Rediscover the Magic of P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins

Get reacquainted with the original story that stole the hearts of readers everywhere.

mary poppins

It's been 86 years since the world was introduced to Mary Poppins—and 56 since she danced across our screens—and everyone's favorite umbrella-wielding, spoonful-of-sugar-touting nanny visited us once more with the sequel, Mary Poppins Returns.

Published in 1934, the first Mary Poppins book sees the titular character arrive in London, where the Banks family is in dire need of a replacement nanny. Mary is more than happy to oblige and, promising to stay until a westward wind carries her away, starts using her magical gifts to right the chaos of Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. As the eldest of the Banks children, Jane and Michael often accompany Mary on her excursions (in the later books, the other three kids join the fun)—from peculiar tea parties and outings with Bert the Match-Man to Christmas shopping with stars. 

Though stern and sometimes a bit haughty, Mary's abilities, firm moral compass, and unexpected acts of kindness quickly make her beloved by the entire family. In fact, her characteristics are based on P.L. Travers' beloved great aunt Ellie—another independent spinster who possessed a similar no-nonsense attitude.

But the Banks children weren't Mary's only fans: Diane Disney's love of the book inspired her famous father to make the 1964 adaptation of the same name (a process that took a grueling 20+ years). A 2003 stage musical eventually followed, and in 2018, Chicago director Rob Marshall offered his own interpretation with the film starring Emily Blunt. A sequel of sorts, it chronicled Mary's reunion with Jane and Michael—now adults with their own grown-up problems—in the 1930s.

If you've already seen all the adaptations, why not dive into a special collection of the first four books? Below, you'll find an excerpt of the iconic "Laughing Gas" chapter from Mary Poppins: Here, Mary, Jane, and Michael visit Mary's Uncle Albert on his birthday. He's a self-proclaimed "cheerful sort of man" who "can laugh at pretty nearly everything"—and as his three guests soon discover, his hysterics are very infectious.




Mary Poppins

By P. L. Travers

Mary Poppins opened the door and pushed them in front of her. A large cheerful room lay before them. At one end of it a fire was burning brightly and in the centre stood an enormous table laid for tea—four cups and saucers, piles of bread and butter, crumpets, coconut cakes and a large plum cake with pink icing.

“Well, this is indeed a Pleasure,” a huge voice greeted them, and Jane and Michael looked round for its owner. He was nowhere to be seen. The room appeared to be quite empty. Then they heard Mary Poppins saying crossly: “Oh, Uncle Albert—not again? It’s not your birthday, is it?”

And as she spoke she looked up at the ceiling. Jane and Michael looked up too and to their surprise saw a round, fat, bald man who was hanging in the air without holding on to anything. Indeed, he appeared to be sitting on the air, for his legs were crossed and he had just put down the newspaper which he had been reading when they came in.

“My dear,” said Mr. Wigg, smiling down at the children, and looking apologetically at Mary Poppins, “I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid it is my birthday.”

“Tch, tch, tch!” said Mary Poppins.

“I only remembered last night and there was no time then to send you a postcard asking you to come another day. Very distressing, isn’t it?” he said, looking down at Jane and Michael.

“I can see you’re rather surprised,” said Mr. Wigg. And, indeed, their mouths were so wide open with astonishment that Mr. Wigg, if he had been a little smaller, might almost have fallen into one of them.

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“I’d better explain, I think,” Mr. Wigg went on calmly. “You see, it’s this way. I’m a cheerful sort of man and very disposed to laughter. You wouldn’t believe, either of you, the number of things that strike me as being funny. I can laugh at pretty nearly everything, I can.”

And with that Mr. Wigg began to bob up and down, shaking with laughter at the thought of his own cheerfulness.

“Uncle Albert!” said Mary Poppins, and Mr. Wigg stopped laughing with a jerk.

“Oh, beg pardon, my dear. Where was I? Oh, yes. Well, the funny thing about me is—all right, Mary, I won’t laugh if I can help it!—that whenever my birthday falls on a Friday, well, it’s all up with me. Absolutely U.P.,” said Mr. Wigg.

“But why——?” began Jane.

“But how——?” began Michael.

“Well, you see, if I laugh on that particular day I become so filled with Laughing Gas that I simply can’t keep on the ground. Even if I smile it happens. The first funny thought, and I’m up like a balloon. And until I can think of something serious I can’t get down again.” Mr. Wigg began to chuckle at that, but he caught sight of Mary Poppins’s face and stopped the chuckle, and continued:

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  • The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934.

    Photo Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“It’s awkward, of course, but not unpleasant. Never happens to either of you, I suppose?”

Jane and Michael shook their heads.

“No, I thought not. It seems to be my own special habit. Once, after I’d been to the Circus the night before, I laughed so much that—would you believe it?—I was up here for a whole twelve hours, and couldn’t get down till the last stroke of midnight. Then, of course, I came down with a flop because it was Saturday and not my birthday any more. It’s rather odd, isn’t it? Not to say funny?

“And now here it is Friday again and my birthday, and you two and Mary P. to visit me. Oh, Lordy, Lordy, don’t make me laugh, I beg of you——” But although Jane and Michael had done nothing very amusing, except to stare at him in astonishment, Mr. Wigg began to laugh again loudly, and as he laughed he went bouncing and bobbing about in the air, with the newspaper rattling in his hand and his spectacles half on and half off his nose.

He looked so comic, floundering in the air like a great human bubble, clutching at the ceiling sometimes and sometimes at the gas-bracket as he passed it, that Jane and Michael, though they were trying hard to be polite, just couldn’t help doing what they did. They laughed. And they laughed. They shut their mouths tight to prevent the laughter escaping, but that didn’t do any good. And presently they were rolling over and over on the floor, squealing and shrieking with laughter.

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“Really!” said Mary Poppins. “Really, such behaviour!”

“I can’t help it, I can’t help it!” shrieked Michael as he rolled into the fender. “It’s so terribly funny. Oh, Jane, isn’t it funny?”

Jane did not reply, for a curious thing was happening to her. As she laughed she felt herself growing lighter and lighter, just as though she were being pumped full of air. It was a curious and delicious feeling and it made her want to laugh all the more. And then suddenly, with a bouncing bound, she felt herself jumping through the air. Michael, to his astonishment, saw her go soaring up through the room. With a little bump her head touched the ceiling and then she went bouncing along it till she reached Mr. Wigg.

Well!” said Mr. Wigg, looking very surprised indeed. “Don’t tell me it’s your birthday, too?” Jane shook her head.

“It’s not? Then this Laughing Gas must be catching! Hi—whoa there, look out for the mantelpiece!” This was to Michael, who had suddenly risen from the floor and was swooping through the air, roaring with laughter, and just grazing the china ornaments on the mantelpiece as he passed. He landed with a bounce right on Mr. Wigg’s knee.

“How do you do,” said Mr. Wigg, heartily shaking Michael by the hand. “I call this really friendly of you—bless my soul, I do! To come up to me since I couldn’t come down to you—eh?” And then he and Michael looked at each other and flung back their heads and simply howled with laughter.

They laughed. And they laughed. They shut their mouths tight to prevent the laughter escaping, but that didn’t do any good. 

“I say,” said Mr. Wigg to Jane, as he wiped his eyes. “You’ll be thinking I have the worst manners in the world. You’re standing and you ought to be sitting—a nice young lady like you. I’m afraid I can’t offer you a chair up here, but I think you’ll find the air quite comfortable to sit on. I do.”

“I say,” said Mr. Wigg to Jane, as he wiped his eyes. “You’ll be thinking I have the worst manners in the world. You’re standing and you ought to be sitting—a nice young lady like you. I’m afraid I can’t offer you a chair up here, but I think you’ll find the air quite comfortable to sit on. I do.”

Jane tried it and found she could sit down quite comfortably on the air. She took off her hat and laid it down beside her and it hung there in space without any support at all.

“That’s right,” said Mr. Wigg. Then he turned and looked down at Mary Poppins.

“Well, Mary, we’re fixed. And now I can enquire about you, my dear. I must say, I am very glad to welcome you and my two young friends here today—why, Mary, you’re frowning. I’m afraid you don’t approve of—er—all this.”

He waved his hand at Jane and Michael, and said hurriedly:

“I apologise, Mary, my dear. But you know how it is with me. Still, I must say I never thought my two young friends here would catch it, really I didn’t, Mary! I suppose I should have asked them for another day or tried to think of something sad or something——”

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“Well, I must say,” said Mary Poppins primly, “that I have never in my life seen such a sight. And at your age, Uncle——”

“Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins, do come up!” interrupted Michael. “Think of something funny and you’ll find it’s quite easy.”

“Ah, now do, Mary!” said Mr. Wigg persuasively.

“We’re lonely up here without you!” said Jane, and held out her arms towards Mary Poppins. “Do think of something funny!”

“Ah, she doesn’t need to,” said Mr. Wigg sighing. “She can come up if she wants to, even without laughing—and she knows it.” And he looked mysteriously and secretly at Mary Poppins as she stood down there on the hearth-rug.

“Well,” said Mary Poppins, “it’s all very silly and undignified, but, since you’re all up there and don’t seem able to get down, I suppose I’d better come up, too.”

With that, to the surprise of Jane and Michael, she put her hands down at her sides and without a laugh, without even the faintest glimmer of a smile, she shot up through the air and sat down beside Jane.

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  • "There they were, all together, up in the air."

    Photo Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“How many times, I should like to know,” she said snappily, “have I told you to take off your coat when you come into a hot room?” And she unbuttoned Jane’s coat and laid it neatly on the air beside the hat.

“That’s right, Mary, that’s right,” said Mr. Wigg contentedly, as he leant down and put his spectacles on the mantelpiece. “Now we’re all comfortable——”

“There’s comfort and comfort,” sniffed Mary Poppins.

“And we can have tea,” Mr. Wigg went on, apparently not noticing her remark. And then a startled look came over his face.

“My goodness!” he said. “How dreadful! I’ve just realised—that table’s down there and we’re up here. What are we going to do? We’re here and it’s there. It’s an awful tragedy—awful! But oh, it’s terribly comic!” And he hid his face in his handkerchief and laughed loudly into it. Jane and Michael, though they did not want to miss the crumpets and the cakes, couldn’t help laughing too, because Mr. Wigg’s mirth was so infectious.

Mr. Wigg dried his eyes.

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“There’s only one thing for it,” he said. “We must think of something serious. Something sad, very sad. And then we shall be able to get down. Now—one, two, three! Something very sad, mind you!”

They thought and thought, with their chins on their hands.

Michael thought of school, and that one day he would have to go there. But even that seemed funny today and he had to laugh.

Jane thought: “I shall be grown up in another fourteen years!” But that didn’t sound sad at all but quite nice and rather funny. She could not help smiling at the thought of herself grown up, with long skirts and a hand-bag.

“There was my poor old Aunt Emily,” thought Mr. Wigg out loud. “She was run over by an omnibus. Sad. Very sad. Unbearably sad. Poor Aunt Emily. But they saved her umbrella. That was funny, wasn’t it?” And before he knew where he was, he was heaving and trembling and bursting with laughter at the thought of Aunt Emily’s umbrella.

“It’s no good,” he said, blowing his nose. “I give it up. And my young friends here seem to be no better at sadness than I am. Mary, can’t you do something? We want our tea.”

To this day Jane and Michael cannot be sure of what happened then . . .

Want to keep reading? Download the four-book Mary Poppins collection before the new film premieres!

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Featured still from 'Mary Poppins Returns' (2018), via Walt Disney Pictures