|Shopping for stars
||[Mar. 3rd, 2014|10:39 pm]
The last-but-one chapter of Mary Poppins is Christmas Shopping. Previous chapters refer to the weather, but I was surprised to realise that this is the first time we are told clearly what time of year it is; and the chapter which follows begins: "It was the first day of Spring." Reading Mary Poppins in the Park I was surprised to be given an actual date for Mary Poppins's birthday; it seemed like the sort of information she would keep to herself. That revelation came very much later in the series, but it is entirely consistent with this sequence of chapters at the end of the first book: a November birthday, Christmas shopping in December (and probably quite late in December, too, in those long-ago times) and then the beginning of Spring. Or is there a more thematic connection, that, once you have thought of birthdays and birthday presents, you move on to think about Christmas and shopping for Christmas presents.
Once again, the central position accorded to Mary Poppins by the narrative means that Christmas shopping is a special activity which Jane and Michael Banks share, not with their mother but with their nanny. Being London children, they take the Bus to The Largest Shop in the World, which I strongly suspect refers to Harrods, whether because their publicity actually made such a claim or just because it is such a famous department store. The chapter opens with a lovely little piece of dialogue:
"I smell snow," said Jane, as they got out of the Bus. The children are excited in their anticipation of Christmas, the scent of snow in the air, the fragrance of the fir trees, but Mary Poppins deflates their excitement by identifying another assertive and lingering aroma, but a less poetic one. Would nicely brought up children like Jane and Michael ever have eaten fried fish, particularly from a fish and chip shop? Surely not.
"I smell Christmas trees," said Michael.
"I smell fried fish," said Mary Poppins.
By this stage in the book, the reader must know that something extraordinary is going to happen, but Travers has fun spinning out the preliminaries: first there are the shop windows to be looked at, with their displays of all the good things on sale inside (or, for Mary Poppins, their large reflective surfaces); then there are mundane purchases to be made in the Haberdashery department. The children are impatient to visit the Toy Department, and their selection of presents is entertaining in its own right, with its combination of self-interest (Michael buys his father a toy train, intending to take care of it for him when he goes to the City; Jane chooses a toy pram for her mother and Robinson Crusoe for the Twins) and randomness: a pair of spectacles for Ellen, a white dickey (a false shirt-front) for Mr Banks. Then Mary Poppins has an argument with Father Christmas. There is something about the phrasing "Mary Poppins then had a great argument with Father Christmas over a cake of soap," which demands to be read in a tone of exasperation: will we never get to the magic? And it seems we won't, because Mary Poppins now announces that it is time to go home, to leave behind all the enchantments of the Toy Department. And then - and this has a paragraph all to itself, for emphasis - the adventure happened.
The adventure is that Maia, the second-eldest of the Pleiades, is also doing her Christmas shopping, and wants their help. In fact, she has no difficulty choosing gifts for most of her sisters, but the Banks children are asked to suggest something for the two youngest. They are better at this than they are at choosing for their own family: Michael suggests a spinning top, and Jane, thinking of the twins' favourites, suggests a rubber duck. Maia delights in how all these very solid, earthly toys will be put to use in the skies: a broom to sweep up star-dust, a hoop for Celaeno to bowl across the sky in day-time and make a cricle round herself at night. But it is Maia herself who brings joy (Jane feels that nobody could help being glad to see someone so bright and happy), who mysteriously touches all the shoppers and invites the deference of the staff, reminds them that the point of Christmas is not to buy things but to give them freely.
It is Jane who realises that Maia herself has no gift, though as soon as she does, Mary Poppins solves the problem by giving Maia her gloves - and it is their absence, rather than the presence of any evidence, which this time persuades the children that their adventure really did happen.
Summarised like this, the magic seems very slight. But although it occupies only a small part of the narrative, the slow build-up amplifies the charm of the figure of Maia. In Mary Poppins Opens the Door, the chapter about Neleus, the statue who comes to life, The Marble Boy, has a similar flavour, but it is more elaborate, and its sweetness is mixed with pathos.
One last thing about Christmas Shopping: Mr Banks is usually treated as a figure of fun, an overgrown child given to fits of temper, unreasonable and indulged. Maia's description of him, going bald on top, pointing out the Pleiades to his children, is a more rounded, more likable figure, and it would be a shame to overlook it.