Vain, brusque, and tart of tongue, Mary Poppins first blew into the Banks home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London, in the self-titled book of 1934, to teach Jane, Michael, and the twins some manners. Incidentally, she also took them on a series of fantastic adventures throughout London, across the globe, and within their own home—all of which she firmly denied ("stuff and nonsense") had ever taken place. The spit-spot governess with the parrot-head umbrella was the brainchild of Australian-born P. L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers (1906-1996), who more than once declared, "I don't write for children at all. I turn my back on them." Nevertheless, the books about Mary Poppins have been translated into 25 languages and sold tens of millions of copies; their tremendous popularity is probably attributable in equal parts to the mythic elements of Mary's character, the boundless universe she creates, and popular nostalgia for an illusory coddled British childhood, a notion which strongly influenced the later Disney film.
In the eight Poppins books (four story collections, two single-story books, an alphabet book, and a cookbook) the character of Mary represents unlimited possibility and the magic to be found within the confines of everyday life. She is a figure akin to those about whom Travers wrote articles and a book for adults. As one volume contains many stories, and as Mary's carpet bag contains many objects (including clothing, furniture, and a bottle of medicine that tastes different according to who swallows it), so does Mary show that an ordinary place or object contains much more than first meets the eye. She seems to know everyone in London and to be related to a good number of them, but her own origins and history are as murky as a goddess's; even Travers claimed not to know where she comes from or goes to between visits. When she arrives at the Banks' house, Mary joins a neighborhood of upper-middle-class houses in which a child might be more intimate with the servants and eccentric neighbors than with his or her distracted parents. Offering efficient care, insight, and adventure, she is the magic gatekeeper all children wish they knew: With her uncle Mr. Wigg, Jane and Michael laugh until they become weightless and bump against the ceiling, and her favorite shopkeeper breaks off her own fingers and feeds them to the children like candy.
Adventures are episodic, character is static, and conflict is confined to and resolved within individual incidents. Though each magical adventure, like each swallow of medicine, is tailored to the child who enjoys it, Mary makes this world one of fluid relationships. She shows that all sentient beings are of equal worth and capacity: each denizen of Cherry Tree Lane has a relationship to the others and is often blood kin to Mary herself. Naturally, under the full moon the lord of the London Zoo is revealed to be not homo sapiens but a different animal entirely (people, many of them from Jane and Michael's neighborhood, are displayed in cages). In the Poppins everyday-fantastic continuum, animals and humans are truly members of the same kingdom, manifesting the same emotions and intellect. Similarly, adults often act like children and vice-versa. Travers claimed to have "no idea where childhood ends and maturity begins." And even inanimate objects, once examined with the right frame of mind, can turn into active playmates (as in Jane's unsettling adventure within the Royal Doulton Plate) or relatives (as when the plasticine man Jane fashions in the park turns out to be Mary's cousin Sam). Proud of her relatives and fussy about her appearance, the acerbic Mary has been compared to a warrior goddess, but her heart is not unreachable; she creates adventures for unfortunates such as the impoverished Match-Man and a Pleiades star who has no money for Christmas gifts. Thus, the children miss Mary herself as well as her magic world when, at the end of each visit, she disappears with the wind again. Patricia Demers, in her book P. L. Travers, summed up the character's appeal: "Mary Poppins seems to come from another world and time, and yet to be also a futuristic model of understanding."
Travers was not averse to adapting her work to extraliterary needs. The pickaninny dialect in the first book seemed racist to late-century libraries, so she rewrote some scenes. She also served as a consultant on the 1963 Disney film Mary Poppins, which starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Combining live action with animation and catchy song-and-dance numbers, the movie dramatizes a few incidents from the first books, invents some of its own, and presents a much gentler Mary. For example, Mary's sympathy for the poor Match-Man is blown into cinematic sweethearthood. Critics have attacked the hugely popular film for cheapening the magic of the books, and even Travers expressed some disappointment in it. Still, it was her suggestion to set the film in the Edwardian period rather than the 1930s; she explained that she wanted the images to be "timeless," or well removed from the contemporary scene. Perhaps she saw those years just preceding her own childhood as the true location of governessy coziness, magic, and myth. Or perhaps she wanted to prove that Mary is, as she proclaims at the end of her very last book, "at home … wherever I am!"
Bergsten, Staffan. Mary Poppins and Myth. Stockholm, Almquist &Wiksell, 1978.
Demers, Patricia. P. L. Travers. Boston, Twayne, 1991.
"P. L. Travers." Something About the Author. Edited by AnneCommire. Vol. 54. Detroit, Gale Research, 1989, 148-62.
Reckford, Kenneth J. Aristophanes' Old-and-New Comedy. ChapelHill, University of North Carolina Press, 1987.