P.L. Travers’s original nanny came complete with cannibalism, verbal abuse, and perpetual gaslighting.
“I hate Mary Poppins.”
This is what my 10-year-old daughter said as soon as I read the final words of the famous novel by P.L. Travers and closed the book. And I wholeheartedly agreed with her.
Compared to the Disney version of the whimsical, stern-but-softhearted nanny at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane, the P.L. Travers Mary Poppins was a stark, terrifying contrast. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t even the tiniest twinkle in her eye.
Here is a passage from the final chapter of the novel that perfectly illustrates her character:
“Look, Jane, look!” [Michael] cried, and held out his hand. Within it lay Mary Poppins’s compass, with the disc frantically swinging round the arrow as it trembled in Michael’s shaking hand.
“The compass?” said Jane, and looked at him questioningly.
Michael suddenly burst into tears.
“She gave it to me,” he wept. “She said I could have it all for myself now. Oh, oh, there must be something wrong! What is going to happen? She has never given me anything before.”
“Perhaps she was only being nice,” said Jane to soothe him, but in her heart she felt as disturbed as Michael was. She knew very well that Mary Poppins never wasted time in being nice.
And yet, strange to say, during that afternoon Mary Poppins never said a cross word. Indeed, she hardly said a word at all. She seemed to be thinking very deeply, and when they asked questions she answered them in a faraway voice. At last Michael could bear it no longer.
“Oh, do be cross, Mary Poppins! Do be cross again! It is not like you. Oh, I feel so anxious.”
Yes, that’s right. Michael was anxious because Mary Poppins was being nice to him and she was never nice! The poor kid was terrified because his nanny gave him something. He probably thought that the compass was a ticking time bomb, that the evil Mary Poppins had finally decided to off him for good!
Trust me, if you’d read the rest of the book, you wouldn’t blame him one bit for thinking that.
Let’s talk about the cannibalism
(You think I’m joking. Oh, how I wish I were.)
In Chapter Eight, to conclude an absolutely miserable shopping outing that poor Jane and Michael have endured at the hands of their dictator-like nanny, Mary Poppins takes them to visit the truly terrifying Mrs. Corry.
Their first tip-off that Mrs. Corry might not be such a nice person is the fact that her two unusually large daughters hear her coming and,
At the sound of it the expression on the faces of Miss Fannie and Miss Annie, sad before, became even sadder. They seemed frightened and ill at ease, and somehow Jane and Michael realised that the two huge sisters were wishing that they were much smaller and less conspicuous.
The red flags were waving, and for good reason. When Mrs. Corry approached the twins’ stroller (in the book Jane and Michael have twin baby siblings named John and Barbara) she did what P.L. Travers describes as “a very odd thing:”
She broke off two of her fingers and gave one each to John and Barbara. And the oddest part of it was that in the space left by the broken-off fingers two new ones grew at once. Jane and Michael clearly saw it happen.
I can’t imagine why that didn’t make it into the Disney film.
But the best part is Mary Poppins’s reaction.
“Anything you give them, Mrs. Corry, could only do them good,” said Mary Poppins with most surprising courtesy.
Okay, two things here:
- Mary Poppins is clearly quite pleased with her charges being introduced to cannibalism at such a young age.
- Travers again notes that Mary Poppins showing courtesy to anyone is “most surprising.”
The joy of verbal abuse
Let’s go back to Mrs. Corry for just a moment, shall we? Let’s revisit this bosom buddy of Mary Poppins’s, and talk for a minute about how she treats her daughters.
After screaming at them for not offering Jane and Michael any gingerbread, one began trying to explain that they “only thought–” and Mrs. Corry says,
“You only thought! That is very kind of you. But I will thank you not to think. I can do all the thinking that is necessary here!” said Mrs. Corry in her soft, terrible voice. Then she burst into a harsh cackle of laughter.
“Look at her! Just look at her! Cowardly-custard! Cry-baby!” she shrieked, pointing her knotty finger at her daughter.
Jane and Michael turned and saw a large tear coursing down Miss Annie’s huge, sad face, but they did not like to say anything, for in spite of her tininess, Mrs. Corry made them feel rather small and frightened.
So…yeah. Mary Poppins is standing by quietly while Jane and Michael observe her friend verbally abuse her daughters (and, judging by Mary’s reaction to Mrs. Corry’s “gift” to the twins, probably also looking on in smug approval).
But wait– it gets better. Check out how Mrs. Corry treats Jane and Michael:
“Now, my darlings,” said Mrs. Corry in quite a different voice. She smiled and beckoned so sweetly to Jane and Michael that they were ashamed of having been frightened of her, and felt that she must be very nice after all.
Um, can you say gaslighting?
And the gaslighting continues…
Speaking of gaslighting, Mary Poppins herself does a spectacular job of it after their visit with her Uncle Albert (referred to in the book as Mr. Wigg), an outing which was well-documented in the movie version.
“How often does your Uncle get like that?”
“Like what?” said Mary Poppins sharply, as though Michael had deliberately said something to offend her.
“Well– all bouncy and boundy and laughing and going up in the air.”
“Up in the air?” Mary Poppins’s voice was high and angry. “What do you mean, pray, up in the air?”
Jane tried to explain.
“Michael means– is your Uncle often full of Laughing Gas, and does he often go rolling and bobbing about on the ceiling when–”
“Rolling and bobbing! What an idea! Rolling and bobbing on the ceiling! You’ll be telling me next he’s a balloon!” Mary Poppins gave an offended sniff.
“But he did!” said Michael. “We saw him.”
“What, roll and bob? How dare you! I’ll have you know that my uncle is a sober, honest, hard-working man, and you’ll be kind enough to speak of him respectfully. And don’t bite your Bus ticket! Roll and bob, indeed– the idea!”
Michael and Jane looked across at Mary Poppins at each other. They said nothing, for they had learnt that it was better not to argue with Mary Poppins, no matter how odd anything seemed.
Here Jane and Michael had just had a roaring good time with Mr. Wigg, had laughed harder than they had ever laughed in their lives, and now rather than enjoy that warm, lovely afterglow of a happy memory with them, Mary Poppins does everything in her power to shut them down, to dismiss one of the happiest, most magical moments of their lives as something offensive, and highly inappropriate and utterly false. And because of their past experiences with her temper, her reaction shuts them down immediately.
I’m not saying it’s child abuse, but…
I’ll give Mary Poppins this much: she definitely exposes the children to unusual, fantastical things. But I feel like her habit of making them question their own sanity afterward– and the verbal abuse they both witness and are victim to throughout the course of the story– does not quite reflect the same values as the Disney version of the magical nanny. In fact, it’s quite toxic.
The Jane and Michael Banks of the P.L. Travers version, had they been real, most likely would have grown into insecure teenagers and damaged adults who would have a hard time forming healthy attachments, because they would struggle to trust anyone, much less themselves.
The book has a few redeeming moments of wonder, but the underlying tone and truly inappropriate behavior of the adults in this story make it a no-go for me. After all, if I try to protect my kids from this kind of behavior from people in real life, why would I expose them to it in fiction?
Sorry, Travers. Maybe it’s Disney’s fault, but I didn’t sign up for this.
If nothing else, though, reading the original gave me an added sense of appreciation for the creative genius of Walt Disney (who, to be fair, was no saint of a human being himself) because through Disney magic he was able to somehow see something salvageable in a fairly despicable main character and turn her into something both enchanting and enduring.
(Of course, skipping over that whole cannibalism part probably helped quite a bit.)
More stories from Kasey Q. Tross
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When you can’t give kids what they want, the next best thing is to imagine it with them.