Once again, we have been Disneyed. Mary Poppins, the real one, the one in the books by P.L. Travers (written 1934-1952), is not sweet. She is not cheery. She does not sing or dance (okay, she does sometimes, but she vehemently denies it afterward). She is strict, and brusque, and demanding of the best behavior, and she never explains anything.
Mary Poppins has shiny black hair and bright blue eyes and red cheeks and a turned-up nose; she looks to the children like a Dutch doll. She is thin, with large feet and hands, and while the best one could probably say is that she looks handsome in her tailored outfits, she is quite vain and spends an inordinate amount of time staring in shop windows at her own reflection.
She's not Julie Andrews, but magical things happen when Mary's around.
. . .
Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane is the smallest house on the block. It is “rather dilapidated and needs a coat of paint…
but Mr. Banks, who owns it, said to Mrs. Banks that she could have either a nice, clean, comfortable house or four children. But not both, for he couldn’t afford it.
And after Mrs. Banks had given the matter some consideration she came to the conclusion that she would rather have Jane, who was the eldest, and Michael, who came next, and John and Barbara, who were Twins and came last of all…1”
After Katie Nanna quit, Mrs. Banks was desperate to find someone to look after the children. Before she could place an advertisement in the paper, however, the East Wind had flung Mary Poppins at Number Seventeen, first at the front gate and then at the front door. Although not a warm person, Mary fascinates the children (they watch in astonshment as she rides up the banister) and they behave for her better than for any previous nanny. Mary Poppins smells reassuringly of starched apron and warm toast, and nursery tasks (wrestling with buttons and snaps, putting away toys, bath time) run smoothly with her there to oversee them. Mary is consistent and reliable. She knows things and can do things that no one else can, and the fact that she never explains just makes them more intriguing.
The first time Mary pops in (sorry, couldn’t help myself), she is blown to Number Seventeen by the wind. On subsequent visits, she materializes out of a firework set off in the park on Guy Fawkes Day, and is pulled from the sky on the end of Michael’s kite string. She leaves in equally unusual ways: riding on a runaway merry go round; blown by the wind (while clutching her parrot’s head umbrella); passing through a reflection of the nursery room door. Mary has a host of odd acquaintances and unusual relatives that the children (and the reader) meet through the four books, written between 1934 and 1952: Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back , Mary Poppins Opens the Door, and Mary Poppins in the Park.
There’s Uncle Albert, who fills with laughing gas and floats to the ceiling when he laughs on his birthday; Cousin Arthur Turvy (who ends up marrying a woman named Topsy), who, on Second Mondays, finds himself doing whatever it was he didn’t want to (he’s out when he wants to be in, and upside down when he wishes to be right-side-up); Cousin Fred Twigley, who gets seven wishes granted, “that is, if I wish on the first New Moon, after the Second Wet Sunday, after the Third of May…”, and Cousin Sam, who Jane was sure she had made out of plasticine, before he came to life and invited her and Michael to his wedding feast.
Dick Van Dyke’s character from the movie is a combination of two characters in P. L. Traver’s books; the local chimney sweep and Bert the Match Man, who draws pictures with chalk on the sidewalks in good weather. Mary spends her evenings out (every Second Thursday, one until six) with Bert, and somehow makes his drawings come alive. One week, when Bert cannot afford to take Mary out to tea, they spend an afternoon in the countryside instead, by stepping into Bert’s picture.
. . .
“Help yourself!” said the Match Man airily.
And with that Mary Poppins, before their astonished eyes, bend down and picked the painted Plum from the pavement and took a bite out of it.
”Won’t you take one?” said the Match Man, turning to Jane.
She stared at him. “But can I?” It seemed so impossible.
She bent towards the Apple and it leapt into her hand. She bit into the red side. It tasted very sweet.
”But how do you do it? Said Michael, staring.
”I don’t,” said the Match Man. “It’s Her!” He nodded at Mary Poppins as she stood primly beside the perambulator. “It only happens when She’s around, I assure you!” 2
When Mary is around, people can float through the air holding balloons or peppermint stick “horses”, the world can be traveled using only a compass, and it’s entirely likely that tea will be served in midair. Mary’s friend Nellie Rubina Noah lives in the ark and attaches green leaves and buds to the trees in springtime; Old Mrs. Corry and her two daughters paste gold stars from gingerbread cookies onto the night sky. Mary can talk with animals and listens in as the twins John and Barbara (and then later, their younger sister Annabel) converse with a friendly starling and with the sunbeams that come in through the nursery window. The Sun and the Constellations know Mary, and she is related to the oldest and wisest of animals and sea-creatures. On Halloween, when people’s shadows run off for a night of independence, Mary’s shadow is quite content to stay with her prim, supremely self-assured owner.
Mary knows storybook characters firsthand, and has been the nanny for some of the children in the tales. She knows Maia, the second sister of the Pleiades, who comes to earth to Christmas shop. If she is in a mood to do so, she can tell the real stories behind the Dancing Cow, The Dirty Rascal, The Cat Who Looked At A King, and the Goose Girl who fancied herself a princess.
Some of the characters in the series are downright freaky, especially the old women. Familiar to fans of the movie is The Bird Woman, who never says anything except “Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag.” There’s also old Miss Calico, who oversees a stable of flying peppermint stick horses. Payment for a ride is a straight pin apiece, which the purchaser is asked to push into her jacket or skirt; she looks like a shiny hedgehog. Oddest of all is Mary’s friend Mrs. Corry, who was a teenager when this world was created. When she meets the twins for the first time, she breaks off her fingers and feeds them to John and Barbara--they’re only barley sugar, and will grow back, but you never saw THAT in the Disney version.
. . .
There’s no telling what will happen when Mary Poppins is around. Certainly, she’ll never tell. And yet, there’s always some sign or souvenir left the next morning—sand dollars from the sea, a picture that has been subtly changed, shoes still wet with dew—to prove that the magical adventure did happen, and Jane and Michael did not imagine it.
Suddenly Michael had and idea that seemed to him very important.
”I say!” he said, sitting up in bed. “When igzackly does the Old Year end?”
”Tonight,” said Mary Poppins shortly. “At the first stroke of twelve.”
”And when does it begin?” he went on.
”When does what begin?” she snapped.
”The New Year,” answered Michael patiently.
”On the last stroke of twelve,” she replied, giving a short sharp sniff.
”Oh? Then what happens in between?” he demanded.
”Between what? Can’t you speak properly, Michael? Do you think I’m a Mind Reader?”
He wanted to say Yes, for that was exactly what he did think. Gut he knew he would never dare.
”Between the first and the last stroke,” he explained hurriedly.
Mary Poppins turned and glared at him.
”Never trouble Trouble till Trouble troubles you!” she advised priggishly.
”But I’m not troubling Trouble, Mary Poppins, I was only wanting to know-- --“ he broke off quickly, for Mary Poppin’s face had a Very Ominous look.
”Then Want must be your Master. Now! If I have One More Word from you-- -- “ At the sound of that phrase he dived under the blankets. For he knew very well what it meant. 3
These books are a great deal of fun. The details make me nostalgic for a place and time where I’ve never been: early 20th century England. The Mary Poppins books could be read aloud to young children, or enjoyed independently by older kids. The writing is playful—we learn in the first book that Mr. Banks works in the city, making money—“All day long he worked, cutting out pennies and shillings and half-crowns and threepenny-bits…” and there are puns and wordplay that will appeal to more sophisticated readers. The first book, for instance, contains a chapter titled Miss Lark’s Andrew, about the next door neighbor’s dog Andrew; the second book in the series has a chapter titled Miss Andrew’s Lark, about Mr. Banks’ old governess and the bird she captured.
Each book in the series contains chapters on themes similar to the first book: Mary’s arrival; an encounter with one of her relatives; one of the children having a bad day; magical happenings on Mary’s night out; a fairy tale or nursery rhyme explained and made real, an adventure while shopping or in the park, Mary’s departure. The fact that P. L. Travers may have been following a formula after the success of the first book does not detract from the joy one feels reading the stories; if anything, the pattern provides a comforting structure to lean on and look forward to.
“It couldn’t have been a real Moon, could it?” [ Michael ] demanded.
Jane glanced questioningly at the Sun across the little stretch of star-dust.
He flung back his flaming head and smiled at her.
" What is real and what is not? Can you tell me or I you? Perhaps we shall never know more than this—that to think a thing is to make it true. And so, if Michael thought he had the Moon in his arms—why, then, he had indeed.”
”Then,” said Jane wonderingly, “is it true that we are here to-night or do we only think we are?”
The Sun smiled again, a little sadly.
“Child,” he said, “seek no further! From the beginning of the world all men have asked that question. And I, who am Lord of the Sky—even I do not know the answer. I am certain only that this is the Evening Out, that the Constellations are shining in your eyes and that it is true if you think it is. . .” 4
1 P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins , Odyssey/Harcourt Brace, 1934, p. 2.
2 P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins Comes Back , Odyssey/Harcourt Brace, 1935, p. 280.
3 P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Odyssey/ Harcourt Brace, 1943, pp. 190-191.
4 P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Odyssey/ Harcourt Brace, 1935, pp. 201-202.