Being Good for God—Patrick Gale’s ‘A Perfectly Good Man’

Barnaby Johnson, the priestly protagonist in Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man, was eight years old when his uncle offered him two gifts—the possibility of God and permission not to always be good. Barnaby accepts one gift, but largely resists the other.


Three characters in retreat

Morvah church and field systems_Wiki Commons

Morvah church and surrounding fields. Attribution: Sheila Russell. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

A Perfectly Good Man, like several of Gale’s novels, is set in Cornwall’s west country, and centres on the mining villages of Pendeen and Morvah. Into these insular villages, Gale introduces three strangers. The first to arrive is Barnaby Johnson, initially as curate, but later as priest of a small clutch of unfashionable churches. Barnaby is followed by Modest Carlson, recently released from jail after serving a sentence for the rape of one of his students. Modest insinuates himself menacingly into the life of the parish. Last to arrive is Nuala Barnes, a gifted potter and non-churchgoer, fleeing an abusive ex-husband in Melbourne. The lives from which Modest and Nuala are in retreat are clear; Barnaby’s motives in seeking out this patch of Cornwall are less transparent.

Joining Barnaby to create the local vicarage family are his solidly practical wife, Dorothy, and their two children, Carrie and Phuc, the latter adopted from Vietnam as a three-year-old.


Multiple viewpoints and discontinuous time frames

A Perfectly Good Man_cover image

Cover image courtesy of Headline UK

A Perfectly Good Man unfolds from multiple viewpoints and across discontinuous time frames. Seven of the 19 chapters are told from Barnaby’s perspective; of the remainder, two each are revealed by Dorothy, Carrie, Phuc, Modest, Nuala and Nuala’s son, Lenny. It is Lenny who provides the arresting opening to the novel.

Wheelchair-bound following a rugby accident, Lenny is meticulously preparing for his suicide. He invites Barnaby to his death watch. ‘I’m going to die,’ he tells the priest. ‘We’re all going to die,’ replies Barnaby, choosing a metaphysical response, rather than a more immediate and tangible one. When Lenny swallows his Nembutal-laced drink, Barnaby does not immediately phone for an ambulance. He first administers the rite of Extreme Unction and, only after that, does he place telephone calls for assistance. When the police arrive, Barnaby offers himself for arrest.

At the inquest that follows, Barnaby explains his decision:

I am a priest … I have few skills … But I do know that I can pray for a dying man’s eternal soul … I knew the circumstances were ambiguous. I thought it more honest to be arrested and trust in justice than just to slip away.


Gale’s forebears provide priestly inspiration

Inspiration for Barnaby’s character stems in part from Gale’s forebears. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were priests, and Gale suspects his father might also have been ordained had not World War II intervened and shaken up his certainties.

The Imitation of Christ_cover image

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Gale’s fictional priest is devoted—to God, parishioners and family (possibly in that order). During Barnaby’s mid-life years of ‘self-made hell’, when his faith leaves him entirely, he relies on three things: anti-depressants, the ‘sacred routine’ of service and sacrament, and a renewed study of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.

Gale writes with convincing insight into a priest’s life. He acknowledges the ‘nervous smiles’ that often greet a man of the cloth, the excuses for non-attendance at church, and the reality of time spent in social work (or ‘mopping up’ as Dorothy calls it). There is an understanding of the quality of silence and the appeal of ‘mystery’ in the priestly vocation. And there is the not uncommon perception, sensed in the novel by 12-year-old Phuc, that some priests are most themselves when standing before a congregation ‘transformed by vestments into a dazzling figure’ who seems to be ‘mother and father in a single being’.


A ‘cosily guerrilla occasion’

Notes from an Exhibition_cover image

Cover image courtesy of Headline UK

Gale has described A Perfectly Good Man (2012) as an ‘echo chamber’ to his 2007 novel Notes from an Exhibition. (The 2007 novel depicts a family swirling in the maelstrom of an artist mother’s bi‑polar disorder.) The later novel makes some happy connections with the earlier one: two of Rachel Kelly’s paintings appear (one a reproduction and one, providentially, an original) as does Kelly’s daughter, Morwenna.

Notes left Morwenna in a state of breakdown and unresolved trauma. Her return in A Perfectly Good Man provides the book’s most joyous scene—in a ‘cosily guerrilla occasion’, Morwenna is married. Although her relationship has already been registered as a civil partnership, this is ‘the ceremony that counted’. It begins with the female vicar declaring: ‘We are here today to bless and celebrate the union of our friends, sisters and daughters … if not with the full approval of the Church, then in the eye of God.’


A not-so-safe cocoon

Patrick Gale cocoons his readers in A Perfectly Good Man. Having been confronted with a terrible shock in the opening chapter, we then relax and begin to recover our equilibrium.

We are unprepared for the aftershocks. In fact, the ‘aftershocks’ have mostly already happened. Our time frame is askew; our perspective awry. It is as if Gale’s narrative strategy protects us from knowing too much too soon. Like scuba divers, we repeatedly descend and re-surface, each time entering the same ocean depths, but with a new companion and on a different tide.


Wolf Rocks below Morvah Cliff. Attribution: Sheila Russell. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


Quod erat demonstrandum

Ultimately, readers must decide the success of Barnaby Johnson’s quod erat demonstrandum. Does he, or does he not, validate Thomas à Kempis’s proof: ‘Learned arguments do not make a man holy and righteous, whereas a good life makes him dear to God’?


Links and Sources


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)