MAGIC IN THE AIR Jus­tine Pi­cardie re­calls the fun – and fear – that lace the orig­i­nal Mary Pop­pins books

As a new film ver­sion ar­rives to be­witch us this Christ­mas, Jus­tine Pi­cardie re­calls the de­lights and darker thrills of the orig­i­nal Mary Pop­pins sto­ries

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents -

The great­est chil­dren’s sto­ries – Al­ice in Won­der­land, The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia, Peter Pan – re­tain their power to en­thral and en­chant, how­ever many times a reader may re­turn to them. And hav­ing re­cently reread PL Travers’ Mary Pop­pins books, I have been re­minded, yet again, that their cap­ti­vat­ing magic is as po­tent now as when I first en­coun­tered them, as a lit­tle girl grow­ing up in Lon­don, sev­eral decades after their de­but in the 1930s. I was sep­a­rated in time from the Banks chil­dren and their won­drous ad­ven­tures with Mary Pop­pins: their life in pre-war Lon­don was more akin to the Ed­war­dian era, for even though they in­habit the small­est and shab­bi­est house on Cherry Tree Lane, they nev­er­the­less have a cook, a maid and an odd-job man, as well as their spell­bind­ing nanny.

Yet the scenes from the books seemed as vivid to me as my own games of make-be­lieve with my sis­ter, and far more thrillingly dan­ger­ous than the Dis­ney film adap­ta­tion. The real Mary Pop­pins – my Mary Pop­pins – was capri­cious, mys­te­ri­ous and very of­ten fright­en­ing. And when any of her charges dis­obeyed – as in the chap­ter en­ti­tled ‘Bad Wednes­day’ in the sec­ond of the se­ries, Mary Pop­pins Comes Back – the con­se­quences were ter­ri­fy­ing. In­deed, if ever I was fever­ish as a child, my thoughts would wan­der into that par­tic­u­lar episode, when Jane Banks (the el­dest daugh­ter in the fam­ily, as I was) throws her paint­box at the Royal Doul­ton bowl sit­ting on the nurs­ery man­tel­piece, thereby caus­ing it to crack. Jane steps into the hid­den land­scape of the bowl, lured by the three boys within it, triplets who lead her through a dark wood, and thence to a vast and shad­owy man­sion where they live with their sis­ter and sin­is­ter great-grand­fa­ther. She begs to re­turn home, but is told that this is im­pos­si­ble: she is trapped in the past, long be­fore her par­ents and sib­lings have been born, and be­fore Cherry Tree Lane has even been built. Cry­ing out in ter­ror, Jane is res­cued by Mary Pop­pins, who fi­nally guides her back to the safety of the nurs­ery.

An­other sig­nif­i­cant crack ap­pears in ‘Happy Ever After’, a story orig­i­nally pub­lished in the Jan­uary 1936 edi­tion of Harper’s Bazaar. After the chil­dren have been tucked up by their nanny on New Year’s Eve, as swiftly as al­ways – ‘spit-spot into bed!’ – Michael Banks asks Mary Pop­pins when the old year ends. ‘At the first stroke of twelve,’ she replies, and adds that the New Year be­gins on the last stroke of mid­night. As to what hap­pens in be­tween, she will not ex­plain: but Michael and Jane dis­cover for them­selves later that night, when the bells be­gin to ring. Their favourite toys come alive in the nurs­ery, and the chil­dren fol­low them out­side into the park across the road, where they en­counter var­i­ous char­ac­ters who have emerged from the book of fairy tales that Mary Pop­pins had left open at bed­time. Among these are a drowsy Sleep­ing Beauty, who tells them that a se­cret crack emerges be­tween the end of the old year and the begin­ning of the new: ‘And in­side the Crack all things are at one. The eter­nal op­po­sites meet and kiss. The wolf and the lamb lie down to­gether, the dove and the ser­pent share one nest. The stars bend down and touch the earth and the young and the old for­give each other. Night and day meet

here, as do the poles. The East leans over to­wards the West and the cir­cle is com­plete. This is the time and place, my dar­lings – the only time and the only place – when every­body lives hap­pily after ever…’

It might seem sur­pris­ing that Harper’s Bazaar should have pub­lished a story by a chil­dren’s au­thor; but the tim­ing seems to me to be ‘prac­ti­cally per­fect in ev­ery way’ (to quote Mary Pop­pins her­self ). PL Travers wrote it in 1935, dur­ing the height of the De­pres­sion, and then sub­se­quently in­cor­po­rated it into Mary Pop­pins Opens the Door, pub­lished in 1943 – an era when happy ever after seemed a very dis­tant prospect, ex­cept in fleet­ing mo­ments that were all the more pre­cious for their tran­sience. More­over, Travers’ own child­hood (the de­tails of which she kept se­cret or rein­vented in adult­hood) had also taught her much about un­hap­pi­ness. She was born in Queens­land, Aus­tralia, in 1899, where her fa­ther (like Mr Banks) was a bank man­ager in Mary­bor­ough, a town be­side the Mary River. His name was Travers Robert Goff; his first daugh­ter, the el­dest of three girls, was born He­len Lyn­don Goff. Known to her clos­est fam­ily sim­ply as Lyn­don, she later changed her name, as a young ac­tress and au­thor, to Pamela Lyn­don Travers. When she be­came fa­mous, with the pub­li­ca­tion of Mary Pop­pins (by which time she was al­ready liv­ing in Lon­don), she rewrote her past, de­scrib­ing her up­bring­ing in a myth­i­cal sugar-cane plan­ta­tion, and her fa­ther as a hand­some Ir­ish­man. In fact, he was an al­co­holic, who was de­moted to a clerk be­cause of his er­ratic be­hav­iour and died in Jan­uary 1907. Some time af­ter­wards, his griev­ing wife ran out of the house dur­ing a vi­o­lent thun­der­storm, cry­ing that she was go­ing to drown her­self in a river. Lyn­don wrapped a quilt around her­self and her two lit­tle sis­ters, and told them the story of a mag­i­cal white horse that could fly, even though it had no wings.

As it hap­pens, their mother did re­turn home, but Lyn­don made her es­cape as soon as she was old enough, first as an ac­tress in a tour­ing Aus­tralian reper­tory com­pany, and then in 1924 sail­ing to Eng­land, where she em­barked on a new ca­reer as a writer. She found a men­tor in Ge­orge Rus­sell, the ed­i­tor of The Ir­ish States­man, and trav­elled to Dublin to meet him. He in­tro­duced her to WB Yeats and to the study of var­i­ous forms of mys­ti­cism and mythol­ogy, which fas­ci­nated Travers for the rest of her life.

Fiercely un­con­ven­tional, she formed a close at­tach­ment to an­other woman, Madge Bur­nand, the daugh­ter of a play­wright, and set up home with her, first in Lon­don, and then in a cot­tage in Sus­sex, where Travers be­gan to write Mary Pop­pins while re­cov­er­ing from pleurisy in the win­ter of 1933. ‘If you are look­ing for au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal fact,’ she once ob­served, ‘Mary Pop­pins is the story of my life’. But Travers seems to have been even more pe­cu­liar in her ap­proach to child­care than her fa­mous fic­tional hero­ine. In 1939, at the age of 40 (and no longer liv­ing with Bur­nand), she adopted a baby boy as a sin­gle par­ent. He was one of twins – the grand­sons of Yeats’ first bi­og­ra­pher – but Travers never told him that he had a brother, or in­deed any­thing about his early life at all. When he cried at night, she talked of send­ing him to a ba­bies’ home, and there­after dis­patched him to board­ing-school as soon as pos­si­ble, so that she could con­cen­trate on her writ­ing ca­reer. By the time he was 20, he was al­ready show­ing signs of al­co­holism, and spent six months in prison for drink-driv­ing.

All of which might seem rather gloomy a story for our Christ­mas and New Year edi­tion of Bazaar. But ac­tu­ally, I find it strangely brac­ing. For this is a time of year where cracks tend to ap­pear in fam­ily life; when we seek mir­a­cles and magic, in be­tween the stresses and strains of be­ing re­united with our near­est and dear­est (or not, as the case may be). Need­less to say, on the morn­ing of New Year’s Day in Cherry Tree Lane, after the chil­dren’s great ad­ven­ture, Mary Pop­pins de­nies all knowl­edge of the mid­night marvels. In­deed, when Michael dares to com­ment on the pro­ceed­ings, ‘Mary Pop­pins stared… The look on her face was Sim­ply Fright­ful. “Fairy-tales in­side the Crack? Humph! You’ll have Fairy-tales in­side the Bath­room, if I hear One More Word. And the door locked, I prom­ise you! Crack, in­deed! Cracked, more likely!”’

As for our own dreams of happy ever after: well, if Mary Pop­pins has taught us any­thing, it is that cracks may be very dis­turb­ing, but they also let love and light come in…

The real Mary Pop­pins was capri­cious, mys­te­ri­ous and of­ten very fright­en­ing

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