||[Feb. 7th, 2014|10:57 pm]
John and Barbara's Story is another of those chapters in which Mary Poppins plays no active part in what happens: except, I suppose, that by her remarks - her explanations - she makes the twins cry. That's a somewhat skewed summary, but an accurate one. The chapter is atypical - but then, the more closely I look at Mary Poppins, the more I'm struck by how different the chapters are, how far the book feels like a collection of short stories not just in its episodic structure but in the variety of those episodes.
John and Barbara's chapter begins with the removal of Jane and Michael from the scene: only when they have been packed off to a party, looking very fine in their best clothes, can the narrative focus on the twins. They inhabit a world in which everything speaks and everything can be understood: the sunshine, the starling, the wind, and of course the Twins themselves. They perform tricks to entertain the adults, and are bewildered at the stupidity, not of their parents, from whom they expect no better, but of Jane and Michael, who no longer understand the language the Wind speaks. Once they did understand, Mary Poppins says, but they have forgotten, as the twins themselves will forget. It is unlike her to be so forthcoming, but how else is the information to be conveyed to the reader? And by the end of the chapter, the twins have passed their first birthday, and can no longer converse with the Starling. Sunt lacrimae rerum.
Why does this depiction of infancy as a golden age of universal comprehension not lapse into sentimentality? There's a lovely balance to it, a variation of tone: the poetic evocation of the sunlight that "poured in at the window, flickering on the white walls, dancing over the cots where the babies were lying," gives way to John's peevishness: "You're right in my eyes," Barbara's happy enjoyment of the sunshine is followed by the Starling's disrespectful "Chatter, chatter, chatter!" (though anyone reading this would by definition be too old to have heard a single spoken word). There is lively cross-talk between the Starling and Mary, who share a brusque turn of speech, and there is clever observation in the children's antics, and in the way they design their tricks to please the adults. Poor Mrs Banks arrives to demonstrate how completely she does not understand her children, and it is left to John, who has good manners and is fond of his Mother, to remind us that her incomprehension is not her fault. The mockery is gentle, but it relieves the sweetness of the story.
Mary Poppins Comes Back returns to the theme of the wisdom of the new-born. The New One, with the birth of baby Annabel. The Starling reappears*, too, and is accompanied by a Fledgling of his own, which allows Travers to give him a wonderful piece of dialogue: "Kindly remember, Mary Poppins ... that all my families are properly brought up. Littering indeed!" I can almost hear him sniff. He speaks to Mary Poppins as an equal.
Annabel's wisdom is deeper and stranger than that of the Twins: they could converse with their everyday surroundings, but Annabel has a mystical knowledge of her existence before birth, and her journey to be born: "I am earth and air and fire and water ... I come from the Dark where all things have their beginning..." To my taste, this chapter is more self-consciously poetic than its predecessor, and correspondingly less successful. Is it purely poetic - words chosen for their effect - or does it reflect any particular belief system (Travers seems to have been influenced by Gurdjieff, for example). But what Annabel knows is even more evanescent than the understanding of what things say, and although she too has a tantrum when told she will forget, by the time she is a week old, she has forgotten.
After these two passes through this story, Travers does not return to the theme. More than that, she never again allows the younger children a point of view. They are loaded into the pram - sometimes all three of them - or held by the hand, an encumbrance to be looked after and transported like the shopping or Mary's mending, present, riding their peppermint horses while Mary leads them on strings, not forgotten but not active participants.
*In each of the first two books, the Starling appears in these chapters only. In Mary Poppins Opens the Door he appears in the first chapter, as if anticipating Mary's arrival, and thereafter he is part of the regular cast of characters, to be called on when required.