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


Julia Kunz

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.
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IV. Mary Poppins


IV.Mary Poppins

When I was in Hollywood the [script] writer said, surely Mary Poppins symbolises the magic that lies behind everyday life. I said no, of course not, she is everyday life, which is composed of the concrete and the magic. (Travers qtd. in Lawson 161)

Mary Poppins, a character that has by now reached iconic status and whose name usually evokes the image of a flying nanny with a parrot-headed umbrella and a carpet handbag, as a literary figure first appears in P. L. Travers’s work Mary Poppins.

As Neil Gaiman points out in his foreword to Georgia Grilli’s insightful work Myth, Meaning and Symbol in Mary Poppins, the nanny is a “natural phenomenon”, anancientfigure “on first name terms with the primal powers of the universe”. Her lessons are true and “beneath truth”, and there is always more to Mary Poppins than meets the eye, a notion that Walt Disney failed to convey in his musical adaptation of the books in 1964.

Walt Disney’s adaptation of Travers’s books has been regarded as superficial and shallow by many, as the musical seems to drain the character of its essence which is, in fact, far from the notorious “spoonful of sugar”, but rather disturbing, fascinating, ambiguous and most of all, obscure (cf. Grilli 2). As Caitlin Flanagan argues: “Mary Poppins, already beloved for what she was–plain, vain and incorruptible–[was] transmogrified into a soubrette” (qtd. in Grilli 2). In fact, the original...

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