The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Warner Brothers film I grew up with: my earliest experience with the 1911 classic (dir. Agnieszka Holland, 1993)

If I am to choose one word to describe this classic children’s book I’d be inclined to say that it’s ‘magical’. The story lags a bit in the middle and ends far too quickly (a stylistic vestige of the era it was written in, I believe), but the language and earnest nature of the message is completely enchanting! Magic is also one of the overarching themes of the book and something its young characters believe in quite whole-heartedly. Every good thing that happens to them is attributed to magic – to be specific, good magic. Before ‘The Secret’, there was The Secret Garden, which effectively bashes you over the head plenty of times about how important it is to think good, happy thoughts. Of course, this doesn’t fix everything, but it can change how you look at your life, as our protagonist learns.

A Short(ish) Synopsis with Spoilers:

The story centers on the crabby (or ‘contrary’) Mary Lennox who thinks, at one point, “people never like me and I never like people”. In the beginning of the book, Mary is found stranded alone in her parent’s house in India, after they and all the servants have died of cholera. She is then sent to live in England, in her uncle’s extravagant Misselthwaite Manor. It is a lonely existance at first; Mary does not mourn her parents, whom she did not know – but she is nonetheless a very sad little girl. There is no hope at Misselthwaite. Her uncle Archibald Craven is severely depressed and prone to disappearing for months on end; the ‘moor’ on which the manor stands is vast and daunting; everything is black and cold. Plus there’s that sound of crying that seems to fill the halls some nights. With a scowl, Mary is sent outside one day. Things start to look up when she meets a curmudgeonly old gardener who works there, and his little robin friend. It is at this point that Mary starts to like people. Later she meets a slightly older boy who also lives on the moor. Dickon is something of a male Snow White, with animal friends that include 2 squirrels, a lamb, a crow, and a fox. He can also speak to the robin and make things grow. Together with Dickon, Mary becomes fascinated with gardening.

Thus sets the stage for the magic parts of the story. Legend has it that Master Craven is so sad because his beloved wife died in a walled garden ten years ago. So upset by this, he locked it up and buried the key. After she hears this, Mary – spoiler alert! – finds the key. After she finds the key…she finds the door…after she finds the door…she enteres the forbidden garden, which must be kept secret so that she can keep spending time there. This is very importnant, since it’s the one thing that makes her really happy, after her new friends. The story complicates when we meet Colin Craven – Master Craven’s hypochondriac son who, for some odd reason, is also kept secret from Mary until she up and finds him, too.

The whole beautifully-crafted story is about discovery and new life. We start with Mary, alone and surrounded by death. We end, ever so magically, with Mary surrounded by friends, and a garden bursting forth with every flower imaginable. It is no wonder that when sick little Colin first steps into it, he cries out that he shall live forever and ever!

The Bottom Line:

When I was a child I was not fond of this story. It was altogether too bleak, and the journey to the beautiful garden felt like a slog. Now I am an adult and can appreciate the depth of Mary’s world. It is easy to understand why this is. Burnett wrote this book when she was already 62, and had lived through many a tragic event in her own life. Mary’s transformation, like the author’s, is nothing short of magic. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, I hope you’ll discover it for yourself.

But that’s not all!

For more Secret Garden fun, and for a collection of various covers over the past 100 years, click here! 

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3 responses

  1. Pingback: A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett | A Novel Thing

  2. Pingback: The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton | A Novel Thing

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