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Dossier thématique

Mary Poppins : The Inter-War, Outer-Mind Sojourner

Valerie Czerny


L’article propose un rapprochement entre le personnage de Mary Poppins, créé par Pamela Travers en 1934, et la théorie du jeu élaborée par Huizinga dans ces mêmes années 1930. Personnage magique, à la fois héritière des vieilles fées de la tradition populaire et rattachée à la figure littéraire de la gouvernante, Mary Poppins introduit du jeu dans le quotidien, instaurant des règles dans le désordre d’un monde qui a oublié le jeu. Un second rapprochement est opéré avec les concepts de « pulsion de vie » et de « réparation » développés par Mélanie Klein, dont les travaux commencent à avoir un certain écho dans la Grande-Bretagne de l’entre-deux-guerres. Entre psychologie, littérature, sciences du jeu, voire idéologie pacifiste, des lignes de frontières se dessinent ainsi, tout en en ouvrant d’autres perspectives sur le monde et sur l’existence.

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1In a speech that he was writing and editing on an April day in 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote that the

« old, old chorus [of] all the world’s sad aggregation of timid souls […] tells us […] there can be no end to [war]. » But, he continues, « that cult of the faint-hearted […] has become – for the first time – a minority belief. We have struck boldly forward in the inner world of our thinking […], and we have discovered that the world is not flat. »

2It may seem a bit odd to begin a discussion about the character Mary Poppins – created by P.L. Travers during the inter-war period – with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, yet Roosevelt’s controlling point is not, actually, all that odd or divergent from some of the central issues that dominated the years following the first World War and extending into the late 1930s. Roosevelt refers to an ancient concept – that of the chorus. On the stage in ancient Greece, the chorus was composed of groups of dancers and singers who commented upon the events taking place in the midst of a dramatic performance – moving together in order to provide a background for motivation, representing the understructure of both universal and popular views that « average » persons understood and shared with one another. Roosevelt’s reference in 1945 to the chorus captures an element of what Carl Jung in the early 1900s had called the « collective unconscious » and affirms Jung’s postulation that the human race, through « mental forms », is somehow connected at the unconscious level (Jung 57). Roosevelt’s chorus, however, refers not to an archetype of, say, a mother or goddess, but to an instinctual behavior pattern of « timid souls », who cannot conceive of peace as a possibility of existence. Such souls, like distant members of the chorus on the ancient Greek stage, speak forth through the unconscious, singing about the very disappearance of civilization. Yet, Roosevelt claims, the « inner world of our thinking », in a Magellanic fashion, has made a new discovery about the transformative powers of our minds – that the world is indeed « not flat » and that peaceful, creative, innovative civilization is, in fact, possible.

  • 1 These books for children were published by the National Council for the Prevention of War, which wa (...)

3Mary Poppins’s keen mindfulness harmonizes with FDR’s declarative faith in the intrepid, shared transformation in the « inner world of our thinking » in that she, both a youthful yet ancient crone, represents and demonstrates a needful background consciousness informed by an imaginative principle of interconnectedness. Indeed, one might say that Travers’s 1934 creation of Mary Poppins is the necessary mental form that assisted in awakening the bold consciousness that FDR claimed was finally emerging in 1945 – a consciousness with the conceptual ability to recall and recognize a spacious universe both within and without itself. In the character of Mary Poppins, who is clearly not a « timid soul », Travers illustrates a state of being and consciousness that professes a non-experiential condition – a condition that commands an illusionary orientation in the midst of a worldly, prescriptive, well-versed ideology that disavows what does not conform to the dominant « master consciousness ». This analysis thus presents an alternative way of understanding what contemporary Books of Goodwill1 – advertised in 1930 as « dramatically » providing knowledge for youth that old « habits of mind » do not « fit an interdependent world » – attempted to provide in a pragmatic manner. Placed within the theoretical contexts of Melanie Klein’s conceptual interpretation of the resourcefulness of « phantasy », Joan Riviere’s apperception of psychological dependence as it advantageously desires indistinguishability, and P.L. Travers’s own philosophy about « imaginative substance », this exploration examines the instructive force that transforms both consciousness and desire – a « Poppins » force that recognizes and spurns the « old, old chorus » of murderous suppression and pointedly reminds us that the journey of the thinking mind is always transformative, ever familiarly unprecedented, and never, on any occasion, flat.

4FDR’s insight about the « old, old chorus » markedly differs from archetypal conceptions of old, old crones in that crones have a place in time past, in time present, and in the future in order to instigate an inner change that puts an end to old ways of thinking. In fairy tales and in literature, most often a crone’s purpose is to send a person on a task that involves actions that encourage the person having the encounter to give or to see beyond his or her needs in order to perceive the needs and conditions of others. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s tale of the Wife of Bath, for instance, the old crone tells a knight, who is a rapist, that she will provide the means for his pardoning if he promises to do the « nexte thyng that I requere thee » (line 1010), which is to marry her since she has saved his life (lines 1054-56). When the knight eventually learns to honor the old crone as the sovereign one in their marriage and submits to love her as « [m]y lady and my love, and wyf so deere » (line 1230), she transforms herself into a young woman, and they live « unto hir lyves ende / In parfit joye » – that is, « in full joy to the end » (lines 1257-58). The tale that the Wife of Bath relates is, we could say, a tale that is connected to the idea of play, for the old crone – before her transformation – compels the knight to choose between living with a wife who is either loathsome and faithful or beautiful but potentially faithless. The crone sets up a game that the knight has not been familiar with – a game of fair play that requires fair decisions that affect an entire culture. In 1938, Johan Huizinga indicated that play can and should be perceived as a cultural phenomenon. According to Huizinga, the

« great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start. Take language, for instance. […]. In the making of speech and language, […] every metaphor is a play upon words. […]Or take myth. […] In all the wild imaginings of mythology a fanciful spirit is playing on the border-line between jest and earnest » (4-5).

5Huizinga argues that play is an element in all areas of culture – including, for example, poetry, ritual, philosophy, art, law, and war. But what is ultimately essential in all forms of play is order. Play, says Huizinga,

6« creates order, is order. […] The least deviation from it « spoils the game », robs it of its character and makes it worthless. […]Play has a tendency to be beautiful. […]Play casts a spell over us; it is « enchanting » « captivating ». [But] [t]he player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a « spoil-sport ». […] The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter […] still acknowledges the magic circle. [However] the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. […] He robs play of its illusion. […] Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community. » (10-11; emphasis in original)

7The knight in the Wife of Bath’s tale is not cast out because the crone’s purpose is to teach him the rules of the game, and by being receptive to his wife’s instruction, he enters into and benefits from the « magic circle » that encompasses the realm of play. However, in the late 1930s, Huizinga points out in his analysis of contemporary civilization that in « [m]odern social life », the « limitation and mastery of the self » – a play-element that defines civilization since it freely accepts that it is « enclosed within certain bounds » – had been compromised by social and political prestige, barbarity, crude sensationalism, mass-demonstrations, « group-consciousness », and « gregariousness » in the form of « yells or other signs of greeting » and expressions of intolerance (205, 211). Puerilism had been attempting to replace play, where the « mentality and conduct of the adolescent » had resulted in « great nations losing every shred of honour, all sense of humour, the very idea of decency and fair play » (205). Nevertheless, he continues, « true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. […] True play knows no propaganda; its aim is in itself, and its familiar spirit is happy inspiration » (211). Indeed, « happy inspiration » is what the knight receives at the end of the Wife of Bath’s tale when he listens to his crone wife and steps into the « magic circle ». And « happy inspiration » is what Mary Poppins – a true crone who is an agent of fair play, enchantment, and above all, order – imparts.

8Mary Poppins’s playfulness is enigmatic both to the children she cares for and to certain adults who conform to the status quo – that is, to the dominant « master consciousness » that Huizinga indicates is the « [m]odern social life » that has replaced play with what he calls group-consciousness, adolescent puerilism, and prestige. Since the activities of human society are supposed to be « permeated with play », as Huizinga maintains, a rejection of play for a false substitute skews acknowledgement of the « magic circle », which has no goal outside of itself, except to welcome freely the limitation of – and therefore acquire mastery of – the self. Mary Poppins’s « chief characteristic », as Travers herself expressed it, is never to explain. In a speech she gave at Radcliffe College at Harvard in 1966, Travers told her audience: « Mary Poppins is never explicit. Perhaps she has Oriental blood. Did you know there is a Chinese symbol called pai ? It has two meanings: one is explain, the other in vain. […] I like understatement, hints » (qtd. in Lawson 158). Whereas Chaucer’s crone in the Wife of Bath’s tale explains, essentially, what fair play is all about to the knight, it is important to recognize that the knight lives in the sort of culture where the « magic circle » has not wholly been cast aside, so the crone’s explanations about the errors of the knight’s thinking can be of assistance. However, Mary Poppins « is never explicit » since she recognizes that the play-element in culture cannot actually be explained to those who have rejected play itself and have replaced it with a substitution of the « lowest order », as Huizinga describes it (205). Nevertheless, she makes herself a part of everyday, modern life in the household of the Banks family in order to introduce the « extraordinary » into the « ordinary ». As Travers explains it, « We cannot have the extraordinary without the ordinary. Just as the supernatural is hidden in the natural. […] Mary Poppins symbolizes the magic that lies behind everyday life », and she is thus an extraordinary servant who has « lived for centuries » and who is the very « nurse of Beauty, Truth, and Love » (qtd. in Lawson 160-61). Poppins is thus the sort of everyday, magical servant who truly knows how to play – by offering no explanations and by strictly abiding by the rules.

9When Mary Poppins arrives at Number Seventeen Cherry-Tree Lane, the Banks household is in disarray, and Poppins immediately brings order out of the confusion and makes sure that Mrs. Banks understands that she will submit no references and that she will receive the days off that she requires. When she meets her charges – Jane, Michael, John, and Barbara – for the first time, she unpacks her bag, pulls out a bottle of medicine, pours some of it into a spoon, and prepares to administer it to Michael. At first, Michael begins to protest, but when he notices Mary Poppins’s eyes fixed upon him, he realizes that « you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting » (Mary Poppins 11). Poppins is stern and often disapproving, and she is easily offended. In fact, Jane and Michael quickly learn that, upon their return from marvelous adventures to the familiarity of « modern social life », she adamantly denies that such excursions have taken place and falls into a resolute, sullen silence, so that the children discern that it is far « better not to argue with Mary Poppins, no matter how odd anything seem[s] » (Mary Poppins 45). Lawson observes that « Mary Poppins seems the epitome of the punishing governess, the bullying woman who has an apt saying for every occasion, and who subdues children as they were subdued in the Victorian age ». Yet although Poppins is an « absolute compendium of instructions, clichés, declamations, and proverbs » – such as « Spit spot into bed » and « Trouble trouble and it will trouble you » – she is also magically playful (149). In short, Mary Poppins knows how to play in a world that has both forgotten about and has voluntarily invalidated play.

10Mary Poppins seems to be able to live – figuratively speaking – on each side of the border as well as on the border between what Lawson calls the « real world » and the « unreal world », where « forlorn and rather lonely figures » live in the « real world », and « happier folk » and « fantastic creatures » live in the « unreal world » (150-51). Poppins communicates with animals and birds, and she knows and respects other crones – such as the Bird Woman who feeds the birds near « Sir Christopher Wren’s Cathedral, which also belongs to St. Paul », and the ancient Mrs. Corry who operates a mysterious sweetshop (Mary Poppins 104; emphasis added). Her relations are both human and non-human and include her uncle, Mr. Alfred Wigg, who floats in the air on his birthday if it happens to fall on a Friday, and a first cousin once removed (on her mother’s side), who is the Hamadryad, a snake and the Lord of the Jungle who gives her a belt made of golden snakeskin on her birthday – a day, if it happens to fall on the Full Moon, when all natural enemies move together in unison. As the Hamadryad explains, the « same substance composes us – the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star – we are all one, all moving to the same end » (Mary Poppins 170). The stars and the planets respectfully bow to Poppins and greet her with acclaim. On one particular evening out, she dances with the Sun himself, and although no child of the earth can touch the Sun, the Sun, causing envy amongst the constellations, kisses Mary Poppins on the cheek (Comes Back 200-204). The children learn that although Mary Poppins is an everyday sort of « normal » Victorian-like nanny, she is also extraordinary and is recognized as such, so they respect and love her, and desire that she remain with them. However, the ancient Mary Poppins is never controlled by the desires of anyone.

11Soon after Mary Poppins slides gracefully up the banisters and directly after Mrs. Banks introduces her to the children and then leaves the nursery, Jane asks Mary Poppins about her arrival because, says Jane, « It looked just as if the wind blew you here » (Mary Poppins 9). In response, Mary Poppins briefly says, « It did », and she begins to « unwind her muffler from her neck and to take off her hat » (Mary Poppins 10). As long as the children propose questions that are asked in harmony with the expectation that their assumptions about what they perceive are legitimate and do not, instead, inquire as if they need assurance about their own experiences, then Poppins provides direct, simple answers, for then the children are playing the game that is an element of the « magic circle » and are not behaving as the « spoil-sport ». However, when they want to know, as Michael does, if the Moon he has been dancing with has been « real » when it shrinks down to soap-bubble size, they lose sight of the mysterious but accessible borderland that does not distinguish between what is « real » and what is « unreal ». As the Sun tells the children, « to think a thing is to make it true. And so, if Michael thought he had the moon in his arms – why, then, he had indeed ». However, when Jane asks a similar question immediately after the Sun provides this information, the Sun smiles sadly and advises the children to focus on the moment (Comes Back 202). It’s no wonder that the Sun, stars, and planets greet Mary Poppins so warmly, for they know she recognizes and celebrates that she is part of them and that they are part of her. Unlike the Sun, who is sadly patient with the children’s disbelief, when Mary Poppins is accosted with such questions from them, she falls into an indignant silence, for she knows that the spoil-sport smashes the world of play and so must be cast out, for, as Huizinga clearly explains, the spoil-sport « threatens the existence of the play-community » and thus threatens civilization itself. Her relationship with the children is always and continuously unpredictable, for she never promises to stay, telling them that she will remain « till the wind changes » (Mary Poppins 14) or, after another later visit, and after tossing her locket up and down in her hand, she tells them she will tarry « till the chain breaks » (Comes Back 24). Naturally, the wind does change and the chain does break, for the « nurse of Beauty, Truth, and Love » cannot always linger. Children, Lawson indicates, « love her so much », and that love imbues Mary Poppins’s disappearances with the strength of death – « not like the death of a mother of young children but the death of a mother whose adult children have grown wise from her loving care » (145). Even though her departures are distressing for the children, Poppins must necessarily disappear, for once nurturance is given, the time arrives to comprehend what the « limitation and mastery of the self » is all about.

12Mary Poppins is loved because, through understatements and hints, she directs the children to strengthen and expand their sense of selfhood by guiding them to trust, rely upon, and believe in their experiences with the magic she immerses them in. Yet on the other hand, through her own example, she demonstrates that the limitation of the self leads to mastery of the self. Travers clearly meant for Mary Poppins to be perceived first and foremost as a servant, for those who understand service are able to transcend those « deep, disturbed undercurrents » that trouble modern culture (« Art of Fiction »). In an interview that was published in The Paris Review, Travers remarked that « [t]his is a civilization devoted to things. What [people] are looking for is something that they cannot possess but serve, something higher than themselves » (« Art of Fiction »). The disarray that Poppins enters into when she arrives at the Banks household is due to the family’s problem with being « at odds with life, [and] not with each other » (Lawson 253). Since Poppins’s magical journeys with the children lead them to discover principles about life itself, Travers, Lawson points out, was leery about psychoanalysis as an interpretive tool regarding her books. She was displeased with any sort of « ʻpsychological quirk’ or any hint of ‘Freudian unhappiness’« that might be interpreted in the relationships she created in her books about Mary Poppins (253). Travers was more inclined to listen to and entertain the theories of Carl Jung, for in 1924, she traveled to Switzerland specifically to look into his teachings (Reinhard). However, Melanie Klein, who influenced theories behind psychoanalytic approaches in Great Britain beginning in 1926 and who was the first analyst to work expressly with children, provides key ideas that are worth considering since they relate to Mary Poppins as a servant who disappears and as a « nurse of Beauty, Truth, and Love ».

13In « On the Theory of Anxiety and Guilt », a chapter of a 1948 book edited by Joan Riviere, Klein writes that « the anxiety arising from the perpetual activity of the death instinct, though never eliminated, is counteracted and kept at bay by the power of the life instinct » (291). For Klein, the « life instinct » compels us to seek reparation that results in an emotional restoration to a good condition. In an earlier essay, « Love, Guilt and Reparation », published in 1937, Klein had written that the drive for reparation is « an essential part of the ability to love », and it « widens in scope » when it is extended to others. The child’s ability to bring « into himself goodness from the outer world [then] steadily increases » (117-18). When Mary Poppins frees a lark who has been caged by the domineering Miss Andrew – a « Holy Terror » who « love[s] putting everybody else in the wrong and making them feel like a worm » (Comes Back 31) – the children witness a stammering apology from the adult Miss Andrew, who expresses remorse for quite a few contemptuous insults she had delivered before the freeing of the lark, including calling Mary Poppins a « Young Person » (Comes Back 53). Mr. Banks awards the children a sixpence each when he discovers that Miss Andrew, who had been planning a lengthy stay, has left. But when Jane and Michael admit to each other that Mary Poppins’s strong sense of self and fortitude is the real cause of Miss Andrew’s departure, they give their money to Mary Poppins, telling each other that if they kept the coins, « it wouldn’t be fair. They’re hers really » (Comes Back 58). Although Miss Andrew still has much to learn about love, her quiet admission in front of Mary Poppins and the children that she has been « impudent, incapable, and totally unreliable » (Comes Back 53) causes the children to identify with Miss Andrew, for the children face Poppins’s indignation often. Miss Andrew becomes aware of Mary Poppins’s sense of mercy, but she is not as fortunate as the children are, who also receive Poppins’s love. By giving Mary Poppins their unmerited sixpence, the children gain what Klein calls « comfort and satisfaction ». The sense of « comfort and satisfaction » that can be discovered in the self, according to Klein, arises when the capacity to imagine, « which is a great characteristic of the human mind », is given free reign. « With the capacity for reversing situations in a phantasy », writes Klein, a person « can distribute to others the help and love of which he himself is in need, and in this way can gain comfort and satisfaction in himself » (« Love » 116). The fantastical events that lead to Miss Andrew’s departure, where the lark plays a part in the caging of his captor, allow the children first to witness a reversal of roles; then to comprehend that the adult, domineering Miss Andrew is in great need of acquiring tolerance, love, and mercy; and finally to give to another – namely, to Mary Poppins – the help and love that they know they want to claim from her. Although Michael has already thought about spending his sixpence, when he and Jane give their money to Mary Poppins, she, for a long time, stares « down into their thoughts » (Comes Back 59), and we know that the children, as well as ourselves, have learned something about love and its assistance in the limitation and mastery of the self.

14The mastery of the self is best achieved, paradoxically, through an illusionary orientation within the dominant social order that is formulated by the « master consciousness ». So, for instance, when Mrs. Banks asks why Miss Andrew has departed, Mary Poppins offers no explanations, even though she is the cause of Miss Andrew’s quick leave-taking. Mary Poppins prefers to profess a non-experiential condition, even when she is the very controlling force in a given situation. Joan Riviere’s presentation of the advantageousness of indistinguishability assists in explaining what Mary Poppins does not explain. In a 1937 essay entitled « Hate, Greed and Aggression », Riviere points out that, within our psychological temperaments, what is unusual, uncommon, and difficult to procure is the desire to seek and find « the advantages of dependence […] being used to the full » (44; emphasis in original). Riviere defines true love as one’s desire to « satisfy and fulfill the needs even of another beside himself ». However, love is continually thwarted or contradicted by « destructive impulses and [by] the dangers of loss, loneliness and helplessness. » When one is able to merge the « feeling of love » for another with a confidence in one’s own worth so that the two factors become « indistinguishable », then true love can actually surface, for then the destructive impulses that seek to overrun that love lose their non-constructive effectiveness. « [B]eing used to the full » and seeking « indistinguishability » are the desires of true love, where a confidence in one’s own worth transcends strivings after possession, for such insecure strivings otherwise act as an individual’s « chosen insurances » for self-preservation in order to « counterbalance and safeguard » that individual against anticipated danger (43-45). When Mary Poppins takes her temperature, her temperature reads: « A very excellent and worthy person, thoroughly reliable in every particular » (Comes Back 22). Mary Poppins is not enamored with physical possessions as objects that determine one’s self worth, nor does she insecurely desire to « possess » another or to control another’s life. What she does desire is for others – especially her charges – to discover their own mastery of self by recognizing the value of indistinguishability and service.

15When asked what sort of reading she would recommend for adults and children, Travers answered that fairy tales are excellent guides, for fairy tales provide « indirect teaching ». In contrast, « school teaching is a direct giving of information » but, she said, « everything I do is by hint and suggestion. That’s what I think gets into the inner ear » (« Art of Fiction »). Reaching the « inner ear » or, we might say, « inner sight » is a main objective in Mary Poppins’s indirect « lessons » – if they can be called « lessons ». Ordinary errands are never « ordinary », and a trip to a sweet shop that disappears once it is quitted is a trip into the universe. The glass case displaying the sweet shop’s medieval gingerbread illuminates the decorative gilt stars on each slab so that « the shop itself seem[s] to be faintly lit by them » and the shop’s proprietor, Mrs. Corry, is a positively ancient crone – quite older than Mary Poppins – for she bakes her gingerbread from a recipe she received from Alfred the Great, and she knew William the Conqueror and his mother. She is esteemed and respected by Mary Poppins, who waits for Mrs. Corry to ask the children where they will keep their gilt-adorned paper stars once the gingerbread slabs are eaten. When they reveal that the stars will be kept in a drawer and a shoe-box, Mary Poppins and Mrs. Corry exchange secretive glances that the children notice but do not understand. Later, when the children are in bed and are supposed to be sound asleep, they observe Mary Poppins, fully dressed in hat and coat, take a basket, sneak into the drawer and shoe-box, and quickly and quietly exit the house in order to meet Mrs. Corry and her daughters beyond the Lane at the top of a hill – visible from the children’s window. With the help of two ladders and Mrs. Corry’s daughters, Mary Poppins and Mrs. Corry climb the ladders and, using pails of glue, take the stars from the basket and paste them into the night sky. As each is glued into place, it twinkles spiritedly. Watching from the window, Michael exclaims: « They’re ours! […] They’re our stars. She thought we were asleep and she came in and took them! » (Mary Poppins 128). After the stars are pasted into the sky, Mrs. Corry dances away, her daughters following behind, and Mary Poppins tiptoes into the house, quietly slipping into the room where she sleeps with John and Barbara. Jane and Michael, of course, are not supposed to have observed any nightly activity, and they know better than to ask Mary Poppins about it, and so the chapter about Mrs. Corry comes to a close.

16Mary Poppins’s actions demonstrate that she, like Mrs. Corry, knows how to play. They know that their secretive nods and mysterious mission are observed by the children, but they explain nothing, for they wish the children not to learn as if taught in a school, but to listen with their « inner ear ». The two crones together celebrate the choices of the children, who are allowed to pick their own gingerbread slabs with the stars they like best. However, the stars are not allowed to be possessions held in a drawer or shoe-box, for possessions do not define a person’s self worth. If the children listen with their inner ear, they might understand that the paper stars represent the children themselves – frail and seemingly insignificant, but nevertheless radiant, essential members of the universe and participants in a life that is larger and more playful than « modern social life ». If they listen with their inner ear, they might also comprehend that Mary Poppins’s secretive actions demonstrate love through a desire for indistinguishability in the midst of service that celebrates individual lives as interconnected, beautiful, enchanting, and captivating – all elements of play that possess the possibility of casting a wonderfully illusionary, but true, spell over us all.

17Mary Poppins’s enigmatic behavior in the act of service also teaches readers, if they are listening with the « inner ear », that it is neither wise nor desirable to rob play of its illusion – that is, to be a « spoil-sport » when it comes to recognizing our identities through play. As Huizinga notes, « [f]air play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms », and the « familiar spirit » of true play is « happy inspiration ». For inspiration to be engaged, it must be recognized as that ample, « familiar spirit » that communicates with other participants in the universe, whose aim is to share, and not destroy, those illusions that best lead to visionary, meaningful transformations. In a 1930 broadside advertising Books of Goodwill for children, entitled Across Borderlines after the name of the second volume of the series, the American National Council for the Prevention of War used an illustration of a bi-plane flying high over distant transmission lines and over a landscape characterized by large, square plots of acreage. Another page of the advertisement indicates that outworn « habits of mind » do not « fit an interdependent world » that awaits adventuresome youth who will create new « individual, national, and international habits of life » (See Figures 1 and 2). The height of the bi-plane and the distant land in the illustration suggest the need for communication that transcends « grounded » disputes, bordered property distinctions, and « bordered » thinking. The choice of the word « goodwill » provides a focus for the young sojourning adventurer as he or she travels « across borderlines » in order to share – in peace – new, affirmative « habits of life ».

18Had Travers, perchance, been able to comment upon the first-page illustration of the « Books of Goodwill » broadside, she would have most likely approved of the amount of sky in the drawing. As Lawson points out, if there is one certain plan or action that the children can depend upon with Mary Poppins, it is that « out of the sky she came, and back to the sky she would go » (2). To journey across borderlines, in a true manner, one must be willing to use one’s entire childlike « imaginative substance » in order to envision and be attentive to the ways in which we all interconnect. The complete use of that « imaginative substance » requires thinking that transcends high above the grounded chorus of « timid souls », whose song denies peace as a possibility of existence, encourages « spoil-sport » behavior, and vocalizes an incapability to apprehend inspiration. For Travers, one’s whole « imaginative substance » cannot be divorced from play or from child-like thinking, for, as she pointed out in an article entitled « On Not Writing for Children » (1975), in reference to C.S. Lewis’s famous essay « On Three Ways of Writing for Children » (1952):

« You do not chop off a section of your imaginative substance and make a book specifically for children; for if you are honest you have, in fact, no idea where childhood ends and maturity begins. […] And from time to time, […] this whole body of stuff […] sends up – what is the right word? – intimations. And the best you can do […] is to be there to jot them down. […] Your role is that of the necessary lunatic who remains attentive and […] unconcerned, all disbelief suspended, even when […] nursemaids, against all gravity, slide up the banisters. » (4)

19Such intimations are not predictable, nor, when received, will they muzzle that « fanciful spirit » that, as Huizinga describes it, plays happily « on the border-line between jest and earnest ». The sojourning, thinking mind, Mary Poppins indirectly teaches us, never confines itself within a dominant, worldly, prescriptive state of consciousness; never flattens itself along non-transformative habits of perception that would eventually shatter civilization itself; and never, ever explains what other capable minds – if they are attentive to beauty, truth, and love – can imagine in the everyday, extraordinary realm of existence.

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Works Cited

Across Borderlines : Books of Goodwill, Volume 2. 1930. Broadside. Roberta Hodgson Collection. BRO 1930 A2. Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library / University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, GA.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. 1372-1400. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 23-328. Print.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens : A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. 1938. Boston : Beacon, 1955. Print.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Man and His Symbols. New York : Dell, 1964. Print.

Klein, Melanie. « Love, Guilt and Reparation » 1937. Love, Hate and Reparation: Melanie Klein and Joan Riviere. Psycho-Analytical Epitomes. No. 2. London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1962. 55-119. Print.

Klein, Melanie. « On the Theory of Anxiety and Guilt » 1948. Developments in Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Joan Riviere. London : Hogarth, 1952. 271-91. Print.

Lawson, Valerie. Mary Poppins, She Wrote : The Life of P.L. Travers. New York : Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.

Reinhard, Stella. « Children’s Literature Journeys: Exploring England’s Kiddie Lit Roots ». Of Cabbages and Kings: Everything You Want to Know (and More) About Children’s Literature. N.p., 13 Jan. 2008. Web. 27 May 2012.

Riviere, Joan. « Hate, Greed and Aggression ». 1937. Love, Hate and Reparation: Melanie Klein and Joan Riviere. Psycho-Analytical Epitomes. No. 2. London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1962. 3-53. Print.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. « Undelivered Jefferson Day Address, Scheduled for April 14, 1945 ». MS. Roosevelt’s Little White House State Historic Site, Warm Springs, GA.

Travers, P.L. « The Art of Fiction No. 63 ». Interview by Edwina Burness and Jerry Griswold. The Paris Review 86 (Winter 1982): n. pag. Web. 27 May 2012.

Travers, P.L. « On Not Writing for Children ». Children’s Literature 4 (1975): 5-22. Print.

Travers, P.L. Mary Poppins. 1934. Young Classics ed. London : Harcourt Brace, 1997. Print.

Travers, P.L. Mary Poppins Comes Back. 1935. Young Classics ed. London : Harcourt Brace, 1997. Print.

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1 These books for children were published by the National Council for the Prevention of War, which was the « creation of the Congregational minister Frederick J. Libby to work against arms manufacturers during the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922, and after the success of that meeting Libby continued his group in support of other causes. It acted as a Washington lobby for peace groups, but always reflected the pacifism of its founder. It spent $100,000 a year; in 1928 its office roster included twelve secretaries and eighteen office assistants. Among other radical groups the Women's Peace Society had two thousand members; the Fellowship of Reconciliation, forty-five hundred; and the War Resisters' League, four hundred. Their financial situations were relatively modest ». Read more:

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Valerie Czerny, « Mary Poppins : The Inter-War, Outer-Mind Sojourner »Strenæ [En ligne], 6 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2013, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Valerie Czerny

East Georgia State College

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