‘Spoonful of Sugar.” Bert, the chimney sweep. “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Admiral Boom. Votes for Women! These names, songs, and phrases are fixtures of American culture, beloved by generations of adults and children alike, and they bring to mind a certain prim, proper, magical English nanny. But what about Neleus? And the Park Keeper? And Mr. Twigley, Mrs. Corry, the Balloon Woman, and The Cat That Looked at a King? For you see, before Julie Andrews, there was P. L. Travers, and it was Travers who created the enigma we know as Mary Poppins.
Mary Poppins first alighted at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane in 1934, changing the lives not only of the Banks children but of countless readers around the world. Those exposed only to Julie Andrews’s charming portrayal of Mary Poppins (for indeed, you must always refer to Mary Poppins by her full name) in the 1964 Disney film may find the character in Travers’s book rather jarring — even downright unpleasant. Vain, haughty, snobby, abrupt, Travers’s nanny causes our Disneyfied senses to revolt in favor of the sweeter film character. But this is to give the “real” Mary Poppins short shrift, and naysayers will miss out on some of the most whimsical stories ever penned.
Born Helen Lyndon Goff in turn-of-the-century Australia, Travers herself was a rather crusty character. After a difficult childhood (her father died of tuberculosis when Travers was about seven), she began a career as an actress and changed her name to Pamela Lyndon Travers. She began writing poetry in the early ’20s, eventually venturing into prose and journalism. Her early interest in fairy tales expanded into a lifelong study of the mythologies and legends of different cultures, and it is perhaps this interest that most informed her Mary Poppins books.
While Mary Poppins is the central, defining character holding the books together, other people and creatures populate the stories. As we know from the movies, she is no ordinary nanny, and strange things occur and appear all the time in her wake. This is equally true in the books, with each chapter being a sort of vignette. Watch carefully: Sometimes, odd characters such as Neleus, the Marble Boy, or the Three Princes from The Silver Fairy Book will step into the world of Cherry Tree Lane to play with the Banks children. Other times, though, Mary Poppins takes the young Bankses to a place that seems like part of their world, but once they arrive, who can tell? The characters they meet in these instances are peculiar, memorable, and funny, ranging from Mr. Arthur Turvy, who can fix anything, to Miss Calico, who sells peppermint canes that act like horses.
Characters long beloved from fairy tales and Greek and Roman myths are continuously appearing. But even more interesting are the characters drawn directly from Travers’s imagination and the stories she spun about them. The Dirty Rascal from Mary Poppins Comes Back, the Faithful Friends from Mary Poppins in the Park, and my personal favorite, from Mary Poppins Opens the Door: The Cat That Looked at a King.
An object or word will catch Mary Poppins’s attention, her eyes will wander, and the Banks children all know to be quiet. In this instance, the object is a china cat, twined about with green and blue flowers, who comes to life on the nursery mantle and leaps out the window, off “to see the Queen,” who is “At Home every Second Friday,” according to Mary Poppins. Then begins a lovely tale of wonder, riddles, and wisdom, sweet and profound.
When she isn’t telling stories, Mary Poppins is a brusque, continuously busy woman, always hurrying the children along, never sitting idle, and never answering any questions. We often find her gazing admiringly at herself in brass plates, mirrors, bottles at the apothecary shop, and the Park pond. With never a hair out of place or a moment of confusion, Mary Poppins is always put together and completely self-satisfied. Despite, or perhaps because of, these traits, the Banks children (of whom there are eventually five) love Mary Poppins. She brings with her both an air of mystery and the promise of order. Nothing disobeys Mary Poppins’s icy glare and firm hand, and her appearance means a calm home and unexpected adventure. While many may find her strict and harsh, there is a kind of softness about her, a tenderness for those in her care. She is not there to coddle but to mold, and she molds not just the childrens’ characters and manners, but also their minds through story and imagination.
Mary Poppins is seemingly unchanging, and where she goes when not at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, no one knows. The original illustrator, Mary Shepard, captures this in her drawings by giving Mary Poppins a striking appearance that doesn’t quite seem to fit with the surroundings. Even the style in which the Banks children are drawn is different, making Mary Poppins distinct. She is both at odds with and also perfectly at home in this setting, giving the impression that whether she’s in the wilds of Africa or the southern tip of Texas, Mary Poppins will be exactly where she intended to be.
While plenty of characters appear only once, others come and go to the amusement of readers. Dear, scattered Miss Lark and her hilariously expressive dogs, Andrew and Willoughby, make frequent appearances, as does the persnickety, hypocritical Park Keeper. Thundering Admiral Boom also pays his respects and tries to get the world to keep up with him. In some ways, Travers creates her own kind of mythology through her stories, even going so far as to give a clever explanation for the arrival of spring. Travers had a deeply interesting view of the world, and she uses Mary Poppins and her tales to convey this perspective to readers. It is a perspective that asks us how we’d feel if we woke up one morning and found our shadow gone; proposes that the strongest thing in the world is Patience; and tells us what happens at the crack between the old year and the new.
While the various movies over the years — from the original Mary Poppins to Saving Mr. Banks to Mary Poppins Returns — are lovely or moving in their own way, Travers was right to think that a movie adaptation would not actually capture the true Mary Poppins. And this is a shame, because under the character’s vanity and abrasiveness is a heart of gold and a wealth of stories, a reminder that losing our childlike awe is a tragedy. But not to worry! Mary Poppins is there, and she is ready with a pert word and a charming tale, determined to remind us of the importance of wonder.