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)

There and Back Again (with apologies to Bilbo Baggins)

The choice

This is the choice: join the procession of cars and trucks conga-lining up the Hume Freeway, or, catch the train from the station a few minutes’ walk from home.  My destination is Bowral where I will meet a friend travelling from Sydney. It is to be a recreational day; I opt for the train.

My ‘home’ station is Queanbeyan. Built in the 1880s, the station, according to its heritage listing, is ‘a fine example of a Victorian first-class station building … signifying Queanbeyan as an important location in Southern NSW, even prior to the declaration of Canberra as the nation’s capital.’

As Canberra evolved, Queanbeyan regularly suffered the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. It was derided as a shabby ‘struggle town’, eking out its existence on the border of the booming capital. But when I arrive at the station building on the morning of my journey, the sun is bursting warmly above the trees, and there’s a welcome party of magpie song and cherry-plum blossom. The slings and arrows pass me by.

Company on the journey

I board my train at 06:54 precisely and begin the slow crawl through the cuttings and tunnels beside the Molonglo River. I unzip my Kindle from its joey-like pouch. I have two newly downloaded books. One is Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, the other, Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter. I have been anticipating the latter for some months, but I opt for delayed gratification and choose Clarke’s memoir instead.

Cover image courtesy of Hachette Australia

Clarke’s book seems more fitting in a week dominated by community debates over whether a cartoon in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, depicting tennis player Serena Williams, constitutes racial vilification, and whether, given the choice, Indigenous youths in Western Australia would apparently prefer death by drowning over arrest and incarceration.

In Clarke’s prologue, I read her personal reflection: The cumulative effect of being subject to racially motivated incidents is ‘like a poison: it eats away at the very essence of your being. Left unchecked, it can drive you to the unthinkable’. Just like those boys in Perth.

The lie of the land

The train mooches on, oblivious to the trauma on the page, and rattles into Goulburn. Entering country towns via the railway tracks is like coming into a house through the servants’ entrance. The rail route exposes the face that is usually turned away from public view. We slip past rolling stock and shipping containers and empty wooden pallets, the detritus of industry.

Schlerophyll forest_1

Schlerophyll forest and mproved pasture

Moving off again, we pass a jigsaw landscape of dry sclerophyll forest and ‘improved’ pasture. A green skin lies across the cleared paddocks – a false hope in the midst of drought. A truer story is told in the cracked earth of empty dams. I wonder how we conceived the term ‘improved’ pasture for this denuded land; how we came to think of it as an improvement on the grasses and trees that had adapted to the soil and climate conditions over millennia.

My phone rings as the train pulls into Bowral station. My friend is waiting for me at the junction of Wingecarribee and Bong Bong Streets. Both names reference the region’s Indigenous past. ‘Bong Bong’ is Bowral’s main street, the name linking back to one of the groups of Gundungurra people who call the area home. There used to be a white settlement called Bong Bong, on the road to the present-day town of Moss Vale. The settlement was short-lived, unlike the culture of the people who bear the name.

Book towns

After coffee at The Press Shop and a perusal of the stationery at Bespoke LetterPress, my friend and I make our way into the Spring sunshine. We roam up and down Bong Bong Street, venturing into several bookshops. In the plainly named Bookshop Bowral, I come across a copy of Alex Johnson’s Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word. Although Bowral does not appear in the International Organization of Book Towns (IOBT) register (the one Australian entry is Clunes in Victoria), Johnson includes the Southern Highlands town in his list.

According to the IOBT, a book town is ‘a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty.’ I think back to the largely unremembered history of the Bong Bong people and the beauty of a dry sclerophyll forest. I’m not sure this is what the IOBT has in mind.

Reading on…

It’s time to re-trace my steps to the railway station and make my way back to Queanbeyan. On the return trip, I pick up Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race once more.

My reading will continue on after my train journey ends. It will be several days before I reach the section in which Clarke recounts being repeatedly given abusive notes during her school days. On one of these notes was ‘a cartoon drawing of a black girl. Her lips were swollen to a ridiculous size. Her afro was tatty and minstrel-esque. The girl’s broad bulbous nose took up half her face…’ I could be reading a description of the cartoon published by the Herald Sun.

The thing is, unlike Clarke, I can put this book down at my reading journey’s end and walk away in the relative security of my white skin. Although, that’s not completely true – every journey changes me, if I let it in.

Links and sources

Bowral Station platform