Reading P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins (1934), the source material for the 1964 Disney film extravaganza, was a formative experience. Imagine how shocked I was to discover that everybody’s favorite singing nanny who was practically perfect in every way was actually sullen and cross, and friends with people who gave you fingers to eat. Of course I had to read more.
When the Banks children – Jane, Michael, and the baby twins John and Barbara – of Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane drive away their latest nanny, Mary Poppins blows in with her traveling carpetbag to assume the post. Even though she is severe and mean and withholding, her unique brand of discipline doesn’t stop the children from having amazing adventures. What will they do when she has to leave with the West Wind?
There were so many wonderful moments in this book that put the movie to shame. I wanted to go Christmas shopping for paper packages with Maia from the Pleiades, even though it was shocking that she had such a thin dress. I found the twins to be a little cruel and overly chatty, and they certainly didn’t respect their nanny enough. I craved some of those mouth-watering raspberry jam-cakes they ate at tea, and I even wanted whelks with the pin without quite knowing what they were (are they really just shellfish? I keep hoping it’s slang for some kind of scrumptious pastry). But the scene that haunted me the most (I don’t want to say scarred) involved Mrs. Corry, the very old woman who wasn’t above breaking and entering or petty theft. I could never look at fingers or stars in quite the same way.
I didn’t hate the Disney movie, and I’m a big fan of the talented Julie Andrews who looked so pretty as a brunette, but I can’t help but think the book is vastly better. I know that some people ridicule Dick van Dyke’s strange take on the Cockney, but it was so consistently strange that I can’t even hate it (but I can be a little creeped out). I wonder what the 2004 musical does with the story, though I’m sure the book writer, Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame), injected many more discussions of class.
Travers wrote about 8 books in the series since Mary Poppins can’t help but keep coming back and being vaguely scary and unpleasant. Aside from the magical elements, the stories are full of slice-of-life fun about growing up in England in a more genteel time. And strike me pink, but even the harsh nanny element adds to that generally charming, quaint feel. I also absolutely love the darling illustrations by Mary Shepard which only enhance the Mary Poppins reading experience.