The mystique and attraction of Mary Poppins, written in 1934, appear stronger now than ever. Television shows like Nanny 911 and Supernanny feature British nannies coming to the rescue of American families. Last year's Nanny McPhee featured a British nanny with magical powers. And a theater production of Mary Poppins, co-produced by Disney, opens on Broadway this month. Yet the irony is that most people's impression of the famous nanny comes from the 1964 Disney film, not from the series of books written by Australian-born writer P.L. Travers. In Mary Poppins, She Wrote, journalist Valerie Lawson does an admirable job of recounting Travers' life and sorting out the Poppins created by Travers and the one distorted by Disney. Travers' Poppins, seemingly a composite of different people from her restless life, rarely cracked a smile and tended toward mysticism and religious symbolism rather than song. The original Mary Poppins was never charming. . . . Almost sadistic at times, Mary is never really nasty but often very sharp. She is a controlling force, making order from disorder, making magic, then never admitting magic took place, writes Lawson.
Like a diligent therapist, Lawson who corresponded with Travers and was allowed access to her papers after Travers' death in 1996 at the age of 96 digs into Travers' past and speculates about the origins of the characters populating her memorable books. She tells of Travers' start as an actress and poet, her study of Eastern religions and her tangling with Walt Disney himself over the making of the movie. In a letter to her London publisher, Travers wrote that the film was Disney through and through, spectacular, colourful, gorgeous but all wrapped around mediocrity of thought, poor glimmerings of understanding, and oversimplification. Ironically, the huge Hollywood success overshadowed the complex story of Travers' own life.
Lisa Waddle is a writer in Nashville.