by Brad Nelson 6/5/14
I don’t know if anyone can figure out P.L. Travers. Certainly the movie, Saving Mr. Banks, perhaps gives you a glimpse. But I think I’ve finally figured out Mary Poppins. She’s not a nanny, she’s a witch (and perhaps a good one).
There were no major surprises between the book and the movie in terms of character and content other than that very little of the first book makes an appearance and that there is very little of Bert (played by Dick Van Dyke in the movie). He appears in one early chapter and then that’s just about all you read of him.
This is not a deep book. There is barely a thread of a story there. This is not a piece of children’s fiction that adults will necessarily automatically be attuned to such as with some of the Harry Potter series or the Narnia series. Both of these series of books had fairly well-developed plots and characters and were therefore beyond the “Dick and Jane” level, if you will.
Mary Poppins is much more reminiscent of Lewis Carroll where you are given a steady diet of non-sequitur and are expected to enjoy it, even marvel at it. With Carroll, I could rarely read him, let alone admire his crazy style. But with Travers there is some kind of perhaps unintentional method to the madness that does work, particularly for children.
And, as the story goes, it was Walt Disney’s children’s love of this book that drove him to make it into a movie. I can see why children would have an affinity for Mary Poppins. Although it can’t be read for any kind of deep meaning or rich narrative, it is like a carnival funhouse or house-of-mirrors. Each chapter is a wild distortion and somewhat bizarre adventure, and told more or less from the perspective of a child.
But there is no overall book, per se. Each chapter is essentially its own self-contained story. The only thing holding this together is the fact that at the start Mary Poppins magically appears and at the end she magically disappears again, bookending it all. In between you have twelve distinct chapters, each telling another marvel, and one having very little to do with the other. The only commonality being the uncommon.
And why do I refer to Mary Poppins as a witch? Well, I don’t know what other kind of creature to call her. She can talk to animals. She has special powers. She rides a broom (well, at least an umbrella). And there appears to be a quite dark side to her: She is extremely vain (she can barely walk past a mirror or window without admiring her reflection) and regularly lies and messes with the minds of the children (Michael and Jane Banks). She will take these children on bizarre adventures into the Travers equivalent of Never Never Land and then deny to the children that any such thing ever took place.
There’s a subtle dark humor in this method. And it seems clear that Poppins is loved by one and all (and known by just about every creature in the world…she may be quite old….some of her friends claim to have been there at the day of creation). And this stand-offish, stern, but functionally kind character is not a stone’s throw away from the portrayal of Julie Andrews in the movie (minus the singing, of course).
Obviously her character does not put people off but instead evokes a kind of mad charm of its own, not unlike Gene Wilder as the somewhat sadistic (but incorruptibly benevolent) Willy Wonka in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Perhaps Poppins’ odd behavior gives her an air of mystery, even evoking an affection that a truly overt and unambiguous plain-vanilla benevolent character would not. Mary Poppins, at least for me, lies somewhere between Willy Wonka and Snape of the Harry Potter books.
There is very little in this first book about either Mr. or Mrs. Banks, and certainly none of the story of Mr. Banks and his employment at the bank which is central to the movie (and is the story — the only story — that holds the movie together, such as it does). The book is twelve independent chapters. The first three chapters (East Wind, The Day Out, and Laughing Gas) track very well with the content of the opening parts of the movie. But after that, only one of the remaining nine chapters are referenced in the movie.
“East Wind” is a nice chapter that sets up the book and describes the coming of Poppins. “The Day Out” is the basis for the rather long musical sequence in the movie (the one that includes them riding the carousel horses) and, as in the movie, this is where you meet Bert. “Laughing Gas” is the chapter dealing with Uncle Albert (Mr. Wigg), the man whose laughing causes him to rise to the ceiling. This is a particularly bland chapter if you contrast it with the truly splendid treatment given in the movie that has ten times the humor and energy. Often books are better than the movie. But in this case (with this chapter), it is not.
Chapter 4 is “Miss Lark’s Andrew” which is the rather humorous and well-written chapter about Mrs. Lark’s over-pampered little dog who is embarrassed by all this pampering and just wants to be a normal dog.
Chapter 5 is “The Dancing Cow” and seems as if it was ripped out of the pages of Mother Goose. For a child, this bit of bizarreness involving animals is probably amusing. But there’s not much in this chapter for adults unless a cow jumping over a moon in order to remove a shooting star that is stuck onto its horn is considered riveting fiction.
Chapter 6 is “Bad Tuesday,” the chapter that Travers later rewrote due to political correctness. (You can read about the changes here.) Again, this chapter might be appealing to children simply because Michael “gets up on the wrong side of the bed.” He acts badly all day for no reason. There’s not much sense to this but children might indeed giggle over his naughtiness. But otherwise, like “The Dancing Cow” chapter, it’s paper thin in regards to content.
Chapter 7 is “The Bird Woman” and you do find a bit of this taken into the movie. It’s one of the better chapters.
Chapter 8 is “Mrs Corry” who is the maker of a type of magical gingerbread. This chapter is about Mary Poppins taking the children to market with her. Perhaps in this chapter you get a glimpse into the stereotypical (and mostly bland) Poppins personality. You may also begin to wonder why she is so universally well liked by other characters in these stories (and by the people who read these stories). This is another chapter that seems to have been written under the influence of psychedelics. There’s not a lot of sense to it, and its charm (such as it has) is mostly from the entirely fanciful elements.
Chapter 9 is “John and Barbara’s Story” and one of the three or four chapters in this book that I would call a fine creative effort. You see the world through the two eyes of the Banks infants (who otherwise spend their time in most of these stories being passively wheeled around in a carriage). The premise is that when we are very young (before we reach the age of one), we are sort of “in tune” with the world. We can understand what the birds are saying. We can understand the language of the wind. It’s, of course, quite fanciful but it is an imaginative piece of writing.
Chapter 10 is “Full Moon” and is typical of Travers trying too hard to live off of the non-sequitur. There is a full moon and it is Mary Poppins’ birthday. So what does one do? Well, of course, one goes to the zoo where the animals will hold a special ceremony for Poppins — while engaging in their regular nightly bizarreness wherein during the night the humans are behind the bars and the animals play the part of the spectators, even feeding the humans. Again, this might be frightfully funny and interesting to a five-year-old but is not in the realm of the type of interesting and rich stories written by C.S. Lewis, for instance.
Chapter 11 is “Christmas Shopping” wherein Poppins takes the children Christmas shopping. And there is some charming fun here because the children buy presents for the other family members that are things that they mostly want for themselves. And they expect that the recipients of these gifts won’t mind sharing them with the giver. That’s probably truly getting into the mind of a child and is quite funny. This is a nice, harmless chapter with a lot of subtle charm.
All good things must come to an end. Chapter 12 is “West Wind.” The wind changes direction and Mary Poppins rather abruptly leaves. This is a somewhat nice domestic scene in the Banks household. But if you expect to get much more into the mind of Mary Poppins, you’ll be disappointed. Travers seems content to maintain her (at least in this first book) as an enigma. And very often this attempt to leave things as an enigma seems a substitute for the proper articulation of character and story. But given the success of these stories, there are many people who certainly enjoy them as-is, as did I. But whether I enjoyed this enough to delved into the next book remains in question.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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