2016-2017 Season,  Mary Poppins

The True Mary Poppins?

by Ting Chun Chang, dramaturg

Some of you are probably already very familiar with the movie Mary Poppins, but have not watched the musical. Others may have watched the movie and the musical, but not yet read the novel. Last time, we have explored some comparisons between the three different forms of the story and talked a little bit about the characters. This week, I would like to share with you more about the character Mary Poppins in the novel and in the musical.


In 2013, the Disney movie Saving Mr, Banks was released. It depicts the relationship between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney. It also gives the audience some background understanding of Travers’ childhood experience. It is said that her childhood experiences influenced her work on Mary Poppins, the novel, especially in how she portrays Mary Poppins.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that the character in the book is quite different from the movie and the musical. You may even understand why Travers was unhappy with how Mary Poppins was presented in the movie. In the novel, Mary Poppins, is portrayed as a grim, ugly old woman who denies she is magical but, at the same time, does not try to hide it. She is known by other magical creatures as “The Great Exception” because she maintained the magical abilities all children have. For example, she is capable of communicating with animals. When the children mention her magical powers, Mary Poppins denies them sternly and punishes the children when they acknowledge them.

mary7325827_origIn the movie and the musical, Mary Poppins is an elegant lady. Portrayed in a much more delightful way, Mary Poppins is always trying to uplift people and find fun in doing work. For example, she always tell the children “anything could happen if you let it.” She uses magic to clean the nursery and kitchen. She uses “a spoonful of sugar” to help the medicine go down. She sings happily with Bert. Her personality is well described in “Jolly Holiday” sang by Bert.

Ain’t it a glorious day? Right as a morning in May… I feel like I could fly. Have you ever seen the grass so green or a bluer sky? Oh it’s a jolly holiday with Mary. Mary makes your heart so light. When the day is grey and ordinary, Mary makes the sun shine bright. Oh happiness is blooming all around her. The daffodils are smiling at the dove. When Mary holds your hand, you feel so grand. Your heart starts beating like a big brass band. Oh it’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary. No wonder that it’s Mary that we like.

Many people believe that P.L. Travers’ great aunt Ellie, whose real name was Morehead, inspired the character of Mary Poppins. Valerie Lawson, the author of Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers wrote that: 

Ellie was a martinet, carried a carpetbag and when children came to stay, she gave them lessons in etiquette, suffered no nonsense and instructed them to “Spit spot into bed!” Mary Poppins carried a carpetbag just like Aunt Ellie’s but the nanny’s bag became a magical carry-all that contained an apron, a packet of hairpins, a bottle of scent, a small folding armchair, a packet of throat lozenges, a large bottle of dark red medicine, seven flannel nightgowns, one pair of boots, a set of dominoes, two bathing caps, one postcard album, one folding camp bedstead, blankets and an eiderdown.

I do too believe Mary Poppins is the expanding imagination based on Travers’ interaction with her aunt Ellie. In fact, the whole story is based on her childhood experiences. Would it be better if we were true to her memory when producing Mary Poppins or is it more interesting to create the Mary Poppins of our own imagination? For me, there is no certain answer. But it is an important question for us to navigate as we read about and watch this magical character.


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