Mary Poppins: Perhaps not what you were expecting

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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.

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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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  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.”

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