I came across a Facebook argument on whether *Mary Poppins* was a worthwhile book to read to children, and I was reading through and thinking about whether to weigh in, when I saw someone had quoted me . . . with a link . . . from a forum discussion 9 years ago. I basked in the moment of Internet immortality.
Then I thought perhaps I should reread it again and see if I still agree with myself. It is all too easy to get out of the habit of reading children's books when one no longer has small children to read them to. And I have to admit that *Mary Poppins* was probably not one I read out loud to the children (I'm pretty sure we got audiobook from the library) nor one that any of them particularly latched on to. (Top ones there would be *Robin Hood*, *Winnie the Pooh*, and *Wind in the Willows*.)
It always has a special place in my heart, though, because though there are many families with four children in literary canon and even quite a few with two boys and two girls, they are the only ones with girl, boy, girl-boy twins to match our lineup. (Though I'm pretty sure Jane and Michael are more like 5 and 7 rather than 3 and 4 that I had to contend with. And I did not have a Mary Poppins nor even a Robertson Ay.)
But it does tend to draw a lot of flack. Mainly because people watched the movie first. And the Mary Poppins of the book is not much like the Mary Poppins of the movie. She is prickly and stern and uncommunicative.
One of the newer criticisms I saw was that Mary Poppins is a "narcissistic witch." Well, if you don't like magic you won't like Mary Poppins, but she never casts a spell or rides a broom. I feel she would sternly disapprove of both as unnecessary folly. It is just that strange and wonderful things happen around her, things she usually refuses to discuss.
Narcissistic . . . no. She is vain, undoubtedly. It is quite often pointed out. But it is an innocent, childish vanity that likes to look nice and has no need to feign otherwise, like Yum-Yum in The Mikado. Narcissism is one of those words that gets bandied about so that everyone's former boss, tenant, landlord, and spouse is afflicted with it. But it is grossly overused and it certainly does not apply to Mary Poppins. A narcissist is someone who makes everything all about them. And Mary Poppins is the reverse of that. Everything about her is deflected back outward. When she gives up her new gloves so that the girl from the stars can have a Christmas present, she downplays it entirely. The little world of the Banks children never revolves around her and she does nothing to make it do so. A narcissist in the nursery would be busy manipulating the situation, playing the family members against each other, treating the children's bad behavior as a personal affront, bribing the children's affection one moment and using it against them the next.
Then there are complaints against the Banks parents as distant and uninvolved, which really I think come from the movie, not the books. Yes, the Banks parents rely on servants, like everyone else of their time and class (and frankly everyone else of upper classes through most of time. We only got rid of widespread servitude with automated home appliances.) But they care more about their children than about funds, they are present in the day-to-day lives of their children, and it is not from lack of care for their children that they got help with all the buttoning and unbuttoning. Mr. Banks requests the children meet him for lunch as a treat--his idea, not theirs or Mary Poppins. Mrs. Banks is around enough that the children can pester her all morning with questions.
Tolstoy was wrong about happy families (he had probably never met one)--they can all be quite different. The Banks might not be a modern attachment parenting family, but they are a happy one, and it is quite a good thing for children (and their parents) to learn that not everyone has to be just like them.
Another new buzzword I have seen applied is that Mary Poppins "gaslights" the children. This because she generally refuses to discuss the magical things that have happened in her presence. On a careful read, though, I found only one case where she appears to deny it, and that is after the laughing gas episode when the children refer to her uncle as "bobbing about" on the ceiling. Even then she doesn't so much deny it as criticize them using such undignified terminology about her uncle.
But I think this really misunderstands what I think is one of the key themes of Mary Poppins, which I bring up at the risk of reducing a real, whole book full of real, whole people to a mere point. At the end of the chalk painting chapter, Mary Poppins tells the children, "Don't you know everyone's got his own fairyland?" And an entire chapter is devoted to the babies learning that on or about their 1st birthday, they will forget how to talk to the birds and the wind (Mary Poppins of course being the notable exception to this general rule).
The world of Mary Poppins--and the real world--are full of Wonder. Strange and amazing things are around every corner. But it is easy, easy, easy to lose that. It can be lost through too much talk, too much poking and prodding. We can hardly help but lose it as we grow up and become more rational. Mary Poppins--for reasons we do not and probably cannot know--is a conduit to that Wonder. She has never forgotten how to talk to the wind. She cannot tell you how, but if you will be quiet for a minute, perhaps you can eavesdrop. And if not, off to bed with you.