Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

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.

‘The Secret Garden’ is a book I loved as a child with entirely uncritical affection so I was slightly concerned about how it would strike me as an adult (I wondered too about reading a grown up complete with notes edition). I find it’s still a book I love because it’s still one of the best descriptions of spring and the excitement of seeing a garden come back to life I’ve ever read. Having the notes at the back felt slightly intrusive at first but became really helpful, especially when it came to giving a little context to ‘New Thought’ theories. I’m inclined to think that ideas about positive thinking and self belief are excellent things for children but I’ve grown cynical with age (it’s been a long day, everything aches, I’m cold, and feel twenty years to old – nothing but a long bath and a stiff drink will sort me out no matter what I tell myself) so whilst reading was torn between feeling it was all slightly embarrassing, and at the same time recognising those ten year olds.

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.


  1. A childhood favourite of mine too Hayley! Reading it again as an adult, I was far more horrified by the beginning when you realise she's been abandoned in that house. You're so right too about the ending (I just had to check myself). I pictured Mary as included, and of course she isn't. The garden bits are so lovely - my favourite bits to re-read as well. I love the Inga Moore illustrated version.

  2. I have re-read this many times over the years and it's never lost its magic for me. One of my favorite books of all time. But your comments are interesting, though these things never have occurred to me -- I think I must be stuck in childhood -- or entering my second one!

  3. I always felt Mary was going to be a late bloomer on her own some time after the book ends. Loved this novel as a child and loved reading it to my son, who of course idolized Dickon.

  4. I haven't read this as an adult but you have me thinking a reread is in order!

  5. I have never read this, only ever seen it on the TV. Time to rectify that I think.

  6. Rambling Fancy - it sounds like we had almost identical reactions, I'm not a mother and the idea of a forgotten child horrifies me...

    Harriet - I won't be waiting another 2o odd years to read it again. I think my reading was slightly coloured by my feelings about 'The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow' and also seeing a film version of 'The Secret Garden' on tv a few weeks ago which I didn't really care for. It's a book thats kept its magic for me too, and I wonder what I'll find in it next time.

    Lynne - I can see why. I think I identified more with Mary now than I did when I was ten, her contrariness is invigorating and I want to think of her growing up to be something marvelous.

    Audra - I say it's worth it:)

    Josbookjourney - It's a lovely book, no filmed version I've ever seen has done it justice - well worth reading.

  7. Love the story of "A Secret Garden" and see quotes from it in so many gardening books. I would like to reread it as well, to see if I notice the issues you were mentioning. I remember a wonderful televised version of it ages ago that I used to watch with my daughters. Colin Firth had a small part as Dickon all grown up. We watched it so many times when they were young, it was one of our favorites.