Goodreads: The Secret Garden
When Mary Lennox is orphaned, she is sent from India to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven, in England. The Craven estate, however, seems lonely for a child, until Mary discovers the key to a garden that has been locked for ten years and begins to make friend with a local boy who knows all about animals, gardening, and the magic of the nearby moors. Soon, “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary” begins to grow happy and healthy–and learns there are more secrets in her new home beyond the garden.
Spoilery if you are not familiar with the story.
The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books as a child and one of the first full novels I read on my own, in second grade. Though protagonist Mary is, as some unforgiving children in the novel call her, often contrary, I fell in love with the beautiful English setting on the moor and with the idea of a secret garden that one could call one’s own. Since there is a new movie adaptation of The Secret Garden set to be released 2020 (with primary billing given to Colin First as Archibald Craven, as if the man is in more than two scenes of the book), I decided to reread it to see if it there were just as much Magic was I remembered. Spoiler: there is.
Often when I fall in love with books, it’s because of the characters, but I actually think the setting of The Secret Garden might be its biggest strength. That isn’t to say I don’t like the characters; the book, of course, is focused on two major transformations: that of protagonist Mary Lennox as she changes from an ill-tempered, imperious child used to having her to way to a kinder one full of life and laughter and that of her cousin Colin Craven, as he learns to stop thinking of himself as sickly and doomed to die and embrace his own health (and kinder attitude). This premise could, of course, come across as moralizing; The Secret Garden was certainly written in an era where using books to teach children’s lessons was very in vogue. (Ok, let’s not kid ourselves; many people still think children’s and teen lit is about teaching Correct Ideas.) However, the character arcs are so well-written that it’s hard to actually think of them as preachy, in spite of asides about how children should play, fresh air is good for you, one must believe in oneself and think positive thoughts, etc. Mary and Colin simply read like real characters, real children who learn not to be spoiled.
I have more reservations about Dickon. I believe I liked him as a character when I was a child because he is incredibly kind, responsible, etc. really older and wiser than his 12 years AND he makes friends with animals. Mary and Colin are enchanted with him, and I was, too. A boy who can talk to birds and tame a fox?! Now, he seems a little over-the-top to me, a trifle unrealistic in his role of animal-whisperer, but he’s still an interesting addition to the story.
But the beauty of the book is that they learn not to be spoiled through the beauty of nature, primarily in their secret garden. The idea of a secret garden is, itself, incredibly alluring, and I think many of us would love to have a walled-off, secret place full of trees and flowers and blooming roses run wild that we could retreat to where no one would bother us. However, what really strikes me about The Secret Garden (and, in fact, a decent amount of older literature, such as works by L. M. Montgomery) is the sheer love and knowledge of nature that the author herself seems to have. When I read books written today, descriptions of nature are often cursory asides; they seem to be there because the author thinks a book needs some description for world building and all that, but secretly they think readers don’t care for it and they should hurry on to more important matters because they don’t really care about the flowers or trees they are describing either. The Secret Garden, however, revels in descriptions of nature–of the garden and flowers, of course, but also of animals and of the English moor. I believe Frances Hodgson Burntett liked nature and was knowledgeable about it, and that’s what allows her to convey her passion and its beauty to readers. Even if you don’t have a secret garden of your own, you can imagine yourself in Mary’s.
However, in spite of the emphasis on spring, change, and positive thinking, there are some underlying dark elements of the story that I don’t know that I thought fully through on my first reading as a child. Colin’s father and Mary’s uncle, Archibald Craven, is, of course, essentially absent from the book, a father figure who means kindness towards the children but is too wrapped up in his own grief to actually interact with them. One could write him off as a typical tragic hero figure, undone by the death of his wife, but, well, it’s just sad if you actually think about it. I also think the death of Mary’s parents is sad. They, of course, were also absent parents, but the whole plot of the book rests on the fact they died; their deaths is what allows Mary and Colin to actually thrive. That’s pretty dark, too. (There is also, of course, some exoticism in the descriptions of India, as are typical of the timer period the book was written.)
Overall, however, the book truly is magic. The dark elements do not overwhelm the book; indeed, one could probably make some argument about the circle of life or death leading to new life, etc. that make the dark parts natural, necessary in order to make the magic of springtime, flowers, and new beginners all the sweeter. I highly recommend reading the book, whether or not you plan to see the movie this year.