Previous installments of Jaya Catches Up can be found here.
Did you read Mary Poppins as a kid? I (duh) didn’t, but I’m also not sure a lot of people in my generation have. To me, Mary Poppins was Julie Andrews slyly bringing fun and whimsy into the lives of a confused family until it’s clear they know how to have fun without her, “saving Mr. Banks” from becoming a grouchy old bonds broker or whatever he is. She’s stern, yes, but there’s always a glint in her eye that lets you know she loves you. She smiles sometimes, and she cries when she leaves.
This is not P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. Travers’ Mary Poppins is a malevolent trickster god and no one will convince me otherwise.
Mary Poppins is a collection of myths about England’s Coyote, beginning with Poppins arriving at the Banks house (which includes twin babies as well as Jane and Michael) and ending with her leaving when the winds changed, but with nothing linking them in between except her general mischief and confusion. Some stories are familiar from the movie–she pours medicine for the kids and it tastes like lime cordial, she jumps into a chalk painting with the “matchstick man,” she and the kids visit her uncle who laughs so much he rises to the ceiling–but there is no joy in the way she acts. Travers writes that the children were obsessed with Poppins and were heartbroken at the idea of her ever leaving, but I began to think it was just an extreme form of negging on Poppins’ part.
Poppins is a weak god, or perhaps an unambitious one. The only hints we get of her past is that she is cousins with a Snake King, she never lost the power to talk to animals (like most humans do when they turn one year old), and her mother was friends with a red cow who couldn’t stop dancing. We’re unsure as to where she inherited her powers, or why she has chosen to pursue childcare. My theory is it’s a punishment for some past discretion, though she’s too proud to attempt to win her previous position back. She’s like Hagrid with no soul, complete with magical umbrella.
Her powers are just strong enough to amuse her, and confuse the children by constantly telling them the craziness they’ve just witnessed is all in their heads. In one story, when Michael is being particularly annoying, she produces a compass and quickly takes the children to the “four corners” of the world to introduce them to increasingly racist stereotypes–North to meet an Inuit-type tribe, West to meet Native Americans, East to China, and South to an astoundingly confusing depiction of Black people. When they return, she convinces them that no such thing happened, but gives Michael the compass. Were this Julie Andrews I’d imagine the compass would be given with a wink and a nod that the magic truly exists, but this Poppins probably just lobbed it at his head and snapped at him for being dumb enough to think it was possible.
Her power is most apparent when she takes the kids shopping for gingerbread. They enter a run-down bakery manned by two giant sisters and a cranky old woman, who breaks off her fingers, which turn to marzipan, as a snack for the twins. She has been alive for at least a thousand years, and she and Poppins act like old friends. When she gives them their gingerbreads, she asks the kids what they usually do with the gold foil stars that are pressed to the top. Both respond that they save them in secret spots in their room, but stupidly reveal their hiding places to Poppins. Late that night, she sneaks in and steals their stars, and the kids wake up and watch her out the window with the woman from the bakery, climbing ladders and gluing the stars to the sky. This follows the traditional pattern of the trickster: though it’s unclear whether her intentions were positive or negative, often the trickster’s pranks end in good for humanity. Here she has given the world more stars in the sky, though she had to steal them from children in the middle of the night.
The only time she seems to enjoy herself is around animals, only bolstering my theory that she is at least a shape-shifter. She talks to the birds for gossip and heartily defends the neighbor’s dog for becoming best friends with a stray. In the final story, the children find themselves in the zoo late at night, where they discover that if Poppins’ birthday falls on a full moon the zoo is reversed and the animals ride and feed humans all night. Poppins is the guest of honor, and the Snake King (who we discover is her cousin) sheds his skin as a gift for her. The animals then spend the evening singing and swaying in a circle around her, as the kids watch on.
Clearly, the animals are her people, so perhaps she was cursed with a human-level of self-awareness that keeps her just separated enough. She can talk to them, and once in a birthday full moon she can party with them, but she can never live like them. This makes her mean and bitter, and she lives her life by pranking children and gathering strength from their confusion.
I do want to mention Mr. Banks, now that everyone supposedly knows the story behind him. According to Saving Mr. Banks, which I did not see but read a lot about, Mr. Banks is supposed to be based on Travers’ father, a loving and playful man who kept the children happy even as they lost money, and battled alcoholism. Travers’ spends the whole time defending the character, who is turned into a mean man with no time for childhood, making the major emotional payoff come from seeing him loosen up and enjoy time with his family. However, in the book he a hapless man who shuffles to the bank each day, neither gruff nor charming, and ultimately not even present. It’s hard to imagine an author being protective of a character when there’s nothing to be protective of. Maybe he shows up in the later books.
According to a synopsis of Saving Mr. Banks, there is a moment where Travers asks Walt Disney “You think Mary Poppins is saving the children?” before shaking her head. She also apparently took issue with the way the film edited out some of the harsher aspects of Poppins’ personality. She knew she wasn’t creating a loveable character, but a sacred ideology of unpredictability. Through her, like through all trickster myths, children learn about the fickle nature of life, understanding that confusion and chaos are ever present, even when everything seems safe. You can be terrorizing your nanny one moment and sucking on marzipan witch fingers the next, and you may even grow to miss the chaos if it’s gone. But rest assured, children, the only constant is chaos. Poppins taught you well.