Moving into a discussion of Mary Poppins, one of my students spoke about how he’d always been bothered, both in the book and movie, by what he called the bubble-bursting moments. For example, after the tea party near the ceiling, or the middle-of-the-night visit to the zoo where they talk to animals, Mary Poppins told the children not to be ridiculous, that no one could eat in the air and respectable people like her spend their nights in beds. My student asked why she lied. I couldn’t really answer. Did it have its roots in P.L. Travers’s interest in Zen, a tradition more about riddles than answers, but not one I claim much to understand? This weekend, I asked my friend Jess, a yoga teacher, who told me about aiming for effortless effort, trying without trying. In a state in which we’re always beginning, uncertainty may be the closest we get to truth. And then Jess said, “But that bothered me about Mary Poppins, too. Why shouldn’t children be believed?”
illustration by Mary Shepherd
A favorite moment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the way Lucy stands by what she knows happened beyond the wardrobe no matter how much she’s teased, and the good Professor points out to Lucy’s older sister and brother that she has always been honest, so why shouldn’t they listen though she spoke of something that to them seemed incredible? A student who noted he had no problem identifying with Lucy though he’s a guy – “she got into the wardrobe first and she got a dagger as a gift. Cool.” – may have also been drawn to Lucy’s confidence.
And in The Secret Garden, Mary has tantrums for a number of reasons, not all sympathetic, but I’m with her when she is furious when told that she doesn’t hear crying behind a closed door. She is certain of her own ears. I’m sure there are other books that take this as a theme. But where does this leave us with Mary Poppins? Those bubble-bursting moments didn’t bother me much, as for the most part, Jane, though not always Michael, seem to accept them. There are plenty of parts of Mary Poppins not to like. Unlike the sweetened Julie Andrews version, in the book she’s curt, conceited, and perplexing, but she leads us into magic.
Still, so many young readers are Hansel and Gretel, innocently entering forests, perhaps never knowing the back story, like readers or listeners who overhear the conversation between the parents: There’s not enough food. Somebody in the family has to go. And if Hansel or Gretel were to learn and confide about this, would they be believed, or told that parents couldn’t possibly act like that? Children may ask for so little. To be fed, to be safe, to be loved. The movie Mary Poppins takes up this theme in showing how Jane and Michael, who have a good roof and full table, yearn for more. I just listened to an old interview in which the Sherman brothers, who wrote and composed the songs, talk about “Feed the Birds,” which all considered the heart of the movie, with its message about how a need to connect can be met with tuppence, or just a bit of attention. Believe me can be another cry for See me.
I’m writing more about Mary Poppins, a biography of Pamela Travers, Mary Poppins, She Wrote, and Saving Mr. Banks in the next day or two, so if you haven’t heard enough about the sometimes confounding book and author, please stop back by!