Book Review

from Pooka 34 by Ruth Berman ,
for the June 1996 Once Upon a Time apa #34.

(This review appeared in the March 1992 Mythprint . . . I am reprinting the review now in memory of P.L. Travers, August 9, 1899-April 23, 1996.)

reproduced on these web pages by permission of the author--ddl

[publishing info note: Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane. Dell Yearling softcover, 1982, $1.95. 91 pp. I don't have info on the hardcover price. Mary Poppins and the House Next Door. Delacorte Press, hardcover, 1988, $12.95. 93 pp. What the Bee Knows, Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story, Aquarian Press, softcover, 1989; distributed by Harper & Row, $14.95. 303 pp. All by P. L. Travers. Reviewed by Ruth Berman.]

The Mary Poppins books have been popular ever since Mary Poppins appeared in 1934. But the publication of new Mary Poppins writings by P. L. Travers hasn't been noticed much. They make up a graceful, endearing, slightly melancholy coda to the series.

I wonder if the inspiration to return to Cherry Tree Lane came as a side benefit to protests against racism. Originally, the series was three books - Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back, 1935, and Mary Poppins Opens the Door, 1943; and in 1952 came Mary Poppins in the Park, a collection of incidents meant to take place during the original three, rather than a sequel. And that was it, except for the Mary Poppins ABC Book (1962). But then in 1981, Travers revised the "Bad Tuesday" chapter of MP, in which Mary Poppins took the children to the four points of a magic compass, where they met stereotype Eskimos, Blacks, Chinese, and American Indians. The Eskimo, Chinese, and Indian stereotypes don't give much offense - they give some, because the presentation of groups as quaintly exotic tends to turn them into toys, but the objection is slight compared to the stereotyping which presents Blacks as apparently stupid, unable to master the language they speak. ("You bring dem chillun dere into ma li'l house for a slice of water-melon right now.") It's to Travers' credit that although she didn't see why the affectionately-intended stereotypes should give offense, she realized that those who said the stereotypes were offensive were dealing with an important issue. She revised the chapter so that the compass points are represented by a Polar Bear, a Macaw (south), a Panda (east), and a Dolphin (west). And Mary Shepard, the original illustrator, changed the illustration of the compass points accordingly. Shepard (the daughter of E. H. Shepard, the Pooh illustrator) illustrated all of the Poppins books (although in the American editions of MP Opens the Door, some drawings were by Agnes Sim, after wartime travel restrictions prevented the arrival of the originals). This fifty-year collaboration of author and illustrator must be almost unprecedented. Shepard drew herself and Travers into the "Balloons and Balloons" chapter of MP Comes Back, soaring together into the air on magical balloons, and that professional companionship has endured.

Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane appeared in 1982. It corresponds to the three chapters in the original threesome, "Full Moon," "Evening Out," and "High Tide," in which Mary Poppins brings Jane and Michael to see that they're one with nature, all turning in the dance of the Grand Chain: one with earth, sky, and sea. The Full Moon governs the earthly zoo and the "High Tide," and appears again in the "Evening Out" starry circus. (In MP in the Park, in the corresponding chapter, "Halloween," the Full Moon falls on the eve of Mary Poppins' birthday, which is Halloween, and the children join a revel of all shadows.) In MP in Cherry Tree Lane, the same unity is shown with the metaphor reversed. Instead of having the children go to the stars, on Midsummer's Night's Eve, the stars come down to Earth to delight in the fruits of the Earth, specifically, the cherries of Cherry Tree Lane and the herbs in the Herb Garden within the Park. Travers includes a bow to Australia, where she was born and grew up, by including the Fox and Goose, the Hare, and the Dove, along with such more northerly constellations as Orion, the Bear, and the Twins, among the Midsummer visitors.

Mary Poppins and the House Next Door (1988) corresponds to the chapters in earlier books in which Mary Poppins visits her anarchic relations, Uncle Albert Wigg ("Laughing Gas," MP), and Cousins Arthur Turvy ("Topsy Turvy, MP Comes Back), Fred Twigley ('MT Twigley's Wishes," MP Opens the Door), and Samuel Mo ("The Park in the Park," MP in the Park). Mary Poppins and her family represent powers of soaring imagination, and they are opposed by ploddingly sensible humans. The most regular opponent of Mary Poppins is the weakest, the Park-Keeper, who vainly tries to make people keep off the grass and obey the by-laws. The most fearsome opponent is the reverse of the "nurse" (or "nurserymaid," in Americanese) Mary Poppins, the governess Euphemia Andrews, the Holy Terror. In "Miss Andrew's Lark" (MP Comes Back), she stomps into Cherry Tree Lane, with a caged lark for company. Mary Poppins frees the lark and banishes Miss Andrews. Miss Andrews is seen again in 'High Tide' (MP Opens the Door), when the angler-fish pull her beneath the sea, and in 'The Faithful Friends" (MP in the Park) she sends a box of souvenirs to Cherry Tree Lane for safe-keeping, because her doctor has ordered her to take a South Seas voyage to recover from "some sort of a shock." In MP and the House Next Door, she has made her way back from the South Seas, bringing Luti, a boy from the Islands, with her, as she moves into the house next door. Mary Poppins takes Luti and the children to her uncle, the Man in the Moon, to be guided home. This Moon, following an old tradition (as in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso), is the jumbled repository of all lost things. Miss Andrews is banished again, leaving the neighborhood free to people the empty house again with imaginary friends.

Since 1976, when Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition began publication, Travers has been a regular contributor and consultant editor. In 1989, a collection of her essays from Parabola (with a few from other sources) was published as What the Bee Knows, Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story. To readers used to thinking of Mary Poppins as a spirit as English as Tolkien's Farmer Giles, it's surprising that she was born and grew up in Australia, the child of an Irish father and a Scottish/Irish mother, and her literary allegiance was to Yeats, AE, and the Celtic Twilight. Her first submissions to British editors were poems to AE, then editor of The Irish Statesman. One of the essays in the collection, "The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic" (from The Celtic Consciousness, ed. R. 0. Driscoll, 1981), is a loving tribute to his generous encouragement.

In one of the essays, Travers borrows the terminology of Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories," and briefly discusses his work, in "The Primary World" (for an issue of Parabola with a theme of "The Child"). She much admires his essay, but feels doubtful about his fiction, feeling that the use of mythology in it is an over-intellectual invention, too removed from the direct emotional understanding of the folktale to work. (Some further comments on Tolkien's fiction come in "Where Will All the Stories Go?, a conversation between Laurens van der Post and P. L. Travers," making the same point.) It isn't clear if she would apply the same criticism to her own fiction. Maybe she wouldn't. In essays and interviews when she's asked about the origin of Mary Poppins, she says that she did not invent her, and has no idea where she comes from. "The Interviewer" (for an issue with a theme of "The Creative Response") is an amusing account of her difficulties dealing with an interviewer who insists that Mary Poppins must "come from somewhere," and waves aside as frivolous Travers' question, "Why not from nowhere?" Trying to answer him, Travers remembered a story she told her younger siblings about a magic horse, for consolation when their mother was annoyed with them, and how hard it was for her to deal with the anger she felt at her mother for this momentary rejection. Looking back, suddenly she could rejoice that the grief had been temporary, and marveled that the magic horse could do so much to bring happiness from sorrow. But meantime the interviewer had left, she said, and so she could not tell him, and it wouldn't have been an answer anyway, for it wouldn't have explained where the horse came from, she points out, for, as C. S. Lewis said in a letter, 'There is only one Creator and we merely mix the elements He gives us." (See Lewis' letter to Sister Penelope, C.S.M.V., Feb. 20, 1943, Letters, p. 203.) She adds that the statement is "less simple than it seems," for the "mixing" is essential, too, and remains a mystery even to the mixer.

Similarly, in an earlier essay, "Only Connect" (a speech, first printed in the Library of Congress Quarterly Journal, 1967), she tries to talk specifically on the topic of "How Mary Poppins came to be written," and, finding herself at a loss, sidesteps to her development as a lover of books and, especially, of myths and fairy tales and the ways their images keep connecting, in spite of immense differences of tone and topic. (For instance, she realized after she had written her 'Halloween" chapter, with the invitation to the shadows' revel inscribed on falling autumn leaves, that what she was describing was "Sybilline leaves.")

The collection of essays will be of special interest to all who are interested in myth and fantasy, and all three of the books to those who love "Mary Poppins."

This review appeared in the March 1992 Mythprint; P.L. Travers sent a correction, in a letter printed in the Aug/Sept 1992 Mythprint: in "The Interview" the mother's feeling was not anger, but grief at her recent widowhood. I am reprinting the review now in memory of P.L. Travers, August 9, 1899-April 23, 1996.

[And having mentioned E H. Shepard, A. A. Milne's illustrator in it, I also want to make note of the death of Christopher Robin Milne, 1920-April 20, 1996, the original of Christopher Robin. After reading the obituary notice in the paper, I found all that day I had a tune running through my head. It took me some time to realize what I was humming --it was:

Christopher Robin, good-bye,
And all your friends
Sends -
I mean all your friend
Send -
(Very awkward, this, it keeps going wrong)
Well, anyhow, we send
Our love

He seems to have been gracious in life about the difficulties of being forever a small boy to readers, so I suppose he wouldn't have minded too much that death can't free him from the Enchanted Place any more than growing up did. --RB]

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