Review of Mary Poppins
Most children in the first world saw Mary Poppins during their childhood. I was one of these kids, but to be honest, I don’t remember much of it. From what I remember of the title character, Mary Poppins was a magical, mysterious nanny who seemed strict upon introduction, but soon softens and speaks nonsense words while skipping through animated flowers.
P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins is a bit different. She’s still a magical, mysterious nanny, but there is no singing from this Mary Poppins- in fact, there is rarely a smile. Travers’ Poppins is a real person, which is to say, she is very flawed. She is vain, constantly admiring her reflection in windows, and is rather cold toward her charges throughout the novel. She’s even stern toward people she loves, like Bert the street artist and her uncle, and when caught doing a good deed, she brushes away compliments with “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The Banks children, despite their nanny’s coldness (or perhaps because of it), are fascinated by her. After all, she can have conversations with dogs, disappear into sidewalk drawings, and has an uncle who floats in midair when he laughs on his birthday. She’s not one to offer them a cuddle, but they are drawn to her nonetheless. The infant Banks twins too, love Mary Poppins because she understands what they’re saying where other adults think the babies are just gurgling.
Travers’ book is fantastical and charming, full of grand talking animals and a magical version of London where dogs have deep friendships and constellations appear on Earth in human form to do their Christmas shopping. It also discusses the tragedy of growing up from the points of view of both the child and the child’s elders, and parents’ stress about raising children well.
The reason I read this book was because of the upcoming movie, Saving Mr. Banks, which is about Travers’ response to the making of the Mary Poppins film. In the trailer, it is revealed that one of the reasons why Travers is so upset by Disney’s approach to the story is that he is missing the point: the nanny doesn’t come to rescue the children or the family… she’s there to, as the upcoming movie’s title suggests, save Mr. Banks. I approached the novel excited to see the complexities of that in the novel, but wasn’t able to find even an inkling of that. Mr. Banks is barely in the story, and when he is, he has very little contact with Mary Poppins. This is obviously not a criticism of the novel- Travers’ book stands on its own as a great piece of writing for children, and she can’t be held accountable for themes that are tagged on by others- but I am disappointed that the thing that most drew me to the upcoming film has very little root in the original source. But that shouldn’t dissuade people from reading the novel, especially if they’re a fan of Roald Dahl, whose style Travers’ is very like.