Will the Real Mary Poppins Please Stand Up?

mary poppins floats away

Illus. by Mary Shepard, ‘West Wind’, in Mary Poppins (1934)

Perhaps, like me, you’ve been to the cinema to see Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returnsthe 2018 movie incarnation of author P L Travers’ redoubtable nanny, Mary Poppins. The film is Walt Disney Pictures’ second foray into Travers’ London-based world, centring on the home of the Banks family who reside at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. The first movie, with Julie Andrews in the role of Mary Poppins, was released in 1964 and featured music by Robert and Richard Sherman.

Both films offer an interpretation of Travers’ book character. But do they reflect the original manifestation of Mary Poppins? Let’s take a closer look at the nanny as she appears in the first of Travers’ six story-based Mary Poppins books, the eponymously titled Mary Poppins, first published in 1934. (In addition to the story books, a standalone alphabet book and a cook book also feature the English nanny.)

Mary Poppins—The Look

dutch doll_model for mp illustrations

Wooden Dutch doll

Mary Poppins is a thin person with ‘shiny black hair’, ‘large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes’. It’s no accident that she is described by Jane Banks, the eldest of Mary Poppins’ nursery charges, as looking ‘rather like a wooden Dutch doll’. In fact, Travers provided her illustrator, Mary Shepard, with a model doll on which to base the drawings. (In later years, Travers presented the doll to the New York Public Library. The library also holds a parrot-headed umbrella donated by Travers, a version of which is among Mary Poppins’ most recognisable accessories.)

Mary Poppins is particular about her attire. Whenever she has a new item of clothing—a new hat, or new shoes, or a fresh pair of gloves—she can be found checking her reflection in any available surface. She is undeniably vain. While shopping with Jane and Michael (‘Christmas Shopping’), she examines herself in the shop windows:

‘On the whole, she thought “she had never seen anybody looking quite so smart and distinguished”.’

Eventually, she has to wrench herself away from her ‘glorious reflection’.

Mary Poppins—Character and Behaviour

mary poppins admires her reflection

Illus. by Mary Shepard, ‘Christmas Shopping’, in Mary Poppins (1934)

Vanity aside, it’s hard to get under Mary Poppins’ skin. No one in the Banks household ever knows what she feels about them, ‘for Mary Poppins never told anybody anything’. Her reserve does not mask ignorance. When Michael Banks enquires of Mary Poppins whether his and Jane’s night time adventures at the zoo (‘Full Moon’) really happened, Jane interrupts, saying: ‘It’s no good asking her … She knows everything, but she never tells.’

While reticent on some matters, Mary Poppins is highly opinionated on others. Upon arriving at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane (‘East Wind’), she refuses to provide Mrs Banks with references, declaring it a ‘very old-fashioned’ idea. She even sets her own terms of employment (‘The Day Out’), demanding every second Thursday afternoon off.

Mary Poppins is prim, orderly and dignified. She sniffs with displeasure rather a lot. She is often haughty, dismissive and scornful. As Jane observes, their nanny ‘never wasted time in being nice’ (‘West Wind’).  But … there are exceptions.

A softer Mary Poppins is revealed in her interactions with Bert, the match man and pavement artist (‘The Day Out’). With him, she is warm and kind. So, too, with Maia, the second of Pleiades’ sisters, whom Mary meets while Christmas shopping. When Maia finds presents for each of her sisters but has no gift for herself, Mary Poppins whips off her new (and much admired) gloves and thrusts them onto Maia’s cold hands. A look passes between the two and they smile ‘as people smile who understand each other’ (‘Christmas Shopping’).

Mary Poppins—Philosophy

It comes as no surprise that Mary Poppins and Maia have an understanding. Mary Poppins is a creature of the ages. Her wisdom reaches back in time. Her understanding of the universe does not reside only in the world of day-to-day activity, it expands into a broader reality—the world of Fairylands, and of mysterious and unexpected journeys. A world where humans are attuned to the language of all living things.

John and Barbara, the infant twins in the Banks household, are perplexed that grown-ups cannot understand their baby speech (‘John and Barbara’s Story’). Mary Poppins tells them that grown-ups did understand once.

Grown-ups used to understand ‘what the trees say and the language of the sunlight and the stars’, but they’ve forgotten ‘because they’ve grown older’.

The fact that Mary can still understand is because she is ‘the Great Exception’.

Mary Poppins does not answer direct questions. She deflects. She obfuscates. She accompanies the Banks children through eye-opening experiences, but she doesn’t validate their memories. The children second guess themselves: did the unusual events really happen? ‘Is it true or isn’t it?’, wonder Michael and Jane. But there is ‘nobody to give them the right answer’ (‘Laughing Gas’).

Who Is Travers’ Mary Poppins?

In the 21st century, Mary Poppins could be accused of ‘gaslighting’ but in Travers’ scenario, written in the 1930s, her purpose seems to be not to make the children doubt themselves, but to stir their curiosity. Travers’ Mary Poppins shapes and guides her young charges’ experiences; meaning-making is left up to the children.

It is this stance of being open and alive to the world, and of allowing space for children to make sense of it, that is lost in the movie depictions of Mary Poppins. The adventures remain, but the time for reflection disappears.

Perhaps this is best summed up by P L Travers’ biographer, Valerie Lawson, in her book Mary Poppins She Wrote. Lawson observes that the Sherman brothers thought they were making a Disney film about ‘the miracle that lay behind everyday life’. For Travers—and by extension for Mary Poppins—‘everyday life was the miracle’.

Links and Sources

  • Mary Poppins by P L Travers. London: Gerald Howe, 1934.
  • mary poppins she wroteThis blog post has touched on Mary Poppins only as she is revealed in Mary Poppins, the first of Travers’ six books about the English nanny. According to Valerie Lawson, author of the Travers biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote (Sydney: Hachette, 1999, rev. ed. 2010), the character of Mary Poppins becomes more philosophical in the later books.
    If you are interested in learning more about the expatriate Australian Travers’ life, Lawson’s biography is based on extensive research and is thoroughly engaging.
  • mary poppins_the complete collections_harpercollins_coverAll six books featuring Mary Poppins (originally published between 1934 and 1989) are available in an omnibus edition from HarperCollins (2010). The Mary Poppins books are episodic. The narrative is told in non-sequential, self-contained, chapter-length stories.
  • P L Travers first featured Mary Poppins in short stories written for newspaper publication. See, for example, this reproduction: ‘Mary Poppins and the Match-Man’, originally published in a New Zealand newspaper, the Christchurch Sun in 1926.
  •  For further background on the wooden Dutch doll that informed Mary Shepard’s drawings of Mary Poppins, see ‘Mary Poppins Treasures on View at the New York Public Library’ (2015).
  • More information on the two Disney films is available via Facebook, on the website for Mary Poppins Returns and via the Internet Movie Database.
au revoir

Illus. by Mary Shepard, ‘West Wind’, in Mary Poppins (1934)

Christmas Cakes of Yesteryear

The very first entry in my grandmother’s battered, handwritten recipe book is for a ‘Good Xmas Cake’.

Grammo probably began her recipe collection around the time of her marriage in 1919; the weights and measures are recorded in Imperial units (pounds and ounces, pints and gills) and the somewhat vague ‘breakfast cup’.

Weights and Measures_1

Weights & Measures

Good Xmas Cake

The recipe for the ‘Good Xmas Cake’ provides specific quantities of flour, butter, sugar, currants, raisins, lemon peel, almonds, spice and baking powder, along with ‘a little treacle to darken it’ and ‘8 to 20 eggs’. Now, as my family will attest, I am no great cook but, even to me, a range between 8 and 20 eggs seems, pardon the pun, a recipe for disaster. Did the number of eggs depend on how the chooks were laying? I don’t know (and I’m not about to experiment with the two extremes of eggs numbers to test the end result.)

Good Xmas Cake_cropped_1

‘Good Xmas Cake’

Following the ingredients list are these eight words:

Make and bake the same as pound cake.

As luck would have it, the very next recipe in Grammo’s well-thumbed exercise book is for a ‘Prize Pound Cake’. Here are the complete instructions that follow the ingredient list: ‘bake 2 hours in a moderate oven’. Combine that with the Christmas cake’s method and you have a total of fifteen words to guide your baking endeavours.

I’ve just checked one of my daughter’s (many) cookery books for a contemporary Christmas cake recipe. The particular book I’ve selected (typical of today’s culinary publications) is bound in a hard cover, features a raft of ornamental typefaces and illustrations, and is replete with colour photography. The Christmas cake recipe, which makes a single ‘13cm (5in) round cake’, comprises an introductory history, 30 ingredients, ‘bakery notes’ and a method. The latter is a 500-word miasma of pouring, stirring, mixing, adding, incorporating and combining, not to mention the baking, inverting, cooling and covering.

Yesterday’s cooks learnt all they needed to know about ‘method’ at their mother’s knee. Today’s depend on the wisdom of celebrity chefs.

My grandmother’s cake would have fed a substantial Christmas crowd. It used 2 ½ lbs (1.1 kgs) of flour and 2 lbs (0.9 kg) of sugar. The recipe in my daughter’s book—with three times the number of ingredients—requires just 2 oz (55 gms) each of flour and sugar. It seems the complexity of recipes has swollen in inverse proportion to the number of guests being fed.

Mrs M’s recipe

About a third of the way through Grammo’s old exercise book, after the recipes for feather cake and angel’s food and war loaf and gem scones, there is a second Christmas cake recipe. This one is attributed to Mrs M (quite possibly my mother’s mother-in-law, my paternal grandmother). The entry was probably recorded in the early 1940s but, further than that, its provenance is unknown to me. The recipe lists the same basic ingredients as the ‘Good Xmas Cake’, but includes substantially more fruit.

Mrs M’s recipe requires only half the first recipe’s quantity of flour, butter and sugar, but when it comes to fruit, it’s a case of ‘more is better’. The volume of currants, raisins and peel matches that of the ‘Good Xmas Cake’ (effectively doubling the ratio to the basic cake ingredients), and it then adds a pound of dates, a pound of sultanas, and an undefined measure of cherries. (It’s worth noting that there are no instructions for baking. At this stage, my grandmother is clearly a competent cook and has dispensed with even fifteen words of guidance.)

Christmas cake_Mrs M

Mrs M’s ‘Christmas Cake’

It could be that Mrs M’s recipe is a post-depression (and even a post- World War II) one and that there is more money available for additional fruit at this time. If ‘Mrs M’ is my paternal grandmother, she certainly didn’t come from a wealthy household—it’s unlikely there would have been any frittering away of hard-earned cash on expensive ingredients. It might also be that the cost of dried fruit has dropped considerably. In 1930, for instance, currants cost 8-9 pence per pound; in 1942, the cost had halved following the fixing of prices by the Fruit Industry Sugar Concession Committee.

A bygone era

I suspect the days of handwritten recipe books are now gone. My mother followed her mother’s example of recording her own recipes, but with a ‘modern’ twist. Instead of writing recipes in an exercise book, mum typed hers on 3” x 5”, colour-coded (for mains, desserts, cakes/slices, jams, etc) cards. She stored them alphabetically in a hinged, metal filing tin, and used a system of ticks (1, 2 or 3) to indicate a recipe’s success.

Mum's recipe file

My mother’s recipe card file (right) and my smaller version (left).

Mum painstakingly reproduced many of these recipe cards (filed in a slightly smaller tin) as pre-wedding gift to me. It’s not a tradition I intend to continue. This week, when my affianced son required copies of family Christmas recipes—yo yos, cheese straws, hedgehog—I simply plucked the relevant card from the metal tin, took a photo on my mobile phone, and pressed ‘send’.

Links and sources