Today’s subject – Mary Poppins – could hardly be called underappreciated and it certainly could not be called obscure. So it may seem strange to have it appear in a hidden gem post.
But! It’s worth noting that the majority of posts on this blog are not about movies; they’re about books. And my focus today is not on the 1964 film, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and available here from your friendly neighbourhood library, but on the book that predates it by thirty years, Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers.
I had always vaguely known that the movie was based on a book, in the same way that I’m aware of the Isle of Man as an island in Scotland. But, just as I couldn’t hold a thirty-second conversation on Manx language and culture, I had never read Mary Poppins and had no idea how much the movie differs from the book in character, plot, and even setting. I also had no clue that there actually seven (!) books in the series: Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Mary Poppins in the Park, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, and Mary Poppins from A to Z. And that’s not even counting the cookbook (Mary Poppins in the Kitchen: A Cookery Book with a Story).
A couple of weeks ago I went to see the Broadway stage version that was playing at Place des Arts, and it reawakened my affection for all things M.P. I had forgotten how bittersweet the story was, and how sad, and eventually I remembered that there was at least one version that I had not yet encountered. We don’t have all seven books here at the library, but I did manage to check out an edition that has the first two books together.
I guess I can sum up the differences with this: Disney made Mary Poppins nice. The Mary of the books is vain, cross, disapproving, easily outraged, easily insulted, acid-tongued, dismissive, prim, elusive, and frustratingly out-of-reach. I wanted to picture her as Julie Andrews in my head while I was reading, but couldn’t. Though Andrews plays her as very firm and very proper, her version of Mary is vastly more sympathetic and kind. Also, in the realm of smaller differences, there are more Banks children in the books than in the movie (four, then five), and the story is set in the thirties rather than in 1910.
There’s a bit of a rhythm or a formula to the books – Jane or Michael have a fanciful question which Mary Poppins refuses to answer; Jane and Michael have a magical adventure with her (and which answers their fanciful question); they ask Mary Poppins some minor, curious question about the affair and Mary acts as though she has no idea what they’re talking about and is insulted that they would imagine such a thing to have occurred; the kids see some proof of their escapade, something hanging from Mary’s pocket or falling from her carpetbag or stuck to her hat, and so they know it really happened no matter what Mary says. This, in a nutshell, is how the books proceed – it’s like a collection of episodes rather than a straightforward story. Often it’s predictable, and some of the adventures are familiar from the movie, but all of them have a darker, stranger quality. It’s not all whimsy and animated penguins – sometimes it’s after-hours at the zoo and it’s the humans who are stuck in cages while the animals watch.
Overall, though, I found these two books to be charming and often very funny. The story was interesting and appropriately outlandish (with the exception of a truly awful sequence involving a catalogue of appalling stereotypes – I struggled through that part as I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading). Travers’ writing is dry and funny and witty, and she has a bizarre but fun habit of capitalizing words and phrases Seemingly At Random.
Mary Poppins herself has become a large and far-reaching fixture of our pop culture, and so I wasn’t at all surprised to see that she has shown up in a variety of other places. Neil Gaiman’s short story “The Problem of Susan” references a fictional work by P.L. Travers called Mary Poppins Brings in the Dawn, in which Mary Poppins was Jesus’ nanny. She shows up in a Sherlock Holmes story where a little girl hires Holmes to find her missing nursemaid. And she makes a complex series of appearances in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where she seems to be a time-travelling, Harry-Potter-destroying manifestation of the divine, which frankly is too far down the rabbit hole for the scope of this particular blog post (it’s long enough as it is).
If you like the movie, or you like your fantasy stories to be wand- and-wizard-free, or you like dry and witty writing, you should give the novels a try as well. I suspect they would also read very well out loud.
-Kayleigh, children’s staff