Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers


How many people reading this have seen Disney’s movie, Mary Poppins1? Now, how many people realize how little resemblance the movie bears to the collections of short stories by P.L. Travers upon which they were based?

…how many people realized that there was a literary printed original? (and for extra credit: how many of us want that nanny?)

In fairness, I would hope that a larger number of people reading this knew of the existence of Travers’ books than amongst the general public. How many of those who’ve both read the books and seen the movie walked out of the movie because it was so unlike the books2? Mrs. Banks isn’t a suffragette for starters; indeed, we don’t see much of the parents in the stories. Travers’ character is much stricter than the movie version, to the point of being almost a little frightening3, though in the sort of way that gets kids to pop straight into bed when told. While strange things occur when the printed Poppins is around, these adventures are as often mystifying or even slightly frightening as they are the lighthearted things that happen in the movie. Certainly, Mary Poppins herself never explains things to the Banks children, and indeed often denies that anything out of the ordinary has occurred, despite evidence to the contrary, such as cake crumbs on her hat brim.

Poppins’ relatives levitate with laughter and invert themselves on their birthdays. The nanny is acquainted with the Noah relatives who bring the spring by releasing newly painted, and now living, wooden lambs and birds, and sticking flowers in the trees. She also knows the woman who puts the stars in the sky every night–the gold paper stars from gingerbread. Animals talk, constellations come to life and stars come to earth. The zoo is reversed, with animals loose and the people in the cages or providing “elephant” rides. A compass can take you around the world, and slipping into the painted scenes upon dishes is as simple as going into another room.

The series begins with the departure of the previous nanny, Katy Nanna, and Mary Poppins’ blowing up to the house on the East Wind. Poppins cows the nervous Mrs. Banks into hiring her as nanny, largely by simply assuming that Mrs. Banks will in fact do so! The children realize on that first day that there’s something extraordinary about their new nanny: she slides up banisters, pulls a steamer trunk’s worth of clothing and an entire cot-bed out of her carpetbag4, and administers medicine that not only is delicious but tastes of quite different things to each child, cherry or lime cordial or simply milk. Mary Poppins ends with the eponymous character blowing away, not surprisingly, on a West Wind. Mary Poppins Comes Back begins with the nanny returning after an absence just long enough to ensure the family appreciates her all the more, attached to the end of a kite string in lieu of Michael’s kite. She quickly whips the family into shape, and departs on a carousel which spins away into the cosmos.

All the books strike me as episodic, as though they’d been conceived and written as short stories rather than as a continuous book. There are four collections of Mary Poppins stories although the fourth is more interstitial stories taking place in between events in the first three than a new collection in its own right. Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back are parallel to the point of repetition, but aren’t quite the same: Michael’s bad day involves a compass while Jane’s involves slipping into a frighteningly engulfing past through a painted dish, there’s a party at the zoo versus a party in the zodiac, the bird woman versus the balloon woman and so on. The stories are different enough that I think fans of the first book will enjoy the second and subsequent books, but if you didn’t much care for the first (and many people don’t), stop there. Don’t continue on to the later books.

Mary Poppins Opens the Door doesn’t quite follow the same paths as the first two, though it’s recognizably of the same pattern: eccentric relatives whom Mary Poppins denies any peculiar traits, street vendors of intriguing products (here candy canes that fly), a trip to a place not ordinarily visitable (here under the sea), and so on. In the end, Mary disappears, once and for all, through “the Other Door”—the door to the children’s own nursery reflected in the window against the night sky—where she presumably remains with the reflections of Jane and Michael, the twins, and Annabelle, as the flesh-and-blood originals grow up and away from their childhood nanny. It’s a bittersweet touch that I appreciate, not quite as saccharine as Peter Pan and Wendy.

Why do the kids like Mary? She’s cross, vain, acid-tongued, and strange things happen when she’s around. I’d guess that she does love them, though I can’t put my finger on anything precisely, but I wouldn’t mind having a nanny around whom all those amusing or mystical things happened…and who always brought me safely home, regardless of where I was or the pickle I’d gotten myself into and particularly no matter now naughty I’d been. The moon? the South Pole? a painted dish? no problem. Mary Poppins is there for the kids.

1the one that starred Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke
2Travers despised the adaptation, according to IMDb, though she did approve of Julie Andrews. Go figure.
3nary a spoonful of sugar around; the medicine goes down by sheer force of personality
4for modern and therefore perplexed kids: think large shoulderbag

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