Secrets, a house with hundreds of rooms, a boy who can charm animals, another boy who has tantrums in the night, and a robin who shows you the entrance to a walled garden. These are some of the ingredients of this much-loved children’s classic. It can also be read as a description of that necessary transition from tyrant to socially engaged individual that every child must undergo. And this story includes two little tyrants.
This is the second post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project
The Secret Garden
The story starts in India where Mary is growing up as the neglected spoiled child of rich parents. A cholera epidemic results in the ten-year-old being orphaned and she is brought to her uncle’s house Misselthwaite in Yorkshire. Her temper tantrums and sour and sullen nature make little headway against the Yorkshire servants who have the care of this sad girl. She is starved of companionship, but kindly treated by Martha, a young village girl engaged to look after her. It is Martha who tells the child about the garden, much loved by her uncle’s dead wife, now locked up and the key buried.
In her wanderings around the great house Martha meets the gruff gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, and his sidekick the robin. And the robin helps her find the key and the door behind the ivy that leads to the secret garden.
Mary also meets Dickon, Martha’s brother, who is a kind of naturalist, before such a term was known. He has an affinity with animals and birds and knows how to grow plants. Martha and Dickon become friends and begin to care for the garden in secret.
On wet days Mary explores Misselthwaite where she finds another neglected and motherless child whom she befriends.
‘Oh, what a queer house this is!’ Mary said. ‘What a queer house. Everything is a kind of secret. Rooms are locked up and gardens are locked up – and you! Have you been locked up?’ (139)
Both have been used to getting their own way. Both are rather sickly and not used to fresh air or exercise, indeed Colin is afraid that he is a cripple and will not go where people can see him.
With the help of Martha, her brother Dickon and the wise advice of their mother the children learn to thrive. Through a combination of fresh air, gardening, looking out for each other and playing they become nicer children. The book begins with Mary, but it ends with a focus on Colin.
Growing up in Edwardian England
The story is about the damage done to children by neglect, especially by their parents. It is also about the damage that an unchecked and rampant imagination based on fear can do. And about the power of the mind over such fears – Colin’s fear that he will become a hunchback leads him to lie in his room and have hysterics every now and again. But when he sets his mind to strengthening his body he is soon as healthy as any other ten-year-old boy. This is the final paragraph of the book:
Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite [Colin’s father], and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his side, with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter, walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in Yorkshire – Master Colin! (318)
But the children, Colin and Mary, are privileged, and their advantages over the cottage children, Martha and Dickon, are not explored. Both privileged children have been used to commanding servants, in Mary’s case they are referred to as ‘blacks’. The shift of focus from Mary to Colin leaving her future unresolved, while his is assured, is worrisome. These points suggests that Frances Hodgson Burnett shared the racist, classist and gender assumptions of her day.
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester in 1849 and lived in America and England until she died in 1924. She had gone to the States when her father died leaving the family without income. She began to write to support the family when she was 18 and continued to write for the rest of her life. She began to write for children in 1879 after a meeting with Louisa May Alcott.
She bought a house in Kent, Great Maytham Hall, and it is said that she was inspired by the walled garden there to write this classic. She wrote the novel while she lived there.
The novel has been adapted for film, television and the stage. And there is a statue in Central Park, NY, that features Mary and Dickon. It is called the Burnett fountain.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911. I used the Everyman Children’s Classic (1993) illustrated by Charles Robinson (brother of Heath Robinson). It’s a lovely edition and was given to me by my daughter Anna when she knew I was seeking a copy. 320pp
The Decade Project in 2019
This is the third year of my Decades Project. This year I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1920-1929. I plan to read a novel by Angela Brazil. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.
Here’s the link to the first book in the 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature, which was
Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)
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