The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: “The Secret Garden” at 100

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic The Secret Garden, first published 100 years ago, starts out as the Wuthering Heights of children’s literature. 10-year-old Mary Lennox is dramatically orphaned when cholera takes both of her parents (including her feckless, beautiful mother, who would have fled once the illness began to spread across their city in British-ruled India, but “only stayed to go to that silly dinner party”) and their servants. Always a neglected child, she’s left alone and ill in their bungalow, and only discovered when her father’s fellow officers come to clear out the place. It’s an entrance worthy of the finest gothic heroine, but Mary doesn’t waste a minute mourning. “Why was I forgotten?” she demands, stamping her foot. “Why does nobody come?” “Poor little kid,” replies one of the officers. “There is nobody left to come.”

Mary, though, is made of far tougher stuff than the average Jane or Cathy. She’s “the most disagreeable child” to look at with a disposition to match, and no child can resist following her as she pouts and stamps her way to Misselthwaite Manor, a gloomy, dark and empty mansion on the edge of an English moor inhabited only by her widowed uncle, one Archibald Craven, gloriously disregarding the opinions of everyone she meets. It’s just as well she’s refused to inhabit the role of the virtuous gothic maiden, because once she’s reached the apparently requisite manor (fantastically captured in the Graham Rust-illustrated version of the book, linked above), the entire story takes a modern turn.

Mary is rescued from her lonely exile (partly, through sheer brattiness, self-imposed) not by a hero or a newly loving parent figure, but by the most comtemporary forces possible: nature, good food and her own will. She’s helped by other classic gothic figures who refuse to take on their usual assigned roles: the rustic servant, Martha, who’s too untrained to know she should help her charge to dress and keep her opinions to herself, and Martha’s young brother, Dickon, who’s very nearly a mystic in his ability to charm the plants and animals of the moor and the manor’s gardens—except that he’s not; it’s really all nothing but good practical common sense. Once she can look after herself, and run and play and dig and garden with Dickon in the moor’s fresh air, Mary is a new child, although mercifully she never fully abandons her contrary ways. Who’d have thought that the ideals of very early 20th century children’s literary childhoods so closely matched our own?

Of course, there’s a mystery—Colin, the hidden son of the wicked uncle (who’s far less wicked than unhappy) who’s as disagreeable as Mary and far more helpless and who, like Mary, needs fresh air, good food and common sense to shake him out from under his gothic role into the ordinary (well, ordinary for British turn-of-the-century children’s literature, anyway) world. Rather than a hero who rescues Mary, Mary, with the help of Dickon, rescues him. And there’s the mystery of the garden itself. But the real story is that of two pampered children discovering they’re much happier and healthier when they get up, embrace a simple lifestyle, and learn to do things for themselves. In a modern author’s hands, it would surely be didactic and dull, but Burnett’s colorful plotting, her florid detail, and her utter disregard for any niceties like believablity or multi-dimensional secondary characters make this a story that moves quickly and still captivates. I left the book on my chair while re-reading it this past week, and returned to find my rising second-grader trying to work her way through the first chapter and already hooked. “I wonder what happens to Mary,” she said dreamily, clearly picturing herself stamping her foot at her own servants.

The Secret Garden, especially once Mary’s left India, has far fewer of the read-aloud problems of many of the other books of its time; there aren’t many opportunities to embody the era’s more unfortunate stereotypes on the moor, and the class distinctions between the Manor’s inhabitants and its servants are dismissed in the most modern way anyone could wish, since it’s the servant class which has all those practical ideas about rearing children. (If you’re going to read classic children’s books aloud to your kids, you just have to learn to disregard all the dead parents. Parents, especially mothers, are a nuisance to plotting.) It also moves faster than many of the books that I loved as a child and have since tried to read to my own kids, like Swallows and Amazons and even Burnett’s own A Little Princess, which are filled with description and expository detail. The Secret Garden gets right to the meaty where’s-the-garden, what’s-its-secret, and what’s-that-crying-in-the-night plot.

When I was young, I loved this book so much that I read my paperback to a dog-eared death, and the copy I have now is a beautiful hardback my mother gave me in my teens, but I haven’t touched since. I was surprised and thrilled to find that, unlike many of my old favorites, it still stands up to a critical child’s eye and ear, and it pulled me right back into its satisfying story of the lost heroine redeemed and then (once her rescue of Colin is complete) vindicated. This is a classic worthy of a 100-year revival. I’m so glad I took mine down off the shelf.