The true Mary Poppins

One twin abandoned, one is whisked off to be raised by the creator of the world's most beloved magical nanny

Mike Selby

Joseph Hone is one of Ireland’s greatest and most successful thriller writers, but remains largely unknown outside of his home country. Beginning with ‘The Private Sector’ in 1971, Hone wrote a series of novels featuring the British spy Peter Marlow. A type of literary Ian Fleming, Hone’s work is frequently compared to spymasters John le Carre and Len Deighton. Yet there is a bitterness to Hone’s writing—”a persistent undertone of unspeakable sadness and irrecoverable loss.” This may explain why his novels have never taken off elsewhere.

The source of this “unspeakable sadness” which peppers his work is fairly easy to pinpoint: it comes from Hone’s two brothers, and the woman who destroyed them.

Born to uncaring and useless parents, Joseph and two younger brothers (Camillus and Anthony, who were twins) were fawned off on a rotating series of relatives until word came that a family friend was going to legally adopt the twins. Although unmarried, the family friend was a wealthy children’s author, and the arrangement appeared ideal. Yet before she arrived, Pamela Travers (author of ‘Mary Poppins’) consulted an astrologer who told her to adopt only one of the boys.

Although the family begged her to keep the boys together, especially young Joseph, Travers refused. She only adopted Camillus.

So Anthony is abandoned yet again, and Camillus is whisked off to a life of wealth and privilege, to be raised by the creator of the world’s most beloved magical nanny. The only problem with all of this was life isn’t a children’s story, and Travers would find playing Mary Poppins much more difficult than writing about her.

Born and raised in Australia, Travers—whose real name is Helen Lyndon Goff—was a silent-screen actress before setting sail for Ireland at age 24. Being of Irish descent, she felt the land of Yeats was calling her, and she landed in London with no family, connections, or money. Yet much like her name, all this turned out not to be true. She wasn’t of Irish descent, she wasn’t a screen star, and her arrival in London was being generously funded by wealthy relatives. When it came to her life, Travers was a habitual fabulist.

Parenting was also unlike how she pictured it in her books. Camillus travelled the world with her, but was often left with a series of strangers. Travers had also told Camillus that he was her natural son, and that his father had been a wealthy sugar tycoon.

Back in London by age 17, Camillus was packing for university when someone knocked on his door. He opened it to find himself looking at a mirror. Anthony, his twin brother, had tracked him down, thus shattering the fantasy world Camillus’ mother had raised him in.

There are no happy endings here for the twins, and Camillus “went off the rails.” He spent his life angry at his mother, gambling his share of her wealth away, and eventually drinking himself to death. Anthony also drank himself to death—although he did it in an impoverished shack. He had spent his entire adult life moaning the fact that Camillus had been chosen instead of him.

What about Joseph? After the twins were separated, he had been taken in by a history professor and his wife. He became a professor himself before finding success as a writer.

While signing books at a festival in the late 1970s, an elderly woman asked if he would sign her book for her. It was Pamela Travers—and Hone recognized her instantly from the night he begged her in tears not to separate his twin brothers. But that was half a century ago. So he graciously signed it ‘With love.’

She looked at him and said, “You should never use the words ‘With love’ unless you mean it.” And she was right. He didn’t.