If you like Blyton: Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers


The character of Mary Poppins is no stranger to me, but I admit that I am primarily familiar with the film version, as played by the wonderful Julie Andrews. I have also seen the Emily Blunt version, but only once. The books (there are eight of them!) have been on my list of things to read for quite a while now, but I had never got around to reading them. Ideally I wanted to magically find a nice early hardback that didn’t cost very much, but that didn’t happen, and so I found myself borrowing an eBook from the library via Libby.


The Mary Poppins Series

As I said above, there are eight books written by P.L. Travers. I have only read the first so far, so anything I say about the remaining 7 is based on what I’ve read online.

The titles are:

Mary Poppins (1934)
Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935)
Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943)
Mary Poppins in the Park (1952)
Mary Poppins from A to Z (1962)
Mary Poppins in the Kitchen (1975)
Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (1982)
Mary Poppins and the House Next Door (1988)

 

Though some lists give a different order for the series, putting the A-Z and In the Kitchen in the last two places. Another has 7 books in the series with the A-Z an extra.

Having read the descriptions of these, I would imagine as it is because these are not novels as such. The A-Z has 26 vignettes, each telling a new tale about the characters of the books and using various words starting with the featured letter. In the Kitchen has Mary Poppins teaching the children to cook, and includes recipes.

What’s also interesting is that chronologically the events of In the Park, In Cherry Tree Lane and House Next Door all take place during the first three books.


Updates to Travers’ Books

There have been many updates to Blyton’s books over the years so I was interested to read about updates to the first Mary Poppins book, as from what I can gather they were made by the author herself.

In one chapter she and the children use a magic compass to travel the globe. They visit China, Alaska and the contiguous United States, plus Africa (though there is an argument that the visit south could have been to Australia), and meet the native peoples of those countries. Due to criticisms of the language, stereotypes and dialogue used Travers updated the text in the early 1970s.

In 1981 she revised the book again, and replaced the people with animals from the regions. Mary Mary Shepherd (the original illustrator) also replaced the illustrations to match.

The copy I read has the animals, but I would be interested to read both the earlier versions. I understand the reasoning for the updates, but I think it’s a shame that the end solution was to remove the human characters altogether rather than to more subtly amend the language and the illustrations.

I find this particularly interesting as the first update was carried out shortly before Blyton died. Travers was born in 1899, so she was only two years younger than Blyton, in fact less than two years by two days. The two women grew up at the same time, their school years and early adulthood would have overlapped heavily, and both began writing careers in the 1920s. One difference is that Travers was born and raised in Australia, coming to England in 1924, and moving to America for periods starting in 1940. Another is that aside from the eight Mary Poppins books above, Travers wrote just five other novels and a few Mary Poppins short stories (it’s not immediately clear to me if those short stories were taken from the novels or are fresh pieces). And the last one is that Travers passed away in 1996, and was still writing Mary Poppins books at 89.

Had Blyton’s health and mental facilities not begun to decline in the early 1960s I would not have been at all surprised if she had taken a similar stance and made some edits to her books, though of course this would have been hampered by the sheer vastness of her output.

Travers’ reasoning seems to have been two-fold. The reason for the first edit was seemingly her wish to not offend,

P.L. Travers decided to alter the descriptions and dialogues in this section of the story because “if even one Black child were troubled, or she (Dr. Francelia Butler) were troubled, I would have to alter it.”

Lina Slavova from The Mary Poppins Effect

Though she has also made statements that imply she didn’t believe that the work was offensive;

What I find strange is that, while my critics claim to have children’s best interests in mind, children themselves have never objected to the book. In fact, they love it. That was certainly the case when I was asked to speak to an affectionate crowd of children at a library in Port of Spain in Trinidad. On another occasion, when a white teacher friend of mine explained how she felt uncomfortable reading the pickaninny dialect to her young students, I asked her, “And are the black children affronted?” “Not at all,” she replied, “it appeared they loved it.”

Paris Review 1982 (though this portion is behind a pay wall)

However the second time was because the San Francisco Public Library had removed her book due to the ‘negative stereotyping’. Despite being annoyed at her publisher for not defending her more strongly, she decided to make the heavier edits to protect her book from further banning. The original text and the 1980s text are compared in this article.

Nonetheless, I have rewritten the offending chapter, and in the revised edition I have substituted a panda, dolphin, polar bear, and macaw. I have done so not as an apology for anything I have written. The reason is much more simple: I do not wish to see Mary Poppins tucked away in the closet.

Paris Review 1982 (though this portion is behind a pay wall)

Minus the cinema-screen technique Travers’ writing style sounds not dissimilar to Blytons’. (Blytons’ non-fiction work, aside, of course).

P.L. Travers did not use researched information for the portrayal of her characters. She simply pulled them out of the mixture of her childhood memories, readings and musings. Facts were never of a great concern for P.L. Travers.

Lina Slavova from The Mary Poppins Effect


The cast of Mary Poppins

Those of you who have seen the film will be familiar with the inhabitants of number 17 Cherry Tree Lane – Mary Poppins herself, Jane and Michael, Mr and Mrs Banks, maid Ellen and cook Mrs Brill.

These screen characters are largely representative of those in the books with a few alterations. Mrs Banks is not a suffragette, and Mr Banks makes money – by literally cutting out coins – rather than working in banking.

The film, perhaps to give more momentum and a neat ending to the plot has Mrs Banks engrossed in the suffragette movement and Mr Banks an over-worked and cross father. This allows Mary Poppins (and Bert) to show Mr Banks the error of ignoring his family and bring them all together at the end with the kite-flying. The book, being a more episodic series of adventures has no such overarching theme, but of course the Banks’ family story runs through the whole series.

I found the Mary Poppins of the book less likeable than on screen. In both she is firm and no-nonsense, but book Mary has a larger streak of vanity and can be much more snappish and cross. Film Mary may not admit that they’ve just had a magical adventure, but it is done with a knowing wink. Book Mary will snap at the children as if she has taken offense at their suggestion that they’ve just done something magical, which makes for quite confusing reading. As below, someone’s already expressed this much more clearly:

While they are similar by nature, they are completely different in personality: Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins is never cross, but the Mary Poppins in the books is not only usually cross but reads as bitter, unloving, and grumpy. She also comes across as playing with the children’s minds, manipulating and belittling them while claiming that their magical adventures never happened.

– Jeffrey Davies of Book Riot.

Aside from that there are also two more children in the book – baby twins John and Barbara. As they are under year to begin with they do not have a great deal of page time, with the exception of one chapter where they are able to communicate quite clearly with birds (and presumably other creatures) an ability all children lose when they become one. It’s quite funny to see the twins adamant that they will always have that skill and never forget it. But of course Mary Poppins knows best and the twins turn one and become just babbling babies.

There is also a very lazy (but likeable) gardener called Robertson Ay, who for some reason, is also responsible for polishing shoes.

Outside of the house there is Admiral Boom with his nautical-inspired house (but no earthquake-inducing cannon fire), Miss Lark next door with her overly pampered dog, and of course, Bert.

Bert’s role is expanded for the film, in the book he is a street artist and friend of Mary who accompanies her (but not the children) into one of his paintings for an adventure. He also appears later, selling matches.


The adventures

Again, film-watchers will recognise the tea-party on the ceiling, feeding the birds for tuppence a bag, the trip inside the chalk painting and various other details from the screen.

However, being a book, there is room for many more adventures than made it into the adaptation.

There is the story about the pampered dog next door who makes friends with a common mutt, their adventure with the compass to meet people or animals depending on your edition, a visit to the zoo at midnight where people are in cages and the animals are the viewers, a trip to the shops which ends with a visit to a special sweet-shop, and a Christmas shopping expedition where they meet a star come to buy presents for her sister stars.

To be honest any of these could have been adapted for screen as they all have the same whimsical feeling to them – I particularly enjoyed the back-to-front visit to the zoo, which was not quite as fraught with danger as you might imagine with lions and other predators roaming free.


Although book Mary is less likeable than the Julie Andrews version I enjoyed the book and plan to read more of them as I am intrigued by just who, or what, Mary Poppins is, and to see what she and the children get up to next.

 

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