Tag Archives: Mary Shepard

Feeding the Birds

Mary Shepard's illustration of Mary Poppins, 1934

I volunteered at N’s school this morning, and we walked there together, along with her friend A, and somehow the conversation turned to Mary Poppins. I treated the girls to my warbling rendition of Feed the Birds, the scene where a “little old bird woman” sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, selling breadcrumbs for tuppence a bag. And as I crooned, I was thinking that it was the wind that made N and I watch Mary Poppins the first time.

Some years ago, when she was 3, we’d been standing at a busy corner, waiting for the light to change. It was raining a little, and very windy, and we had our umbrellas up. Suddenly a huge gust whipped around us, pulling, and it felt as though we might be lifted up into the sky. I laughed and squeezed N’s hand, shouting, “Hang on!” And I thought of Mary floating through the sky towards her charges, with only her will and her umbrella to keep her airborne. After that we marched spit-spot to the movie store, skipping our other errands, and at home we curled up with hot chocolate and watched the magic unfold.

Bert’s English accent is something quite atrocious, but Mary can make a chalk drawing open into the lush countryside, and inspire toys to put themselves away; she can win horse races wearing a flouncy hat and dress, and she can always think of something to say when she has nothing to say — supercalifragilisticexpialidocious  (which coincidentally is the very song N is learning in piano this week). Her carpetbag, containing everything she could possibly need, including houseplants and floor lamps, is not unlike Hermione’s beaded bag in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so perhaps Mary knew the Undetectable Extension Charm? Or was herself a student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, long before Potter’s time? Well, we’ll never know, because as the first chapter of P.L. Travers’ 1934 novel tells us, “Mary Poppins never told anybody anything.”

There were eight Mary Poppins books, published at long intervals, over a period of more than fifty years. Mary Shepard illustrated all of them.

I’m curious to read the Mary Poppins books, since the character of Mary sounds darker and more mysterious than Julie Andrews’ version. Travers herself was a bit of a mystery too: a single mom, an actress, a poet, a dancer, a journalist, and possibly a curmudgeon before she took to writing children’s books. She was apparently involved as an adviser on the1964 musical, but she didn’t like the way Mary’s character had been sweetened with Walt Disney’s spoonful of sugar, and she didn’t like Walt much either. She never again agreed to another Disney adaptation. The Mary she created had shiny black hair like a wooden doll’s, and “large feet and hands, and small, rather peering eyes.” She gave fierce, terrible glances that told you “you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.”

Originally Travers had hoped E.H. Shepard of Winnie the Pooh fame would illustrate the Poppins books, but he was too busy. And then by chance she discovered the drawings of Shepard’s daughter, Mary, a young woman just out of art school. The image that caught her eye was penned on a Christmas card, and showed a horse flying through the air, Poppins style. “Of course it wasn’t Leonardo, but I didn’t need Leonardo,” Travers later wrote. “I was after a happy imperfection, innocence without naivete, and, as well, a sense of wonder.” The young Mary Shepard — who said she felt like Eeyore in Travers’ domineering presence — was easily manipulated. Travers led her on walks through the park to point out possible likenesses for the characters in the book, and vetoed the position of the protagonist’s feet. Shepard wanted fifth position, with the feet turned out, but Travers insisted on fourth, with the feet at right angles. And like the stern Mary Poppins she created, she was not a woman to be argued with. Eventually, though, Shepard’s depictions of Mary and the Banks family took shape, and added a charming new layer to Travers’ story.

Walt must have sided with Mary Shepard -- notice Mary Poppins' feet are in the fifth position....

Unlike Travers, I’m a fan of the movie. It’s nostalgic for me, and very much of  my time — but I agree that something vital is lost when we take the edge out of children’s stories. When we make things too happy and pretty and sweet for them. I remember N’s Bambi phase, and how I cringed every time Bambi’s father said, in his deep, serious voice, “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” But it seemed to me N was figuring things out by watching — big concepts given clarity by storytelling. Food, in a way.

And still today that’s happening. The drama in Harry Potter is sometimes pretty intense, what with Harry, Ron and Hermione searching out the various hiding places of the Dark Lord’s severed soul and destroying these “horcruxes” one by one for the greater good. The other night as we lay in bed reading, N grew increasingly agitated when Ron seemed unwilling or unable to destroy one. Evil emanated from the nasty thing, and grabbed onto his deepest weaknesses, ensuring him he was “least loved … second best, always, eternally overshadowed.” Suddenly N let out a great wail of exasperation and shouted “I wish she would just write the story the way I have it in my head! This can’t be happening!

I know that feeling. When you are so immersed in a story, and it twists in a way you never imagined, and you want to scream, NOOOO!, but you keep reading all the same, even more compelled than you were before. It happens with children’s books and adults’ books alike, if the writer is savvy enough — though I don’t know why I make the distinction. Travers certainly didn’t. According to biographer Valerie Lawson, author of Mary Poppins, She Wrote, Travers always denied writing with an audience in mind. “I never know why Mary Poppins is thought of as a children’s book. Indeed I don’t think there are such things. There are simply books and some of them children read.”


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"If a writer, why not write?" in which A.A. Milne shows Eeyore traits and Dorothy Parker throws up


A.A. Milne, author of more than Pooh

“The only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it; and I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others.”

There’s a lot tucked away in this one sentence of Alan Alexander Milne’s.  The quote comes from his introduction to his  whodunit, The Red House Mystery, published in 1922. Milne was about 40 then, with a wife and young son Christopher Robin, who would soon inspire the Pooh stories for which Milne is now so well known.  You can see a glimmer of them here, in the way the words Telephone Directory and Blank Verse Tragedy are capitalized. (“I have been Foolish and Deluded. I am a Bear of No Brain at All.”)

Interesting, too, this musing on what he should and should not write. What he’d feel proud or ashamed of. He worked many years for Punch magazine, as did Ernest Howard Shepard, who illustrated Milne’s children’s stories. Milne also wrote a number of plays, an autobiography, short stories, novels, political non-fiction, and a kind of adult fairytale called Once on a Time. But the world of the Hundred Acre Wood — containing his son, and a bear, pig, donkey, tiger and kangaroo bought at Harod’s — quickly came to define him.

Milne himself lamented:

If a writer, why not write
On whatever comes in sight?
So — the Children’s Books; a short
Intermezzo of a sort:
When I wrote them, little thinking
All my years of pen-and-inking
Would be almost lost among
Those four trifles for the young.

returnI wonder what he would think of the new book by David Benedictus, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, complete with Shepardesque “decorations” by Mark Burgess. The story picks up where Milne left off, and brings Christopher Robin back from school on a new blue bicycle that all his animal friends admire. Christopher is more grown up than he was in the early stories — he knows what a thesaurus can do,  and notices things like the number of countries on his map that are coloured pink. But in some ways he remains the same: Pooh, staying with him that night, sits on a chair in the bathroom. “What he really wanted to see was whether he still wore his blue braces, and, yes, he did (but not in the bath).”

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is lovingly and carefully created. Benedictus mimics Milne’s style effortlessly and with obvious admiration, and Burgess’s illustrations are as subtle and charming as Shepard’s were. There’s a new character, Lottie the somewhat feisty Otter, whose teeth are “sharp enough, I can promise you, when they need to be.” These are all things to admire (the but is still to come) and my daughter is enjoying the book as much as she enjoyed the original stories, maybe more, because she’s older now and getting more out of the readings. Piglet is still her favourite character (I think she sees herself in him), and she is intrigued by Owl’s spelling mistakes, something that would have been lost on her when we last read the original stories.

dorothy parker

Poor her: the Tonstant Weader

She is delighted by the very things that so famously irritated Dorothy Parker — the “frequent droppings into more cadenced whimsy,” as she put it in her scathing New Yorker review of The House at Pooh Corner back in 1928. Parker was known as the Constant Reader, but had read enough when it came to Pooh’s silly little hums and a plot that consisted of practicing one for Eeyore.

“Pom,” said Pooh. “I put that in to make it more hummy.”

And in response, Parker wrote, “it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up.”

In the words of a wise, good friend of mine: “Poor her, unable to enjoy a simple hum.”

But even Milne may have reached that stage eventually. His Pooh stories — though an “intermezzo” — became so successful that they eclipsed his other work. During WW2, demand for the Pooh stories soared, and only continued in the postwar era. Now, of course, we have tubby Disney Pooh in his too-tight red t-shirt, and any number of Pooh products are available for purchase. At one point, Milne wrote that any reference to the silly old bear was “infuriating.”

enchanted places

The real Christopher Robin

And Christopher Robin — a real person, after all — was indelibly inked into childhood by a kind but distant father who “got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders … [and] left me with the empty fame of being his son…. One day I will write verses about him and see how he likes it.” (Actually Christopher Robin Milne did write three books about sharing his life with Pooh.)

It seems E.H. Shepard was similarly undone. Pooh — whose image was based on Shepard’s son’s bear, Growler — dominated, while Shepard’s other accomplishments were thrown into shadow. He drew for Punch for years, illustrated many other children’s books, including a couple of his own. He also authored two memoirs, Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life. It seems his talents — or perhap his passion — ran in the family. His son, Graham, was an illustrator, but was killed in WW2, and his daughter, Mary, illustrated the Mary Poppins books.

shepard's dream days

Grahame's Dream Days, illustrated by E.H. Shepard

I was surprised to discover my own personal link to Shepard, however tangential. Along with the lovely example at right, he illustrated a version of Tom Brown’s School-Days, the Victorian-era story about a boy at Rugby School, by Thomas Hughes. Hughes was the father of Lillian Hughes, who died on the Titanic, but years earlier had befriended my great-grandmother. My grandmother’s middle name was Lillian, in honour of her.

But back to the story at hand. As I read Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, much as I enjoy Lottie, and Rabbit undertaking a census, and the Bear with no Brain outsmarting a swarm of bees, I can’t help but think back to the way the old tale ended — with Christopher Robin’s poignant declaration that he wouldn’t be “doing Nothing” any more, and that he hoped Pooh would understand. It was mysterious, but you got the sense that he was growing up, moving on — and that it was time to do so — but that some part of him would always remain in that enchanted place with his Bear. Really it seems like a perfect ending.


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