Retreating to the Familiar: Mary Poppins Opens the Door

In 1943, during some of the darkest days of World War II, Pamela Travers finally bowed to the insistence of her publishers and produced another Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins Opens the Door.

Despite the war, however, the book is an almost defiant look back towards a more peaceful past, with only one bit—a fairy tale about a cat choosing to look at a king—providing any type of wartime commentary, and that, only indirectly. In this, Mary Poppins Opens the Door stands out from other books in children’s fantasy series that appeared during this period (for example, the Freddy the Pig and Oz books) which did directly mention the war, either within the text or in endpapers. It’s a story that wants to remind us that no matter what, we still have magic.

But somehow—perhaps because of the war looming in the background—it doesn’t quite succeed.

Incidentally, this is one Mary Poppins book where the American and British editions contain very distinct openings: the British edition plunges right into the story, while the American edition contains a lengthy explanation of Guy Fawkes Day. As a kid who originally encountered the British edition without a clue about Guy Fawkes Day (we had very, very few American texts in Italy) I can say that the explanation was completely unnecessary. In the context of the story, it doesn’t really matter: it’s a reason to shoot off fireworks, and that’s really everything the reader needs to know.

The explanation is also one place where Travers, at least, greatly misjudged her American audience, in her insistence that Guy Fawkes is remembered today while his target, King James, is forgotten. That is doubtless true in Britain, but over on this side of the pond, I suspect that most people don’t remember either one. If they do recognize either name, it’s slightly more likely to be King James thanks to his association with the King James Bible.

Anyway. After the bit about Guy Fawkes, the book follows the now familiar pattern: we meet the Banks family and their three servants again, a household in complete chaos since the last departure of Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins makes another inexplicable descent from the sky, and once again firmly denies that she in fact did this—it’s not respectable, and she’s insulted by the very suggestion—despite distinct physical evidence to the contrary. We visit another one of Mary Poppins’ very respectable relatives, this one with the ability to have all of his wishes granted if, “That is, if I wish on the first New Moon, after the second Wet Sunday, after the Third of May,” a set of conditions that suggests that this wishing ability doesn’t appear that frequently, fortunately enough given the consequences. Between wishing, he focuses on creating extremely magical and delightful music boxes—so magical I am astonished that between the boxes and the wishes, he’s not far, far wealthier, although like most of Mary Poppins’ relatives he seems largely content to remain happily middle-class.

Total sidenote: I just realized I can’t bring myself to call Mary Poppins “Mary” or “Miss Poppins,” even though characters in the book do so all the time. Perhaps this says something about me. Anyway. Back to the repetition.

Once again Mary Poppins chooses to tell a long fairytale, this time about a Cat that Looked at a King, right after Michael’s toy china cat has leapt up to go visit the Queen. Presumably either Queen Elizabeth—later the Queen Mum—who I like to think would have taken the arrival of a magical, moving porcelain cat in stride, or Queen Mary, who seems to have been all too dignified for this sort of thing. Actually in rechecking the text I see that I am wrong: the cat may indeed be heading to Buckingham Palace, but not to meet any ordinary British royals, oh no: this cat is meeting a nursery rhyme queen, who, with all due respect to the Windsors, is far more important.

We have another trip to the Park in the sheltering presence of Mary Poppins, who allows a statue to come to life, if just for one hour—an hour which suggests that Mary Poppins has a softer side, at least for statues, if not for the poor oppressed Park Keeper, who can’t approve of any of these goings-on—and who retains a sharp memory of her previous trips to the park. We meet another one of Mary Poppins’ cheerful friends, a Miss Calico, who sells peppermint sticks for one pin each, sticks that—just like the balloons in the previous book—allow everyone who gets one to soar into the sky. Once again Jane and Michael find themselves at a magical celebration held on Mary Poppins’ Day Off, which, we are told, almost never coincides with High Tide, where Mary Poppins is the Guest of Honor. (Annoyingly, it seems to take Jane and Michael forever to figure out that Mary Poppins is in attendance. Have they learned nothing from the previous two books? More about this later.) And once again, Mary Poppins leaves as mysteriously as she arrived.

Nor have the characters changed much: Jane and Michael still swing between sulkiness and enchantment, with Jane continuing to be ever so slightly more observant and intelligent than the younger Michael. Mr. Banks continues to complain; Mrs. Banks remains largely ineffectual. Twins John and Barbara remain non-entities, and Annabel, after a moment of characterization in the last book, is reduced to a complete prop in this one. Ellen continues to sniff and conduct her proper and exasperatingly slow romance with the Policeman, and although Mrs. Brill has now learned to welcome Mary Poppins, she still hasn’t managed to gain a single admirer in a series that likes to hook up even minor characters. Poor Mrs. Brill. And where the first book had introduced Mary Poppins herself, and the second book had introduced Annabel in a rather magical chapter, this book is oddly static: at the end of the book, everyone is mostly back to where they were in the beginning, although Jane and Michael, a little bit older, are certain that they will hold on to their memories of magic.

Though one thing has changed: this book has even more moments of cruelty than the previous two, particularly in the High Tide chapter, where for no particular reason some completely innocent unnamed side characters (and one not at all innocent minor character) find themselves dragged to the sea. It’s even worse than the analogous scene in the first book, where various humans had found themselves getting fed by animals in the zoo, because those humans had screwed up by not following park rules. Not so with these humans.

Characters had certainly suffered before in the Mary Poppins books, often unfairly so, but usually only after they had done something naughty or rude or after they had annoyed Mary Poppins. In this case, however, the humans haven’t done anything to deserve getting caught by angler fish. Then again, it’s not at all clear that angler fish caught by humans deserve that either, which may be part of the point.

Another incident leaves Mr. Banks so terrified that he almost needs to be taken to a hospital. Mary Poppins spends even more time jeering at the children—Travers’ word, not mine. The Park Keeper seems even closer to a complete breakdown.

Was this cruelty a reflection of the events around her? Perhaps, although the Mary Poppins books had always been cruel. But Travers’ decision to virtually copy the plot of her previous book chapter by chapter, and the lack of what I can only call urgency within the book, can probably be blamed on the war: Travers was too distracted to dream up new plots, and more importantly, it seems she did not really want anything to happen in this book. She wanted to escape back into that world. As a result, for all of its magical events, it’s a book where very little happens.

Which means that for all its magic, the book ends up feeling repetitive and uninspired—particularly in the Peppermint Stick and underwater episodes, which are almost identical to their analogous chapters in the previous book.

Though Travers does take the opportunity to drop in a few more hints about Mary Poppins’ very definitely extraordinary, perhaps almost otherworldly, origins. It’s not just that her relatives are magical, or that she’s on excellent terms with Noah and on friendly if not outright romantic terms with the Sun, as we learned in previous books. Here, we find out that one of her relatives is Methuselah’s grandfather (I was going to go look up Genesis to find out who this was, and then remembered that Methuselah also in theory would have had an unnamed maternal grandparents and also that it really doesn’t matter much). One character finally explains the impossibility of Mary Poppins: she is a fairy tale come to life. That does explain quite a lot, particularly about Mary Poppins’ relatives.

Though for all its fairy tale aspect, one chapter, “The Cat That Looked at a King,” contains some surprisingly sharp social commentary about world leaders focused on trivialities instead of the general welfare of their subjects, along with some wise words about life. (Though if you ask me, Mary Poppins, gravity and the electromagnetic force are both stronger than Patience. Gravity, in particular.)

And in the final chapter, Travers does deliver something new: a reunion of all of the magical characters from the three previous books, as the friends and relatives of Mary Poppins gather to say good-bye, in a scene bursting with magic. It’s a lovely nod to the previous books, and, Travers believed, a firm good-bye to the entire series. Surely she would never write another Mary Poppins book again.

She was, of course, completely wrong. But those later books were merely collections of short stories set within the times of the previous books, briefer than the three main books, so I will not be blogging about them here. The next major transformation with Mary Poppins came from a little movie produced by Walt Disney.

One quick word of warning: the American edition currently most widely available contains a few words in the first chapter that are reflective of attitudes in the period, but which parents may find offensive, perhaps especially since the character receiving the racial insults is, as careful readers may note, in blackface.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, with two cats who are more than willing to look at royalty when needed, as long as this doesn’t interrupt their naps.


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