We gave it an A
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a true perennial, bursting into a fresh bloom of popularity with every new crop of child readers. And no wonder — this classic Victorian children’s story, originally published in 1911, is so powerfully rooted in enduring symbols of growth, self-sufficiency, and moral triumph that it cuts across the generations.
Maybe The Secret Garden‘s back-to-nature theme makes it seem fresh to the kids of the Green Revolution. Or perhaps its optimism about children’s resilience is more welcome today than ever. Garden is busting out all over: A musical based on the book is a big Broadway hit, you can buy Secret Garden coloring books, and, since the story’s copyright expired five years ago, no publishing house wants to be without its own version.
Of dozens of different editions available, none can quite match the intensity of the story. But Tasha Tudor’s restrained and delicate watercolors and pencil drawings in the HarperCollins version come closest to capturing the charm.
The plot is as rousingly melodramatic as Wuthering Heights. Mary Lennox, the heroine, is a cross, homely little girl in colonial India, spoiled rotten both by lack of parental love and by getting her own way too much with the abject servants who raise her. Orphaned in a cholera epidemic, ”Mary quite contrary” is sent home to England, to the wind-swept Yorkshire manor house of her distant, ill-tempered uncle.
There she discovers an overgrown and secret garden behind a locked door. With the help of Dickon, a magically gentle Pan-boy who can charm the birds from the trees with his folksy Yorkshire dialect, and urged on by a chorus of earthily sensible servants, Mary reclaims her health and good nature in the process of restoring the garden.
Not only does Mary triumph over her own shortcomings, but also she saves her cousin Colin from himself. He’s a bed-ridden hysteric and a thoroughly repulsive little whiner. Mary, an early advocate of tough love, ruthlessly refuses to pander to Colin’s tantrums. Instead she introduces him to the garden, where the two motherless children heal themselves.
Their illness is an unwholesome self-absorption. The prescription for their cure sounds homey and familiar even today: outdoor play, hard work, openness to nature, and compassion for others.
I remember when half the kids on our block (including, miraculously, some of the boys) were caught up in The Secret Garden mania. I think we recognized our own flawed selves in Mary’s cranky selfishness. What a relief to meet a heroine who was not so simperingly, crushingly perfect and pretty as most of the approved Pollyannas we encountered in conventional fiction!
Even more thrilling was The Secret Garden‘s lyrical Eden imagery and its vision of growth. That children could seize control of their own destinies, transform themselves and their futures, and even make the neglectful adults love and value them seemed an enchanting promise.
Burnett’s novel ends in a prolonged burst of ecstatic, semipantheistic Christian piety, served up with gobs of authorial moralizing. No matter: No one really remembers these preachy passages. It’s the intoxication of nature and the adventure of changing oneself that grip the reader’s imagination. A