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One Nanny, Hold the Spoonful of Sugar: The REAL Mary Poppins and Her Creator, P.L. Travers

P.L. Traversby Mallory Sweeney

Equipped with her time-defying umbrella and magical medicine, Mary Poppins has been one of most beloved figures of the modern children’s literature canon. The offbeat-nurturing nanny first appeared in 1934 in a book sharing her name; that would be the first of ten books (spanning fifty-four years) by author P.L. Travers. One might be quick to assume that the creator of a literary staple such as Mary Poppins would resemble the nanny herself–or at least have some inclination toward the glowing warmth of Julie Andrews’ Oscar-winning portrayal, as we remember her from Walt Disney’s classic 1964 film. Travers however, was a much different woman–perhaps closer in character to the Mary we see in the novels–much more of a spinster, but still possessing a creative genius which has survived decades.

P.L. Travers was born Helen Goff in 1899, in Australia, not Mary’s native London as many perceive. At the age of twenty-one, the author changed her name to Pamela Lyndon Travers–adopting a surname which was her father’s first name. Travers’ childhood seems much bleaker when it is examined under a literary microscope: her father died when she was quite young and her mother, whom Travers frequently referred to as a frivolous woman, attempted to drown herself when the author was in her early adolescence. All the tragedy of a young life aside, Travers grew and developed in a world where parents were frequently absent and this situation was always on her mind. Perhaps it was this absence which planted the seeds for a world in which parents are replaced by another caregiver, like the world which exists in the Banks home. Travers left home for England in 1924 and began her literary career by writing essays and poetry–eventually publishing the stories she told while caring for two children in Sussex. The stories were stretched into a book and published as the first of the Mary Poppinsseries in 1934. Although the film roots Jane, Michael, Mr. Banks, and the (at times) fiery suffragette Mrs. Banks in and about the Victorian age, Travers originally set the book in the 1930s. This erroneous interpretation on the film’s part as well as many other changes would later prompt Travers to assert that Disney “violated” her work, despite the fact his the cinematic interpretation left her rich until the end of her life.

Travers often asserted that her parents refused to explain how the world worked to her–thus Mary’s creed with the Banks children is born: the world is out there to be explored and no one will spoon-feed you instructions–you must discover it and by doing so, it becomes all the more exciting. Mary is also distinctly part of the working class and even though the Banks are decidedly middle class (their house is described as the shabbiest on the block) they retain a retinue of servants. But in spite of her “place,” Travers graces Mary with an occasional inversion of power–she has an eye for the disenfranchised, the poor, and even shows a special consideration for animals. This sentiment is wrapped in fantasy when Mary takes the children to the London Zoo at night and the animals are granted the luxury of speech–peering instead at the humans confined within the steel cages. With the full moon shining, we see the supremacy of the status quo challenged and the Banks children are granted a larger view of the world. It is also here where Poppins converses with the Hamadryad, the powerful cobra, whom she refers to as her relation–Travers’ reference to the eastern mysticism which fascinated her and which also emerges through her poetry and her connection to W.B. Yeats. Of course once the day has ended, Mary denies the fantasy ever occurred leaving the children puzzled, yet content.

It is often said that one cannot write without putting a piece of themselves into their work. Is it any wonder than that P.L. Travers, a woman often construed as a controversial figure with a controversial life, would find herself faced with critical questions about Mary Poppins? The original 1934 Mary Poppins contained a chapter entitled “Bad Tuesday,” in which, to assuage Michael’s bad Tuesday mood, Mary takes the children on a jaunt about the world by meeting peoples of the arctic, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. The chapter was riddled with stereotypes and “unsuitable” language; therefore, Travers received so many complaints that she finally released an edited chapter. Travers though, in many defensive letters, never admitted to any wrongdoing. Travers herself as an author of books for children was often questioned. She never married, reportedly had an affair with a much older man, adopted a son in her forties, and had a lengthy live-in relationship with another woman. She was always free-spirited though, however publicly curmudgeonly she often appeared, much like Mary herself. The Mary Poppins of Travers’ books was a much harsher woman, controlling and vain (she frequently inspects herself in the mirror) despite how endearing she is to Jane and Michael. It is in fact Mary who tells Mrs. Banks she is going to be hired as the new nanny and Mary who is famous for sniffing with an upturned nose at the children’s complaints. But her system works, since the children adore her and her tart tongue, insisting that she has a lovely smell–“something like toast and Sunlight soap.” Call it tough love then, because after a good dose of Mary’s sarcasm and scathing wit, the children and the Banks household never ran smoother. The children are quick to obey Mary because she enters their world, rather than forcing them into an adult one. She is not obsessively moral nor is she above the simple pleasures of storytelling. But Travers insists the idea for Mary came to her, just as Mary drops from the sky into the Banks’ lives: “I never for one moment believed that I invented her. Perhaps she invented me, and that is why I find it so difficult to write.”

When Travers passed away in 1996 at the age of ninety-six, the world lost a controversially- charged icon. The children of the thirties, forties, and fifties were not exposed to the concept of a secondary caregiver because “Mother” was always home; she had not yet begun to lend a hand at the breadwinning, as modern culture would eventually dictate. And although Travers was a modern woman–both her version as well as Disney’s film are surprisingly contradictory to the liberating notions of the times. Family life with a woman at home was always key in Disney’s productions, but Travers’ moral is also “fire the Nanny.” In the end of the first book, Mary leaves with Mrs. Banks firmly taking her place as the children’s mother. True, she does return in the successive books when problems arise, however, she is no longer the central female. Therefore, through her Mary Poppins series, P.L. Travers brought to various generations a cultural mainstay that had begun to wane: the Nanny.