Friday, March 5, 2010

Mary Poppins

Perhaps most people would know of Mary Poppins through the Disney film starring Julie Andrews. I saw the film as a child during its original cinema release. It was notable for some memorable songs and for the worst cockney accent in cinematic history courtesy of Dick Van Dyke.

Those familiar with the film would recognise some of the stories in PL Travers’ book including Mary entering a chalk drawing to spend an afternoon in the countryside scene it depicted; an afternoon tea floating near the ceiling with an uncle afflicted with “laughing gas”, and the bird lady selling bread crumbs to “feed the birds, tuppence a bag”.

Travers’ book is a collection of short stories about the strange situations experienced by the Banks children after the arrival of a mysterious nanny literally blown in by the wind. The Mary Poppins of the book seems far more abrupt and lacking patience than the Julie Andrews character in the film, but she is still able to obtain the affection of the children in her care.

The most memorable part of the book for me was a chapter about the babies of the Banks family when they are still young enough to understand the languages of nature; holding conversations with the sunlight and with a visiting starling. Twins John and Barbara want to know why their parents and older brother and sister can not also understand what the birds and the weather are saying, and when told that the ability is lost with age they are adamant that THEY will never forget.

Most stories in the book cast the older Banks children, Jane and Michael, into unusual situations which afterwards they are never sure were real. Their nanny offers them no assurance of the reality of their experiences. If anything she insists the children’s claims are absurd –and yet there is sometimes a clue that makes them doubt her denials.

Mary Poppins is the first in a series of books that Travers wrote about the Banks family nanny. I have two of the others but have not yet read them. The second title, Mary Poppins Comes Back gives a clear indication about the ending of the first book where, as in the film, a change of wind direction leads to Mary’s sudden departure from the family. The departure reveals the affection the children have developed for their nanny despite her abrupt lack of patience. After their initial sadness the children’s spirits are lifted when they learn the meaning of the “au revoir” in Mary’s farewell note.

“Au revore dearie?” shrieked Mrs Brill from the next room. “Why, doesn’t it mean – let me see, I’m not up in these foreign tongues – doesn’t it mean ‘God bless you’? No. No., I’m wrong. I think, Miss Jane dear, it means ‘To Meet Again’.”

Jane and Michael looked at each other. Joy and understanding shone in their eyes. They knew what Mary Poppins meant.

Michael gave a long sigh of relief. “That’s all right,” he said shakily. “She always does what she says she will.”

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