P.L. Travers

P.L. Travers
Mary Poppins 

Lest you think the Unofficial Book Reviewer has gone soft in the head, let me point out that P.L. Travers would hardly have recognized her own story in Hollywood’s sickeningly sweet version. Mary Poppins was acerbic and feisty before Disney bought the film rights and squeezed the life out of her.

The central character of Travers’s books arrives on the east wind and leaves on the west, her carpet bag in one hand and a parrot’s-head umbrella under her arm. This Mary Poppins is decidedly tart in disposition; no trilling about spoonsful of sugar here. She’s constantly telling the four Banks children to hurry up, no dawdling, spit-spot, and they emerge slightly shaken from her distinctly unmaternal ministrations. A glare from her is enough to quell disobedience; the nursery is snug and secure with Mary Poppins in charge.

She does, however, live on the outer edge of reality. Characters step out of storybooks and statues come to life at her approach (Mary Poppins Opens the Door). The zoo celebrates her birthday by locking people in cages while the animals roam free and cavort around her. No matter how extraordinary the circumstances—having tea in midair or dancing a hornpipe under the sea—she behaves not like a fairy godmother, but like the crisply starched British nanny she is.

Or did the Banks children just dream those amazing adventures, as Mary Poppins sniffs? But there around her waist is a snakeskin belt inscribed “A Present from the Zoo.”

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