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The Real Mary Poppins Reminds Us to Wonder

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Performers dressed as Mary Poppins descend to the ground during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games. (Mike Blake/Reuters) P. L. Travers’s nanny is always ready with a pert word and charming tale.

‘Spoonful of Sugar.” Bert, the chimney sweep. “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Admiral Boom. Votes for Women! These names, songs, and phrases are fixtures of American culture, beloved by generations of adults and children alike, and they bring to mind a certain prim, proper, magical English nanny. But what about Neleus? And the Park Keeper? And Mr. Twigley, Mrs. Corry, the Balloon Woman, and The Cat That Looked at a King? For you see, before Julie Andrews, there was P. L. Travers, and it was Travers who created the enigma we know as Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins first alighted at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane in 1934, changing the lives not only of the Banks children but of countless readers around the world. Those exposed only to Julie Andrews’s charming portrayal of Mary Poppins (for indeed, you must always refer to Mary Poppins by her full name) in the 1964 Disney film may find the character in Travers’s book rather jarring — even downright unpleasant. Vain, haughty, snobby, abrupt, Travers’s nanny causes our Disneyfied senses to revolt in favor of the sweeter film character. But this is to give the “real” Mary Poppins short shrift, and naysayers will miss out on some of the most whimsical stories ever penned.

Born Helen Lyndon Goff in turn-of-the-century Australia, Travers herself was a rather crusty character. After a difficult childhood (her father died of tuberculosis when Travers was about seven), she began a career as an actress and changed her name to Pamela Lyndon Travers. She began writing poetry in the early ’20s, eventually venturing into prose and journalism. Her early interest in fairy tales expanded into a lifelong study of the mythologies and legends of different cultures, and it is perhaps this interest that most informed her Mary Poppins books.

While Mary Poppins is the central, defining character holding the books together, other

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