Not a Spoonful of Sugar

The other day, I read a piece which referred to a “Mary Poppins-type”

Mary Poppins Novels

character.  I found myself wondering “Which Mary Poppins?  The one from the movie or the one from the original books?”

If you’ve only seen the movie with Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, you have only the slightest idea what the original character is like.  To give Julie Andrews credit, I think she knew perfectly well that her character was a sweetened-up version of the original.  The gusto with which she delivers the line “Rum punch!” or speaks Mary Poppins’ characteristic “spit-spot” hinted at familiarity with P.L. Travers formidable nursemaid.

I really enjoy the original movie, but it’s the original character I’d like to wander on about today: a Mary Poppins who is not in the least sweet, who is formidable, magical, secretive, and, despite her uncompromising rule, is loved both by the children she cares for and the readers who enter her world.

The first surprise for those who only know the movie version would be that Mary Poppins is not in the least pretty.  As first described, she has “shining black hair – ‘Rather like a wooden Dutch doll’… she was thin, with large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes.”  Despite this singular lack of good looks, Mary Poppins is quite vain.  As various events throughout the books make clear, she considers herself both attractive and fashionable.  Few things make her more pleased with herself than a new pair of gloves or fancy hat.

That Mary Poppins is both magical and unconventional is made apparent within moments of her arrival in the Banks household.  First she slides up the banister.  Soon after, she unpacks a remarkable number of items from an apparently empty carpet bag.  Her medicine bottle (as in the movie) produces different flavors for different tastes.

But this Mary Poppins does not set out to charm her new charges with treats, fun, and games.  Balking against her authority, “Michael suddenly discovered that you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her.  There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.”

What made me fall for Mary Poppins was neither her unconventionality nor her compelling authority.  It was the way in which Mary Poppins shapes the world around her into something new and exciting.  Best of all, she offers no explanations for what she does, nor do the stories ever leave the reader in doubt that whatever has happened – no matter how extraordinary – really happened.  Mary Poppins might deny that she was flying through the air on the string of a balloon, but Jane and Michael always find evidence that their experiences were real.

Does that make Mary Poppins a liar?  Perhaps, but more often she simply does the outrageous (appearing out of the sparks of a firework, reeled in on the string of a kite, floating away beneath her omnipresent umbrella) and then refuses to either admit or deny her actions.  As is stated at the end of the first chapter of the inaugural book, “Mary Poppins never told anybody anything….”

But is even that completely true?  Mary Poppins tells the most amazing stories, often claiming quite close knowledge of those involved.  When telling the story of the Dancing Cow (as in the Cow Who Flew Over the Moon), she begins by saying: “I know that cow.  She was a great friend of my Mother’s and I’ll thank you to speak politely of her.”

Mary Poppins knows the most amazing people and, best of all, her young charges get to meet quite a few of them.  The most unlikely people (or creatures) claim relationship with Mary Poppins.  The Hamadryad (or king cobra), the true king of beasts, calls her “cousin.”  The Constellations make her an honored guest at their circus.  The Sun even bestows upon her his fiery kiss.  Mary Poppins has been nursemaid to the Pleiades and to the three Princes of the fairy tales.  She helps hang new stars in the sky and bring Spring to life.

If you are tempted to read the original stories, I do suggest you do read the novels in order, since characters recur and change.  If you are an adult, with an adult’s limited patience for the sort of repetitious structure in which children take comfort and delight, I also suggest reading the novels with gaps in between.

Beware the “politically correct” versions that were issued a few years ago.  Apparently afraid that modern children (or more likely modern adults) would not be comfortable with the sensibilities of the original, changes were made.  For example, a friend of mine reported that in the chapter “Bad Tuesday” the Eskimos, Africans, Chinese, and Red Indians were changed into talking animals.

My guess is that those who made the changes were uncomfortable with the depictions of these cultures.  The African family wears very little clothing and quite “a great many beads.”  However, what this change loses is the fact that Mary Poppins (who by this point in the book, the reader will know has no patience with those she views as beneath her) treats these people with complete courtesy and as her social equals.

She rubs noses with the Eskimos, responds to the African’s friendliness is kind, bows to the Chinese mandarin (and insists the children do so as well), and touches foreheads with Chief Sun-at-Noonday.  Certainly the message is clear – no matter how different people, it is not color nor attire nor manner of living that makes them worthy of respect.  People are worthy or respect (or not) for other reasons entirely.

I can’t say that as a child I was “getting” these lectures.  I was enthralled by the idea of someone who filled the world with wonder and adventure simply by being part of it, someone who might take me to lunch at the home of an uncle who floated courtesy of Laughing Gas, someone who knew what the dog who lived down the street wanted because she could talk to him.

These stories don’t have a “spoonful of sugar” – they have something far better.  The impossible made possible.  A twist on stories we all thought we knew.  An introduction to stories we never knew how much we wanted.  For me, Mary Poppins embodies sense of wonder as few other original characters manage to do.

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8 Responses to “Not a Spoonful of Sugar”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Mary Poppins never visited my house when I was a child. I’d never heard of her until the movie appeared. Inspired by the movie I eventually managed to find one of the books (I forget which one it was now) and I remember noticing the difference between Mary of the film and Mary of the book and not liking it at all. The book version was more than a little scary!

    I do love the movie, even though I feel compelled to stick my fingers in my ears every time Dick Van Dyke speaks — his character is a lovely man, but his accent is just plain weird.


    -Alan

  2. Paul Says:

    It’s sometimes amazing how cinematic characters can vary, especially from their written origins (how many different Sherlock Holmeses have we seen on the screen? For that matter, how many Wild Bill Hickoks? Romeos? Juliets? Hamlets?). But thanks for that tip about politically-correcting the Mary Poppinses. That is a trend which leaves me cold, like taking the racial slurs out of “Huckleberry Finn” and thereby ruining the whole point the author is making.

  3. Dominique Says:

    I didn’t even know the movie was based off of books !!! I will have to go read them now 🙂

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    Interesting. I hadn’t thought about there being books behind the movies either. Thanks Jane!

    Of course, this leaves room for someone doing a darker, edgier remake, “based on the original….”

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I actually like the Julie Andrews movie quite a lot, so I’m not lining up for a darker/edgier remake.

    In fact, I think the “magic” of the books would be hard to translate to visual, because so much of the wonder is in how Jane and Michael (and later the twins [John and Barbara] and infant Annabel) react to having Mary Poppins in their world.

    There are some stories that are best told in print.

  6. Eric Says:

    I didn’t realize that there were any novels of the character. Although I am reminded of just how many years it has been since I watched the film. I’m going to have to make a point of seeing it soon. Childhood is calling!

  7. janelindskold Says:

    I’m glad to hear so many people have good memories of Mary Poppins — whatever the version.

    It’s nice to imagine people curling up with the books or movie over the coming holidays.

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