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The Secret Garden: An Analysis of a Classic Children's Book
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Reading The Secret Garden was one of the joys of my childhood. The book is a classic children's novel written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The words "garden" and "secret" were instant attractions for me when I first heard of the book. I loved the idea of a beautiful and mysterious garden which no one else knew about. As an adult, however, I see some disturbing incidents in the book. Some people may feel that these spoil the story's lovely descriptions of nature and its interesting magical and mystical elements.
The flower photos in this article show plants mentioned in The Secret Garden. The pride of place goes to the rose. The garden was created for a woman who loved these flowers. After her accidental death in the garden, her husband could no longer bear to visit it. It gradually became hidden by the growth of plants over its walls and door.
Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Brief Biography
Frances Eliza Hodgson was born in Manchester, England, on November 24th, 1849. She was the daughter of an ironmonger, who died only three years after her birth. Her mother ran the family business after her husband died. When Frances was fifteen, however, the business failed. In 1865 her family immigrated to Tennessee in the United States, hoping for a better life with her mother's brother. Here Frances began her literary career by selling stories to help support her family financially.
In 1872 Frances married Swan Burnett, who later became a doctor. The couple had two sons. In 1890 the elder son died from tuberculosis, or consumption as it was then known, which hurt Frances deeply. Frances became a follower of Christian Science shortly after her son's death. Frances divorced Swan in 1898. She married Stephen Townsend in 1900. This marriage was not successful, however, and lasted for just two years.
Frances alternated between living in Britain and in the United States. She wrote three very popular children's books. Little Lord Fauntleroy was published in 1886, The Little Princess appeared in 1905, and The Secret Garden was published in 1911. Frances wrote successful books for adults as well as children and also wrote plays. She died in 1924 while she was in her Long Island home in New York.
The Secret Garden in Real Life
From about 1898 to 1907, Frances lived in a mansion called Great Maythem Hall. This building still exists and is located in Kent, England. Frances found an old, walled garden on the grounds of the mansion. The garden had been neglected for a very long time.
Frances restored the garden and planted lots of roses. She sat in her garden to do her writing and made friends with a robin that she often found there. The bird reportedly fed from her hand. The walled and forgotten garden, the abundant roses, and the friendly robin all appear in The Secret Garden.
Mary Lennox's Discovery of the Secret Garden
Mary Lennox is about ten years old at the start of The Secret Garden. Her family is English but live in India. Mary's parents virtually ignore her. She is cared for by an Indian nursemaid and has become a self absorbed, cold, and uncaring child.
When her parents die from cholera, Mary is sent to live with her semi-reclusive uncle in his Yorkshire manor. Martha Sowerby is the young housemaid who is assigned to take care of Mary.
The manor is set in large grounds containing multiple gardens. Martha tells Mary the story of a garden that has been "lost" and that no one has seen or been inside for ten years. Mary's heartbroken uncle locked the door of the walled garden after her aunt died there and then buried the key in the soil. The descriptions of the wall in the book suggest that it's taller than the one shown in the photo above. Only the tops of trees can be seen from outside the garden.
One day Mary discovers the buried key to the garden door with the aid of a friendly robin. Shortly afterwards she finds the door itself, which was hidden under a thick layer of ivy. As Mary secretely explores the garden, she decides to care for its neglected plants. Her daily explorations of the manor grounds have already begun the process of improving her health and attitude. Her efforts to revitalize the secret garden accelerate this process.
The Healing Garden
Mary invites others that she trusts to her secret garden. One of these people is Dickon, one of Martha's brothers. Dickon has an amazing rapport with wild animals and a wide knowledge of nature. Animals follow him around and lie beside him. They even climb on to his shoulders and lap. Wildlife also comes to visit Dickon when he plays his pipe.
Mary's other confidant is her cousin Colin, whose existence was kept secret from her. Colin spends most of his time in bed, often crying and throwing tantrums and frequently treating his attendants badly. Mary discovers him by following the sound of his crying, Colin can't walk (for an unspecified reason) and is convinced that he is going to die soon. He is also terrified that he will become a hunchback like his father. He was born shortly before his mother died and resembles her. His father finds it very hard to visit Colin because his son reminds him of his wife.
Mary and Dickon take Colin to the garden in a wheelchair. The visits to the garden gradually improve Colin's disposition and spirits. Eventually, as the garden works its special magic, Colin finds that he can stand, then walk, and eventually run. He keeps his new abilities secret from the people in the manor but plans to reveal them when his father returns from a trip aboard.
Colin's father returns to the manor unexpectedly after an experience in which he hears his dead wife telling him that she is in the garden. When he arrives at the manor, the father hears laughter coming from the garden. As the garden door opens, he is amazed to see his son not only healthy but also running around with Mary and Dickon. The story ends with the joyful and triumphant return of father and son to the manor.
Secret Garden Movie Trailer: 1987 Version
I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us.— Colin in The Secret Garden
Magic in the Secret Garden
The idea of magic is frequently mentioned in reference to the secret garden. Francis Hodgson Burnett's interest in Christian Science may have been in her mind as she described Colin's recovery. Christian scientists believe in God and the importance of the Bible. They also believe that sickness can be healed by prayer alone.
Once Colin has begun his daily visits to the garden, he talks about the magic involved in his healing. In fact, the word Magic—written with a capital M—is used so often in this section of the book that it may become annoying for some readers. The children use the word to refer to a mystical force and not to a magician's trick.
Colin says that he is going to conduct a scientific experiment in the garden. In this experiment, Colin is going to try to absorb the garden's Magic in order to heal himself. The children, an elderly gardener who has discovered their presence, and the animals around Dickon form a circle to call on Magic. Afterwards, Colin finds that he can walk around the garden, although he needs help at times and frequently needs to rest. The "mystic circle" is held every day in the garden, and every day Colin's health and strength improve. On one occasion the group sings a Christian hymn as they work in their circle.
The writer eventually says that Colin's recovery is due to his determination and to the fact that positive thoughts have great power. This relatively mundane explanation sounds a little strange after all of the references to Magic. Frances may have had a greater belief in the power of thought than many people, however. It's interesting that in the next chapter of the book the idea of Magic appears yet again in relation to Archibald Craven, Mary's uncle.
One of the new things that people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts - just mere thoughts - are as powerful as electric batteries, as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison.— Frances Hodgson Burnett in The Secret Garden
Spiritualism and Theosophy
The incident that causes Archibald Craven to interrupt his trip abroad and go home early could be described as mystical. It may well be a reflection of the writer's interest in spirtualism and theosophy. She explored both of these topics before she became a Christian Scientist.
Spiritualism is both a religion and a philosophy. In either case, it involves a belief that the spirit continues to exist after bodily death. Spiritualists also believe that spirits can communicate with the living via people who act as mediums.
Theosophy is a complex philosophy. Followers believe in a spiritual reality that can be contacted through meditation. They also believe that we will survive in some form forever. This idea of living forever is brought up several times in the second half of the book as the magical atmosphere becomes more intense.
A Mystical Experience
We join Archibald Craven in Europe at the time when the secret garden is coming to life. As a change in Archibald's dark, ten-year-long depression begins, the writer makes the following statement about him "Slowly - slowly - for no reason that he knew of - he was "coming alive" with the garden."
One night beside a moonlit lake, Archibald falls asleep and dreams. The dream is unlike his normal dreams, however. It seems intensely real to him. In the dream, his wife calls to him. He asks her where she is. She replies, "In the garden!"
The next morning Archibald receives a letter from Susan Sowerby, Martha and Dickon's mother. She knows about Colin's recovery and has visited the children in the garden. Susan suggests that Archibald come home and says that he would be happy if he did so. She also says that she thinks his wife would have wanted him to return at this point in time. Immediately after reading the letter and with the dream still in his mind, Archibald orders his servant to prepare for their return to England.
The Class System
A noticeable aspect of The Secret Garden is that the distinction between different classes is always maintained, even as the plot progresses. Comments by some characters show that they feel that they are superior to people in the class below them even as they offer them some respect.
Despite the apparent friendship between Martha and Mary, Martha is still a servant who must wait on Mary and obey Colin. Colin maintains his imperious attitude towards servants. In reference to Dickon, the writer says (while speaking from Mary's point of view), "Oh, how she did like that queer, common boy!" Near the end of the book when the writer refers to the factors that have caused the wonderful changes in Mary's disposition, she refers to "common little Yorkshire housemaids" as being helpful.
Even those not in the upper class have their prejudices. When the housekeeper at the manor is talking about Martha's mother and believes that she is praising her, she says, "Sometimes I've said to her, Eh! Susan, if you was a different woman an' didn't talk such broad Yorkshire I've seen the times when I should have said you was clever."
There is one touching incident near the end of the book which indicates that Colin may be changing his attitude. He tells Susan Sowerby that he wishes that she was his mother.
Secret Garden Movie Excerpt: 1993 Version
Racism in The Secret Garden
In the first part of The Secret Garden, a reader may get the uncomfortable feeling that the way in which Indian people are treated by Mary is unacceptable. Mary has been brought up with little attention or guidance from her parents and has become very self absorbed and demanding, however, which may at least partly explain her attitude. When she arrives in Yorkshire, though, both Mary and Martha make outrageous comments.
When Mary wakes up on her first morning at her uncle's mansion, she finds Martha cleaning the bedroom hearth. During their conversation Mary say that things were different in India. Martha responds by saying "I dare say it's because there's such a lot o' blacks there instead o' respectable white people." Martha also says that she looked at Mary during the night to see if she was black. Mary is furious at the thought and tells Martha "You don't know anything about natives. They're not people—they're servants who must salaam to you."
Later on Martha gives Mary a skipping rope, which she has never seen before. She asks Martha what the rope is for. Martha says "Does tha' mean that they've not got skippin'-ropes in India, for all they've got elephants and tigers and camels! No wonder most of 'em's black."
Preparation for Reading
Children would probably like a printed version of the The Secret Garden that has illustrations. The book can be read or downloaded for free from the Project Gutenberg website, however. I suggest that parents read at least to the end of Chapter Eight in this version of the book before they buy a printed copy for their child. The racist elements disappear after this chapter.
A parent may decide that they need to prepare their child for what they will read in the book. They may even decide that they don't want the child to read it at all. The problem with the latter decision is that children may well encounter the book outside of the home. In addition, there are other children's books from an earlier time that are great stories apart from their racist elements. It may be better to face the problem directly and discuss the situation with children. Parent have to decide this for themselves, of course.
The Unsatisfying Ending of the Story
As much as I enjoyed The Secret Garden as a child, I always found the ending unsatisfying and even annoying. Most of the book focuses on Mary and her experiences. Colin is an important secondary character. The ending is all about Colin, however. His interaction with his father is now the focus of the story and the other two children in the garden are forgotten.
I always wanted to know what happened to Mary now that her uncle had returned and seemed happier. I had become very interested in her life. It seemed unfair that she was ignored at the end of the story. I still feel this way when I read the book as an adult.
The Secret Garden definitely has flaws. As a child, I think I must have glossed over any flaws that I found. As an adult, I can't do this. In remembrance of the past I still read the book occasionally, though. It has some beautiful sections for someone who likes nature, fantasy, and speculative fiction.
© 2015 Linda Crampton