Maria Nikolajeva is a Professor of Children’s Literature and Head of the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge. She likes to combine her academic pursuits with her hobbies, such as walking and dollhouse-making.
Let me say this right in the beginning: I loved every second of it.
I am generally sceptical toward sequels, and I have written an academic paper about how sequels to famous children’s books written by someone else as often as not go against the very essence of them: Peter Pan in Scarlet, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, The Willows in Winter.
Of course Pamela Travers herself wrote sequels, some obviously under the pressure of her publisher. However, for me the Mary Poppins story ends, irreversibly, with Mary Poppins Opens the Door and the title character’s ascension from which she will never return. All subsequent books are sidequels, placed chronologically somewhere in between.
I read the books long before I saw the first movie, and I read them, already as a common, rather than professional reader, within the context of several similar books: Peter Pan, The Little Prince, Pippi Longstocking – books about tragic, non-human characters who don’t belong among humans and are painfully aware of being excluded from humanity: never growing up, never growing old. This is how I discussed Mary Poppins in my doctoral thesis, inspired by a work that deserves to be better known among children’s literature critics: Mary Poppins and Myth, by the Swedish scholar Staffan Bergsten. Mary Poppins, her adult shape notwithstanding, fits into the category of the “alien child”, the puer aeternus, who is allowed to join human community for a short while, but sooner or later has to leave. All alone, because they are one of a kind. Mary Poppins’s survival strategy in the world of humans is denial: no matter how breath-taking the adventures she exposes her young charges to, she will promptly and arrogantly deny them, even though there is clear evidence, such as her snakeskin belt or her scarf that holds together the carriage wheel in a porcelain picture. In my thesis, I call this device, that also features in other children’s novels, “Mary Poppins syndrome”. Tzvetan Todorov, one of the foremost scholars of fantasy, claims that only texts that have this or similar devices, leaving the characters and the reader in hesitation, can be called genuinely fantastic. The novels also pose one of the crucial existential questions, echoing “Who dreamed it?” of Alice in Wonderland and magnificently played out in Tom’s Midnight Garden: Who is real? What is real? Haven’t we all contemplated where Mary Poppins comes from and where the West wind takes her? Is the world that she allows the Banks children to visit – maybe in a dream or a medicine-induced hallucination – the real world, while what both the characters and we, readers, believe is real, merely an illusion? (Plato’s disciples, rejoice).
Some weeks ago, our children’s literature reading group chose Mary Poppins as their fortnightly book, and I could not resist the temptation to attend. I was curious whether graduate students of children’s literature would make any of the observations above. They didn’t. I believe they had been too strongly influenced by the movie.
So came the day when Mary Poppins Returns opened in the local cinema. I had prepared to hate the film, but I loved it for the very reason I was determined to hate it. I had also decided that I would watch it in the context of the original movie rather than go against my principle of never applying the ridiculous “fidelity” criteria to a movie adaptation. It proved easier said than done, in an unexpected way.
I had re-watched the original a couple of days before, and I am glad I did, because I had totally forgotten it. I remembered singing and dancing, and I fully understand that only a few episodes, probably the most visually gratifying ones, were selected. The story of the twins, that best reflects the tragedy of Mary Poppins’s existence, is presumably too subtle and too sad and hardly suitable for visual rendition. In case you have forgotten, the baby twins, like Mary Poppins, understand animal language, but only until they get their first tooth. What an amazing prescience of what today’s brain research knows about the early development of consciousness! But if Mary Poppins has managed to retain the ability, what does it say about her cognitive capacity?
My greatest disappointment in the original movie, however, was its focus on Mr Banks. Like Heidi or The Secret Garden, books I have always found problematic, the child in the movie is instrumental for redeeming the adult. Although it can be argued that poor Mr Banks is used as a warning to the children, characters as well as viewers, about the undesirability of adulthood, it is far-fetched. The child is narratively sacrificed to save the father. After that, I simply had to watch Saving Mr Banks, and while it features two of my favourite actors, it was disgusting in its message, and I am sure totally against Travers’ beliefs and intentions. It is a contemporary overinterpretation by an ill-informed Freudian. No and no again, Mary Poppins is not about saving the father. It is not the child’s duty to save the father. Our children owe us nothing. They haven’t asked to be brought into this world.
The tragedy of Mary Poppins is that she can never stay in the world of humans (maybe she would otherwise age far too quickly and needs a rejuvenating bath only available in her unknown world?). The tragedy of the Banks children – including the twins and the later addition to the family, Annabel (the name used in the new movie for Michael’s daughter) – is that they become aware of the inevitable flow of time, the changing of the wind, the loss of childness, to use Peter Hollindale’s famous concept; the inescapable growing up and ageing – which of course leads to realisation of one’s own mortality. Mortality is what makes us human, and Mary Poppins’ eternal youth makes her tragically non-human. (What a treasure trove of research for a posthumanist scholar! But I will leave it to them).
How then, you may ask, could I enjoy Mary Poppins Returns, if it goes so much against my unfaltering interpretation of the novels?
To begin with, in the original movie Mary Poppins’s departure is not as definite as in the final novel; she does not exclude the possibility of returning. That she returns to find Jane and Michael grown up may be a shock to her, just as to Peter Pan who finds Wendy grown up. Time in the Neverland and, presumably, in Mary Poppins’s celestial world, moves at a different pace. She returns because she somehow has sensed that her former charge needs help. Or maybe there is a higher authority in her world who dispatches her on a new mission, against her will? Another shock, that I could read between scene transitions, is the absence of Bert. Was he killed in the Great War? Poor Mary doesn’t know what happened in her absence.
The new movie maintains the intricate structure of the original three books, where each novel has a similar sequence of episodes, framed by Mary Poppins’s arrival and departure. In the same manner, Mary Poppins Returns offers us a joy of recognition: in the old movie, the characters enter Bert’s painting on the pavement, in the new one, they jump into the landscape on the china bowl. Tea party with Uncle Albert and a visit to Cousin Topsy. Chimneysweeps’ ballet and lamplighters’ ballet. Familiar settings and interiors, familiar characters, twenty years older. Tiny details that make us smile, in a most delightful way. Yes, Mary Poppins sings and dances, just as she does in the old film, but outside otherworldliness she is more like Mary Poppins of the books: solemn and sarcastic. And while in the end the Banks family and their friends, hanging on to balloons, celebrate the recovered childhood home, Mary watches the happiness that is for ever denied her.
I hope she returns again to meet Jane’s and Michael’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and is granted new glimpses of the world going on without her. We all need her because she brings joy to our lives, but also because she reminds us of our mortality – the most valuable gift we have.
References (Frankly, I don’t think references belong in blog posts, but if you get really curious about where all these blasphemous ideas come from, this will save you the trouble of searching Google Scholar):
Bergsten, Staffan (1978) Mary Poppins and Myth.
Hollindale, Peter (1997) Signs of Childness in Children’s Literature.
Nikolajeva, Maria (1988) The Magic Code. The Use of Magical Patterns in Fantasy for Children.
Nikolajeva, Maria (2011) Beyond happily ever after: The aesthetic dilemma of sequels, in Textual Transformations in Children’s Literature, edited by Benjamin Lefebvre.
Todorov, Tzvetan (1973) The Fantastic. A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.
Did you enjoy this review? Be sure to check out our other contributions to Movie Review Month here on the CRCLC Blog, including Madeleine Hunter’s review of Disney’s take on E.T.A. Hoffman’s enigmatic children’s story, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and Anna Purkiss’s review of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald, through the lens of disability studies.