Posted on May 25, 2015 | Back to Literature
Here be spoilers.
If I credit anyone with my love of books and writing, it's my mother. A writer, poet and librarian, Mom's life has revolved around literature in one way or another. So maybe it doesn't surprise that "book hour" was a regular feature in our house growing up — and not once do I remember complaining about turning off the television when it was time to participate.
When my mother first read The Secret Garden to me and my sister in the 1970s, I was captivated by it. After all, what kid wouldn't be charmed by the story of a sour-faced orphan named Mary Lennox who's sent to live on her uncle's sprawling Yorkshire estate, only to stumble upon a variety of mysteries? As Mary explores the manor house, she hears rumors of a tragic death. There are strange cries in the night the servants attribute to the wind but which Mary's thinks might just as easily be a ghost. And of course, there's a walled-in garden that's been locked up tight for a decade and no one's allowed to talk about it.
In time, Mary stumbles upon her cousin, Colin, who's been confined to his bedroom for most of his life and is convinced he'll never live to see adulthood. Constantly told he's sickly and fragile, Colin's embraced this as the truth even though there's really nothing wrong with him save a a robust case of Munchausen syndrome. Colin's father, Mr. Craven, never visits the boy and his only contact with adults comes in the form of fearful servants who despise him. Needless to say, he's become a monster whose arrogance and temper rivals Mary's in every way. Their initial interactions quickly devolve into power struggles. What finally brings them together, however, is a mutual fascination with the "secret garden" which belonged to Colin's late mother and into which Mary has found a door. With the help of a local boy named Dicken — whom Mary describes as an "animal charmer" — the cousins find something to live for besides terrorizing the maids. The three children quietly engage in some therapeutic horticulture, reviving the long-neglected flora and even coaxing in some native wildlife.
The secret garden is just a tiny patch of land, but for Burnett it is a symbol for nature in general. The story was written during an age when industry and technology were driving more and more Americans and Europeans out of the countryside and into the cities. Many artists and writers, including Burnett, were addressing humanity's dwindling connection to nature through their work and this is the major theme of The Secret Garden. I don't know if there are any other children's books which extoll the virtues of "green living" as eloquently as this one. Throughout, Burnett uses the word "magic" a lot, but not in a supernatural sense. For her and her characters, real magic is practiced through positive thinking, good food, lots of exercise and plenty of contact with natural places.
Based on it age alone (104 years), The Secret Garden may be off-putting to some modern readers. The book's formal voice and the Yorkshire colloquialisms used by many of the characters can render it difficult to understand; as could references to India and other parts of the former British empire. Still, it provides a vivid look at life in an Edwardian manor house, something which has long since disappeared. If I have one true criticism of The Secret Garden, it's that the ending seemed abrupt. When the children's' amazing transformations are finally revealed to Mr. Craven, we don't get to see his reaction nor whether he takes any responsibility for — at least in Colin's case — perpetuating their misery. I guess I'll just have to imagine all that for myself.