• Collected
  • Article

Chim Chim Cher-oo

Fairytales may not be real, but that doesn't mean they aren't true

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I’ve just discovered that I’m nine years younger than Mary Poppins. (Don’t try and work it out.) In fact, I’ve just discovered Mary Poppins, period. The trim, tart and very occasionally tender magical nanny has appeared again out of the sky and is currently in residence at Number Seventeen, Cherry Tree Lane, right opposite the Park.

The wind first blew her into London during 1934, a year of Depression and Oswald Mosley; when Lubetkin’s penguin pool opened at London Zoo, and five-year old Shirley Temple sang ‘The Good Ship Lollipop’. But Mary Poppins’s creator ignores the lot. P.L. Travers was the pseudonym of Australian Helen Goff, whose theatrical ambitions took her to London, where she became a modestly successful journalist, writing theatre reviews and poems. Pamela was the name she chose for herself, though Travers was her father’s first name. Only ‘Lyndon’ was really her own. Recovering from pleurisy in Mayfield, Sussex, she wrote the first Mary Poppins book when her Irish poet mentor George Russell suggested she write a short story about a witch, and many more followed over the next 54 years.

The books cry out for a cosy bedroom, a nightlight and a loved voice reading, but no one ever introduced the two of us: Mary Poppins was admired by T.S.Eliot, Sylvia Plath and Princess Margaret, but she didn’t make much impact on Jewish suburban Manchester.

Travers created a richly rounded character, both fierce and friendly, nearly – but not quite – a witch, and capable of almost sadistic behaviour towards her small charges, when she fixes them with darting eyes. ‘There was something strange and extraordinary about her — something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.’ The coal-black hair under the tulip hat, pink cheeks, turned-up Dutch doll nose and eyes blue as the unicorn’s; her smell of toast and starchy aprons; the carpetbag and parrot’s head umbrella; her ability to slide up the banisters; the black boots and set of dominoes; her rapid mood swings; the way she so easily took offence; the quaint aphorisms and maxims — Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. A cat can look at a King. I’ll thank you to mind your manners. Strike me pink.

She inhabits a curiously timeless world with no traffic except the occasional Taxi and a couple of Buses; where Mr Banks (frequently in a temper) marches off to quite literally ‘make’ money at the Bank, with his bowler hat mistakenly polished with bootblack, and one black and one brown shoe; where the Prime Minister wanders around worrying about his laws; where the Park is utterly safe and everyone – the Policeman, the Match Man – has capital letters. Mary Poppins shares the night nursery with the children and undresses under a long nightdress (imagine writing that today!) of which she possessed four cotton and seven flannel.

Mary Poppins was seemingly inspired by two formidable women: one may have been a maid, the other, Travers’s spinster aunt, Ellie. From them too came the literary gold of the parrot’s head umbrella and Mary’s perpetual sniff sniff. Travers’s aunt Ellie apparently coined the nanny’s curious phrase for hurrying up: spit-spot.

Thirty years later Walt Disney redrew Travers’s original character. Poppins was a quirky, easily irritated, frequently moody, not-quite-working-class woman, whose cousin Arthur mends things, and who walks out with the Match Man on her day off: ‘The best people, ma’am, give every second Thursday and one till six.’ Then she would wear her blue coat with the brass buttons and white gloves and admire her reflection in shop windows. Somehow this vivid figure morphed into the middle-class archetypal Kensington nanny. (Travers considered Julie Andrews far too pretty for the role).

Apparently, at the premiere Travers was shocked by what she saw – for the first time – on screen. ‘Why was Mary Poppins’, she demanded to know, in a letter to writer Brian Sibley, ‘already beloved for what she was – plain, vain and incorruptible – transmogrified into a soubrette?’ Travers’s own description of Poppins is a virtual self-portrait: she once said in an interview that indeed she was Mary Poppins. How revealing then that songwriter Richard Sherman found her ‘a hellcat’ to work with.

Travers, then 65, wrote to a friend that her life would never be the same. And while the film made her the famous writer she longed to be, (she owned 5% of the gross, inconceivable for any writer today, so it also made her rich) she was vocally unhappy that Mary Poppins eclipsed everything else she had written.

Perhaps the saccharine version Julie Andrews created in her first film role just wasn’t up my alley because although our children loved the film, it didn’t touch my heart and it never occurred to me to get the books, though heaven knows we had everything else on our shelves; Swallows and Amazons, The Witches, Meg and Mog, In the Night Kitchen. . .

Finding Mary Poppins for the first time in middle age has been fascinating, bringing home to me how we read at different ages and stages of our lives. As adults we find ourselves mirrored in novels, see the shape and story our own lives rarely achieve. And if it is in stories that we find ourselves, that holds true for children, too. But for them, reality and fantasy lie always beside each other, intertwined and co-dependent. Psychologists suggest that by the age of six a child has experienced every emotion he or she will feel in a lifetime.

The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment (1976), points out that ‘the child intuitively comprehends that although fairytales are unreal, they are not untrue. In fact, their unrealistic nature ‘is an important device… the concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.’ Bettelheim saw such stories helping children ‘with the psychological problems of growing up and integrating their personalities’. When children read – or listen – they bring to the text more than we realise, recognising and acknowledging the heights and depths within themselves. It helps them understand the world they live in.

Travers employs magic realism in the Poppins books, which children so readily accept. She slips easily in and out of the prosaic day-to-day of nursery life into other, wondrous situations. She told the Paris Review in 1975: ‘It is only through the ordinary that the extraordinary can make itself perceived.’

My favourite episode is where Mary Poppins takes the children on the Bus to the Largest Shop in the World (Harrods? Selfridges?) to do their Christmas shopping. Outside the spinning glass door they see the running, flickering figure of a child wearing ‘a light wispy strip of blue stuff that looked as though she had torn it from the sky to wrap round her naked body’. When Mary Poppins looks at her, ‘blue fires in her eyes […] reflected the blue of the child’s dress and her brightness.’

The beautiful girl is Maia the star, second of the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, down to buy presents for her Sisters. She chooses a book, a duck, a hoop, a skipping rope, and enchants children and staff alike, for the Assistant hands her the string-wrapped parcels, bowing and assuring her there is nothing to pay. Mary Poppins gives her own treasured pair of fur-topped gloves to keep her warm. ‘I’ve been so happy,’ said Maia softly, breaking the silence. ‘Don’t forget me, will you?’ Then she ‘lifted up her arms and sprang into the air. She began to walk up it, step by step, climbing ever higher as though there were invisible stairs cut into the grey sky.’

The scene, like so much of the books, is pure poetry. But it is also something else, because Travers has perfectly retained the eyes of a child: her obituary in the New York Times quotes her saying that ‘the ideas I had [as a child] move about in me now.’ On a night drive my tiny granddaughter Cece, snug in her car seat, observed: ‘That big star has been following me all the way home.’ She gave a complacent sigh. ‘I don’t know why that star loves me so much.’ How close is my small girl to the poet in Travers. And how close the poet to the child.

As in all good fairytales, Travers’s stories extoll the virtues of moral behaviour. She doesn’t use abstract ideas, but shows us Michael being incredibly, deliberately naughty — and then he learns that if he’s truly sorry, he will be cuddled by Mary Poppins and put to bed with warm milk.

Scary, seductive, dark or funny, storytelling is the best possible way of passing on information, experience, wisdom — and love. And Mary Poppins, in particular, touches another, desperately powerful childhood emotion: the deep fear of abandonment, which lies at the story’s root. ‘Mary Poppins’, Michael cries in anguish the first night she has come to care for them, ‘you’ll never leave us, will you?’ It’s the big question which haunts all the books: will the person who loves, cares for and nurtures us vanish?

Certainly, it haunted Travers herself. Few children’s authors enjoy happy childhoods. (Writers in general don’t, it seems. It must contribute to the creative drive: love my work, love me.) But Helen Goff, born in 1899, had a worse time than most. Travers assured the Paris Review that ‘my parents were most loving. I had a most loving childhood.’ Sadly, that seems not to have been the case for long.

Her adored father had emigrated from Deptford, just down the road from where I live now. An alcoholic bank manager, the lifestyle vanished as he was demoted and deteriorated. When he died, leaving his pretty wife and three daughters, Helen was seven. Three years later, during a thunderstorm, her mother announced that she was going out to drown herself. The ten-year-old Helen spent the night by the fire telling stories to her little sisters. She would write as an adult: ‘What happens to children who have lost both parents? Do they go into Children’s Homes and wear embroidered dressing-gowns, embroidery that is really darning?’

Helen never relied on her mother again. Perhaps that’s why Mrs Banks is so thinly sketched: uncertain, flustered, forever pinning up her hair and resting.

Just what is hidden behind a pseudonym is always intriguing and Travers, whose choice of name was androgynous, was no exception: Mary Poppins may have had, as one of Travers’s admirers wrote to her, ‘a cool green core of sex’, but it remains covert, while Travers enjoyed a hectic private life. She loved at least one older, married man (father complex?) and had a long and sexually ambiguous relationship with a woman, Madge Burnand.

When Madge left, Travers was 39. Despite displaying all the maternal instincts of a houseplant, she adopted the child of needy artistic people she knew distantly in Ireland. The baby was one of twin boys: Travers consulted an astrologer over her choice, took the first-born and ruthlessly left the other behind.

Aged three, Camillus the solitary twin told her, ‘I am two boys, Goodly and Badly.’ What would a child psychologist make of that? Travers seemed unmoved by it. At one point she has Mary Poppins tell Mr Banks’s old governess, with ‘icy politeness’: ‘Thank you, ma’am, but I bring the children up in my own way and take advice from nobody.’

After the film and the fame, she reinvented herself as an American academic writer-in-residence. This sounds more impressive than it actually played. She complained that the young women (and it seems mainly to have been young women) did not take her sufficiently seriously: remember the lapel pin: ‘Mary Poppins is a Junkie’?

Travers, by then an OBE, died in London at 96. She told the Paris Review that ‘actresses grow old, dancers grow wobbly, whereas a writer still has a typewriter. And I think I’ve been learning and growing in writing all these years. If there’s a life after death, I want to work.’ According to her grandchildren, ‘she died loving no one and with no one loving her.’

Perhaps her own sad, short childhood provided the impetus — the need to create an idyllic world for other people’s children. The perfect world she never had became hers by proxy.

But not quite perfect: painful loss is palpable even in the sweet, safe world of Cherry Tree Lane. It explains why her books, charming as they first appear, resonate with a heart-heavy grief. Mary Poppins would leave as the wind changed and swept under her umbrella, carrying her away. ‘She’s going, Jane, she’s going,’ cried Michael, weeping. And ‘Sorrow,’ Travers wrote, ‘lies like a heartbeat behind everything I have written.’

Now, spit-spot into bed.

Marcelle Bernstein is writing about her unlikely friendship with Jean Rhys and teaching at City University.

You might also like:

Dominica Passport by Mehranvary, Wikicommons
Collected Article

The Musings of a Dominican, Yorkshire Lass

My work as a children’s book writer and playwright has definitely been influenced by my Caribbean roots and Yorkshire background.…

Author Wioletta Greg and the cover of her 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel, Swallowing Mercur
RLF News Article

Wioletta Greg reflects on her life and RLF grant experience

A Polish author previously longlisted for the International Booker Prize, Wioletta now lives in Lewes, East Sussex.

RLF News Article

The Life and Times of Reverend David Williams

As we get ready to celebrate our 234th anniversary on 18 May, a recent RLF grant beneficiary takes a deep…

Royal Literary Fund Substack

View our Substack. All our articles are free to read and are written by either the RLF team or our contributing writers.

Subscribe on Substack