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Literature / Mary Poppins

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Mary Poppins never told anybody anything...

Mary Poppins is a children's book written and illustrated by P.L. Travers and Mary Shepard, respectively, with seven sequels.

Mary Poppins is a Magical Nanny, who enters the life of the Banks family of 1930s London, England via a gust of wind. She acts very stern and vain, but the Banks children (Jane, Michael, John, Barbara, and Annabel) become involved in the most mystical occurrences while in her company.

Disney's 1964 and 2018 film adaptations use some events and characters from the first three books, but also have less episodic plots and some different characterizations (eg, toning down Mary Poppins' sternness in the first movie). The stage adaptation, produced by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, is a hybrid of the 1964 film and the books.


Chapter Books

  • Mary Poppins (1934)
  • Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935)
  • Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943)

Collections Of Short Stories

  • Mary Poppins in the Park (1952)note 
  • Mary Poppins From A to Z (1962)
  • Mary Poppins in the Kitchen: A Cookery Book With a Story (1975)note 

Short Stories

  • Mary Poppins and the Match-Man (1926)note 
  • Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (1982)
  • Mary Poppins and The House Next Door (1988)

The books provide examples of:

  • Baby Language: It's revealed that babies can talk to each other, and also to animals and inanimate objects, but lose the ability around the time they get their teeth. One of the things that makes Mary Poppins special is that she has somehow retained the ability into adulthood.
  • Babysitter from Hell: Mr. Banks' childhood governess, Miss Andrew, never has anything nice to say. He refers to her as a "holy terror".
  • Back for the Finale: The last chapter of the second and third books each feature re-appearances by people the children met.
  • Bag of Holding: Mary Poppins's carpetbag.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Michael makes three wishes on a star, expecting none of them to come true. The third wish is to go somewhere where no one could disturb him, so he becomes whisked to a planet of talking cats who enslave children.
  • Big Entrance: Mary Poppins demonstrates a knack for this in the chapter books.
    • In Mary Poppins, the wind blows her onto the Banks family's doorstep.
    • In Mary Poppins Comes Back, an attempt to pull Michael's kite out of a tree results in the Banks children finding her at the other end of the string.
    • In Mary Poppins Opens the Door, she falls out of a firework burst on Guy Fawkes Day.
  • Birthday Episode: The "Full Moon" chapter of the first book has Jane and Michael visit the zoo one moonlit night, where the animals throw Mary Poppins a birthday party. The children discover that whenever her birthday falls on a full moon, the animals in the zoo can all talk and interact peacefully, while humans locked inside the zoo at closing time must spend the night in the cages and/or giving smaller animals rides.
  • But Now I Must Go: Mary Poppins does this at the end of each of the chapter books.
  • Character Title: The first book was simply the lead character's name. Other books add descriptors.
  • Characterization Marches On: In the second chapter of the first book, "The Day Out", Mary Poppins expresses awe and amazement during her and the Match-Man's journey inside a chalk drawing. This noticeably differs from later stories, in which Mary Poppins reacts to fantastical occurrences as ordinary events for herself. "The Day Out" even gives her an expression of astonishment, "Strike me pink!", that she never exclaims during those other stories.
  • Christmas Episode: The "Christmas Shopping" chapter of the first book. Maia of the Pleiades joins Mary Poppins and the Banks children on their shopping trip.
  • Cool Old Lady: A few of Mrs. Corry's talents include possessing a memory that goes as far back to at least the creation of the Earth, and baking delicious gingerbread that comes with gold paper stars. When night falls, Mrs. Corry and Mary Poppins glue these paper stars to the sky, turning them into real stars.
  • Covers Always Lie: The covers of the 2015 reprints of the first four books make Mary Poppins look more like Disney's version than Travers' and Shepard's.
  • Creator Cameo: P.L. Travers makes an appearance in one of the pictures from the chapter about people flying with monogrammed balloons, as does illustrator Mary Shepard.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mary Poppins and Michael have their moments.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Mary Poppins and the Match-Man describes Mary Poppins' age as 17, despite later books and adaptations making her seem older than that. It also has a plot in which the Banks children play a minimal role, though their omission from Mary Poppins' day out does tie in well with the lesson she teaches them at the end of the episode, that everyone has their own fairyland (which will probably look different for an older person than for a young child. On their date, Mary Poppins and the Match-Man had afternoon tea and rode carousel horses around an idealized landscape, whereas the children enquired if she had met storybook characters). When P.L. Travers re-wrote the story as "The Day Out", she removed the specificity of Mary Poppins' age, but the Banks children remained mostly absent.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Park-Keeper, the Sweep, the Match-Man, and the Ice Cream Man among others. The Match-Man and the Park-Keeper do have actual names (Herbert "Bert" Alfred and Fred Smith, respectively), but rarely get called by those, even by the narrator. It's justified, in that the books are from the perspective of young children, and rarely know the names, let alone first name, of adults.
  • Excuse Plot: Mary Poppins in the Kitchen introduces some traditional English food to children through a storyline in which Mary Poppins and her friends and relatives give the Banks children a week's worth of cooking lessons, in the usual chef's absence.
  • Full-Name Basis: It's rare for anyone to use less than Mary Poppins' full name. Travers comments on this in Saving Mr. Banks, where she instructs the film's screenwriter that is "never, ever, just 'Mary'".
  • Go-Karting with Bowser: The "Happily Ever After" chapter of Mary Poppins Opens the Door has Mary Poppins and the Banks children attend a New Year's Eve celebration during "the crack" between the first and last strokes of midnight. Some of the guests include literary characters, who party peacefully with their worst enemies.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Mary Poppins.
  • Grand Finale: Chronologically speaking, the last chapter of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, "The Other Door", fills this role; Mary Poppins leaves the Bankses for good, and the children promise they'll never forget what she taught them.
  • Growing Up Sucks: As the babies become older, they lose their memories of the experience of birth, then their abilities to communicate with the sun, wind, and animals.
  • Guardian Entity: Implied for Mary Poppins: Every time she leaves the Banks family, the household falls into chaos, but then she comes and restores order.
  • Halloween Episode: The "Hallow'ween" chapter of Mary Poppins in the Park, in which Living Shadows hold an early birthday party for Mary Poppins.
  • Hammerspace: Where Mary Poppins unpacks most of her belongings in Mary Poppins Comes Back and ...Opens the Door after returning to the nursery.
  • Homeless Pigeon Person: The Bird Woman
  • Inexplicably Awesome: Mary Poppins is a classic example.
  • Insane Troll Logic: In Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Mary Poppins tells Jane and Michael, "I'll stay til the door opens", then clarifies that she refers to the "other door" of the nursery. Michael interprets this to mean that she will never leave, because the nursery only has one door, and therefore the "other door" will never open. Mary Poppins eventually leaves through the door's reflection on the window.
  • Intentional Mess Making: Michael deliberately knocks over the maid's tray. The maid calls him clumsy, and he replies, "I meant to!".
  • Interquel: P.L. Travers explains in the introduction to Mary Poppins in the Park that the stories within happened during Mary Poppins' stays in the first three books. Since the books written from the 1960s through the '80s do not begin with her making a dramatic entrance back into the Banks' lives, these probably take place during those visits as well.
  • Invisible to Adults: Being able to see magical creatures is part of the special baby powers package mentioned above.
  • It Runs in the Family: Each of the chapter books contains a chapter in which Mary Poppins and the children visit one of her relatives, who each seem to have an odd quirk:
    • Uncle Albert Wigg floats whenever his birthday falls on a Friday, because of "laughing gas".
    • Cousin Arthur Turvy becomes forced to do the opposite of what he wants (eg, standing on his head when he wants to stand normally) from 3:00 to 6:00 PM on the second Monday of every month, because he was born (on the second Monday of an unspecified month) to a woman who wanted a daughter instead of a son. According to Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, this eventually became a daily tendency for him.
    • Cousin Fred Twigley gets to have seven wishes granted on the first New Moon, after the second rainy Sunday, after May 3rd, as a present from his Godmother.
    • Mary Poppins in the Park reveals one of Jane's plasticine figures, Samuel Mo, as another of Mary Poppins' cousins.
    • Mary Poppins claims that the Man in the Moon is another uncle of hers. This becomes confirmed in Mary Poppins and The House Next Door, which also reveals him as a hoarder of things that people on Earth misplace.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mary Poppins.
  • Jerkass Ball: Held by Michael in the "Bad Tuesday" chapter of the first book, and Jane in the "Bad Wednesday" chapter of the second.
  • Letter Motif: Each chapter of Mary Poppins From A To Z begins by introducing a specific letter of the alphabet, then tells a short story containing an exorbitant amount of words beginning with that letter.
  • Literal Metaphor: One of the Running Gags of all the books. For example, Mary says she'll stay til the wind changes direction. She literally does this at the end, but someone who changes which way the wind blows is The Ditherer.
  • Living Statue: Neleus and his dolphin.
  • Magical Nanny: The original, endlessly referenced and parodied.
  • Mind Screw: Watching Mary Poppins and Mrs. Corry glue the paper stars to the night sky makes Jane wonder whether the stars in the sky are made of gold paper, or the paper stars came from real ones..
  • Mister Muffykins: Andrew, the spoiled and pampered lapdog of the rich and elderly Miss Lark. He is revealed to absolutely hate this treatment and wish for a simpler dog's life. And with Mary Poppins' help, he gets it.
  • Mr. Fixit: Arthur Turvy can fix everything from cracked bowls to broken hearts, except for on the Second Monday.
  • Muggle in Mage Custody: The Banks children have a genuinely loving relationship of this kind with Mary. Most of the time, she takes them on exciting adventures, but when they misbehave, she can punish them by transporting them into a decidedly unfriendly magical world.
  • Narcissist: Mary Poppins loves to stare at herself in anything reflective.
  • New Year Has Come: "Happily Ever After", the second-to-last chapter of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, begins on New Year's Eve, and ends on New Year's Day.
  • Once an Episode: At least three of the first four books each has a chapter about the following:
    • Mary Poppins introduces the children to one of her quirky relatives.
    • Mary Poppins tells the children a fable.
    • Mary Poppins becomes the guest of honor at a party held by talking animals (sometimes more than once in the same book).
  • One-Word Vocabulary: In the first book, the Bird Woman speaks only in the phrases, "Feed the birds! Tuppence a bag!" The sequels reveal that she can also speak other words, when not selling birdseed.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: Mary Poppins always denies taking the children on strange adventures, but the children tend to find signs that their exploits actually happened. In the second-to-last chapter of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, she seems to realize that they've become quite good at finding these signs.
  • Orwellian Retcon: Travers was one of the few classic authors to live long enough to have to personally edit her books to eliminate racist terms and stereotypes. Specifically, the "Bad Tuesday" chapter of the first book was rewritten repeatedly over the years due to its racial stereotyping, first to replace outright racial slurs with more respectful descriptions, and then to replace the stereotypical foreign characters altogether with talking animals.
  • Painful Rhyme: Invoked when a penguin tries to write a song for Mary Poppins' birthday. When he tries to come up with a rhyme for her first name, he decides against using the words "contrary", which already found use in the poem "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary", and "fairy", which doesn't sound like an accurate description of Mary Poppins. He ends up singing, "Oh, Mary Mary/She's my dearie/She's my dearie-o!". He admits afterwards that "dearie" doesn't sound exactly like "Mary", but it'll have to do.note 
  • Parasol Parachute: Inverted when Mary Poppins uses her umbrella to let the wind drift her up.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Unlike her film counterpart, Mary Poppins almost never smiles in front of the children, as her role as their governess.
  • Portal Picture:
    • Bert's pavement drawings.
    • The antique Royal Doulton bowl displayed in the nursery becomes this after Jane accidentally cracks it.
  • Portal to the Past: In Mary Poppins Comes Back, after Jane accepts an invitation to the home of the boys seen on the design of the Royal Doulton bowl, the boys attempt to make her live with them, 60 years in the past.
  • Prank Punishment: Mary is the queen of this trope, often on the extreme end of it. Locking a rude Babysitter from Hell in a bird cage to make her apologize and sending the children she cares about to hostile fantastic worlds to teach them a lesson are her usual methods.
  • Punny Name:
    • Some time between the fourth and 10th chapters of Mary Poppins Comes Back, Arthur Turvy marries his maid, Topsy Tartlet, changing her name to Topsy Turvy.
    • Subverted for Albert Wigg: Michael asks if he got that name from wearing a wig, but Mary Poppins answers, "He is called Mr. Wigg because Mr. Wigg is his name. And he doesn't wear one."
  • Refugee from TV Land: Mary Poppins in the Park has a variation, in which three fairy-tale princes and their unicorn meet Jane and Michael. They claim to have a book about the people of Cherry Tree Lane, which they use as a Portal Book to the Lane once every generation (London time). Unfortunately, when most of the children the princes meet over the years become adults, they seem to forget meeting the trio.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Where did Mary Poppins come from and where does she go? And why? Who is she exactly and where do her magical powers come from? Whenever she's asked, she refuses to answer.
  • Rule of Three: The introduction to the fourth book explains to readers that Mary Poppins visited the Banks family three times because "three is a lucky number."
  • Sequel Hook:
    • Mary Poppins ends with Jane receiving a letter from Mary Poppins signed, "Au revoir," explained as French for, "To meet again."
    • Mary Poppins Comes Back has Mary Poppins purchase a two-way ticket before flying away on the carousel, admitting, "You never know. It might come in useful." In the following book, she tells the Park Keeper to collect this ticket after she returns to the Banks children.
  • Series Continuity Error: The introduction of Mary Poppins From A to Z seems to imply that the book's stories take place during Mary Poppins. This seems contradicted by the presence of Annabel, who wasn't born yet when Mary Poppins first visited the Banks family.
  • Small Parent, Huge Child: A woman named Mrs. Correy is only about 5'2", but has two adult daughters, who are about 6'4".
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: Mary Poppins can talk to animals. Everyone can while they are babies, but lose the ability (and forget having it) when they get older.
  • Special Occasions Are Magic: The first book reveals that animals become anthropomorphic on Mary's birthday, but only if it falls on a full moon.
  • Suddenly Speaking: The parrot on the handle of Mary Poppins' umbrella speaks for the first time in the "Topsy-Turvy" chapter of Mary Poppins Comes Back.
  • Teleportation: Mary Poppins' compass (which becomes Michael's shortly before Mary Poppins' first departure) can teleport its user(s) to the any of the four corners of the world.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Relatively speaking, Mary Poppins speaks and acts less harshly towards the children in the later books.
  • Trickster Mentor: Mary Poppins
  • Weirdness Magnet: Although by all measures Mary Poppins is a typical British nanny in appearance and behavior (commutation via wind and fireworks notwithstanding), eight books' worth of weirdness occurs around her (and, just as tellingly, stops whenever she leaves, a fact the Banks children notice and bemoan).
  • Written Sound Effect: In the chapter of Mary Poppins From A to Z regarding the letter X, P.L. Travers admits that she could not think of any useful words that begin with that letter, other than "xylophone." So, she points out that people writing letters often use the letter X to represent a kiss, and proceeds to tell a story with lots of kissing.

Other adaptations (apart from the Disney film and musical) provide examples of:

  • Adaptational Modesty: Neleus is naked in the book, and once he returns to his place, one person remarks it's good someone gave him a coat. The Soviet movie has him clothed from the start, and it is instead remarked he has a book now.
  • Token Romance: The 1983 Russian movie tacks on a romance between Mary Poppins and the Banks' hippy uncle. Sure, it culminates in great tear jerker of a song, but it still doesn't really fit the rest of the film.