Goodreads: The Secret Garden
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.
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.