Francis Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ is predominantly a children’s novel, but like all good children’s literature its appeal spreads far beyond this audience. I increasingly found myself admiring the author’s craftsmanship, even if I was able to resist some of the more sentimental aspects of the novel.
Set in a soon to disappear Edwardian Yorkshire, where England rules half the globe, servants know their place and doff their caps, the rural poor are apple-cheeked and breed with profusion, ‘The Secret Garden’ is, despite all this historical baggage, delightful. Ten year old Mary Lennox suffers the inevitable fate of all children in literature and is orphaned in the opening pages: “The cholera had broken out in its most fatal form and people were dying like flies.” Parents out of the way, she is whisked away from colonial India to live in a large country house where she wanders the empty corridors, seeing her remote and gruff uncle Archibald Craven just once before he leaves for an extended European tour.
Bored, lonely, and unlikeable, wandering around life a Pevensie child in search of adventure, one day she discovers a secret – a walled garden in the extensive grounds of her uncle’s house, locked away for ten years. With the assistance of a friendly robin and a fair slice of luck she finds the key and enters the Narnia-like world beyond the walls. She is entranced by this secret location, not just because of its privacy – she has a whole house to herself – but because of the plants and flowers. Her interest in gardening – albeit simply as something to do – is traced back to her early days in India, where she earned her nickname – Mistress Mary – from the children’s rhyme “Mistress Mary, quite contrary”, which was originally going to be the novel’s title.
Mary eventually shares her secret with Dickon, a 12 year-old local lad who has the seemingly magical ability to “charm” animals. He is at once a prototype, albeit benign, Heathcliff figure, tapping into the novel’s many Bronte references, (the novel has been called “Wuthering Heights for children”) and at the same time a St Francis of Assisi character, able to literally charm the birds from the trees, as part of the novel’s strong religious themes.
Misselthwaite Manor has other, darker, secrets. In a plot device borrowed from Jane Eyre and many other gothic novels, Mary hears crying coming from behind locked doors in forbidden parts of the house. This is her ten year old cousin, Colin, an angry, self-loathing boy who terrorises the extensive household of servants and who has a neurotic fear of becoming a hunchback. Colin’s mother died in giving birth to him, thus causing his father to reject him, and to lock away his late wife’s garden. Colin is treated as an invalid by the household, although it soon becomes clear that there is little physically wrong with him. From this point the novel slowly switches focus, and eventually becomes the story of Colin’s recovery and redemption.
Burnett uses the garden as a wonderfully flexible symbol. At one point it is another Eden for the children, who innocently play and explore their grown-up free world. At another time it acts as a metaphor for Empire, a controlled and safe environment contrasted with the more dangerous and unknown moors on which only the native Dickon, with his strange dialectical language, is able to feel safe. Class structure is commented upon, with the gardener Ben at first only allowed to look over the wall into the garden beyond, excluded from enjoyment of its pleasures, until he accepts his place in the pecking order. Religion, albeit with a strong theosophist flavour provides the agency by which Colin recovers his health, and draws its force from the mystical garden. Virtually every other page offers a fresh interpretation of the garden. Given her audience, the author cannot afford to be too subtle, and signposts many of these ideas clearly, if not didactically:
“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden”
“the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles”
“Two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way – or always to have it”
At the end of the novel, in another clear reference to ‘Jane Eyre’, Colin’s father, wandering alone in the Italian Alps, hears a mysterious voice calling to him “in the garden”. He rushes back to Yorkshire, to be reconciled with his now fully recovered son, and to resume his natural role as the Master of Misselthwaite Manor.
As a children’s novel ‘The Secret Garden’ will continue to be read and loved for many years to come. The Edwardian setting seems to wrap the tale into a world immune from the horrors of the rest of the 20th century. Adults might find some aspects of the novel too saccharine, but this is still a worthwhile read if you are interested in how early 20th century novels portrayed the world, or as an interesting variant of parts of the Bronte canon.