A soft spot for Spit, spot

London houses

P L Travers Mary Poppins
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2008 (1934)

2014 marks fifty years since the release of Disney’s Mary Poppins, and already Saving Mr Banks (2013) is whetting our appetite for many helpings of a spoonful of sugar. What better time then to revisit the book that ultimately inspired the two films? Undoubtedly P L Travers (who, as J K Rowling was to do, hid her gender behind initials) remains an interesting person in her own right, but here is the place to assess the first of the Mary Poppins books as story-telling, away from the distractions of Hollywood and the larger-than-life character that was Helen Lyndon Goff.

The east wind is blowing through the naked branches of the cherry trees in Cherry Tree Lane — as the blossoms appear before the leaves, something that doesn’t happen until April, this is clearly a cold day in spring. A new nanny appears at the Banks family home to attend to the children Jane, Michael and twins John and Barbara. Why she has chosen this particular family is never quite clear, but what’s interesting is that, unlike the traditional state of affairs where servants apply for a post and, after interviews are given and references taken up, employers do the choosing, here it is the nanny that informs the family that “As long as I’m satisfied” she’ll take the position, as though (as Mrs Banks tells Mr Banks) “she were doing us a signal honour.” Which, as Mr Banks informs Mrs Banks, she might well be, and not just because the economic conditions of the 1930s were overturning the accepted subservient role held by household employees: for Mary Poppins is no ordinary nanny.

Pamela Lyndon Travers was familiar with the spiritual ideas of Gurdjieff, who taught that 20th-century humans lived in a kind of waking sleep because they were unable to balance the three aspects of being human, namely body, mind and emotions. His mystical teachings attracted all kinds of intellectuals, often appealing to women of independent thought such as Katherine Mansfield and Travers. Reading some of his aphorisms can strike one as woolly-minded these days, though at the time they may well have come across as revolutionary. However, reading about Mary Poppins’ interactions with the Banks children gives some flavour of the nanny’s unorthodox nature and workings as we drift from realism through hyperrealism, with no knowledge of whether we are daydreaming, night-time dreaming or fantasising. Travers also suggests that our inherited affinity with nature — exemplified by the twins’ ability to talk to a visiting starling — is lost by the time of our first birthday, a kind of expulsion from Eden which, however much we might fight or deny it, we cease to be conscious of once beyond that critical age.

As examples of that hyperrealism we find, in the course of the book, characters walking through chalk pictures or floating up to the ceiling — images that film-goers will recognise — encountering talking animals and mythological figures, engaging with objects such as a magical compass and meeting with ordinary people such a woman selling food for pigeons, shop assistants and curmudgeonly neighbours. All episodes take on the feel of sleep-walking or sleep-talking, but whenever we, like Jane and Michael, become convinced that the surreal has become real Mary Poppins cuts any reflection off with a sharp “Sit up straight, and no more nonsense,” or a simple “No,” to Michael’s observation “And it’s all quite true, isn’t it?”

Mary Poppins takes us on a journey from one spring to another in twelve chapters. It would be too crude of course to expect each of the chapters represents a month, though we get a sense of the passing of time, and the last but one chapter is entitled ‘Christmas Shopping’, set in the Largest Shop in the World (as it must have appeared to Jane and Michael). There are specific references to days and times — a Tuesday or a Friday, the time of the full moon — though these remain unspecified as to time of the year. All we know is that Mary blows in with the East Wind, and will stay until the wind’s in the west…

Despite the dream-like-veering-on-nightmarish quality of the stories, there is a strong sense of characters modelled on real people. When Michael has his ‘bad Tuesday’ after getting out of bed on the wrong side, that irrational perversity must be familiar to anybody who has had a childhood. When Jane has an earache that feels that pop-guns going off in her head, it is entirely natural that she, and we, will have forgotten about it after suitable distraction. When a large friendly brown bear morphs into Mr Banks, or a king cobra (a Hamadryad, named after a wood nymph in Greek mythology) sounds like Mrs Banks as the children drift into sleep, few of us will have forgotten the almost animal physicality of adults who provided us with comfort and a safe environment when we were young.

And so we come to Mary Poppins herself. Forget the almost saccharine quality of the otherwise redoubtable Julie Andrews in the Disney film: this is a fey of the highest order who opts to nursemaid the Banks children for a year (and maybe a day) while living largely outside the societal norms of humans. Tight-lipped and terse, vain (always checking herself in reflecting surfaces, delighting in fur-lined gloves and snakeskin belt), of indeterminate years, she and her kin (Uncle Albert, her mother, Mrs Corry and her daughters) can only be denizens of the Otherworld.

No, not the cute but vapid flower fairies of Shakespeare and Cicely Mary Barker and the Cottingley photographs but intemperate, dangerous beings who just about tolerate the intrusion of clumsy humans into their world. They are relatives of the minor deities of classical mythology, and in fact one of the Pleiades actually appears in a surprising guise towards the end, leading the publishers to draw comparisons with Diana Wynne Jones’ The Game. There is also, I think, an interesting overlap with aspects of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies: here we have the same otherworldly beings — the Irishwoman who is Queen of the Fairies, the sisters Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, and of course Mrs Carey, the demiurge who creates living things and who must be closely related to Mrs Corry and her simple giantess daughters Fannie and Annie.

Above all, as Brian Sibley notes in the postscript to this edition, someone very like Mary Poppins is Pamela Lyndon Travers herself: imaginative but curt to the point of rudeness (“Spit spot” is the equivalent of “Chop chop!”), someone who appeared not to engage with children but lived in the same imaginative world. She herself wrote, “If you are looking for autobiographical facts, Mary Poppins is the story of my life.” Strangely enough, for someone who in later years kept herself to herself, into this and apparently later Mary Poppins stories she poured the distilled essences of her experiences: relatives, a parrot-headed umbrella, childhood servants, stories told to her as a child… Significantly perhaps, Mary Poppins was dedicated to her mother, who died before the book was published in 1934.

There are several Mary Poppins stories published in succeeding decades but all set in the 1930s. Has she ever gone away? As Cameron Mackintosh, producer of the stage musical version of the book reminds us, when Mary is asked where her home is, she answers, “My home is wherever I am.” I suspect that home will be in the hearts of many readers, both young and old, who have a bit of a soft spot for this unreadable woman.

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6 thoughts on “A soft spot for Spit, spot

  1. Like many millions, I suppose, I and my children and my grandchildren are avid fans of the movie but have never seen any printed versions. Or, indeed, been familiar with the name of P L Travers. Enlightening!

  2. I’m surprised that new editions haven’t already been produced in the wake of the arrival in cinemas of Saving Mr Banks, Col. If you can locate a copy you’ll find another side to Mary Poppins’ celluloid character!

  3. I love the film but have never read the source material. I have, however, stood beside Mary Poppins at Heathrow passport control, which I thought was a bit odd seeing she could have just opened her brolly and flown in undetected

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