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An image of the bookcover for The Secret Garden

 


The Secret Garden (1911)

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s writing

Burnett is now chiefly known as a children's author, but during her lifetime, she was also famous as an adult novelist. A prolific and popular author, Burnett wrote 52 works in a variety of genres – short fiction, essays, novels, romances, and adaptations for the stage.

Today she is best remembered for The Little Lord Fauntleroy (which became an instant bestseller), A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden. Financial need was the initial motivation for Burnett’s writing. But, according to her biographer Ann Thwaite, even after Burnett became wealthy, she was driven by money, never seeming to have enough.1

Writing during the Edwardian era

Both Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden were written during the Edwardian era, a time of remarkable creativity in children’s writing. The Oz books, Peter Pan, Edith Nesbit’s novels, The Wind in the Willows, the Peter Rabbit series, and The Call of the Wild were all published during this first decade of the twentieth century.

An accepted community of belief guides the actions of characters in these stories. Unlike modern writers who live in a time of greater uncertainty, earlier authors could create characters who knew what was expected of them and were supported in what they did by their community.

An introduction to the story

Although Little Lord Fauntleroy outsold The Secret Garden during Burnett’s lifetime, the latter has steadily increased in popularity. The Secret Garden has been adapted for the stage, television, films, and musicals. 

 It is the story of a girl whose life suddenly changes when she is forced to live with an unknown uncle after her parents die. Her adaptation to this changed life in a new country is the focus of the story.

The novel has many echoes of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Both orphans move into a mysterious manor, and both masters of these manors move abroad.

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Mary as an orphan

What was particularly original at the time of publication was the depiction of a pair of thoroughly unattractive and unlikable children.2 The adults in charge of Mary and Colin are preoccupied with their own affairs, a situation which has profound affects on the children.

We see the events of the novel through Mary’s eyes and this perspective increases the poignancy of her situation. Mary, we are told, “had begun to wonder why she had never seemed to belong to anyone even when her father and mother had been alive. Other children seemed to belong to their fathers and mothers, but she had never seemed to really be anyone’s little girl.”3 Lack of love makes Mary and Colin unlovable, but Mary does not realize this.

The movement of the novel is away from isolation as Mary starts the gradual process of making friends. A corresponding movement towards health and wholeness drives the action of the novel.

Similarities between Mary and Colin

In the second half of the novel, Colin is introduced. Both characters are motherless, and both have been neglected by the people who should be raising them. Mary and Colin start out as tyrannical, selfish, and spoiled. But as they start spending time outdoors in the secret garden, they become healthier, both physically and psychologically.

Why did Burnett create these parallels between characters? Colin acts as a mirror to Mary, reflecting her self-defeating behavior. By helping Colin overcome his own unhappiness, Mary also helps herself.

The garden

The garden is a central focus of the novel.4 When Mary asks the gardener about the secret garden, he tells her that it has been shut up for the same time span as Mary’s life. Why does Burnett equate the two? The outer landscape of the secret garden corresponds with Mary’s inner landscape, both neglected and overlooked.

The Secret Garden is a story in which environment acts upon characters, influencing their development. It is not until Mary and Colin spend time tending the garden that they make dramatic improvements, both physically and mentally. Mary’s weeding of the tangled masses of plants suggests a psychological cultivation that clears the way for inner development.5 The garden represents a pastoral restorative world that reflects psychological healing and growth.

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The Gothic mansion

Like the secret garden, Misselthwaite Manor is a marker for Mary’s inner life. Described as an eerie Gothic mansion, it contains nearly a hundred rooms, the majority of which are shut up and locked.

Upon first exploring this mysterious house, Mary gets lost among its mazelike corridors. “In a psychological sense,” points out Gerry Griswold, “Mary is probing the unconscious and seeks the darkest, most remote, and most deeply hidden secret of the House of Craven.”6 When she finally discovers Colin, she confronts her dark self.

Mary opens Colin’s window to let fresh air into the house; Dickon brings animals from the outside world into the manor; and the garden opens its door to Ben Weatherstaff, Dickon’s Mother, and Colin’s father in a movement away from enclosed spaces that suffocate the spirit.

The theme of magic

The theme of magic is surprisingly prominent in a realistic novel. Yet magic in this novel is far different from that of a fantasy story. In describing the garden, Burnett says, “it seemed as if Magicians were passing through it drawing loveliness out of the earth and the boughs with wands.”7 What Burnett highlights is the magic of the natural world. Like the best children’s authors, she describes the wonders of the world through a child’s eyes, wonders that adults often take for granted.

Notes

1. Ann Thwaite, Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett 1849-1924 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974), 86.

2. Thwaite, Waiting for the Party, 221.

3. Frances Hodgson Burnett The Secret Garden (1911; Harmondsworth, UK: Puffin Books, 1951), 16.

4. According to Ann Thwaite, Burnett started writing The Secret Garden amidst the excitement of planning her own garden for her Long Island home. Waiting for the Party, 219-20.

5. Jean Webb views this weeding in larger social terms: “Frances Hodgson Burnett believed in rescuing Eden from the ravages of imperialism. She produced a fictive trio of children who metaphorically learned to uproot the ravaging weeds of imperialism, prune out social division, and from chaos created harmony: peace in the revisioned Eden.” “Romanticism vs. Empire in The Secret Garden,” in Introducing Children’s Literature: From Romanticism to Postmodernism by Deborah Cogan Thacker and Jean Webb, 97 (London: Routledge, 2002).

6. Jerry Griswold, Audacious Kids: Coming of Age in America’s Classic Children’s Books (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 202.

7. Burnett, The Secret Garden, 159.