Intertextuality and Psychology in P. L. Travers’ «Mary Poppins» Books

by Julia Kunz (Author)
©2014 Thesis 106 Pages


As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the first appearance of Mary Poppins, interest in P. L. Travers’ most famous creation is still strong and the time is right for a reassessment of a work that is rich in meaning for child and adult readers alike. This book attempts to analyse some of the reasons behind the longevity and the ongoing appeal of the Mary Poppins material, with particular reference to intertextuality and the presence of what Freud described as «the uncanny». By comparing and contrasting the Mary Poppins material with previous texts, it can be seen that Travers has been drawing, consciously and subconsciously, on the great myths and archetypes of the collective human storytelling experience. The idea therefore emerges that the Mary Poppins stories touch on some fundamental aspect of the psyche – an aspect where the symbiosis of security and fear, the familiar and the unknown, are made manifest to the reader, whether as children finding their way into adulthood or as adults recalling their beginnings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Intertextuality
  • III. On Not Writing for Children
  • 3.1 Children’s Literature
  • 3.2 Travers and Children’s Literature
  • IV. Mary Poppins
  • 4.1 The Setting
  • 4.2 Narrative Structure
  • 4.3 Pamela Lyndon Travers
  • V. Small Feet in the River of Literature, or References to the Classics of Children’s Literature
  • 5.1 Of Neverlands, Shadows and Childhoods
  • Neverlands
  • Shadows
  • Practically Perfect
  • Childhood Versus Change
  • 5.2 Magical Liquids and the Quest for Meaning in Alice and Mary Poppins
  • One Tea-Spoon to Be Taken at Bed-Time
  • Creating Order from Chaos
  • Subverting the Norms
  • 5.3 Lightness
  • 5.4 Marble Statues and the Subtlety of Magic
  • VI. The Importance of the Fairy Tale
  • 6.1 The Fairy Tale
  • 6.2 The Fairy Tale as a Therapeutic Means
  • 6.3 Once Upon a Time the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon
  • The Dancing Cow
  • Robertson Ay’s Story
  • The Cat That Looked at a King
  • Lucky Thursday
  • Every Goose A Swan
  • Happy Ever After
  • 6.4 Notions of the Female
  • VII. Myth in Mary Poppins
  • 7.1 Myth
  • 7.2 Mary Poppins as the Trickster
  • 7.3 Looking to Greek and Roman Mythology
  • The Cow That Jumped Over the Moon and Io
  • “Come” “Tonight”
  • The Constellations, Maia and the Merry-Go-Round
  • Maia
  • A New Star
  • 7.4 Cosmic Dances, Blavatsky and Gurdjieff
  • “All One”
  • Gurdjieff and Mary Poppins
  • On Rebirth
  • VIII. Mary Poppins on the Couch–A Freudian Approach to the Mary Poppins Books
  • 8.1 Mary Poppins and Freud
  • 8.2 Mary Poppins and “The Uncanny”
  • Nellie-Rubina and Animate Plasticine Men
  • The “Double”
  • The “Dread of the Evil Eye”
  • Strange but Familiar
  • IX. Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources

List of Abbreviations

Mary PoppinsMP
Mary Poppins Comes BackMPC
Mary Poppins Opens the DoorMPD
Mary Poppins in the ParkMPP
The Cambridge Companion to Children’s LiteratureCCC
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery RhymesODN
The Oxford Companion to Fairy TalesOCF
The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and MythologyDM

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I must have been 8 or 9 when I was given my first copy of P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins, and I would not rest until I had got my hands on all the books of the Mary Poppins collection that where then available. Like the little boy who, in an angry letter to Travers, wrote: “Madum (he spelt it M-A-D-U-M), you have sent Mary Poppins away. Madum, I will never forgive you. You have made the children cry” (Travers 1975, 16), I was deeply upset when I realised that Mary Poppins was not going to come back after the third volume. Having studied a fair amount of the classics of children’s literature, I still remember the exceptional impact Mary Poppins had on me as a child. Here was a wonderfully magical woman who was strange, relentless, austere, and positively eccentric. I admired this character fervently and I was quite jealous of Jane and Michael, who got to experience the most extraordinary adventures owing to their nanny’s magic. Mary Poppins was scary and threatening, too, but at the same time she conveyed a sense of the familiar and of security, and this ambiguity made her all the more interesting and not one bit less loveable. Her vanity made me smile. Mary Poppins did not have the striking beauty of many of the Grimm’s fairy tale princesses, but neither was she a wicked old hag, like the Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore. She did not need any fairy dust in order to fly, like Peter Pan, and she did not use spells and potions, like Harry Potter. She was, quite simply, a magical figure in her own right. The memory of this book’s imaginative power has never left me, but it was not until late in my studies that I was given the opportunity to immerse myself deeper in the meaning of Travers’s Mary Poppins stories. This book is above all an attempt to assemble the core components that account for the text’s ongoing appeal and to analyse their relationship to each other. It is an attempt to reveal the intertextual interplay that is at work and to disclose its psychological effect on the reader.

The magical figure of Mary Poppins is familiar to many owing to the popular Disney picture of 1964 which starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. However, Disney adapted only a small number of Travers’s original adventures, adding to the script his own sugary and fantastical, entertaining ← 11 | 12 → yet largely superficial episodes that were void of the dark and eerie tone of the original stories. Notably, the author of the Mary Poppins collection was deeply unhappy about the cinematic result of her collaboration with Walt Disney, as she openly expressed on a number of occasions to her friends as well as to the public. Mainly, she felt that the musical ruined the fundamental nature of her character, leaving only a sugar-coated shell “filled with [Disney’s] ideas, very far from the original substance” (Travers qtd. in Sibley 54). This can be demonstrated most clearly with the help of Travers’s own words, who in response to Walt Disney’s project maintained:

The humour, the absurdity, and the pathos, comes from the fact that she is, indeed, like a Dutch doll, not pretty in the least, and it is this that makes her vanity so funny.

It is Mary Poppins’ plainness of a person, her absolute rightness, without ever being pert, her calm and serene behaviour in the midst of the most unlikely adventures that make the fun of the story. If her gravity is not maintained, all the point is lost. She is always feminine, prim, neat, demure, sniffy, arrogant, but always keeps within her own frame. (Travers qtd. in Dooling Draper 13)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
Märchen Mythologie Theosophie fairy tale myth Travers, P.L. Intertextualität
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 106 pp.

Biographical notes

Julia Kunz (Author)

Julia Kunz studied English and French at the University of Leipzig. Her research interests are focused on children’s literature, representations of the child in literature and culture, and contemporary Irish fiction.


Title: Intertextuality and Psychology in P. L. Travers’ «Mary Poppins» Books