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Exploring the Classics: The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett; The Secret Garden

This is a re-reading of the 1911 text. It is also my first reading of a book using Kindle for PC.

Mary Lennox is a curious creature. She is contrary and strong-willed, prone to violent outbursts of anger, yet unmoved by the death of her parents which open the book. This is no great shock; her parents, a colonialist businessman and a socialite, are distant to the point of abandonment and she is raised by an Ayah whose first consideration is to keep her quiet.

The novel is scathing of a woman who prefers to pay someone to raise her children, while praising the talents that make it so. “Perhaps if her Mother had carried her pretty face and her pretty manners oftner to the nursery Mary might have learned some pretty ways too,” says Mrs. Crawford, “It is very sad, now the poor beautiful thing is gone, to remember that many people never even knew she had a child at all.” In the paragraph that follows, the same woman takes her own children to boarding school in England, apparently unaware of her own hypocrisy. This logical misstep might be preposterous to modern feminist readers, but it is the first of many little textual reminders that The Secret Garden inhibits an era apart from our own.

Mary’s innate racism is interesting when compared with the distinct egalitarian attitude exhibited by housemaid Martha. I adore Martha in many ways, and her innocence and desperate desire to see a black face is charming in the extreme. She goes from describing the native population in terms of their difference from  ‘respectable white people’, to a biblical proclamation of brotherly love: “You always read as a black’s a man an’ a brother. I’ve never seen a black an’ I was fair pleased to think I was goin’ to see one close.” And it seems she truly does mean it. Her attitudes are racist, but they are built on ignorance rather than hatred. As she says, ” I don’t know anythin’ about anythin’.”

Mary Lennox had never seen a skipping-rope before. She gazed at it with a mystified expression.

“What is it for?” she asked curiously.

“For!” cried out Martha. ” Does tha’ mean that they’ve not got skippin’-ropes in India, for all they’ve got elephants and tigers and camels! No wonder most of ’em’s black. This is what it’s for; just watch me.”

Racism plays a heavy part in the story and the novels implicit endorsement of it makes reading quite uncomfortable. Mary’s – and many of the other characters – distaste for anything black (including clothes) is lent a sinister edge. Throughout the novel India is cast as a place that is entirely unsuitable for an English child. I do not know if there are modern editions of the text which have revised the racism out of the story, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I would warn against it, though. These conversations may well act as a catalyst to discuss the evolution of race relations and overt/hidden racism in contemporary culture.

Garden of Eden, Brueghel 1612, oil on copper.

The garden is the symbolic heart of the novel. It acts as an extended metaphor for both Mary and Colin’s flowering. Even the robin red breast that befriends Ben Weatherstaff and Mary is cured from his loneliness by the garden and by the childrens’ friendship. Parallels with the Garden of Eden are hard to ignore. Where Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden is commonly referred to as their ‘fall’, Mrs. Craven takes a literal fall in the garden, effectively casting out humanity from the garden for a decade – an eternity in the eyes of a child.

That Colin and Mary are ‘reborn’ in the garden is telling of Burnett’s practice of Christian Science – the ‘magic’ of the garden can be read as a divine miracle, and Dickon’s Pan-like quality enhances this. That Dickon declares the garden “as wick as you or me” foreshadows the revival of Mary and Colin.

When Colin enters the narrative as more than just a cry in the dark Mary has already begun her rejuvenation and she is able to see herself in the bedridden boy. This mirroring is a little heavy-handed, and, sandwiched between chapters worth of ‘the garden is a magic healer’ it becomes somewhat grating.

That it is Colin’s fury at Ben Weatherstaff that gives him the strength and energy to stand for the first time underlines the message that illness and wellness are products of our imaginings and if we want to overcome them we can. This combined with Dickon’s comment that it is the same magic that makes the flowers grow cements the concept as divine. Later, for those slow in the uptake, the children sing the doxology and the narrative becomes a full-on tract.

The Yorkshire voices of Mrs. Medlock the housekeeper, Susan Sowerby and her family are written with a deep understanding not just of accent, but of the flow of the Yorkshire ideolect, and are delightful to read. Mary and eventually Colin taking on a Yorkshire brogue is undoubtedly meant to underline their oneness with the garden. Instead it seems a jarring act of cultural appropriation; the rich young things bringing respectability to the natives of the wild moors and taking their cultural markers as a curio. What Mary’s parents have done in India, their daughter is now doing in Yorkshire.

The Secret Garden is twee. The theme of reawakening can tend towards syrupy, but the overall effect is – and I keep using this word – charming. Delightful, even.

2 responses »

  1. I love this book. It is linked for me with reading of Forster’s A Room With A View, and to an extent with Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover; the freeing of middle-class women by contact with a male of lower class. But what I particularly love about it is the freeing of children by children, rather than by a wise older person. Of course Mrs Sowerby is around, but she isn’t pointing morals and sermonising.

    • I agree – the children do free each other, I think they both feel oppressed despite the control of their previous situations. Mrs Sowerby is an almost ethereal presence, directing the action from afar. Re-reading this I was surprised to find Mary and Colin don’t actually meet her until (if memory serves) chapter 25 or 26.

      The freeing of middle-class women by working class men wasn’t something I’d considered, but it really is something to think about. Thanks!


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