Thursday, August 25, 2016

'The Secret Garden' by Frances Hodgson Burnett


When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle's great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.

The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary's only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?

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Genre: Children's classics. My younger son and I visited Adelaide's Carrick Hill not long ago, and stumbled upon a display of The Secret Garden's many editions which have been published over the years. It's partly what inspired me to dig out the one in my own book shelf, to re-read for my classics challenge. Whoa, all I can say is that I didn't expect the reactions which came as I read.



First off, when I checked this book's stats out on Goodreads, I saw a long line of 5 star rankings from friends of mine. They are all really good friends, whose reviews I love. I was amazed that my opinion about this little book differed so much, and a bit nervous that I might tread on a few toes because it seems to be such a sentimental favourite. Then I remembered that when I first read it many years ago, I might have ranked it higher too, so maybe they're cruising on memory to some extent (sorry if that's you).   

The story begins so grim, there's got to be a HEA (happily ever after) implied, because it can't get any worse. So far so good. I don't mind the direction from horrible to good. It's the opposite movement which gets rough, especially for kids' books.  It begins in India, where everyone dies a horrible, painful death of cholera, except for Mary Lennox, the neglected little girl who was ignored by her parents and basically brought up by slaves. She's found days later in the aftermath, and sent off to England to live under the roof of a cranky uncle, Mr Archibald Craven.

From a modern perspective, there is lots of pious author intrusion. Burnett never missed the opportunity to drop in moralistic comments, such as 'Mary really was a disagreeable, self-centered and imperial child'. Yeah thanks, I think we get that idea without being told, but that was how some authors did things back then. You whack readers over their heads with your theme, just to be certain they don't miss it.

Young Colin's plight is seriously disturbing. A boy who has basically nothing wrong with him is left lying in bed for his first ten years, conditioned into hypochondria and believing he's going to die, because that's the line he's always taken on board from the adults. In all that time, he's never even attempted to walk because he believes there's no point. He rarely, if ever, leaves his bedroom. And he's never been outside in his life. Yet they just mumble insulting things about him beneath their breath (which he overhears) and kowtow to his face because he's the master's son, and they have to observe their ridiculous social pecking order.   

Burnett kept calling Mary a hard, unloving little girl, and Colin a cantankerous, sickly boy who believed he was going to die, as if this was all their own fault. Come on, they were ten-year-old kids, and the incompetent adults shaped them this way, by the way they treated them. Mary wasn't given an ounce of love by her parents in India, yet she's expected to show love and be a normal cheesy child in her new home. Where do they expect her to pull that from? And Colin is always told, 'Lie down and take it easy, my boy,' and never, 'Why don't you lean on my arm and come to the window seat for some sunshine?' Then they have the nerve to complain about him throwing the occasional tantrum.

When Mary and Colin end up proving that neither of them are really the monsters the adults turned them into, nobody thinks to say, 'Whoops, our bad.' I never expected to feel so angry reading this for the second time. Talk about indulging in forms of child abuse, then blaming the children for their own perceived shortcomings. It's a horror story, in a way.

Good on Mary and Colin, for taking matters into their own hands. I've come across people who have criticized kids' books for what they call 'glorifying disobedience', even when the young heroes end up saving the day (take Harry Potter stories, and other more modern ones). The same thing happens in The Secret Garden, from the moment Mary decides to investigate the strange sound of crying for herself. The adults deserved to have their authority flouted, because they consistently made the dumbest decisions. Why keep Mary and Colin apart from each other in the first place? And why the heck didn't anyone ever think to introduce Colin and boy wonder Dickon to each other earlier, since they lived in the same vicinity? The adults are the baddies here, and there's no two ways about it.

Another thing I must have overlooked during my first read through as a kid was Frances Hodgson Burnett's strong metaphysical agenda in the writing of the story. She has Colin deciding to chant, 'Magic is in me, magic is making me well.' When the children discuss this together, he says, 'Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen.' And there are several similar quotes, particularly thick toward the end. Some readers might throw around terms like white magic, spells, incantations, self-reliance and sorcery. Whether or not you buy into all that, it comes across as if she's elevating the human mind and giving kids the message that they're totally in control of their destiny. If they only think enough good thoughts, these will transform their life circumstances and make things wonderful. That's a bit dodgy and limited however you want to look at it.   

There are a few nice, heartwarming parts about enjoying the garden, but not enough to make up for all that I just ranted about. The crocuses, snowdrops, lilies, jonquils, narcissus, jasmine and daffodils (or daffydowndillies) get good mentions. My favourite part is when Ben Weatherstaff, the gruff old gardener, chokes up with emotion when his friend, the robin (the real hero of the story in my opinion) decides to honour him by landing on the handle of his shovel. It's nice to see unlikely friendships, including a crusty old guy and a bright little bird.

So yeah, that's it overall, and I have to wonder whether my list of friends who have given the book 5 stars have rated that on a long forgotten, nostalgic read in their youth, rather than the sort of recent, no-frills read I just had.

2.5 stars   


  1. All true, Paula, and well done for saying so. BUT as you say, it was a book of its time, reflecting the prevailing morality and logic of the century. We dont reject Jane Austen's books because the characters behave according to the prevailing norms; instead, we celebrate her skillful writing in DEPICTING those characters so that we care about them. FHB did no less in making you care.

    1. Hi Rhonda,
      What you say is true. She certainly knew how to evoke a strong emotional response from readers, whether it was love or anger :) And yes, it's probably good to consider that during those times of high child mortality rates, maybe it didn't seem as bad for them to keep Colin in bed for example, as it does for 21st century readers. It's so easy to judge people from bygone times by our own standards, which is probably why it's easier for me to get mad over a nineteenth century book. I'm glad we have them, as authentic records of the way things were.

    2. Yes, I'm glad we have writers who told us how it was, but sure am grateful we live in a more enlightened age!

  2. Agreed Paula! I remember being horrified even angry reading about treatment afforded children especially in books of this era. But in saying that I commend the writers for portraying how it was during those times. I also loved the friendship between the crusty old gardener and the little robin. Enjoyed this post Paula. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Lesley,
      The parts about the garden and the little bird really are lovely. I was even feeling thankful that we get similar blooms in parts of Adelaide :) As for those other parts, well even they make us thankful that times have changed.

  3. All good points, Paula. I put it down for 5 stars from my memory of reading it as a child, because even years later it stuck in my mind as a book which showed that children can overcome their circumstances and rise above the limitations adults put on them. As a child I related to it and it gave me so much hope and joy.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      Yeah, I've got to say I loved the kids too. Maybe the appalling bits with the adults coloured my review to extent. I remember loving it as a child too, for similar reasons to yours.

  4. One of the librarians I work with once told me she never rereads books she enjoyed as a child exactly for the reasons you describe. Different stories are important to us at different stages of our lives. Some books read when we are young and innocent lose something when we read them as adults and notice all that is happening in the background (prejudice, stereotypes, cruelty in all forms). But I think that is good, because it shows our own growth. Our stories nurture us in particular moments. We love them not only for the story, but for what we were feeling and experiencing when we read it. It's why I don't sweat it if my kids didn't want to read a book I loved from my youth. They aren't me. I'm not even the person I was when I read it.

    1. Cristina, I think you're spot on. I've been doing quite a bit of re-reading of old favourites lately, and noticing exactly what you've described here. Some of it is even for the better. Books which I used to hate when they were set on the school curriculum, I'm finding I don't mind so much now. I'm actually reading them just to see how far I've come, in a way.
      And yes, with the kids, I'm come up against the same. When you think about it, why would they necessarily concur with us, who were products of a different time when books were written differently?