The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Information

Goodreads: The Secret Garden
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 1911

Summary

When Mary Lennox’s parents die of cholera, she is sent away to England to live with an uncle she has never met. There she encounters empty rooms, a locked garden, and a crying sound at night that no one will explain. When Mary finds the way into the garden, however, her life quite suddenly begins to change.

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Review

First published in 1911, Frances Hodgon Burnett’s The Secret Garden continues to enthrall readers today. With its depiction of an idyllic garden full of Magic just waiting to be discovered, the story celebrates the beauty of nature and our connection to it. Though arguably very little happens plot-wise, the joy of discovery occurs for the reader as Mary and her cousin Colin begin to notice small changes in themselves that mark their growth, physical and spiritual, courtesy of the garden. So many wonderful things happen to them just because they are outside, that soon readers may find themselves wanting to begin a garden of their own!

I first read The Secret Garden many years ago, but the story has given up none of its Magic. From the very first pages, Burnett manages to capture the reader with a prose that is deft and sharp. She gets at the heart of her characters, exposing their flaws, but also celebrating their capacity to change. Who does not feel sorry for selfish little Mary Lennox at the start of the book, when she is so spoiled and neglected she barely knows to mourn her own family? But she transforms over the course of the story, letting go of some of her class prejudices and learning that she does not always have to get her own way.

Though many readers may overlook the book’s spiritual undertones, Burnett fascinatingly hints at the nature of the Magic that causes Mary and Colin to change so much. Dickon’s mother suggests it might be God, but Colin seems to have a hazier idea of Magic’s true form–and so does Burnett. A bit of positive thinking seems to be involved, but, on the whole, Magic remains undefined–a nebulous, powerful force out there, just waiting to transform the people who seek it. Some readers may simply see in this a message that nature can have healing properties, but, for me, it adds yet another layer to the story–tantalizingly suggesting Burnett’s religious beliefs, but never quite stating them.

Of course, any contemporary discussion of The Secret Garden must reckon with its unapologetic depiction of colonialism. Spoiled Mary Lennox has an appalling view of her home country, India, where she imagines all the “natives” as subservient to her will. Even once she leaves and begins to realize that the servants in England are actually people, she never makes the imaginative leap to realize that the servants in India must be people, too. Rather, she continues to use stories of India to entertain and amuse the other English children, exoticizing a country one begins to inspect she (or at least Burnett) knows very little about. It is a historical representation in keeping with its time, but this does not make the inclusion of these scenes or bits of dialogue any more palatable.

At the heart of The Secret Garden lies a story about the power of nature to change our lives for the better. An interest in growing things, Burnett suggests, will lead to growth in ourselves, as well. This uplifting message of the possibility of change combines with a charming story and delightful prose to create a book that continues to be enjoyed by readers over 100 years after its publication.

4 stars

21 thoughts on “The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

  1. cynthiahm says:

    I loved this story as a child. I am considering reading it aloud to my nature preschool class. They are four so a bit young but perhaps if we begin partway through the year, they will be ready to absorb the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      It is a wonderful story! I suppose it would be a challenge to read it to preschoolers, though, especially having to put colonialism in context and figuring out if they have the attention span for something so long.

      Liked by 1 person

      • cynthiahm says:

        Exactly. I’m not sure how I could address the colonialism and would want to do that for certain! I need to look at other options for introducing a love of nature but still in the realm of longer chapter books as I want to challenge them to visualize the story without words and to listen to longer stories.

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        • Krysta says:

          Hm, that’s definitely a challenge. I don’t see most people challenging kids to read longer stories without pictures until at least third grade.

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          • cynthiahm says:

            I would read aloud to them, so they would be listening. Still, at age four it can be hard to listen to a long story unless it is really engaging. I wouldn’t expect them to read themselves.

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            • Krysta says:

              Yes, that’s true. Though my experience is that even a longer picture book read aloud can lose the attention of a preschooler. I just think it’s really challenging to ask them to engage with a longer work with no pictures and with a lot of context they might not understand–cholera, death, imperialism and colonialism, being “crippled.” For myself, I prefer to read short, rhyming books or silly picture books to that age group just because it’s so difficult to get them to sit still and engage.

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  2. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I think the Magic is an interesting (really odd?) part of the book, and it’s even stranger I rarely see people mention it when they discuss the book. It’s the main theme! There’s this whole weird belief system here about positive thinking and the healing power of nature, and people are so often just like, “Ooh, a pretty garden! A boy who learns he’s not that sick! Cool!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes! I find that fascinating, as well! Burnett is not at all subtle about the inclusion of Magic. Colin stands up and gives a whole speech about it! But people seem to be enchanted by the garden and nature and kind of overlook that. At least, no one has ever mentioned the Magic to me when discussing The Secret Garden.

      Like

  3. marydrover says:

    I recently read this for the first time last year, and I’m still thinking about how much I love it. My mother raised me watching the 90s adaptation over and over again, and it was such a delight to read the book and discover how the magic of nature could still effect me years later.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes! I always forget how much I love it until I read it again! I see there was supposed to be a new movie adaptation this year. I don’t know if it’s still happening. But the trailer seemed, um, overly dramatic?

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      • marydrover says:

        Oh, I didn’t even know that! It does look VERY dramatic, haha. I was so shocked at the house going up in flames in the trailer that that leaves me to believe it never did in the book, which I certainly don’t remember. And Mary looks like she’ll be our standard heroine, not at all as obstinate and terrible as in the book, which is half of the fun of her character development!

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