My first exposure to the characters and story of Mary Poppins was in the books by her creator P.L. Travers. Then came the Disney film version in 1964. I loved much of it, but at age 13 was already critical of the changes Disney made to the characters and storyline in the books. And even then I knew Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent was terrible. This past Thanksgiving weekend, Ellen and I saw a performance of the Mary Poppins musical at Centenary College in northern New Jersey, thanks to Dave and Ann Greene. I enjoyed it, but was struck by the strange mixture of elements from the books, elements from the film, and some all-new things created by adapter Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame. It made me want to reread the books for the first time in decades, and I did that through December, specifically the four main books by P.L. Travers. Here are some thoughts on all this, with SPOILERS if you haven’t read or seen any of these things and plan to.
Here are the four main Poppins books by Travers from my library. There are a few more short ones that I’ve never read, essentially a single short story each, but most of Travers’ stories about Mary are here. The first three tell of stays by Mary Poppins in the Banks home as nanny to Michael, Jane, and younger Banks children. “Mary Poppins in the Park” are more stories that happen some time during those three stays. They were published in 1934, 1935, 1943 and 1952.
Rereading them, I was struck by some of the things about Mary and her world that are not typical of most children’s books and lead characters. Mary herself is a wonderfully complex character who is at times magical and almost godlike, but more often is portrayed by Travers as vain, verbally abusive to the children, and even nasty at times, though always hinting at caring and kindness at heart. There are plenty of villains with a dark side in books for children, but few heroes like her. Travers plays her vanity up often, and the illustrator Mary Shepard (daughter of “Winnie the Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard) makes this a joke children can enjoy by making Mary far from the perfect beauty she imagines herself. Some of the other characters meant to be good ones, such as gingerbread baker Mrs. Corry, are even more verbally abusive. There are some dark and scary moments among the fun and fantasy, particularly when Jane and Michael are behaving badly and get taught threatening lessons until Mary rescues them.
There’s one particularly politically incorrect and racist chapter in my edition of the first book that was later rewritten by Travers, in which the children encounter embarrassing stereotypes of people from other lands (in the chapter “Bad Tuesday”). These were changed to animals in the rewrite. The original version could not be published today, I think. Mostly, the books are episodic with several themes that repeat in each book. They don’t have a through-story like the movie or musical except in a very loose way. Some of the themes are:
- Visits to Mary’s unusual and often magical relatives and friends. The first example is Uncle Albert Wigg in the first book, whose laughter makes him weightless and floating up by the ceiling.
- Stories of fairy tale and fable characters who are then met by the children.
- Outings that take them to unusual people in the park or neighborhood, like the Bird Woman, or adventures with neighbors and other locals.
- Late night outings without Mary that involve magical events and creatures, but Mary always shows up in them as a revered figure. Often these exhibit the everyday world turned on its head in some way.
- Jane and Michael behaving badly, as described above, and getting scary lessons.
There are a few chapters that involve the family more directly, but not many. One odd thing is that school is almost never mentioned, and the children don’t seem to go to one, though Jane at least seems old enough. The Banks’ neighborhood at Cherry Tree Lane has many recurring characters from neighbors Admiral Boom and Mrs. Lark to tradesmen like Bert the match seller and pavement artist, the Park Keeper, the Ice Cream man, the local policeman, etc. These appear often, both in normal daytime stories and in magical midnight adventures. Mr. and Mrs. Banks and their other servants Mrs. Brill the cook, Ellen the maid, and Robertson Ay the man of all work appear from time to time, but the children are most often alone with Mary Poppins either in the nursery, in the park, or on outings and errands. Despite the sometimes repetitive themes, there are plenty of creative ideas in the books, and I enjoyed rereading them.
If you’ve seen the recent film, “Saving Mr. Banks,” you have some idea of how difficult it was for P.L. Travers to let Walt Disney make a film of her creations, and the film is very different from the books in many ways. Most obvious is the musical aspect. I loved the music in the film when I first saw it, and still do, but it makes a very different world from the books. Julie Andrews is wonderful as Mary, but really much too kind and pretty to capture the character as written by Travers. Bert, as played by Dick Van Dyke, has a much larger role in the film than in the books, though the first book does have him and Mary in their chalk drawing date (without the children). In the books, Bert was never a one-man band, or a chimney sweep. Van Dyke is wonderful except for the awful accent. The other players are all great in my view. Though not British, Ed Wynne was an inspired choice for Mary’s floating Uncle Albert.
Some characters in the movie are from the books, though generally made much more elaborate. Aside from the chalk drawing outing with Bert and the Uncle Albert adventure, we see Admirable Boom and Mrs. Lark’s dog Andrew, the Bird Woman (though she doesn’t get to do much), and several other characters like Mrs. Corry and her daughters get a walk-on appearance only. The through-story of the film has elements from the books, but is largely added, including the entire Bank sequence, the Chimney Sweeps, and much of the chalk adventure. Charming things, made a good story for the film, but mostly not by Travers.
I expected the musical to follow the film closely, and it does at times, but adds other elements from the books, sometimes unlikely ones. A major villain is Miss Andrew, Mr. Banks’ own childhood nanny, and an iron-willed tyrant. She makes a good foil for Mary Poppins in the middle of the musical and kind of allows Mary to leave and come back as she did twice in the books. Robertson Ay is added, though doesn’t do a lot, and the entire “Suffragette” idea for Mrs. Banks that was added for the film is missing. She has a quite different back story. A different work story is told about Mr. Banks, mostly new, and Mrs. Corry and her daughters appear for more than a cameo. Neleus, a statue in the park who comes to life, is drawn from a chapter in the third book, “Mary Poppins Opens the Door,” but with a rather different feel in the musical. Michael and Jane seem to spend more time being bad in the musical than anywhere else, leading to more family drama. The other children from the books are not present, though the chimney sweeps from the film are.
In all, I thought the musical was less successful than the film, even with added elements from the books. The new songs in the musical were much less memorable than the ones from the film that were carried over. I guess my favorite version of Mary Poppins is still the first one I came to, in the books by P.L. Travers, though I do like the movie a great deal. And perhaps the Broadway version of the musical would have impressed me more than the college performance I saw. In any case, Mary Poppins in the books is well worth a visit if you haven’t tried them.