In Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane, Mrs. Banks is at her wits’ end trying to find a new nanny for her children. Mr. Banks told his wife that he could afford a nice house or children, but not both. Mrs. Banks had considered it, and chose children. However, she still aspired to be the upper crust that it seemed the inhabitants of the other houses on the street were. (And by modern standards, the fact that she had a cook, housekeeper, handyman, and nanny makes the household seem quite upper-class.) It was on this day that the blustery east wind blew in Mary Poppins, who had heard that Mrs. Banks needed a nanny (even though a notice had not yet been sent to the papers). It quite literally blew her in, as she floated down holding a parrot-headed umbrella. Mary Poppins, prim, proper, and smartly dressed, turned out to be a shrewd (or more properly, high handed) negotiator, able to get concessions from Mrs. Banks based on her desperate need for a nanny and the fact that Mary Poppins had an uncanny knowledge of what the Very Best People did, which seemed to always be in Mary Poppins’ favor. Mrs. Banks wished that Mary Poppins was not so much more knowledgeable about the Very Best People that she aspired to be, but Mary Poppins was an undeniably excellent nanny. In fact, not only the children, but the whole household ran smoothly and orderly when she was around.
Mary Poppins had a variety of tools to assess the situation upon arrival, which vary by book. She had a thermometer that measured behavior and character (inevitably Jane and Michael measured things like “spoiled” and “willful”) as well as a tape measure that would read out similar things when measuring height. The children noted that buttons unfastened themselves unusually smoothly and quickly when she was around, resulting in effortless bedtimes (from Mary Poppins’ perspective). Mary Poppins’ solid command of every situation through severity, threats of punishment, but also the sense of security from the fact that she always knew what to do, as well as never knowing when some tiresome walk would end up in a strange and delightful experience, make the children’s lives the model of Proper and Orderly, yet also secretly Fun and Exhilarating.
Mary Poppins’ first Day Out (initially Tuesday but later changing to Thursday) is with her apparent beau, Bert, the Matchstick Man who draws pictures on the sidewalk for a living. She was anticipating having Tea with him, but he sadly informed her that he could not take her out, as he had not been given enough money for his pictures that day. However, they ended up inside one of the pictures (to his surprise), whereupon a penguin—not visible from the picture Bert had drawn owing to the fact he was behind the tree—takes them to a park further in, where they have a most delightful tea, and Mary Poppins is quite satisfied.
Mary Poppins’ uncle, Mr. Wigg, invited them for tea on his birthday. When they arrived, he was floating near the ceiling, having a fit of Laughing Gas. Every time his birthday fell on a Friday, he would get laughing fits and as he laughed, get filled with Laughing Gas and float up to the ceiling. In a short while Jane and Michael were laughing with him and floated up to the ceiling as well. Mary Poppins disapproved of their undignified comport, but since they could not come down, she came up to them—stiff and prim with absolutely no laughter—and brought the table with tea on it with her. Yet, when Mr. Wigg’s landlady came by with more hot water and told off Mr. Wigg for being undignified, it seemed that Mary Poppins raised her to the table to deliver the hot water (thanking her politely) and then let her back down. They came down with a bump when Mary Poppins announced that it was time to go, since sad thoughts made them heavy again. When the children discussed the afternoon with her on the bus ride back home, she refused to even acknowledge the events, becoming rather offended that they would think that she had done something so undignified as sitting in the air.
The house next door belonged to Miss Lark, who had a large house, lots of janglely jewelry, had a small dog named Andrew which she treated like a little boy, and said odd things like “how are we today?” (leading Jane to wonder if she was asking how she and Michael were or asking herself how Miss Lark and Andrew were). Andrew came from the Very Finest, having a pedigree which Miss Lark proudly hung on her wall, and was pampered with fancy meals, a coat and shoes, being taken frequently to the hairdresser, and such so that all the neighborhood thought he was rather soft. Andrew longed to be a common dog, though, and he would sit at the front gate and make friends with the common dogs (until Miss Lark forced him back). One day he got out and rushed by the children and Mary Poppins on their way to the park. Andrew barked to Mark Poppins, who gave him directions (and then haughtily refused to answer the children’s questions). On their way back in the afternoon, Andrew returned with his best friend, a mongrel named Willoughby. Miss Lark had been beside herself searching for him and called him back. He refused to go, barking a response. Mary Poppins translated for him, as he made his demands: he would only come back if Willoughby would live with him, he didn’t have to wear a coat or go to the hairdressers, and Miss Lark treated the common Willoughby like she treated him. Miss Lark was shocked and distressed, but since she was co-dependent on him, could not refuse.
The day that Jane had an earache, her younger brother Michael (who tended to ask lots of questions even when it Mary Poppins’ tone of voice suggested it was unwise) was sitting by the window and saw a cow on the street. He commented on this, and Mary Poppins told the story of the Red Cow. The Red Cow lived in a field with her Red Calf and happily ate dandelions. One day a star fell onto one of her horn, making her happy and light, and she started dancing uncontrollably. After a week of non-stop dancing with no sleep and no ability to eat, she went to the king. The king was an industrious man who had made 72 new Laws that morning and was off to the barber’s when the Red Cow came in. After some surprise and questioning, the king came to the conclusion that the star on the horn was the problem, but since none of the courtiers managed to pull it off, he suggested that she jump over the moon. The Red Cow had always lived a respectable, dignified life, but she did want to rest her tired legs and be able to eat again, so she gathered herself up and jumped when the king blew his gold whistle. The star fell off as she came down in her field. Despite the rich grass and dandelions and her lovely Red Calf, the Red Cow missed the light and happy feeling. She asked Mary Poppins’ mother for advice, and who said that many stars fall every night, but almost never in the same location, so the Red Cow has been wandering, searching for a falling star ever since.
One Tuesday Michael got up on the wrong side of bed (deduced by Mary Poppins due to his deliberate naughtyness, and when he shot back that his bed was next to the wall and the only side was the right side, she merely observed that both sides were the wrong side today). Mary Poppins took them to the park, forcing Michael to walk in front. She had him pick up a shiny thing in front (which he unsuccessfully tried to claim as his own), which she said was a compass for going around the world. Michael scoffed, so she used the compass. They went first to the North, where a polar bear greeted Mary Poppins and gave her a herring, then to the South where a macaw offered to give them bananas instead of the fish (but Mary said no, the herring was a gift), then to the East, where a panda invited her to stay and observing that she always made her own decisions when she said they couldn’t stay, then to the South, and finally to the shore of the ocean in the West, where she chatted with a dolphin friend named Amelia and tossed the relieved herring back into the sea, followed by Amelia and her child Froggie racing to eat it. That evening when Mary Poppins was out of the room Michael naughtily took the compass and found himself surrounded by four angry animals. Mary Poppins rescued him, gave him some milk to drink, which he lingered over to avoid going to be and to stay by her, and he found that the thing inside of him driving him to naughtiness had disappeared.
Jane told Michael the story of the Bird Woman, who sat at St. Paul’s and sold breadcrumbs to feed the birds—"tuppence a bag!” At night, the birds would eat the leftover crumbs to tidy everything up, take a bath, and come back to the woman. She would smooth each of their feathers, tell it to be good, and they would all crawl under her large skirts and sleep peacefully as she made nesting and brooding noises.
One Friday they were shopping. Mary Poppins would admire herself vainly in the shop windows, causing everything to take longer. Michael wanted to go back home, so Mary Poppins pointed the way he would have to go, adding that she hoped he wouldn’t get lost. She accused Jane of being in charge of the shopping when she suggested they were done. In fact, Mary Poppins also wanted some gingerbread, which she found at a shop oddly in-between two shops. Inside was a very old lady, Mrs. Corrie, and her two daughters Miss Annie and Miss Fannie. Mrs. Corrie was thrilled to see Mary Poppins, who was also unusually cordial, and Mrs. Corrie broke off a couple of her fingers (which were a sort of gingerbread that day, and which promptly grew back) to give to the twins in the perambulator. Mrs. Corrie would name drop famous old people like William the Conqueror whom she appeared to have interacted with, which made her seem very old, but when Michael said so, she laughed and said that her grandmother was one who might be called truly old. Mrs. Corrie was not very nice to her daughters, however. Mary Poppins bought them each a piece of excellent gingerbread, and Mrs. Corrie asked the children if what they did with the paper stars, and finding that they kept them, asked them where. Later that evening Jane and Michael woke up to find that Mary Poppins had taken the stars outside to the waiting Mrs. Corrie and her daughters. The daughters held two tall ladders onto the sky, and Mrs. Corrie and Mary Poppins pasted the stars back onto the sky. It made Jane wonder whether the stars in the sky were paper or whether the papers were stars.
One afternoon the Starling, whom Mary Poppins referred to as “sparrer” like she did to all birds, had a conversation with the baby twins, who would save part of their snack for him. He commented that they wouldn’t be able to understand him once they were just a little older. Of course, they said they would, but he said all humans forgot—except for Mary Poppins, who was the only human who hadn’t. Some months later the Starling came back for a snack and found that they had forgotten how to understand him. He found himself a little sad, which Mary Poppins mocked, since he presented a persona of indifference about the world.
Mary Poppins was unusually cross one day, and as conversation went around, Michael wondered what happened at the zoo at night. Mary Poppins haughtily dismissed the question with an aphorism and a disapproving sniff, and put them to bed unusually quickly that night. They were woken up by a bear, who told them to put on their clothes. They went to the zoo, where all the animals were out of their cages, and some humans (Mrs. Lark, Admiral Boom, etc.) were in the cages with the animals watching them and sometimes taunting them. The bear told Michael that they only came out when the Birthday fell on a full moon. All the many animals they met spoke warmly, respectably, even worshipfully about the owner of the Birthday, and the elder snake even gave the present of his skin for a belt to the owner, which turned out to be Mary Poppins. The night ended in a dance. Back in the nursery Mary Poppins expressed her usual outrage that she could been part of such an unseemly menagerie, but Jane observed to Michael that she had on a snake-skin belt that said “A present from the zoo”.
When they went Christmas shopping, Mary Poppins was rather short with the children and argued with Father Christmas. As they were leaving, an effervescent young girl dressed only in a thing blue cloudy thing looking like she had hastily pulled it from the sky arrived, looking for them. She was Merope, one of the seven Pleiades sisters. She was Christmas shopping, as Mary Poppins snappily informed Michael. The sisters had drawn lots for Christmas shopping, as they could not all come because they were so busy storing the spring rains, and Merope had won. The children helped Merope buy her gifts. Merope was a little confused about payment—why would one have to pay for gifts when Christmas is for giving gifts?—and it seems that Mary Poppins payed for her. Jane noticed that Merope didn’t have a gift for herself, and Mary Poppins snapped at Jane and gave Merope her new fur-lined gloves that she had been admiring herself in earlier. Merope happily went out of the store and walked back up into the sky, causing considerable confusion in the street below as all the passers-by stared at her.
When spring came, with a strong west wind, Mary Poppins gave Michael the compass, packed up her things, and left via umbrella; the children had asked her how long she would stay when she came, to which she had answered “until the wind changes.”
In the next two books Mary Poppins returns for another six months or so, and there are similar adventures with her relatives, a visit to the wooden toy Noah’s house in the park where they are given Conversations (candies with relevant text on them), chats with the sparrow, a ride on sugar canes that become a sort of horse, balloons they discover has their name on it when they blow it up and they join everyone in the city as the balloons carry them around in the sky, and likewise.
Mary Poppins is a contradictory character, which makes me think that Travers must be commenting about British life or aspiring upper-middle class life in the 1960s (or likely earlier, perhaps in the 1920s). Mary Poppins is clearly of the servant class, subject to its limitations of every other Tuesday from 1 - 6 for herself and associated finances, yet she seems to consider herself one of the people who have been Properly Brought Up. At the same time, she is on loving terms with animals, beggars, chimney sweeps, and people like Mrs. Corrie who would seem to be more faerie than human. Yet she is insulted that the children associate her with such undignified actions and people—whom they have just experienced with her. Mary Poppins is very vain, looking at herself in every reflection she can find, and rather cross with the children, yet they adore her, and on the occasions that she leaves it seems that she has a soft spot for them. Mary Poppins seems to be more loving to the animals and faerie folk than humans, to whom she tends to interact with rather harshly (especially shopkeepers).
Similarly, there may be a commentary about the upper class in Mrs. Banks. She aspires to be upper class without having any experience, allowing Mary Poppins to take advantage of that lack of knowledge. She chooses a family instead of a nice clean house, yet what she has is four servants of fairly low utility (until Mary Poppins takes the position of the previous nanny), a life of her own, and Mary Poppins is effectively the mother of her children. She also does not seem to be a competent household manager, as everything always falls to pieces after Mary Poppins leaves.
My conclusion is that Mary Poppins is half faerie, maybe she had a real faerie godmother, as C. S. Lewis or George MacDonald include in their stories. Faerie isn’t a place inhabited by diminutive, frequently scantily clad, women with wings. Faerie is the Celtic Otherworld. Humans cannot normally travel to the Otherworld, and they arrive there usually after following directions from a faerie. Sometimes there are locations that connect the two. So I think the human part of Mary Poppins is vain and aspires to be Proper, but her community and life come from the faerie part. Hence her ability to locate the gingerbread shop that is not there after they leave, and her ability to levitate without needing Laughing Gas. And since she has not forgotten the oneness with nature, perhaps because of her faerie blood, she can still communicate with and be loved by the animals, with whom she spends many of her Tuesdays Off.
Leaving the speculations on the nature of existence of Mary Poppins, the book is quite hilarious. It is written from a children’s perspective, but with an adult’s experience. The descriptions poke fun at stuffy people’s behavior, like Miss Lark’s, by taking things literally, like a child would. Much of the humor is from the disconnect between the child’s perspective and the adult reader’s understanding. So when Mr. Banks, who works at a bank and makes money for a living, says “sorry children, the Bank is broken” when they ask him for money, they know that he wasn’t able to cut out (“make”) much money that day. Mary Poppins engages in witty repartee with the children, particularly Michael, and you never know whether she is being an adult or being serious. Mary Poppins herself is not spared, as her vanity is quite prominent, and even to the children, who occasionally attempt to use flattery to soften her up (not usually successfully). So, of course Mary Poppins’ temperature is “practically perfect, in nearly every way.”
The first book is quite hilarious, and the second is almost as good, although a certain formulaicness does appear. The third, while entertaining, follows the formula, but focuses more on the new extraordinary adventures and less on the incongruity of the adult world. All are enjoyable reads, however, and definitely worth the time.