Not Exactly a Spoonful of Sugar: Mary Poppins Comes Back

“Remember, there’s balloons and balloons, and one for everybody! Take your choice and take your time. There’s many a child got the wrong balloon and his life was never the same after.”

–Mary Poppins Comes Back

Without Mary Poppins around, the Banks family is not doing very well. To the point where Mr. Banks finds that his servant has polished his hat with boot polish, which is not a very nice thing to do with a hat. I would probably have more sympathy if this incident did not also reveal that Mr. Banks never brushes his own hats. Moving on, Mr. Banks, unappreciative of the good things in his life, announces that he’s going to move out, like, now. More importantly, a series of nannies and governesses have come and gone, things in the house are falling apart, and Mrs. Brill would like you to know that the kitchen is on fire. In an astounding display of just how much times have changed, Mrs. Banks sends her four children off to the park without any adult supervision whatsoever. In an astounding display of just how much times have remained the same, this is because Mrs. Banks is in desperate need of peace and quiet. And, of course, Mary Poppins.

Fortunately enough, Mary Poppins Comes Back in an even more spectacular fashion than in her last, windswept arrival, allowing young Michael to snag her on his kite.

Not that Mary Poppins is entirely pleased. Her thermometer reveals that while she has been away, Jane has been careless, thoughtless and untidy; Michael has been very noisy, mischievous and troublesome; John has been peevish and excitable; and Barbara is thoroughly spoilt. It’s an unpromising beginning. Plus, as Mary Poppins announces almost immediately, she’s not staying forever—why would she, really?—although she’ll stay until the chain holding her locket breaks.

Matters are not helped by the arrival of Mr. Banks’ old governess, Miss Andrews, who makes the dire mistake of criticizing Mary Poppins and even—gulp—calling Mary Poppins impertinent. Or by Jane finding herself actually inside a Royal Doulton bowl, playing with the boys painted on the surface—and trapped inside their home beyond the image preserved in the bowl. Or their visit to Mary Poppins’ cousin, Mr. Turvy, who should have been born a girl, but wasn’t, which means that second Mondays don’t go well for him; if he wants to be in, he’s out, if he wants to go up, he goes down. It makes only a little more sense when you read it in the book.

On the bright side, a new baby, Annabel, has arrived; Mary Poppins has been convinced to tell the story of the King of the Castle; the children are about to learn something quite special about their servant boy, Robertson Ay; a shooting star is about to take Jane and Michael to a circus in the sky; everyone is about to be lifted to the sky on a balloon; and Mary Poppins is taking the children to go visit Noah’s Ark and help bring back Spring.

And once again, Mary Poppins shows that she’s not above telling a few untruths when necessary—for example, when she once again firmly denies that she and the children have ever had any magical adventures at all, despite the physical evidence that the said adventures have left behind.

And speaking of “once again,” the chapters in this book occasionally feel a bit repetitive because, well, they are a bit repetitive, more or less following the pattern of the first book, with only slight variations. This time, for instance, it’s Jane, not Michael, who misbehaves and gets drawn into a terrifying world and needs Mary Poppins to rescue her; the baby who can understand the language of the wind and the birds is Annabel, instead of John and Barbara; the fairy tale is about the King of the Castle instead of the Red Cow, and so on. A few of the corresponding chapters have been omitted, but not many.

And for the most part, these tend to be surface changes only: many of the characters end up feeling exactly the same, or even being exactly the same—the Starling, for example, pops up in both the John and Barbara chapter of the first book and the Annabel chapter of the second book, saying more or less the exact same things and having more or less the exact same reaction to watching the three babies grow up.

Fortunately, in a couple of cases, I think the stories here are better than their counterparts in the first book: Jane’s story of getting drawn into the Doulton Bowl is not only more detailed, but also contains several parallels to Jane’s real life, and helps Jane to accept her role in the Banks family.

Annabel’s story, which always saddened me when I was a kid, and saddens me now, is far richer than John and Barbara’s story in the first book. In rich, supple, language, Annabel tells the Starling just how she arrived in this world: one of the few times in this book Pamela Travers reaches for and manages poetry. Like John and Barbara in the first book, Annabel is convinced she will always remember, and for a moment, the reader is convinced: how can anyone forget a journey like that? But only for a moment. The bird tells her the truth: everyone, except for Mary Poppins, forgets all of that: the earth, the fire, the water, the darkness, the sea, forgetting who they are and where they come from. Sure enough, Annabel forgets, even with the Starling and I hoping she will remember.

It’s ok, Annabel. I think. After all, Michael just turned six, which comparatively speaking is very old indeed, and he can still travel to circuses up in the stars. Even if it all feels so unfair.

It’s not the only moment where Travers reminds us that for all the magic she allows in this book, her world also contains deep and not so deep moments of unfairness. I am still annoyed, years later, to find that John and Barbara have to share a balloon instead of getting their own individual balloons. Sure, they are twins, but EVERYONE ELSE, even the dogs, gets a separate balloon and it just feels ALL WRONG.

The book also contains more romantic pairings than I remembered—Mr. Turvy and Miss Tartlet, who becomes Mrs. Turvy by the end of the book; the Prime Minister and Lady Muriel Brighton-Jones (although, Prime Minister, given that Lady Muriel is not even aware of your marital status, you might want to spend time catching her up on your political stances before marriage); and even Mary Poppins and the Sun. That relationship might be doomed from the get-go—they can barely touch—but the Sun clearly has fairly strong Feelings, going to the point of summoning all of the constellations together for a great circus performed as Mary Poppins sits in the Royal Box. (You more scientific types might just want to handwave this as a hallucination brought on by eating far too much tapioca pudding.) Mary Poppins also seems to have something going with the Match Man, and a few others follow her with very admiring eyes. Well, she is Mary Poppins. And if a romance with the sun feels slightly far-fetched—well, we were suggesting last time that she just might be a deity, and they, of course, can have passionate relationships with suns.

The book has a couple of oddities—for instance, the way baby Annabel, once introduced, suddenly vanishes from the last few pages. I understand that it would be difficult to take a baby on a Merry-Go-Round when you are about to take off on a magical adventure again, but is no one watching that poor baby at home? Other than that Starling? Even worse, a few pages after I was wondering about this, Mary Poppins leaves a message for the children showing that yes, she’s aware of Annabel’s existence. Maybe Mrs. Banks stepped up to the occasion to try some mothering again.

Which, honestly, she needs to. She’s mostly absent in this book—even more so than in the previous book, where she does interact with her children from time and time and we are assured that she loves them. Granted, in this book, she is pregnant for half of it and the servants she is supposedly overseeing are, Mary Poppins aside, not exactly stepping up to the job.

Still, Mary Poppins, for all of her competency, skill, and magical adventures becomes still more terrifying and cruel in this book. The arrogance and self-satisfaction are dialed up to eleven in this book, with the poor little kids having to wait in the cold while Mary Poppins admires her own beauty and neatness in the shop mirror. Also dialed up to 11: Mary Poppins ability to say cruel things to her charges. Travers frequently attaches the word “jeering” to the remarks aimed at the children, and they are often quite cruel indeed. And that’s before we consider that Mary Poppins constantly accuses the children of lying about the magical adventures she’s taken them on, leaving them too terrified to say a word to anyone except each other. This book only strengthens my conviction that, however marvelous Mary Poppins might be, the Banks children are going to end up completely messed up. And I mean completely, given that Mrs. Brill seems to be the most steady presence in their lives, which is not really saying much.

In an interview, P.L. Travers claimed that one strength of Mary Poppins is that she’s so ordinary. Maybe, although Mary Poppins herself would certainly be offended by this description. Granted, Mary Poppins can certainly do ordinary things—she does laundry, serves food, takes the children on walks, goes shopping with a full pound note, buying quite ordinary items. And even her most magical adventures often start with quite ordinary items: china, balloons and kites, for instance. (I’d add stars since they can be seen by pretty much everyone outside of major metropolitan areas on cloudless nights, but, stars aren’t ordinary, so I’m not adding them.) A hint, perhaps, that magic can be found in quite ordinary things.

Still, I expect that her creator was the only person who did find Mary Poppins ordinary: several characters treat her with complete respect, even awe—characters who on their own are entirely magical creatures that most humans would treat with complete respect, even awe—along with nearly every adult character Mary Poppins encounters, with the understandable exception of the frustrated Park Keeper. It mirrors, in a way, the attitude that many young children have towards their parents, but the situation is slightly different for Jane and Michael and John and Barbara, since they have no hopes of becoming the equals of Mary Poppins—or even close.

In the discussion of the last book we mentioned gaslightling and potential emotional abuse: that’s certainly all over this book as well, along with the certainty of never being able to measure up. And yet, none of that has any effect on Jane and Michael’s adoration of Mary Poppins (we don’t get to hear much from the twins in this book.) Nor did it affect readers, who demanded another Mary Poppins book.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida. She is mildly obsessed with fairy tales.


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