My sister’s and my copy of Mary Poppins had a battered blue leather cover. It sat on a shelf with our other valued stories. However, it’s been years since I actually read the book.
Yesterday we had a longish drive ahead, so I borrowed the Mary Poppins audiobook from Libby (a useful app where I’ve done most of my reading since COVID March). And as I listened, I began to remember what a strange and somewhat frightening character she was.
Mary Poppins—the real Mary Poppins—is a severe, vain and mysterious personality who shows up at Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane. When she takes Jane and Michael on an outing, she denies their entire experience afterward, and acts insulted that they would ever suggest such goings on.
The real Mary Poppins seems to have superpowers and holds a lofty position in the book’s world. The animals at the zoo honor her birthday on the full moon. The reigning creature at the zoo is not the lion, but the hamadryad (king cobra) who tells the children that the trees, the animals, and the people “are all one.” Throughout the book there are similar echoes of P.L. Travers’ spiritual ideas.
Mary Poppins takes the children to a bakery where the creepy Mrs. Corey breaks off her fingers for the infant twins to suck like peppermint candy. Along with Mrs. Cory and her giantess daughters, Mary Poppins glues stars onto the sky. She translates Andrew’s dog talk to his owner, Mrs. Lark. She elevates the tea table and the landlady at Uncle Albert’s house. When the children dare to ask her questions about the afternoon’s events, Mary Poppins becomes quite irritated and insists that her uncle is a decent man who would never go bouncing around on the ceiling.
The imagined world of Mary Poppins is not sweet and musical like the Disney movies. In fact, P.L. Travers, the author, claimed she was not a children’s author. Travers sounds like she was similar to her famous character, opinionated and ornery and maybe a bit delusional.
As I listen to Mary Poppins, I hear it both as the child I was and the adult I am now. Like my childhood self, I find the magic of the book delightful and surprising. But I remember that, as a child, I found Mary Poppins’s actions and responses to be unpredictable and therefore somewhat frightening.
For those younger than I who have grown up with the Disney version, I encourage you to read the original.