Giorgia Grilli, Myth, Symbol and Meaning in Mary Poppins: the Governess
as Provacteur
(Routledge, 2007. First published in Italy in 1997)

Valerie Lawson, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers (Simon and Schuster, 1999)

Faced with two books on a similar theme, where one is a critical analysis and the other a biography, I am generally inclined to the critical analysis. As an academic historian I regard biography with a certain amount of suspicion: biography is a form of fiction, it creates for the reader a life story but simultaneously hides the Story nature of the text. Biography can close down the possibilities of reading. Critical analysis, when done well, opens up doorways and possibilities. However of these two books it is Valerie Lawson’s biography of Travers that serves both the woman and the texts best. I would go so far as to say that Grilli’s book is unusable unless you have first read the Lawson (or at least are familiar with Travers’ life).

Lawson’s biography does an excellent job of sketching the life of P.L. Travers (née Helen Lyndon Goff, Travers was her father’s name). Born in Australia in 1899 to a downwardly mobile child of a wealthy Australian merchant, and a downwardly mobile father, Travers was the eldest of three daughters. Her father was from London but claimed Irish heritage and imbued in Travers a romantic and unrealistic adoration of Ireland and revived Celtic culture, and unfortunately died (of alcoholism) before she could gain any kind of perspective. Travers was to maintain a romantic approach to “primitive’ cultures all her life and it made her susceptible to religious con artists, charismatic men, and non-Christian religion. Luckily -- or perhaps revealing of her intrinsic good taste -- she appears to have had a warning bell in her head and remained sane about the most egregious sexual adventurer in her life (a womanizer called Francis MacNamara) and never succumbed entirely to the hypocrisies of the guru Gurdijieff even while he was siphoning off the income of her friends. Travers mostly seems to have attached herself to kind, intelligent, caring men and women, of which more later.

Travers’ early life in Australia was crucial to her writings. As Lawson points out, Travers wrote many of the cast of her childhood into her Mary Poppins books. Lawson, moving effortlessly back and forth between Travers' journalistic sketches, diaries, letters and fiction shows Travers as a fictioneer of her own life; many of the stories she wrote were a creative amalgam of her own childhood. This applies to both the large and small canvasses she created, the affect of growing up in the antipodes literally sparkles in her visual imagination, the stars she takes her children to are clear and glowing, not the London stars circa 1940 at all. The distances between the every day and the fantastic reflect the distances in a country (the country of her earliest childhood) where the nearest other people may be a hundred miles away. But writ small the Mary Poppins stories also bring into focus the arbitrary and rather insecure upbringing Travers endured. Lawson comments on the combination of sadism and control in Mary Poppins, “making order from disorder, making magic then never admitting magic took place” (149). Poppins is a descendent of Alice, only where Alice depicted the child dealing with the arbitrary world of adults, Poppins is the personal power of the adult over the child, up close and intimate. The real world is one of rules, the fantasy world one of anarchism. Travers’ work was often compared by contemporaries to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, but she preferred to see her antecedents in the world of Beatrix Potter (157) “The essence of Beatrix Potter that appealed most to Pamela was the “non explaining” (158) but it may also have been the arbitrariness of the big wide world, its merciless unforgivingness. As Lawson recounts, when Travers’ father died when she was only six, she was first pushed into a position of authority while her mother wept, and then ground back down as the eldest child of an almost disgraced woman in the house of her very wealthy great-aunt.

One issue for Travers was the constant attacks on her creativity. While Giorgia Gilli will celebrate a household in which literary quotation was ubiquitous, Lawson points out the degree to which this illustrated the understanding of a literary education as a socially approved accomplishment. Travers’ own creativity was constantly squashed with derogatory comparisons to the greats, and at 16 she was sent to work as a secretary. At this stage however Travers had ambitions to be an actress. She seems to have been pleasant to look at, but one of those women whose beauty was in her charisma and eagerness; as an actress she developed well enough for the provincial repertory companies of Sydney, but by the time she set off for England in the 1920s she was already finding greater success as a reviewer, commentator and critic.

In England and Ireland Travers turned her eagerness to good use. She stormed fortresses and secured introductions of which the most important was to the Irishman AE Russell, commonly known as AE, who introduced her to Yeats, to the world of Irish letters, and to Theosophy. AE was to be the most important force in Travers’ life, and perhaps her greatest love. Discussing Travers’ love life demonstrates both the greatest strength of Lawson’s work and her one weakness. Lawson is extremely cautious, but she is even-handedly so. There is no conclusive evidence about Travers’ sexual activity: her letters are full of metaphors and she was not much of a diary keeper. But she had very strong attachments to several men, mostly much older than herself, and she lived with two women, first Jessie Orage, the widow of one of these men, Alfred Richard Orage, and later an American, Gertrude Hermes. Of all of these relationships Lawson writes with great intensity. But Lawson very wisely refuses to speculate on any of them while refusing to write out the possibility of sexual relations. Lawson does however, point to the incredibly erotic poetry written by the young Travers, which does not seem like the work of someone inexperienced. The weakness is that Lawson cannot resist framing Travers’ interest in older men in Oedipal terms: for Lawson, Travers is in constant search of a father figure, a Mr. Banks. While this is possible, Lawson doesn’t really take on board both character and social issues: Travers was clearly the kind of person who desperately wanted to learn, there is a real hunger for knowledge which comes through her private writing, and in 1920 one of the best ways for a woman to learn anything was to find people who had something to teach. The social factor is that many a very bright young woman has discovered that younger men feel far too threatened for any kind of successful relationship, only older men secure in their own achievements will take the risk.

To return to the relationship with AE, its most important aspect for the critic was to take Travers further into her pagan understanding of the world. This was nurtured by the theosophists, by the guru Gurdijieff, and later, when she went to America during the war, by a stay on a Navajo reservation: reading of this it is clear that white folk were being encouraged to treat the Navajo as zoo animals, a resource for tourists, in a bizarre New Age Liberal sort of way, but the experience had a profound impact. Travers wrote of listening and brought back with her an enhanced sense of pan-theism and what we might call proto-Gaiaism. It also deepened her attachment to the notion of a triple womanhood, child, mother, crone, which she had extrapolated from Irish legend: it was the wisdom of the crone she had appropriated for Mary Poppins, Before the war Travers had adopted a child, Camillus, the unwanted offspring of a friend’s profligate grandson, the motivation in fact for her decision to evacuate to Canada. The adoption turned out badly -- when Camillus met his brother by accident the story unravelled and he turned to drink -- but seems to have been all of a piece with a determination to shape a life rather than follow a script.
Lawson follows this life through the anxieties over the Disney movie -- Travers was very careful to support it, even while she fretted over the changes and came to loathe its predominance over the books (Disney produced novelizations of the film and they outsold the books four to one) -- and on into Travers’ Cronehood when she took up the offer of a Writer in Residence place at Radcliffe. It is clear Travers hoped to become the kind of guru she had adored, but she lacked the talent to draw out others and the experience seems to have been miserable both for her and her audiences.

So far I’ve talked mostly about Lawson’s recreation of Travers’ life, but she also does a good job of exploring the books along the way. Lawson draws attention to the wide time span over which the books were written, three before the war, two after, a term of 54 years in all, and is excellent at demonstrating how Travers’ concerns about the nature of the universe shaped the books. She cites this revealing line, “When I was in Hollywood the [script] writers said, surely Mary Poppin symbolizes 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.” (161) and it is this seam which Lawson traces. Although Lawson’s aim is not to illuminate the books, her account of Travers’ interests and obsessions offers a complex critique of Travers’ work which helps to explain why they are as unnerving as they are fascinating. The same is not true of Giorgia Grilli’s account.

Grilli’s Myth, Symbol and Meaning in Mary Poppins: the Governess as Provacateur is actually a decade old but appears here for the first time in English translation. I wish I could say it was worth waiting for, but the book is so peculiar in its use of theory, so poor in its use of the primary texts, and so sloppy in its referencing that it obfuscates rather than illuminates its subject. Direct engagement with the text is frequently problematic because Grilli does not use the text to support her analysis. So to give just one example, Grilli can write the following:

The children’s bodies gain a sense of autonomy once removed from the norms of weight, stasis and habitual postures, which in turn exposes them to new experiences. This however is accompanied by a sense of disassociation, denying them the possibility of wilfully deciding when to initiate or end the experience, or the form that this physical victory over the laws of nature will take.

All of this may be correct and insightful, but without any reference to the text, and page after page passes without such, it is impossible to judge. It is less problematic when Grilli discusses structural issues because these can be described in large sweeps, but issues of interpretation at this level desperately need textual support. When Grilli does cite from the text it is often hard to know where she is taking her quotations from. On page 9 there is a lengthy quotation which is cited as (III, pp. 199-200). It is possible that (III) is intended to be the third book but when she lists the books on p. 7 no shorthand is given, and we are not told which book Grilli is referring to, though it is probably Mary Poppins Opens the Door, which is the third in the series, If one had the book in hand, one could attempt to check, but this proves even more problematic, because the edition which Grilli cites does not exist. Just to give one example, she claims to have used Mary Poppins Opens the Door (London: Collins, 1943). The 1943 edition of this book is New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, the Collins edition is 1965 which is reset and therefore repaginated. Grilli’s page could be to either of these real editions; or perhaps even to the actual first English edition: London: Peter Davies, 1944, which is also a different setting. There is no telling which of these three real editions her page citations refer to. This is chaos.1

However, if you keep the Lawson firmly at your side as you read it, a fair amount of Grilli’s argument comes into focus and some of it can be used to elaborate on Lawson’s work.

To begin with…

Well, to begin with we are in trouble from the opening pages, from the very title page in fact, where Grilli introduces Mary Poppins as a governess. I have checked with an Italian friend and there is a clear difference between Nanny and Governess in Italy. I have also looked on the Web and it seems that some non-British readers do confuse the two, but let the readers of this review be clear, there is a huge difference between governess and nanny in terms both of social origin and social function. Nannies looked after the nursery, generally until boys went to school at the age of about seven years old and girls either went to school a bit later, or were found a governess. Governesses taught. Nannies, while they might teach letters and numbers, were carers. Socially they were worlds apart: Nannies were generally working class girls in search of social mobility; there was some change in that in the inter-war period, and today the more highly trained of the profession may come from the middle and upper class -- Princess Diana worked as a nanny for a while -- but in the period Travers was most familiar with, nannies were simply not of the same social class as governesses. Governesses were almost always genteel girls experiencing downward mobility. All of this pedantry matters because the prim, spick and span Mary Poppins is a classic caricature of the upwardly mobile working class woman. Her erratic behaviour, both controlling and wild, formal in public, scary in private is part and parcel of the ambivalent role of nannies in all cultures expected to be both docile servants yet love their charges. Mary Poppins is terribly proud of her accomplishments that she literally wears on her body. Her like can be found throughout popular literature and in most popular magazines directed at the upper working classes and the lower middle classes -- the group known in Britain as the respectable poor.2 Being neat was an obsession for this group, it implied more than just tidiness, it covered an entire frame of mind. Grilli’s misunderstanding of this construction renders the final chapter “The Governess at the Door” a mish-mash of wrongheadednes as she segues from information on governesses and nannies and back again, and throughout the book means that she sees Mary Poppins through a distorted glass.

I wish that were the only distorted glass, but Grilli approaches her subject matter with a set of ideas that she forces on the text. It begins when she positions the reader: “. . .the captivating fascination and popularity of this character are not the result of a spontaneous, immediate identification on the part of the reader, as is the case with much traditional narrative” (1-2) Grilli is correct, except that she argues for an exception that does not exist. The notion of the reader identifying with a protagonist as the correct relationship to the text is one that is only emerging at the beginning of the twentieth century and while it becomes the hegemonic position, it is by no means the only one. In this case if we are expected to identify with anyone, it is probably with the children -- something I think Grilli does understand, but which is elided here. This assumption of an undefended theoretical stance is just the first hint of what will become a trope in Grilli’s book.

Theory in the grand sense is a tool. It should illuminate a text: although a gross simplification there are two ways this can be done, you can use a Theory to ask questions such as how class shapes a text or the reading of a text; to consider how Reader Response refigures the understanding of a text, etc. etc. Or one can show how an author was influenced by a particular Theory. Grilli uses a third approach in which everything one reads “brings to mind” a particular theory or set of writings without any sense of connectedness. The first such reads as follows:

In this Elsewhere, the children’s bodies become light and take flight, the children become happier and want to laugh; their bodies feel more flexible and they begin to dance or feel less tired. . . There is a general sense of well-being. . . that calls to mind other flights from everyday life as analyzed by Carlo Ginzburg in his moving study of the Benandanti. (9)

There is no attempt to extend this discussion of Ginzburg. This is not a use of theory, this is conversational one upmanship and it becomes the hallmark of this text, so that later in the same chapter Grilli will throw in without warning “links with The Aenid and the Divine Comedy,” and “a Dantesque logic” to contextualise Jane and Michael’s visit to the night zoo without any clarification of why these are links (and personally I would have thought that Rabelesian might have been more appropriate) and with no evidence whatsoever that Travers read any of these texts -- as Lawson points out she was both poorly educated and, as an adult, much more interested in modern Irish literature. In a later chapter Calvino’s thoughts on molecules will be thrown in to serve as an enhancement to the text.

Sometimes the failure to explain is actually funny. Immediately after the reference to Dante is the line “The presence of the serpent is another feature that calls to mind paradise.” (13) Which is true, but runs counter to what happens next when the serpent gifts to Mary Poppins its old skin to wear as a belt. This scene is more likely to alarm Christians than to reassure. Although Grilli will later consider the pagan elements in the text, she seems unaware of her own work here. As Grilli goes on, it becomes the norm to throw in references to high status texts such as "The Waste Land" in brackets.

Simultaneously the strongest yet most weakly argued “theory” section is that on Mary Poppins as Shaman. Beginning with a check-box reference to Levi-Strauss (who is referred to in the bibliography as Charles) and drawing entirely from one text, Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, a text printed in 1972. Grilli ought to be on safe ground here because Travers was heavily involved in theosophical circles and, as Lawson pointed out, remained very much influenced by the Navajo many years after she made her sojourn on the reservation. But Grilli mentions none of this so that the seven page “discussion” of Mary Poppins as shaman is little more than a summary of Eliade’s book, with the constant use of the word “parallel” to indicate a perceived correspondence:

Shamans belong to this category of the elect because of their ability to enter into a state inaccessible to most people, distancing themselves from the human world in order to establish a more direct relationship with the sacred and its manifestations. Once more we find a parallel with Mary Poppins who is often described as belonging to the category of the elect. (51)

It isn’t that Grilli is wrong, it is that this is not analysis. It would be equally appropriate to create a parallel with saints, or with the Prophet Elijah who ascended to the heavens, or Moses who went to have a quiet chat with God on top of a mountain. Even perhaps with the Greek heroes who were frequently related to the Gods as Mary Poppins seems to be. When Grilli tells us that “Eliade notes how from Siberia to America to Africa, the figure of the shaman is frequently linked to the same set of elements. The serpent, for example, commonly features in the shaman’s rituals, and is a protagonist in one of Mary Poppins' adventures toward the beyond.” One feels the need -- as I have already mentioned -- to send Grilli back to her own earlier chapter. Grilli takes a similar approach to her use of the Bacchante and Dionysus as an element in the texts, overlaying them as a filter and offering as a Dionysian experience the “riding the candy cane” scene. She might have been better looking to the fairy tales she mentions earlier, where magical instruments that force dancing are common. I cannot accept her argument that “There are many ways on which this reading of The Bacchae can enrich our understanding of Mary Poppins' the parallels she draws are there, but they are also there in the Christian mythos -- to give just one example, the refusal to answer incriminating questions is central to the trial of Jesus -- and in many other tales. Similarly the confrontation with those in authority, the undoing of authority, is a classic form of trickster tale, common to many cultures and very much part of the celtic revival heritage which Travers claimed. The problem is that Grilli wants to claim classical antecedents for Travers, but that far from lifting Travers’ reputation the end result is to create a constant sense of status anxiety.

If the section on the Shaman is bizarre, the section on the Dandy is simply unusable. I checked around with a few Italian friends and this seems to be a misconception in Italian history books. According to Grilli and Italian history teaching, the dandy is a figure which runs throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, encompassing Oscar Wilde and running to Noel Coward and his set. To give Grilli another escape clause, the American Lawson, while not making this mistake, does call Coward a dandy. Grilli uses this “long Dandy” period to analyse the dress and behaviour of Mary Poppins. There are two problems with this: the dandy is very specifically a late eighteenth, early nineteenth century figure of whom the patron Saint is Beau Brumell, who transformed the dandy from a painted fop ever obsessed with his clothes, to a prim, proper and neat persona, who wore dark clothes perfectly cut. Brummell transformed the dress codes of British men, but crucial to his philosophy was his lack of affectation (and I believe he specifically advised that one should never consult one’s reflection once one was satisfied with one’s appearance, unlike Mary Poppins). In contrast, Oscar Wilde was an aesthete, keen to break down the codes that had emerged. His aim was to be looked at. Noel Coward’s set, while as neat as Brummell, were engaged in ironizing the mode. They were concerned not with matters of deportment and elegance, but play and signalling. Dandy in this wider sense, with its association with foppishness, is what Grilli wants us to embrace, and this is antagonistic to the social codes of neatness and respectability which Mary Poppins demonstrates and which very clearly adhere to the codes of the social class from which nannies were drawn.

All of the above matters because Grilli uses a conceptualisation of the dandy “a moral undertaking, the essence of which verges on the stoic” and turns this into a trickster or as she summarises Oscar Wilde, “the dandy played his own life and was on excellent terms with the world.” (57) and uses this to argue that Poppins is subversive. “Art creates life; life should thus be seen as a work of art in which all emotions, thoughts, dreams, and expressions should be lived as fully as possible.” (57) While Travers may have lived this (see Lawson’s biography again) the message propounded by Mary Poppins is more complex than this, because at the end of each adventure, it is denied. Mary Poppins is not the outrageous dandy flying in the face of society’s norms: she is secretive and supportive of -- for want of a better term -- the Victorian hypocrisy of manners. Furthermore, the very examples of “a change of mental perspective” which Grilli offers are if seen precisely with a different perspective, brutal and oppressive:
Suddenly Jane noticed that they were going in the wrong direction.

“But Mary Poppins, I thought you said gingerbread -- this isn't the way to Green, Brown and Johnson’s, where we always get it -- “ she began, and stopped because of Mary Poppins' face.
“Am I doing the shopping or are you?” Mary Poppins enquired.
“You,” said Jane in a very small voice.
“Oh really? I thought it was the other way around,” said Mary Poppins with a scornful laugh. (61)

One of the odd things about the Poppins books is that they do not encourage a child’s creativity, they allow access to a world in which other people have the adventures and the children mostly watch. I am also reminded of Diana Wynne Jones’s youngest characters (Christopher Chant as a small child for example) who misunderstand the adult world in highly creative ways: it is that childish misprision that Travers captured and turned into the fantastic, but it rests entirely on the bullying of two children.

One thing neither author comments on is how odd childhood was for the middle classes, if they had no siblings it was not uncommon for them to spend their entire first seven years with no other children to play with, unless under carefully controlled conditions. Many children spent relatively little time with their parents. In these circumstances, dependence on a nanny could be absolute, the world the nanny created, the only world. Large families might mitigate this dependency, as might poverty (E. Nesbit’s Bastables are both poor to afford a nanny and a tightly knit cluster of children but they still seem to have no friends outside the family) but for the Banks children, the twins and the baby are far too young in these books to provide allies for Jane and Michael or even to stimulate the older children into protecting the younger from Mary Poppins' sarcasm.

While Grilli notes the way Poppins simultaneously enforces norms while providing access to adventure for which she then denies responsibility, what she doesn’t seem to grasp is that this works as a metaphor for the arbitrariness of childhood dependency on adulthood. It is not comforting, If anything, it is a really horrible thing for an adult to tell a child they have imagined something they know to be true. And in the scene I quoted above, Mary Poppins utterly squashes Jane, replicating what Travers told us about the way her own creativity was suppressed. So why do Jane and Michael love Mary Poppins? Well, the evidence is that if the only affection children receive is from abusers, they still love them, and the more inconsistent the behaviour the more children -- programmed to seek patterns -- work to try and decode the situation to figure out what they need to do to gain the loving behaviour in a more permanent way. Travers’ depiction is realistic, and from the point of view of the reader it is fascinating and entertaining, but it has a dark side which Lawson only touches on, and Grilli fails entirely to come to terms with.

[Farah Mendlesohn]

1Thanks to John Clute for the bibliographic details.

2It is a deviation, but the modern fantasy author most obsessed with this is Terry Pratchett. His protagonist Commander Vimes of the Watch, now a Duke, is precisely from this section of society. In Feet of Clay he rages at the people who keep their homes neat enough to eat off the floor when there is nothing to eat, but he cannot escape the attitudes he himself grew up with, and it shapes his response to the aristocracy -- a kind of seething rage, but never full rebellion.