When I read the words, “insight into the life of the comfortable and well-regulated home,” on page 194 of J. P. Marquand’s (the J. stands for John) 1938 Pulitzer winner, The Late George Apley, my mind’s eye was immediately dominated by a flashback to my childhood. A flashback of watching Jane and Michael Banks’s childhood unfold before me the evening my father introduced my siblings and me to the wonderful world of Mary Poppins. Ah, what a fond memory of dad and us three kids crashed together on my grandparents’ couch and “Ah!” how much horror Jane and Michael’s father, George W. Banks, struck into our souls.
Marquand’s George Apley, the trust fund manager, and Disney/*P. L. Traver’s patriarch George Banks, the banker, have much in common; money, a sense of form and conformity, and the idea that they are the masters of their homes. (Not to mention their names, George A./George B. Coincidence?) These elements and instances of mild ridiculousness continually supply the reader/viewer with chuckles, and chuckles, let me tell you, are a most delightful thing (especially after 959 pages of Margaret Mitchell). It is the things that they do not share in common that induce sorrow. For George Apley one may weep a bit (but just a bit!), for there is much less song-and-dance in his story, no Mary Poppins (that life-changing demi-deity with the magical, bottomless overnight bag), and nothing like the redemptive kite-flying scene given to Mr. G. W. Banks at the end of Disney’s film. The reader’s only solace is that Apley’s children seem to come out pretty all right anyway by the end of Marquand’s book, even if George A. himself remains somewhat ambivalently unresolved.
Wikipedia says that Marquand had a “characteristic mix of respect and satire” in writing about the upper classes in America. I think that’s admirable, that dedication to nuance and the engendering of empathy. It seems to take a certain amount of extra work and ability to create empathy as opposed to the arguably simpler task of playing to an audience’s sympathies. Perhaps the predictions Wikipedia is making will see fulfillment and Marquand’s writerly achievements will lead to the rehabilitation and revival of his reputation as an eminent novelist. “Extraordinary results without the aid of a magical nanny from the sky or even a kite?” you ask? Sure. I even think it’s likely. And Heaven knows, I think that’d be great for J.P. to get some limelight. Mary Poppins, Walt Disney, and even Margaret Mitchell are each great in their own way, but haven’t they dominated long enough? Isn’t it time for someone with initials for a first name to get some credit?
*Do you know Disney but not who P.L. Travers is? Check out the new film Saving Mr. Banks starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in which perhaps we’ll see ol’ P.L. get her due!