CBR11 Bingo: Birthday! (P.L. Travers born August 9th, 1899) (BINGO! Cannonballer Says square to Summer Read square/Far and Away square to Birthday square)
The film version of Mary Poppins has been a favorite of mine since childhood. Even though I was a voracious reader as a kid, I never got around to reading the book. Several years ago, I watched “Saving Mr. Banks,” the mostly fictionalized account of the struggle of Walt Disney to persuade P. L. Travers to allow him to make the film version of her book. While I’m certain that the artistic license taken in that movie is very broad, it did get me a little curious about the original Mary Poppins and the dynamic woman that created her.
Since the character of Mary Poppins is very firmly embedded in our culture, I don’t think that I need to get too much into plot for anyone. In London, 1910, a new nanny applicant appears at the Banks’ doorstep on the heels of the last hire who has “disappeared” presumably due to the behavior of the Banks’ children: Jane, Michael and the baby twins Barbara and John. More than equipped to deal with their shenanigans the convenient new nanny candidate, Mary Poppins, blows in with the East Wind and secures the job. During her tenure, the Banks’ children are whisked off on outrageous and improbable adventures.
I had expected this book to be darker and lean more on the “lessons” that Mary Poppins imparts to the children and their distant parents. I had supposed that the Disney version was most likely softened for commercial reasons, but found the opposite to be true. The workaholic father is still absent, but not much is made of that in the book. The neglectful and oblivious mother is also rarely mentioned. The excuse could be made, on both counts, that it was a historically accurate portrayal of their social class at that point in history. Children were raised by nannies. If P. L. Travers was trying to make a point about that, it was in no way clearly drawn.
This is the first in a series of 8 books and perhaps reading all of the books would reveal more about the parents and the Banks’ need for Mary Poppins’ particular talent. It would explain why this first book was unfocused and lacked a cohesiveness that may be found after reading ALL of the books in the series. Unfortunately, in the the first book the characters are a little too one dimensional. With the exception of one standalone chapter entirely about the young twins and one chapter where Michael struggles with his feelings, the book seemed to lack a heart. That was something that I did not expect.
Another big problem for me was Mary Poppins herself. As much as it pains me to say it, the original Mary Poppins is not MY Mary Poppins. Travers’ Mary is vain, forever checking herself out in any and all reflective surfaces and fussing over her new shoes. She also appears to have a mean streak and a hair trigger temper . Her constant “gas lighting” of the children when they ask about the strange things that happen in her wake was also troubling. While some of this happened in the film, there was always a sly “wink wink” that went with it. Her over the top behavior was generally used to make a point to the children or their parents. In the book, Mary’s behavior often reads as plain old mean-spirited.
As much as it pains me, I simply prefer the film version of Mary Poppins to THE Mary Poppins.