillus Travers Hone. He was the grandchild of Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats' first biographer, who was raising his seven grandchildren with his wife. Camillus was unaware of his true parentage or the existence of any siblings until the age of 17, when Anthony Hone, his twin brother, came to London and knocked on the door of Travers's house at 50 Smith Street, Chelsea. He had been drinking and demanded to see his brother. Travers refused to allow it and threatened to call the police. Anthony left, but soon after, Camillus, following an argument with Travers, went looking for his brother and found him in a pub on King's Road.
Travers was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1977. She lived into advanced old age, but her health declined toward the end of her life. Travers died in London on 23 April 1996 at the age of 96.
Her son Camillus died in London in November 2011.Mary Poppins, London: Gerald Howe, 1934
Mary Poppins Comes Back, London: L. Dickson & Thompson Ltd., 1935
I Go By Sea, I Go By Land, London: Peter Davies, 1941
Aunt Sass, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941
Ah Wong, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943
Mary Poppins Opens the Door, London: Peter Davies, 1943
Johnny Delaney, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1944
Mary Poppins in the Park, London: Peter Davies, 1952
Gingerbread Shop, 1952 (an adapted version of the "Mrs. Corry" chapter from Mary Poppins)
Mr. Wigg's Birthday Party, 1952 (an adapted version of the "Laughing Gas" chapter from Mary Poppins)
The Magic Compass, 1953 (an adapted version of the "Bad Tuesday" chapter from Mary Poppins)
Mary Poppins From A to Z, London: Collins, 1963
The Fox at the Manger, London: Collins, 1963
Friend Monkey, London: Collins, 1972
Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975
Two Pairs of Shoes, New York: Viking Press, 1980
Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, London: Collins, 1982
Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, London: Collins. 1988.
Stories from Mary Poppins, 1952
Moscow Excursion, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1934
George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, Toronto: Traditional Studies Press, 1973
About the Sleeping Beauty, London: Collins, 1975
What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story, New Paltz: Codhill Press, 1989