Book review, children's literature, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Narnia, The Secret Garden, Tropes

Supplementary: I want it now! ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911 – some further thoughts

I have been taken to task, with some justification, for describing Mary Lennox the ten year old heroine of ‘The Secret Garden’ as “unlikeable”.

Let’s look at the evidence.

In the novel’s haunting opening chapter, “There’s no one left”, indeed in the novel’s opening line, this is how the author describes her:

“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable looking child ever seen. It was true, too.”mary-lennox

Not one of the most disagreeable looking children, but the most disagreeable looking – and the narrator agrees!

Born a “a sickly, fretful, ugly little baby”, she is neglected if not abandoned by her parents, and left in the charge of servants and a series of governesses fearful of imposing any discipline upon her. She grows up into “as tyrannical and selfish little pig as ever lived”. She beats and kicks her servant, and calls her ‘“Pig! Pig! Daughter of Pigs”….because to call a native a pig is the worst insult of all’. Even Mary herself accepts “People never like me and I never like people.”

Unsurprising Mary is not usually remembered this way. In film adaptations and book illustrations this aspect of her appearance is quietly forgotten. In the text, once settled in Yorkshire she is quickly healed and transformed by the redeeming power of the Secret Garden. The spoilt nasty orphan is left behind and she becomes a lovable and kind child. As well as a change of character, Mary also changes in appearance. Plenty of exercise, good clean Yorkshire air, and an English diet and climate combine to fatten her up! Mrs Medlock the housekeeper says (chapter 24)

“She’s begun to be downright pretty since she’s filled out and lost her ugly little sour look. Her hair’s grown thick and healthy looking, and she’s got a bright colour. The glummest, ill-natured little thing she used to be”.

Mary’s transformation is shadowed closely by the changes in Colin. The garden has an even more dramatic effect on him, allowing him to walk again and become a happy and polite child. In Colin’s case, the friendship and support of Mary and Dickon have an important role in his recovery.

This story arc – spoilt brat is transmuted physically and emotionally – is a common trope in children’s literature. Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Scrubb* in the Narnia stories (for example) take a similar voyage, quite literally – Eustace takes things the whole way and transforms into a dragon as part of his redemption!

Was it fair to describe Mary as (at that point in her life) “unlikeable”? I’ll let you decide.

* “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and his masters called Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.”