Estranging the Nursery – Mary Poppins

Despite its Disneyfication, the novel of P.L. Travers is a fantastic fairy tale combining a fairy tale with a remaking of a happier England. Born Queensland in 1906, Travers left for England during the 1920s. Mary Poppins was first published in 1937 and is a wonderful wish fulfillment fantasy where the Banks’ family are taken over by the mysterious nanny who appears on the East Wind, feted to stay until the wind changes (Chocolat by Joanne Harris now seems a little like an echo of this).

The Banks family are down at luck on the street which they live on, living in the smallest, shabbiest house. They need a Nanny for the four children and Poppins appears out of the blue, taking charge of Mrs Banks and effectively displacing her from the children. She is there, as she makes perfectly clear, on a needs basis which is part of her mystery. The Nanny extends the absent mother of children’s fiction.

Despite her benign appearance, the Nanny is a fierce character swiftly whipping the children into shape and is noticeably short with them.  I wonder how much this reflects her own childhood where her fierce aunt occasionally looked after the children.

The picaresque adventures revisit the landscape around her with the hyperbolic waiter who says Moddom in the street painting and the take of the dancing cow who echoes the nursery tale.  She inverts the world for Poppins’ birthday where the humans are fed by the animals and in that moment, the world becomes deeply unsettling. It forces the reader to see England from Travers’s own perspective as an outsider.

The middle class domestic idyll is made deeply unsettling as Nanny becomes an ogre. Yet Michael and Jane develop and are noticeably stronger characters by the end of the book.

Its definitely worth a look at on its own.

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