Mary Poppins: Perhaps not what you were expecting

Reposting to include Tadiana’s new review.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsMary Poppins by P.L. Travers fantasy book reviewsMary Poppins by P.L. Travers

Having recently seen Saving Mr. Banks, a film that purports to examine the strained relationship between author P.L. Travers and film-maker Walt Disney when it came to adapting Mary Poppins for the big screen, it was only natural that I finally got around to my long overdue reading of the classic children’s story Mary Poppins.

Having grown up with the Disney film, it’s quite shocking to realize how little one resembles the other. Of course, I knew there would be significant differences — the film is filled with animation and musical numbers, for a start. But I was surprised by how many of the most iconic elements of the Disney film are completely absent from the novel: there is no line of potential governesses being swept away by the East Wind, no “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” no dancing chimney sweeps, no kite flying.

And (contrary to what Saving Mr Banks would have you believe; that the entire story was Travers’ way of coping with her long-suppressed Daddy Issues), Mr Banks isn’t a joyless workaholic whose children cause a riot at the bank. In fact, he’s barely in the book. There are really only three major aspects of Travers’s story that make it into the film, the magic carpet bag, the sojourn into the chalk drawing, and the tea-party on the ceiling. And of course, Mary Poppins herself: inscrutable and unexplainable.

There are a few other little details: Mary sliding up the banister, the taste-changing cordial, the parrot-headed umbrella, but people like Bert, the Bird Woman and Mr and Mrs Banks are just minor characters. The lengthy carousel ride in which the horses leap off the platform is here just casually mentioned in a single sentence. Where the Disney film is whimsical and colourful, the book is strange and otherworldly.

So coming to the book can be a rather surprising experience.

Jane and Michael Banks live with their parents, baby siblings, and an array of servants on Cherry Tree Lane. In need of a new nanny, the entire family is stunned when a woman by the name of Mary Poppins simply marches in and takes the job. What follows is a series of vignettes (one per chapter) in which the children are thrown into ever-more surprising adventures whenever Mary Poppins is around: a journey with a magic compass to the four points of the globe, a visit to the zoo at night time when the roles of animals and humans are reversed, a Christmas shopping trip with a fallen star…

Amidst the fantastical adventures, Travers will often write something marvelously shrewd, such as Jane and Michael buying Christmas presents for their parents: Jane settles on a doll’s pram (“perhaps mother will lend it to me sometimes”) and Michael on a train set (“I’ll take care of it for father when he goes to the city.”) And there are other tales in which Mary is only a tangential character: of a dancing red cow, a sweetshop that sells stars, even a chapter that concentrates on the baby-talk that occurs between the younger Banks children and a curious starling. It’s a strange, dreamy sort of book, with little in the way of cogent storytelling.

But for newcomers, it may well be Mary Poppins herself that will prove to be the biggest surprise. As in the film, she can communicate with animals, float into the sky with her umbrella, and leap into chalk-drawings, but unlike Julie Andrew’s stern-but-sunny take on the character, this Mary is also vain and haughty, even rather fierce and frightening at times. There’s not a shop window she can go past without examining her reflection in it, and in her dealings with the children, things can get rather fraught at times. To quote a passage when Michael is in a bad mood: “he looked as though he would like to kill her.”

Perhaps that’s just me as a 21st century reader, for I’m not sure I’d want today’s children to be looked after by a woman who seems perpetually angry and oftentimes neglectful of her charges. Perhaps she’s meant to be some sort of satire of the governesses of P.L. Travers’s youth? It’s hard to say, for who is Mary Poppins, really? There are a few little clues strewn about here and there, but no definitive answer. Yet this is the allure of the character, something even Disney understood had to remain intact. She never explains, she never reveals, she simply IS.

The success of Saving Mr Banks will no doubt result in renewed interest in Mary Poppins (both book and film), and a new range of readers that may be quite surprised by what they find here. At times funny, scary, strange, imaginative and random, Mary Poppins will probably end up a “love it or hate it” experience based on each reader’s preconceptions of the character.

~Rebecca FisherMary Poppins Boxed Set Paperback by Dr. P. L. Travers (Author), Mary Shepard (Illustrator)


Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers fantasy book reviewsWhen Katie Nanna disappears from the Banks home without notice, Jane and Michael are pleased (“She was old and fat and smelt of barley-water”). But they’re not quite ready for the replacement nanny that the East Wind blows to their door: Mary Poppins, who promptly intimidates Mrs. Banks into hiring her without references, slides up the bannister, pulls a great number of items from her apparently empty carpet bag, and shares magical flavor-changing medicine with Jane and Michael (their baby siblings, John and Barbara, just get milk from the medicine bottle). And so the magical adventures of Mary Poppins and the Banks children begin. Despite her sternness, Michael and Jane soon beg her to never leave, but she only promises to stay until the wind changes.

Like Rebecca, I was inspired by the movie Saving Mr. Banks to pick up the original 1934 novel of Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers. Far less touchy-feely than Disney’s movie, Mary Poppins in the novel is a surprisingly vain, acerbic, and mysterious woman who regularly snaps at Jane and Michael and gets offended easily, but also takes them on grand magical adventures and wins their devotion.

Mary Poppins is episodic in style: each chapter is a different, stand-alone adventure. Some of their adventures will be familiar if you know the movie, but most were brand-new to me. Bert the Match-Man shows up in Chapter 2, when he and Mary (without the children) jump into one of his chalk sidewalk drawings, but never appears again. Nor are there any penguins, animated or otherwise, or parents who need to reconnect with their family. Mr. and Mrs. Banks appear to be doing just fine, thank you, or if they’re not, no one in this book seems to care.

But there’s a touching chapter about Andrew the dog who, using Mary Poppins as his translator with his owner, insists that his owner Miss Lark accept his friendship with a common street mongrel and welcome him into their home … and, by the way, quit making Andrew go to the hairdresser’s and wear embarrassing overcoats. Another standout is a tender chapter about the 11-month-old twins, John and Barbara, who have a sweet conversation with Mary Poppins, the sunlight that streams into their room, and a visiting Starling. The twins are still young enough to understand the animals, the sun and the wind talking to them, but their first birthday is fast approaching. There’s a visit to the zoo on the night of the full moon and Mary Poppins’ birthday, when the animals can talk and switch places with people, who are in their cages.

There’s also a curious chapter called “Bad Tuesday” in which Michael feels driven to be naughty all day long, but is nevertheless rewarded with a quick magical trip around the globe with Mary Poppins and Jane, visiting with a polar bear, macaw, panda and dolphins at each of the four corners of the world. It’s worth noting that Travers rewrote this chapter after receiving many complaints, replacing the highly stereotypical “Red Indians,” a Chinese Mandarin, Eskimos, and black Africans with non-controversial animals. The original text and some illustrations can be viewed in this online article.

After the premiere of the film version of Mary Poppins, according to Richard Sherman, Travers tracked down Walt Disney at the after-party. A New Yorker article reported their brief exchange:

“Well,” she said loudly. “The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.” Disney looked at her coolly. “Pamela,” he replied, “the ship has sailed.” And then he strode past her, toward a throng of well-wishers, and left her alone, an aging woman in a satin gown and evening gloves, who had travelled more than five thousand miles to attend a party where she wasn’t wanted.

Whether Disney improved on Travers’ original story is a matter of personal taste; what is certain is that she herself never forgave his adaptation of her beloved book.

Mary Poppins, which has seven sequels written by Travers, is dated in its social viewpoints, though that’s understandable for a 1934 novel, and you have to squint to see the plot, but there are many charming and memorable moments.

~Tadiana Jones


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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5 comments

  1. To me, the book Mary Poppins was more of a high priestess, wizard or goddess; not explainable, not kind or cuddly, but capable of sharing magic and wonder, and that was her purpose. Isn’t there a chapter with a blue moon and the wonders you can do on that night? (Or did I imagine that?) I remember being startled by the book when I read it after seeing the movie,too.

    • Rebecca /

      Yes, you’re right. It’s Mary Poppin’s birthday on the full moon, and she choses to celebrate at the zoo with the animals (one of which is a large snake who informs the children that she’s a distant cousin to him).

      I quite like the more recent theory that she’s a Time Lord from “Doctor Who.”

      • She could be a Time Lord. That would explain a lot.

        • In one of Alan Moore’s many comics series, Mary Poppins turns out to be a cosmic figure of incredible power, which feels perfectly in line with the original character!

          • I like the idea of Cosmic Mary Poppins, but Travers’ description of her vanity and snippiness with Jane and Michael make her seem oddly petty and small-minded at the same time. It’s kind of dissonant.

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