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
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