Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) is yet another one of those classics of children’s literature that I didn’t read as a child.  I saw the movie, of course, at one of our family movie nights, and have since become very fond of the musical (though I’ve only listened to the soundtrack; I’ve never seen it staged).  But I’d never read the book until now.  I’m so glad I did!  For I found the book to be so much better than the musical, or my half-remembered thoughts about the movie.  Like most other books from this period, The Secret Garden contains a few uncomfortable moments of racism, classism, and misogyny, but I feel like it would still be a valuable book to read together with your child, accompanied of course by conversation about these issues.

It seems like everybody knows the basic premise of The Secret Garden: when her parents die of cholera in India, ten-year-old Mary Lennox is sent to live at her uncle’s manor house on the moor.  It is a house full of secrets.  There is a garden locked away, the key buried and the door concealed, and there is an invalid boy hidden in the house, hysterical and miserable, sure that he is going to die.  In the fresh moorland air, Mary grows from a sallow, disagreeable child into a healthy, fresh-faced girl with the curiosity and strength of will to discover both the garden and the boy, Colin, and with the help of her friends Dickon and Martha, breathes life into both.

One of the first questions the novel poses is that of family: what defines family?  Is it enough to be biologically related, or do other responsibilities come into play?  Must one act like family, and be treated like family, in order to be so?  In the first two chapters, we learn that Mary’s mother is beautiful but distant, preferring that her daughter be kept out of sight as much as possible, and that Mary’s Ayah, the native servant who works as Mary’s nurse, is completely subordinate to this unaffectionate child.  Neither is truly family, and Mary doesn’t grieve when they die of the cholera epidemic.  There is a clear parallel between Mary and her mother and Colin and his father.  “Perhaps if her mother had carried her pretty face and her pretty manners oftener into the nursery Mary might have learned some pretty ways too,” (9) said one Mr. Crawford after trying unsuccessfully to care for the girl.  It is clear to readers that Colin, too, may have been healthier of body and of spirits if his father had loved and supported him.  Instead, grieving over the death of his wife and fearful that his son may have inherited the same hunchback condition, Mr. Craven refused even to see the boy.  This abandonment by their parents transforms both children into stubborn, spiteful, imperious brats.  Over the course of the novel, however, Mary and Colin accumulate friends who stand in as family, until Mr. Craven finally discovers and acknowledges his love for his son.

Cleanliness was a virtue that I didn’t expect to be glorified in a novel about gardening.  In Victorian thought (though published in 1911, The Secret Garden is neo-Victorian in style), cleanliness was next to godliness.  In The Secret Garden, being clean is always listed among the principle virtues.  Certain peasants are elevated because they are clean.  Dickon, whose magic with animals makes him otherworldy, fairy-like, and angelic, is even described as “very clean” (87) with “a clean fresh scent of heather and grass and leaves about him” (89).  Yet this is a book extolling the merits of gardening.  How is one to properly reap the healthful benefits of planting and growing seeds without getting dirty?  It is a paradox.

One of the primary themes of this novel is the difference between solitude and loneliness.  The distinction seems to be choice: time alone in nature is essential to one’s mental and physical health, but being forced to be alone through circumstance or cruelty is the harshest of punishments.  Initially, in India, Mary is solitary through ignorance; she doesn’t care about the people around her and thus doesn’t recognize her need for companionship.  After she begins settling in at Misselthwaite Manor, Mary discovers her desire to have a secret place of her own: “Besides that, if she liked it [the garden] she could go into it every day and shut the door behind her, and she could make up some play of her own and play it quite alone, because nobody would ever know where she was, but would think the door was still locked and the key buried in the earth.  The thought of that pleased her very much” (61).  Loneliness, on the other hand, is devastating and crippling.  Mary’s first realization that she is lonely comes quite early on in the novel: “Since she had been living in other people’s houses and had had no Ayah, she had begun to feel lonely and to think queer thoughts which were new to her.  She had begun to wonder why she had never seemed to belong to anyone even when her father and mother had been alive.  Other children seemed to belong to their fathers and mothers, but she had never seemed to really be anyone’s little girl” (11).  Many times, the house itself is said to be lonely, the rooms shut up and cut off from human presence.  The robin dealt with his loneliness by searching out the gardener as a friend; Mary must learn to do the same.  The cure for loneliness, according to The Secret Garden, is twofold: large families and time spent outdoors.  On her first exploration of the huge, deserted house, Mary finds a family of mice living in a velvet cushion: “The bright eyes belonged to a little grey mouse, and the mouse had eaten a hole into the cushion and made a comfortable nest there.  Six baby mice were cuddled up asleep near her.  If there was no one else alive in the hundred rooms there were seven mice who did not look lonely at all” (51).  Similarly, Martha’s family of fourteen people means that none of her siblings ever feels lonely.  Martha’s mother, Mrs. Sowerby, even comes to fill in as a mother figure for Mary and Colin.  Even in the midst of all this boisterous family affection, Dickon goes off daily in sun or rain to explore the moor by himself.  There, he is solitary, not lonely.

The novel pushes the parallels between the secret garden and the two unhappy children – all are deserted and unloved, and left for ten years to grow alone.  ““How old are you?” he [Colin] asked.  “I am ten,” answered Mary, forgetting herself for the moment, “and so are you.”  “How do you know that?” he demanded in a surprised voice.  “Because when you were born the garden door was locked and the key was buried.  And it has been locked for ten years”” (117).  The outdoors, fresh air, and process of learning how to garden are just what the children needed: contact with growing things helps them to grow themselves.  ““If I have a spade,” she [Mary] whispered, “I can make the earth nice and soft and dig up weeds.  If I have seeds and can make flowers grow the garden won’t be dead at all – it will come alive.”” (77).  And as the garden blossoms, so too do the children, until they are physically healthy, enthusiastic, compassionate, and loving.  Colin later makes a speech that is even clearer: ““I don’t want this afternoon to go,” he said; “but I shall come back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, and the day after.”  “You’ll get plenty of fresh air, won’t you?” said Mary.  “I’m going to get nothing else, he answered.  “I’ve seen the spring and now I’m going to see the summer.  I’m going to see everything grow here.  I’m going to grow here myself” (200).

I think, since I enjoyed The Secret Garden so much, that it’s time to revisit A Little Princess.  For some reason, I absolutely hated that story as a kid.  Perhaps it was too depressing for me?  I don’t know, but I’m eager to give it another go, and perhaps try some more of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novels.  Any recommendations for things to try next?  When did you first read The Secret Garden and what did you think of it at the time?  Did you have a different impression of it as an adult?

Things I’m reading: (far too many at once!)
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett


  1. My mother absolutely loved The Making of a Marchioness, which is available through Persephone Books. I began it, but got side-tracked by other things. I do mean to finish it someday. It's a bit on the sensational side, but maybe you can find more in it.

    1. I'll have to check it out - thank you for the recommendation! I don't think I've read ay sensationalist novels before, although I think the two Wilkie Collins books I've got waiting on my TBR shelf fall in that category. I wonder what makes a sensationalist novel a "sensation".

  2. This brings back some lovely memories. I first read this as a uni student in preparation for entering teaching in the early 1980's. It was then one of a number of novels I read to a Year 4 class in the first school I ever worked in - they loved it and so did I!

  3. 'The Secret Garden' remains a perennial favourite because it deals with eternal truths. Children need love and robust care if they are to flourish - just like gardens. This is why the book is still in print and still being turned into films and even stage musicals. You might find you get on better with "A Little Princess' now, but don't go back to 'Little Lord Fauntleroy' it hasn't aged well at all.

    For some reason your blog keeps wanting to put me up as Anonymous, which I don't want to be. If you allowed Name and Url you would find I am Alex at

  4. Right, I see that it is only in preview I am anonymous. Don't you just love the vagaries of technology?

    1. Sorry about the confusion! I must confess I don't really get how internet stuff works either.

      Thanks for chiming in! I really do think there's something in The Secret Garden for everyone of any age. Even if you're not a child, or not presently interacting much with children, you can still relate to its themes of loneliness and friendship, and the beauty of nature. You're absolutely right about its enduring popularity, and I hope it continues to be a standard part of the children's lit canon for years to come!