Being Mr. Banks
In a small house at Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane, there lives a middle-aged man named George Banks. George Banks works as a junior officer at a London bank to provide for his wife, Winifred, and their two children, Jane and Michael. As a hard-working everyman, he does his best to financially support his family, sometimes at the cost of emotional support. He faces tough decisions between what is right and what is good for business, what he was taught and what he is learning, what he thinks and what he feels. MARY POPPINS is just as much the story of George Banks as it is of Mary herself, which is due in no small part to the history surrounding him.
P.L. Travers took inspiration from her own father when devising the character of George Banks, as many would expect. What might be surprising is her tendency to fictionalize her father, as well. Valerie Lawson, author of Mary Poppins, She Wrote, argues that Travers actually had three fathers: one real, one she imagined, and “the completely fictional George Banks.” George Banks was Travers’ idealized version of a father, an amalgamation of both the truth and fabrications about her own.
Travers Robert Goff (1863-1907), according to P.L. Travers’ imagination, was a grand, poetic Irishman. He possessed great charm and charisma, as well as great wealth. Her version of Goff was a debonair sugarcane plantation supervisor in Queensland. Clothed in the finest white silks and gold earrings, he was beloved by his servants and employees. The vivid image of a glamorous and successful gentleman starkly contrasts the reality of a tired man who never actualized his dreams. The real Goff was a bank manager, similar to George Banks, but was demoted to a clerk. He drank too much and spun lavish tales about his Irish origins. However, he also loved traveling, the poetry of W.B. Yeats, and life itself. Goff was, at times, quite sentimental about his family, while at others, was more interested in himself than them. More often than not, Travers once reported, her father seemed troubled and dissatisfied:
“He was proud and haughty, terribly gay and terribly amusing and poetic and always singing and quoting poems and weeping over them. But I’ve come to know he was melancholy and sad and that he needed someone to understand him. His melancholy was the other side of his Irish gaiety. Whenever he had taken a glass he would grieve over the sack of Drogheda in 1649 until everyone round him felt personally guilty. He was Irish and determined in argument to have the last word even or perhaps specially with children.”
Tragically, Goff died in his mid-40s, leaving his family destitute. They relied on the charity of various relatives to support them after his death, particularly Aunt Ellie (who would later serve as inspiration for Mary Poppins).
In spite of their faults, or perhaps because of them, Travers Robert Goff and George Banks evoke a certain sentimentality. As employees, they both strove to make the right decisions and support their families. Their constant desire for something more meaningful drove them to emotional hardships. George Banks in particular seemed to suffer for his dedication to his family and morality. In the end, his sacrifices pay off and the Banks family is reunited, stronger than ever. Ultimately, it is not really Mary’s magic that saves Mr. Banks, but the magic his family inspires within him.