Oxford World Classics sent me ‘The Secret Garden’ a while back which was timely because I’ve been half looking for a reason to reread it for a bit. Even so it would probably have sat on the shelf for a good bit longer if it hadn’t been for all the Persephone shenanigans over the weekend reminding me of Frances Hodgson Burnett all over again.
What really struck me though was this; I remember ‘The Secret Garden’ being about Mary Lennox and her journey from an unloved life in India to happy and healthy little girl in Yorkshire. I find now that there really isn’t as much Mary as I thought, from the moment Colin appears it’s all about him. A Boy – how did I not notice this back in the days when I thought boys were a universally Bad Thing? I was also struck again by what a rough time of it Mary has. Not only ignored and hidden away by her parents (who should presumably have sent her off to school back in England before the novel starts) but unloved and made unlovable by the servants who surround her. As if that wasn’t bad enough the very idea that she’s left alone in a house stricken by cholera after everyone else has died or fled – well it’s not a pleasant thought, but does it make anyone treat Mary with sympathy – no it does not.
She’s sent on her way to England and the unknown with very little to comfort her; when she arrives there’s shelter but not much in the way of home. Plenty of food and a comfortable bed are not inconsiderable blessings but no one seems to consider that she might need for company or entertainment of any kind – this would be more understandable if she’d pitched up in a house without a child in it already. It’s something of a testament to Burnett that it’s actually quite possible to believe in the situation she creates.
Slowly Mary finds her health, opens up to the world around her and becomes absorbed in the garden - which is the part of the book I like the best. Eventually Misselthwaite reveals its other secret – Colin, who in his own way is almost as neglected as Mary, certainly as unlovable, and well on his way to fretting himself into an early grave. Mary rescues Colin from himself and from his household turning him into a happy healthy normal. Colin has a habit of lecturing and the manners of a young Rajah, but unpleasant as he is there are actually no shortage of people prepared to love him, for Mary there is still no one to put her first. The end of the book when father and son walk home together is lovely but in my memory Mary was part of that group and now I feel that she’s been a little bit cheated. There’s something fundamental here about the difference in the way boys and girls are treated; Dickon can come and go as he pleases, Colin is the heir not just to Misselthwaite but a whole world of potential achievement (scientist, athlete, lecturer...) but Mary seems destined to stay behind in the garden.