P L Travers was the creator of the classic children’s books about Mary Poppins, the stern yet magical nanny that had a truck full of sayings for every occasions and a mysterious flying umbrella with the head of a parrot.
I grew up reading and re-reading the Mary Poppins books as a child, and loved them. When the film came to our local cinema I must have been about ten, and my parents graciously took my brother and I to see it. Neither of them were big fans of the cinema, so it was a proper treat.
I am ashamed to say that I did not love it. I was, truth be told, wildly upset by the film and have loathed it ever since. I hid my disappointment because I didn’t want to spoil the treat, but to me that film was totally, totally wrong. Years and years later, I read that P L Travers herself, also hated the film, and for much the same reasons I did. I would like to say that had I met her, this meant we would have got on, except that I don’t think she really got on with anyone much.
The thing about the Mary Poppins’ books is that yes, they are magical, and yes at times they are funny, but that is just the very surface of the books. They are so very, very sad you see. They are also incredibly dark. They talk about life and death, and loss and being lost and difficult, terrible feelings that are all there in children’s lives, but which a lot of adults, particularly then, did not really want to acknowledge. They preferred, like the film to believe that children’s lives can be one, long round of magical experiences and fun, and only touch on sadness and loss when it is absolutely unavoidable, and only then for a moment.
Travers knew, from her own childhood experiences, about loss and what it does to children, and she never shied away from the awfulness of it, while also acknowledging the world could be magical and mysterious and joyful, and it is this balance which makes the books so very special, and which the film completely missed out.
I’m talking about this because Aunt Sass, a short book of three of the standalone stories that Travers sent to people as Christmas gifts, really gets to the heart of what her writing is about. None of the stories feature Mary Poppins, yet all are infused with the same spirit and themes that make Poppins so enduring. Interestingly, not all the stories in the Mary Poppins books feature Mary either, or only as book ends to the main themes, and these are in that tradition. They come closest to being autobiographical, dealing as they do with Travers’ Australian childhood.
So, if you’re expecting cutesy magic, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting the raw, unexpurgated Travers, you’ll be delighted. They’re not really stories for young children, not nowadays anyway. They have more in common with Jane Eyre, for example than they do with Captain Underpants, but for older children, they’re perfect.