Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. Heinemann, 1957.

Christmas 1960, I think, it might have been 1959 I was given The Secret Garden as a present. The gift was not a surprise. I remember our shopping for it in the local bookstore where my mother made a special order and was told by the clerk that the edition she was ordering was a resetting of the original Heinemann publication with illustrations by Charles Robinson. My school library had the library edition with a sturdy blue cover and no coloured illustrations. I still have this volume, and for some reason I reread the story about once a year, usually in spring. This is more often than I reread the Winnie the Pooh or Carroll’s Alice books.

Why do I do this? It’s actually an extremely, even nauseatingly, saccharine book. I do really like the texture of the illustrations, and reading about spring at the end of winter can be somewhat uplifting. The work is, I suppose, very much of its time. Mary Lennox is literally a raj orphan, her parents having died in a cholera epidemic in India. The way the characters describe Indians as “blacks” and Mary’s attitude towards them is very disturbing to a contemporary sensibility.

I have also to admit that I find the work’s tone a little self-satisfied. It’s something I can’t quite explain, but the narrating voice is sometimes rather complacently judgemental. Perhaps this tone derives from the fact that the book is written for children, and children can be very judgemental. In an adult novel, Mrs. Medlock, for example, might well develop into a far more complex character, think of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, but Mrs. Medlock is rather two dimensional in the way that when we are children we tended to see the people around us in a rather broad outline and had less sympathy for their context than we have when we are adults.

Then there is the work’s classism. This, too, is a product of its time, and I don’t exactly criticize Burnett for not questioning the social hierarchy. In some ways she does; after all, the Sowerbys may be poor, but their family is not dysfunctional in the way the Cravens are. I suppose what I find somewhat distasteful is the presentation of Martha and her family and of curmudgeonly Ben Weatherstaff as overly stereotypical.

That all said, there is obviously something about the book that elicits thought. Just check out the Table of Contents for Gymnich and Lichterfeld’s A Hundred Years of The Secret Garden: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Children’s Classic Revisited (http://www.v-r.de/en/a_hundred_years_of_the_secret_garden/t-3024/1010445/). I am not the only one to have found the novel intellectually fascinating or to have found myself comparing Burnett with D. H. Lawrence. There is something about the book that irritates, that makes one want to go further. I am not alone in wondering what could actually happen to those three children, Mary, Colin, and Dickon given their backgrounds and situation. At least three sequels have been written ranging from Perspective Provider’s The Secret Heart on the website fanfiction.net, to Susan Moody’s Misselthwaite (Return to the Secret Garden in the US), or Stacie Morrell’s The Forgotton Room. Then there are the television and film adaptations as well as a musical. The Secret Garden appears to have a similar effect to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the way it has generated offspring.

To answer my earlier question, then, about why I subject myself to an annual revisiting of the book: I suppose, apart from nostalgia for my earlier self and appreciation for the illustrations, it is because those questions raised by the book of class, identity, sexuality, and more still demand my attention.





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2 Responses to

  1. Cecilia says:

    Interesting to read this analysis in light of my unexamined responses to the book when I first read it as a child (I’ve tried it several times since and simply found it infuriatingly condescending towards children, so never finished it again). At the time, I simply didn’t like the way the book talked to me. But I really liked A Little Princess, which spoke what seemed to me a very different language. Aside from the standard tropes of dead or missing parents, lost wealth and station in life, and resolution and return tot he status quo, I liked the feisty independence of the two little girls and their bond later with the Indian servant and his monkey. The book seemed to show that there were ways to resist and subvert the power dynamics if one developed bonds with other oppressed individuals and that the strength of a group lay in numbers across boundaries of race, class, and gender. I also appreciated that the hypocrisy the main character perceived in the women who ran the school was exposed in the end. Perhaps I should revisit the book now. At the time, I often wondered why everyone raved about The Secret Garden and no one seemed to have even read A Little Princess.

    • I have to admit that I am one of those has not read A Little Princess. The same is true of Little Lord Fauntleroy. However, your comment has resulted in my just having added A Little Princess: Being The Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Told For the First Time to my ereader. I shall do my best to read it quickly and may then be able to respond more insightfully to your comment.

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