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A Girl's Nights Out [Feb. 23rd, 2014|01:08 pm]
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Chapter three of Mary Poppins is disrupted by her Uncle Albert's birthday; chapter nine ends with the Twins' birthday; chapter ten concerns Mary's own Birthday. Since this falls on a Full Moon, it is celebrated at - and by - the Zoo.

I said in the post that started off this thread that I thought - on the basis of no specific memory - that the Zoo was not my favourite of Mary's Evenings Out: I am in general a hard sell for anthropomorphism, and it seemed like a safe bet. On the basis of a re-read I liked it much better than I had anticipated. It helps that tonight the tables are turned, and the animals are in charge, while human visitors who got lost or left behind at closing time are displayed in cages for the entertainment of the animals. One of the seals expresses actual hostility to the children: "Let's see you dive for a bit of orange-peel you don't want." They are protected by their special status (though they don't yet know this) as Mary's charges. Michael has also, on a previous visit, given a tin of golden syrup to the Bear, although this might have endeared him more if he had removed the lid first (which reminds me of: "It was the best butter, you know," - "you shouldn't have put it in with the bread-knife..." but that's probably just me...).

I liked, too, that the King of the Beasts is not the vain, silly Lion, whatever he may think, but the Hamadryad, a word which I have not met in this sense anywhere but here. It's obvious from the context that it refers to a snake, and as a child I didn't feel the need to know more than that. Which is just as well, as my Chambers dictionary isn't saying. The internet, though, recognises the word as referring to a king cobra, which it tells me is not a cobra at all, but is the world's longest venomous snake: so if he claims to be the Lord of the Jungle, few will want to argue with him. Travers's Hamadryad is wise as well as terrible, and his eyes are "long and narrow ... with a dark sleepy look in them, and in the middle of that dark sleepiness a wakeful light like a jewel." He is also Mary Poppins's cousin (once removed, on - of course - the mother's side).

The celebration ends with a dance, all the animals in a ring around Mary Poppins "exchanging hand and wing as they went as dancers do in the Grand Chain of the Lancers." Jane is concerned that this brings together animals who would normally eat or be eaten by one another (the Lion and the Brazilian Pheasant have just danced past her) but the Hamadryad reassures her that this will not happen on the Birthday. In any case, he continues, perhaps in the end to eat and to be eaten are the same thing, Jungle and City, "child and serpent, star and stone - all one." This is the message that he urges the children to remember as they are rocked to sleep by the dance. Once again Travers brings together around her heroine the familiar (a dance which she evidently assumes her readers will recognise), the humorous (the portrayal of the animals) and the sublime (Gnostic mysticism) and ties them all neatly together with a snakeskin belt, which is at once a gift from this wise teacher and a mundane souvenir, with its inscription 'A Present from the Zoo'.

The equivalent chapter in Mary Poppins Comes Back is not a Birthday but an Evening Out. I take this as evidence that Travers is rethinking as she writes, without coming to any real conclusion as to why she decides to do this particular thing differently. She may have decided that birthdays mark the passage of time more unambiguously than is desirable: but then why, in the chapter after the evening out, does she give Michael an entirely gratuitous sixth birthday (Aunt Flossie, who has odd ideas about suitable gifts for small boys, has given him a box of chocolates, and he has been left to decide for himself when to eat them)? On the other hand, in Mary Poppins, Mary takes her free time in that curiously anomalous afternoon out, and her entitlement is specified as "every second Thursday, one till six". There is no indication that her birthday outing falls within these bounds. In Mary Poppins Comes Back, this has become an Evening Out, which starts late enough for her to give the children their tea and send them to bed, and ends with a half past ten curfew.

She spends the evening at the circus. There is no particular circumstance that dictates this, no Full Moon or High Tide, but the stars and constellations have withdrawn from shining on the world, they have gathered in the dark blue tent and put on a circus for Mary's entertainment. As with the Zoo, this allows Travers to combine the familiar and the fantastic, the whimsical and the profound: the children are alternately alarmed by the Dragon and the Lion, but triumphant in their ability to answer the Clown's riddles (and Michael is given the Moon that he has demanded). The Gruffly Bear and the Squeaky Bear beg for honeycomb, but their act trails off when they forget their words. The performance culminates in a dance, as the animals circle the Ringmaster - the Sun - in the Dance of the Wheeling Sky. Again, the children wonder whether Michael's Moon is the real Moon, whether they are truly present or only think they are, and this time it is the Sun who tells them that their questions cannot be answered - but the following day, Mary Poppins's cheek bears the scar of the Sun's kiss.

Mary Poppins Opens the Door includes two chapters of this kind. Mary Poppins's Evening Out falls at High Tide, and the sea creatures (including Admiral and Mrs Boom, and Binnacle) gather to celebrate. Once again, Michael's wish is granted, and he is given a glass of port (which is "igzactly like Raspberry Fizz"), once again there is a humourous passage in which rôles are reversed and the anglers fish for humans (you can, it seems, catch almost anyone with a Strawberry Tart; the capture of Miss Andrew is described with an uncomfortable degree of relish), once again the oldest and wisest creature presides (on this occasion the Terrapin, who welcomes Mary as "My dear young relative!"), there is a gift and the party ends with a dance - the Sailor's Hornpipe.

The chapter which follows is Happy Ever After. It takes place in the Park, between the first and last strokes of midnight on New Year's Eve - in the Crack between the Old Year and the New. This is the time when the characters from fairy tales and nursey rhymes escape from their books to celebrate together, and when storybook enemies are friends. Mary Poppins is not a fairy-tale, says Jane, and Alfred, the grey flannel elephant, doesn't disagree - but she is something even better, she is the Guest of the Evening. Besides, it was she who left the books open in the nursery, so that all the characters could get out. She initiates the music for the dance which ends the chapter, by playing a concertina which she takes out of her handbag - and the dance this time is a dance of couples, in which everybody has a partner and no-one is left out.

Mary Poppins playing a concertina? I don't know what to think about that. It feels like a departure, something different, and maybe even something final - a sense that things are drawing to a close and that anything that could possibly happen had better happen now. Hence this repeated Evening Out: if there is never to be another book, all the possible stories must be included in this one. The title Happy Ever After also suggests that things are drawing to an end (I may have more to say about this in another post).

But this is not in fact the end, for there is another celebration in Mary Poppins in the Park, for Hallowe'en, which is a special occasion not for its own sake (and bear in mind that in Britain in the early 1950s it was not a date celebrated for its own sake) but because it is the Birthday Eve. Again, this disclosure seems uncharacteristic, but it is clear enough: Mary Poppins's birthday falls on All Saints' Day, November 1st. Make of this what you will.

[User Picture]From: athenais
2014-02-23 04:10 pm (UTC)
I have just finished reading Mary Poppins for the first time and I am baffled as to why it is so beloved. I have come to it too late, I think, or don't have the right mindset to find it fascinating. Which is not the result I was expecting when I set out to read it!
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2014-02-23 08:22 pm (UTC)
Whereas I am finding that it stands up to a re-read much better than I expected! How odd...

Of course, I find it fascinating in part because I have the mindset that gets engrossed in detail, so the closer I look at anything, the more interesting I find it. But that said, I'm seeing a lot to like, and trying to point to it in these posts.

You say you are baffled: but does that mean the you don't see what it is that we love about these books, or that you see it but don't love it?
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[User Picture]From: athenais
2014-02-26 12:32 am (UTC)
I don't see what others love about it. I don't find it appealing on any level, really. That's why I say I must have come to it too late; I find Mary off-putting and cannot understand why the children love her. There's a few funny lines here and there, but it seems to me the children are always being told that their perception of reality is faulty and that horrifies me at a certain level. How will they know what's real? And although Mary's outings with Bert are charming, as is the star doing her Christmas shopping, it just seems randomly whimsical.

I feel like a fuddy-duddy saying that!
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2014-02-26 09:50 am (UTC)
I feel like a fuddy-duddy saying that!

No, the fuddy-duddies must be those of us clinging to books which were old-fashioned even during our (distant) childhoods! And "randomly whimsical" seems an absolutely fair assessment - even allowing for how much of the whimsy is actually sugar-coated theosophy, that tone comes and goes in a very random way. It works for me - but that may be because I was inoculated very young, it's certainly something I'm less tolerant of as an adult reader.

Don't be too alarmed that the children are told not to believe what they think they have seen: they are usually given some concrete evidence that they are right. The denials are presented as part of Mary's character, and I think intended as a humourous part - to describe her as "off-putting" is an understatement.

As for why the children love her (assuming that it's not just for the magical things that happen when she is there), who else are they to love, poor things? She is much more present in their daily lives than their parents! A better question might be why these perfectly nice, generally affectionate, children so detest poor Ellen?
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[User Picture]From: nineweaving
2014-02-23 09:57 pm (UTC)
That sky circus inspired the first story I can remember writing.

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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2014-02-24 11:11 am (UTC)
It is the Night Out I remember most vividly from my childhood; though I had managed to forget the circus element!
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