Children’s Literature Discussion of genre Review of Children’s Literature Review of film

Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers’ Hard-Hearted Nanny, the topic of new film

Update on this post:

Here is an excellent analysis in the New Yorker of P.L. Travers’ youth, development as an author, and negotiations with Disney during the making of the film, Mary Poppins. (Read it here…)

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, 1934 & “Saving Mr. Banks”, 2013

Saving Mr BanksLater this month, the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” will premiere in movie theatres, and considering it is about the author of the “Mary Poppins” books, some people may expect it to be a bit like the books – ostensibly sentimental, nostalgic and sweet. I’m hoping it will have some bearing on the truth. The Mary Poppins books were not altogether sweet and cuddly, and neither was P.L. Travers.  Both books and author were products of their times.

How P.L. Travers fought with Disney

“Saving Mr. Banks” is directed by John Lee Hancock from a screenplay written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. It is about the production of the 1964 Walt Disney Studios film version of the first “Mary Poppins” book, by the same name, and stars Emma Thompson (she of “Nanny McPhee”, talk about typecasting!) and Tom Hanks. The film centers on the life of Travers, shifting between 1907 with her childhood in Queensland, Australia, the 1961 negotiations with Walt Disney, and the subsequent making of “Mary Poppins” starring Julie Andrews as the umbrella-wielding Nanny and Dick van Dyke (he of the mock Cockney accent) as the chimney-sweep, Bert. With its romanticised view of a middle-class family in 1910 London, UK, “Mary Poppins” is classic Christmas movie and TV fodder, along with “The Sound of Music“, “Peter Pan”, “The Railway Children” and other children’s favourites. But, there has always been a largely unacknowledged darker side to all these books. They all feature a missing, or withholding, parent or caregiver.

Who is Mary Poppins?

mary poppins, puffin books, 1962Like the militaristic Captain Georg von Trapp in “The Sound of Music”, who summons his children with a whistle to parade them for visitors, the children in all these stories have one thing in common: – they all desperately want approval and affection, and they are willing to put up with a considerable amount of anxiety to get that. In “Mary Poppins”, Mary Poppins is actually not very nice, father Banks is absent and uncaring, and mother Banks is insecure and confused.

As a child, I dreaded being left behind or abandoned, and when my parents took me to see the 1970 children’s film, “The Railway Children” (from the book by Edith Nesbit, 1906), it was one of my worst fears come to life. When their father is wrongfully imprisoned, the children are sent to live in an old village with a railway station, and they wait for him and try to get him back. Even the scene where he finally returns to them on the train, and emerges from the steam at the station with his bags, and the children rush into his arms, could not stop my nightmares. “’Oh! my Daddy, my Daddy!’ That scream went like a knife into the heart of every one in the train, and people put their heads out of the windows to see a tall pale man with lips set in a thin close line, and a little girl clinging to him with arms and legs, while his arms went tightly round her.” (chapter 9) The childen would wave to the train every day, in the hope that the passengers would carry their love back to their father. I believed from then that waving to trains would keep my parents safe.  Even today, as an adult, when I pass a moving train I always wave.

Actress Jenny Agutter reunited with her father played by Iain Cuthbertson, in “The Railway Children” film. Aaaawwww! Sob!!
Actress Jenny Agutter reunited with her father played by Iain Cuthbertson, in “The Railway Children” film. Aaaawwww! Sob!!

The Mary Poppins books played on the most basic fears and needs of children – but also reflected the customs of the time. When I think of Mary Poppins, the nanny, she is not the warm, sweet, huggable person personified by Julie Andrews. Her parenting style is more the cold, calculated, withholding type portrayed in “The Chosen” (Chaim Potok, 1967). In it, Daniel Saunders is being brought up in silence by his Hasidic Jewish father, who does not speak to him or wants to be spoken to by his son, to build his character and teach him empathy. I read this as a teenager, and found it memorable, but horrible. Talk about children being seen but not heard.

Edwardian, authoritarian parenting

Interestingly, these children’s books feature families living at the turn of the century, the early 1900s: “Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”, set in 1904, “The Railway Children” set sometime between 1900 and 1910, and “Mary Poppins”, set around 1910.

Edwardian parents had a formal relationship with their children. Affluent parents hired nannies to raise their children while the men attended to property, careers or taking care of the family financially, and the women got involved with the Suffragette movement, and attended to the couple’s social life and household management. Mothers’ roles in child-rearing had historically been an accepted fact, but in the early 1900s with more men either going off to war or forming part of the new and growing “working class”, fathers’ roles in raising children became less visible and less nurturing. The first half of the 20th century also reflected a more “scientific” approach to child rearing than previous eras, when child rearing was determined by religion, tradition, superstition or societal norms.

P.L. Travers and her adopted son, Camillus.
P.L. Travers and her adopted son, Camillus.

C.B. Stendler, in a study report, “Sixty years of child training practices; revolution in the nursery” (Journal of Pediatrics 02/1950; 36(1), pp.122-34), writes that “the 1890’s [sic] and 1900’s [sic] saw a highly sentimental approach to child rearing; 1910 through the 1930’s witnessed a rigid, disciplinary approach; the 1940’s have emphasized self-regulation and understanding of the child. These sixty years have also seen a swing from emphasis on character development to emphasis on personality development.” In 1928 American Behavioural Psychologist John Broadus Watson  – consistent with some “experts” of his day – wrote “Psychological Care of Infant and Child”, which was both well received and criticised in parts. In it, he warned against using “too much mother love” in child rearing as it may lead to spoilt children. Thinking that showing love and affection is unacceptable was central to the mindset inherent in the authoritarian parenting style, which occurred notably in England in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Parenting practices saw a renewed emphasis on sternness, discipline and morale-building regimens.

Watson wrote:”Let your behaviour always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them [your children], never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task.” Doesn’t that sound exactly like Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins? (J.B. Watson, In Psychological Care of Infant and Child pp. 81-82, in, Bigelow, K.M. and Morris, E.K., John B. Watson’s Advice on Child rearing – some Historical Context”, Behavourial Development Bulletin, Vol. 1, Fall 2001.) Johnson’s advice reflected a generational change from a romantic sentimentality to raising children, to the new generation’s move towards science and technology.

Mr. Banks getting ready for the office , from the illustration by Mary Shepard
Mr. Banks getting ready for the office (illustration by Mary Shepard).

Notably, Watson’s advice on love, affection and the role of the father as a disciplinarian was probably heavily influenced by his own father having deserted the family without warning. The same goes for Travers, who lost her father to influenza when she was only eight years old, and he 43, in 1907 – at the height of the Edwardian era. She was born Helen Lyndon Goff (she was known within her family as Lyndon) in Queensland, Australia. Her father was UK-born Travers Robert Goff, an unsuccessful bank manager who was later demoted to bank clerk. Throughout her Mary Poppins books, there is the theme of the absent, unaffectionate, disapproving father and unloved, needy children who try to gain the affection they miss from caregivers. The first Mary Poppins book opens with this explanation of Mr. Banks’ distance from his off-spring: “…Mr. Banks, who owns it [the house], said to Mrs. Banks that she could either have a nice, clean comfortable house or four children. But not both, for he couldn’t afford it.”

Travers repeated her own unhappy history when she adopted a baby boy named Camillus Hone, one of twins in a family of seven siblings. She refused to take Camillus’ twin brother, Anthony, or any of their other siblings. Camillus was unaware of his true parentage until the age of 17, when Anthony appeared unannounced at Travers’ London home.

Mary Poppins needed a spoonful of sugar herself!

Mary Poppins, the character who is now known as the ideal nanny, is as reserved and disapproving of Jane and Michael Banks as their father was. She makes a point of putting the children in their place as soon as they show signs of being over-confident or outspoken. “’Humph!’, said Mary Poppins grimly….’You needn’t bother,’ Michael informed her confidently. ‘We’ve all grown two inches. Daddy measured us.’ ‘Stand straight, please!’ Mary Poppins said calmly. She measured Michael from his head to his feet and gave a long sniff. ‘I might have known it!’ she said, snorting. ‘You’ve grown Worse and Worse.’” (from “Mary Poppins Open the Door”).

Jane and Michael being measured, from the Disney film
Jane and Michael being measured, from the Disney film – the book’s Mary Poppins was not as pretty as Julie Andrews.

She isn’t nice-looking either, being described as “rather like a wooden Dutch doll…thin, with large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes” (p.14), though she smells nicely of starch and toast. And she sniffs a lot because she is supercilious and thinks of herself as infinitely superior to other, more timid, people and especially to children. She does not give references, puts her own satisfaction first, and calls herself “practically perfect in every way”. She is also completely dishonest. When she has strange adventures with the children, and they tell other adults about it, she simply denies it ever happening. She is the ultimate disciplinarian: “But Mary Poppins’ eyes were fixed upon him, and Michael suddenly discovered that you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.” (p. 18)

Jane and Michael feel drawn towards her because, on arrival, she seems to make a deliberate decision that they “will do” and that she will stay with them. Having been chosen is enough for the children, who had been deserted by countless nannies, and their parents in other ways. “’Mary Poppins,’ he [Michael] cried, ’you’ll never leave us, will you?’ There was no reply from under the nightgown. Michael could not bear it. ‘You won’t leave us will you?’ he called out anxiously. …Mary Poppins stared from him to Jane in silence. Then she sniffed. ‘I’ll stay until the wind changes,’ she said shortly.” (p.20) Mary Poppins continues in this way through all eight of the books, from the first one in 1934, through “Mary Poppins Comes Back”, 1935, to no. 8, “Mary Poppins and the House Next Door”, 1989.

She looked like a wooden Dutch doll.
She looked like a wooden Dutch doll (illustration by Mary Shepard).

(I was oddly reminded by this god-like adoration the children have for her, of an Afrikaans children’s book series of the 1940s and 1950s, set in a posh private boarding school, called the “Keurboslaan” series. Stella Blakemore wrote the series of extremely popular books under the name Theunis Krogh, about the reserved, sensitive, but brilliant young “Dr. Roelof Serfontein”, who despite being a millionaire, becomes the headmaster of “Keurboslaan” school. The book depicts the political and social ideals of Afrikaners in those days – Keurboslaan is an Afrikaans Eton with a superman as headmaster and replacement father figure to all the boys. Again, Serfontein is a man who shows no emotion and remains distant from all the children, including his own.)

Disney left out the darker side – so Travers got difficult

Mary Poppins places the children in fantastical  – sometimes rather dark – situations where they learn various lessons in reasoning and behaviour. Through the changes in the children themselves, and the side-effects of these adventures, Mr. and Mrs. Banks eventually become more demonstrably loving – but they also lose stature in the process. When Mary Poppins leaves the Banks family at the end of the first book, Michael blames his mother and says to her: “You are a very cruel woman.” Mary Poppins, however, never falls off her pedestal: “Away through the sky streaked the shining spark [Mary Poppins], cleaving a path through the darkness. And as they watched it, every heart was filled with sudden sweetness. ‘My dear Love,’ Mr. Banks said tenderly, as he touched Mrs. Banks’ cheek. And they put their arms around each other and wished on the star. Jane and Michael held their breath as the sweetness brimmed up within them. And the thing they wished was that all their lives they might remember Mary Poppins…Mary Poppins herself had flown away, but the gifts she had brought would remain for always.” (“Mary Poppins Opens The Door”, p. 256, last lines)

Lots of Mary Poppinses flying away with their umbrellas in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. I’m certain half the world had no idea what that meant!
Lots of Mary Poppinses flying away with their umbrellas in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. I’m certain half the world had no idea what that meant!

The Mary Poppins series was illustrated by Mary Shepard, in a style very similar to that used by her father, Ernest H. Shepard, illustrator of the “Winnie-The-Pooh” books. The illustrations are what I visualize when I think of the books, not so much Julie Andrews and the film. However, I still know all the words to every single song in the film. Perhaps because the film was so much lighter, warmer and more cheerful than the books, and the songs so catchy, that I, and generations of families, seldom think about the darker undertones of the books.

Obviously, P.L. Travers also noticed the chasm of differences between Disney’s treatment and her original material – which is why she disapproved of the dilution of the harsher aspects of Mary Poppins’ character, felt ambivalent about the music, and so hated the use of animation that she ruled out any further adaptations of the later Mary Poppins novels. At the film’s star-studded premiere (to which she was not invited, but had to ask Walt Disney for permission to attend), she reportedly approached Disney and told him that the animated sequence had to go. Disney responded by walking away, saying as he did, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” Enraged at what she considered shabby treatment at Disney’s hands, Travers would never again agree to another Poppins/Disney adaptation, though Disney made several attempts to persuade her to change her mind.

P.L. Travers astutely realized that it is the longing for something unattainable, which makes its attainment all the sweeter. It is the children’s longing for love, and their fear of her leaving, that make her return to them, and her stinting affection, all the more precious. This might explain why, after all these years, Mary Poppins is still such a much-loved character.

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