Mary Poppins: The nanny of them all

The nanny was bewitching the British long before David Blunkett was in short trousers. And one nanny stands behatted head and straight-backed shoulders above the Leoncia Casalme generation. Seven decades after PL Travers immortalised her in print and 40 years after Disney gave her Julie Andrews' face, Mary Poppins is back

PL Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was never quite so rash as to claim she invented Mary Poppins. "Stories are like poems," she wrote. "They disclose but do not explain themselves, nor reveal their inner workings ... I think the idea of Mary Poppins has been blowing in and out of me, like a curtain at a window, all my life." And indeed, the imperious, vain, starched, miraculous Mary Poppins arrived at the Banks household in Cherry Tree Lane blown by the wind, and would depart in the same way, with open umbrella. Her origins were entirely mysterious. She arrived without warning to assume charge of Jane and Michael Banks and the twin babies, Barbara and John, in 1934, with the first publication of Mary Poppins. And she came and went into the children's lives intermittently afterwards, in Mary Poppins Comes Back, in 1935, in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, in 1943, in Mary Poppins in the Park in 1952, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, in 1982 and Mary Poppins and the House Next Door in 1988. There was r

PL Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was never quite so rash as to claim she invented Mary Poppins. "Stories are like poems," she wrote. "They disclose but do not explain themselves, nor reveal their inner workings ... I think the idea of Mary Poppins has been blowing in and out of me, like a curtain at a window, all my life." And indeed, the imperious, vain, starched, miraculous Mary Poppins arrived at the Banks household in Cherry Tree Lane blown by the wind, and would depart in the same way, with open umbrella. Her origins were entirely mysterious. She arrived without warning to assume charge of Jane and Michael Banks and the twin babies, Barbara and John, in 1934, with the first publication of Mary Poppins. And she came and went into the children's lives intermittently afterwards, in Mary Poppins Comes Back, in 1935, in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, in 1943, in Mary Poppins in the Park in 1952, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, in 1982 and Mary Poppins and the House Next Door in 1988. There was remarkable continuity in the nature of the stories over all this time, except that the Banks children were later joined by another baby, Annabel.

It is quite impossible to get a proper idea of the fascination of Mary Poppins merely from the Disney film, made 40 years ago, where the rich cast of characters in the stories was whittled down, and the frightening aspects of Mary Poppins disappeared in the briskness and one-dimensional cheerfulness of Julie Andrews. PL Travers - this was a stage name, her own being Helen Lyndon Goff - disliked the film and thought Julie Andrews too pretty for the role, though she generously said that this was hardly her fault. My guess is that she would probably have little time either for Julian Fellowes' adaptation of Mary Poppins for the stage, which opens next week and which, by all accounts, tries to invest the characters of Mr and Mrs Banks with psychological baggage which was certainly not in the original.

Mary Poppins herself looked nothing like Julie Andrews. She was thin, with shiny black hair, with large hands and feet and "small, rather peering blue eyes". Indeed, according to the cook's estimate, "plain she was, too, and nothing much to look at". But, in her own view, there was no scope for improvement in Mary Poppins, especially when she was wearing her new gloves, with lambswool trimmings, or carrying her umbrella with a parrot head. And it was with difficulty that she could be torn from her reflected image in a shop window, even more if her image was replicated from several angles. "The more Mary Poppins the better" was her view.

There is the suggestion of a romance with Bert, the Matchstick Man and Pavement Artist - indeed her first adventure is to enter one of his pictures in his company - but we are never quite sure whether anything ever has or ever will come of it. With Bert, however, her manner is unexpectedly soft, unlike her tartness with her notional employers.

Right from the outset, she makes perfectly clear who will be in charge in the household she enters. We are, of course, in the Thirties Upstairs, Downstairsworld here - except that the nanny is certainly not an inhabitant of Downstairs, with Mrs Brill the cook, Ellen the maid, and Robertson Ay, the man who cleans the shoes, but rather the imperatrix of the nursery, on the top floor of the house. When Mary sweeps into the Banks household - she slides up the banisters, rather than down them - she informs Mrs Banks that she never gives references. And her day off was on her own terms, not Mrs Banks'. Indeed, it is no difficult feat to tyrannise Mrs Banks, since she is a gentle and affectionate woman who loves her children but is also keen to keep up appearances. One element entirely absent from the stories is any clash between the nanny and the mother. It is plain that the children love them both, though the mother can never hope to emulate Mary Poppins' extraordinary capacity for generating adventures.

The key to the fascination of Mary Poppins, however, is not merely that strange and unaccountable things happen when she is around. It is that she combines both authority and anarchy. There is the possibility that, in her company, you could find yourself painting stars on to the sky at night, but it is quite crucial that you should first be in bed on time, having had your bath. The world she inhabits is strictly ordered and she holds to an iron routine, which is why the sometimes terrifying adventures in which the children are caught up have such power. It is every child's dream to inhabit a secure and ordered world in which you are surrounded by familiar things, and yet for that world also to be charged with unpredictable magic.

At the heart of the unexpected events that happen to the children is the certainty that Mary Poppins will always be there to rescue them. In "Bad Tuesday", Michael is dogged all day with a "hot, heavy feeling inside him", which makes him do the most awful, capriciously cruel things he can think of, and enjoy doing them. When he finds a compass in the park, Mary Poppins uses it to spin herself and the children to all four quarters of the globe, visiting in turn a dolphin, a panda, a polar bear and a macaw, all of whom welcome her as an old friend. Yet when Michael steals the compass and tries to do the same thing, he finds that the animals which were so friendly in her company have turned savage and dangerous. He cries out for her, and finds that he is swept up in her protective embrace, and ends the day with hot milk in bed.

That combination of familiarity and strangeness, the commonplace and the fantastical is present from the outset. Mary Poppins' only luggage when she arrives at the Banks family is her carpet bag, which, Michael observes, is empty, but from which she nonetheless extracts a starched white apron, a large cake of Sunlight soap, a toothbrush, a packet of hairpins, a bottle of scent, a small folding armchair and a box of throat lozenges. Oh, and "seven flannel nightgowns, four cotton ones, a pair of boots, a set of dominoes, two bathing-caps and a postcard album".

Quite where she has come from is anyone's guess, but there is a touch of mythology about her. She dances with a snake at her birthday in a party at the zoo, and when characters appear who are as old as time, it is plain that they know Mary Poppins well. Her previous clients include the boy princes who appear as an illustration in the Silver Fairy Book, Florimond, Veritain and Amorm. Yet her uncle is a cheery old gentleman with cheeks like withered apples who lives in rented accommodation and whose sole extraordinary feature is that he floats to the ceiling when his birthday falls on a Friday.

All that Mary Poppins will insist on is her absolute respectability and that of her relations, an attribute she maintains by denying, after an adventure has taken place, that anything has happened at all. But all the adventures happen for a reason - there is always something the children learn from them. As PL Travers said: "She never pampers the children and she makes them face great truths." Not least being the extraordinary possibilities of apparently ordinary things.

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