|Shopping and world-building
||[Jan. 27th, 2014|12:40 pm]
Another thing that Mrs Banks doesn't do with her time is shopping; this, too, is handed over to Mary Poppins.
Thinking about this, it occurred to me that when I asked, while the two elder children accompanied Mary Poppins to the City, who was looking after the twins, this was the wrong question. If the children are to be divided into older, who take their father out for a Treat, and younger, who stay at home in the nursery, I would expect Nurse to remain in charge of the Nursery while the older children, on their best behaviour, accompany their mother on a family occasion. The Bird Woman wouldn't then be a Mary Poppins story, of course - but, as I said at the time, it isn't really a Mary Poppins story anyway. Poor Mrs Banks, squeezed out of the narrative by this cuckoo in her nest.
Mrs Corry is a first pass at the shopping motif: visiting just two shops is enough to provoke Michael into asking "Mary Poppins, are we never going home?" Even these two errands have a touch of incongruity about them - or am I alone in finding a mismatch between the severe utilitarianism of Mary's purchases at the Butcher's shop (two pounds of Best Pork sausages) and the extravagance - not to mention the random quantities - of her list at the Fishmonger's ("One Dover Sole, pound and a half of Halibut, pint of Prawns and a Lobster")? Much of the humour in the Mary Poppins books leaves me cold - I am, for example, uncomfortable with Mrs Corry herself, tiny and fierce, bullying her two lumbering daughters - but this made me laugh.
In the later books, P.L. Travers returns to the theme of shopping. First, in Mary Poppins Comes Back, the shopping list becomes even more elaborate, and the conditions under which it is to be completed more challenging: the pram is broken and Mary must manage four children, two of them toddlers, while carrying the baby and "Two packets of candles, four pounds of rice, three of brown sugar and six of caster; two tins of tomato soup and a hearth-brush; a pair of housemaid's gloves, half a stick of sealing wax, one bag of flour, one firelighter, two boxes of matches, two cauliflowers , and a bundle of rhubarb*!" plus a cake of soap, a mustard plaster, a tube of toothpaste and a big bag of macaroons. Is it even possible to buy fire lighters singly (not to mention the half stick of sealing wax)? Fortunately, Mary Poppins can do anything. Then, in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, the pram is again unavailable (Willoughby has got in and eaten a tyre) but this time the challenge is a little different: Baby Annabel is left at home, and Robinson Ay taken to carry packages, the list is shorter, but the problem is now that the Ironmonger takes exception to Mary's demand for a single mouse-trap.
Once again, the author returns to a story idea she has used before, and rings the changes on it. This doesn't, to begin with, at least, feel tediously repetitive, but partly like someone learning how to write this book - I could have done that better. I will do it better - and partly like a set of musical variations.
On each occasion, this mundane High Street shopping is the prelude to a more magical purchase. In the two later books, the way home leads to the Park and to the balloon seller and the stable of peppermint horses, the 'street vendors' who seemed to follow on from the story of the Bird Woman. But on this first shopping expedition, the progression is to another shop, and a rather uninviting one, a very small and very dingy sweet shop whose stock is described as 'shabby', 'old' and 'withered'. Even the gingerbread is 'dark' and 'dry', though the gilt stars that decorate it are magical from the first, seeming to cast a faint light, and by the time the gingerbread is handed to the children it has become "delicious, dark cakes" that Michael cannot resist nibbling.
I've already said that I don't entirely recognise the emphasis on Mary Poppins' dark side: but Mrs Corry is another matter. She is one of Mary Poppins' circle, so she must be all right ("Anything you give them, Mrs Corry, could only do them good," says Mary, and even the omniscient narrator finds this courtesy unusual); more than all right, since hers is the task of pasting the stars onto the firmament. Besides, her Gingerbread is very good. But poor Annie and Fannie are terrified of her, and she finds it amusing to put them on the spot, to ask them questions to which any answer will be wrong, and laughts at them when she has reduced them to tears.** I found it creepy when she broke off her barley sugar fingers and gave them to the twins (though Jane and Michael were intrigued). Her habit of discovering where the children stash the stars from the gingerbread, so that she (or her accomplice) can steal them, is sinister, but appears to be a necessary part of the celestial maintenance process.
There is an essay to be written on the recurrence of cake - and cakes - throughout the book, but gingerbread is a thing apart, habitually purchased, says Michael, at Green, Brown and Johnson's, rather than at the generic 'Cake Shop' visited later, and now the main product of Mrs Corry's emporium, ranged in glass cases around three sides of the shop. These aren't the flat biscuits, the gingerbread men still on sale in the local bakers' shops; nor are they the elborately moulded cakes of the history books - but then, my book on the subject is Burgundian. It sounds more like the dark, sticky cake sold as 'Jamaica gingerbread', but that is too light and delicate to be nibbled into shapes - something closer to a parkin, then? And although the moulded gingerbreads were certainly gilded, with egg yolk or with actual gilt (the more I think about this latter, the less confident I am: I'm not the expert here***), I can't find any reference to paper stars. The text speaks so confidently of these as something familiar that I can picture them as if I'd seen them; I'd like to believe that the first readers of Mary Poppins bought gingerbread with gold paper stars on it, and shared the possibility that Mrs Corry might steal their stars to deck the night sky.
Because that, for me, is where the magic lies, the glimpses of the magical in the mundane, the stars which you know are just paper, slightly sticky from gingerbread traces, but which you treasure anyway, and the mundane in the magical, the night sky bright with constellations, which a moment ago were just your own hoard of paper stars. "What I want to know," says Jane, "is this: Are the stars gold paper, or is the gold paper stars?" And what I want to answer is "Yes."
This may all be in the eye of the reader, of course. The narrative doesn't come over all self-important. If anything, there is a touch of slapstick in the tiny, ferocious Mrs Corry flanked by daughters carrying those reliable comedy props: two long step-ladders, a bucked of glue and an enormous paint-brush. The positioning of the stars is not a delicate business, with Mrs Corry 'slapping' the glue onto the sky, and Mary Shepard's illustration shows Mary Poppins and Mrs Corry reaching precariously past each other, on the verge of disaster (though disaster doesn't happen, or course. Mary Poppins would never allow it).
Re-reading, much of this was familiar; but the corresponding chapter in Mary Poppins Comes Back was completely strange to me. The children, trapped in the house because it is snowing, are quarrelsome: Jane is reading**** and Michael playing with the Noah's Ark. When the snow stops, Mary takes the children out into the Park, and follows a snowball to a building they have never seen before, which looks like a Noah's Ark, and is inhabited by strange people who seem to be made of wood and fixed to wooden bases, like Michael's Mrs and Mrs Noah. Since Mary Poppins herself resembles nothing so much as a wooden Dutch doll, you might wonder - as we did, in the comments to an earlier post - whether they are related. But this is not that kind of chapter*****. So Mary acts as if she were in a shop, and asks for an ounce of Conversations, which turn out to be sweets, similar to the 'love hearts' we used to buy (though Jane doesn't recognise the term).
No money changes hands, and no other merchandise is on show; the room seems more like a workshop than a shop, stacked with painted wooden branches and flowers, clouds and sheep and birds and butterflies. It is all of spring in one rush of colour, and that night Mary and her wooden friends distribute it in the Park. There are years when spring seems impossibly delayed, and then arrives as if overnight, and the choice of the flowers of early spring, "yellow aconites, green-and-white snowdrops and bright blue scyllas", could be interpreted as doing no more than illustrate the shock of the contrast between even these first hesitant signs of spring and the winter that precedes, the snowdrops emerging from the snow - and a drift of snow does linger under the trees. Only Uncle Dodger's cuckoo speaks of later spring, April or May.
Again, the chapter ends with the children's reaction to what they have seen. Michael picks a spray of budding leaves, and scrutinises them: "They seem quite real now," he says, and philosophical Jane replies "Perhaps they always were."
I'm not sure I want to be given this answer: I preferred the version of this story which left me to find my own answer to the question "Are the stars gold paper, or is the gold paper stars?" This reworking lacks the impact of the original, whether because I'm more interested in gingerbread than in Noah's Ark, or because stars are inherently more magical than the coming of spring, or because the simplicity of the gold paper stars works better than the profusion of brightly painted wooden parts - the leaves and the flowers and the lambs and the clouds and the birds and the butterflies... I like the more leisurely approach to the children's daily life, the slow day in the nursery which precedes the escape into the park, but the same approach feels laborious as the Adventure begins (and Jane's awareness that "We're on the brink of an Adventure..." jars). Some story-types reappear four times in the Mary Poppins books, but Travers does not revisit this one; perhaps she, too, felt she had wrung it dry?
*In fact there isn't any rhubarb, and Mary turns down the proferred substitute of damsons. What season can it be, when rhubarb (early spring) and damsons (autumn) are both in the shops? Or perhaps this item illustrates the folly of Mrs Banks, who asks for rhubarb at damson-time. The story gives no clue of the season. Other chapters are explicitly set at particular times of year, and the chapter which follows this one, Nelly-Rubina, is concerned with the coming of spring.
I love both rhubarb and damsons for their intense, tart flavours, but I wonder whether this means they have been chosen as fruits which the children will not enjoy? Mary's choice of bland Tapioca is equally unwelcome for the opposite reason.
**Possibly this, combined with how tiny and quick she is, and how big and slow they are, is supposed to be funny. I'm not a good judge of this.
***I don't even know how big the slabs of gingerbread are: I picture them palm-sized, but Mary buys four each, which seems a lot - four each being twelve, so they are to be shared between three people, Jane, Michael and, presumably, Mary herself, the twins having to make do with barley sugar. The children are allowed to start eating their share on the way home, before lunch (at which there will be Baked Custard, made by Mary Poppins). I was surprised that Mary allowed eating in the street...
****Jane not only can read, but does; she is reading Robinson Crusoe, though it's probably a retelling. If there is any suggestion that Michael might learn to read, I have missed it.
*****Though the relationship between the dynamic Nellie-Rubina and the hapless Uncle Dodger is reminiscent of Mary's male relatives and the ferocious women by whom they are beset. In this case, though, Mary's sympathies are with the woman. The reader's may be more divided, but since some of Nellie-Rubina's sharpness with Uncle Dodger is to stop him blurting out a secret, and since we are allowed to guess this, and maybe some measure of what the secret is, we are made complicit.