Mary Poppins, by PL Travers, is one of my favorite books. I – like, I think, most Americans – was introduced to Mary Poppins by the Disney film starring Julie Andrews. I did even know there was a book until several years, when I came across it at a used-book shop.
Julie Andrews is to the original Mary Poppins as 7-up is to lemonade. Vaguely the same flavour, but considerably sweeter and bubbly. The adjective most used by Travers to describe her heroine is ‘sharp’. ‘Cross’ and ‘stern’ are also popular, and running a close third is ‘haughty’.
What I love most about the book is the sheer magic of it — Mary Poppins is an Important Person in a mystical world, a first cousin once removed on her mothers side from The Hamadryad, the lord of the beasts. Mary Poppins can take you to a gingerbread shop where they decorate the gingerbread with gold paper stars, and then the gingerbread makers creep into your house in the night to take all the paper stars you’ve saved, and take them up a ladder with a pail glue to paste them into the night sky.
As a writer, I love the sheer imaginative depth of this book, and the glimmering language – the way a passage such as the following description of Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane can be both sublimely practical and sublimely absurd:
To begin with, it is the smallest house in the Lane. And besides that, it is the only one that is rather dilapidated and needs a coat of paint. But Mr. Banks, who owns it, said to Mrs. Banks that she could either have a nice, clean, comfortable house or four children. But not both, for he couldn’t afford it.