Thursday 6 October 2016

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Before Thomas Thwaites dreamed up the idea of being a GoatMan and before Peter Wohlleben communed with the trees in Germany, Frances Hodgson Burnett gave us the original back to nature, talk with the animals, boy child, Dickon.

Dickon is a kindred spirit to all the creatures that live on the moors. He mothers orphaned lambs and squirrels, talks to the robins and is followed around by a fox cub. He grows the best herbs and vegetables to feed his large family and he has the sunniest, most positive disposition of any human I've ever known!

He is too good to be true.

Mary and Colin are not.

Two more self-indulged, self-involved, selfish children you will not find anywhere.

The Magic of the garden and Dickon's influence changes all that though.

And there you have The Secret Garden in a nutshell.

My lovely Penguin Threads edition was designed by Jillian Tamaki. It's hand-stitched, then sculpt-embossed - front and back - to create a gorgeous tactile, aesthetically pleasing cover. I confess, the cover, ultimately, had more lasting appeal than the story.

The Secret Garden is one of those books I was sure that I had read as a child, but as the years went by I felt less and less certain about this. I knew what the book was about in general, but it didn't feel familiar or known.

Now that I have really and truly read it, I'm pretty sure that this was my first time.

The Indian section at the start and the finding of the garden were vaguely familiar, but I suspect I gave up on the book as a kid at this point. As an adult I loved the descriptions of the moors and the garden coming to life after winter, but as a kid I would have got bogged down by the exuberant and somewhat excessive garden love.

The preachy part of Burnett's voice, I could push into the background as an adult, but as a child, her obvious attempts to tell me how to be a good child got up my nose!

My thoughts and feelings about this book are more ambiguous now.

As an adult I could appreciate Burnett's use of perspective and how this led to her character's developing self-awareness and personal growth.

I thoroughly enjoyed the early sections that read like a homesick homage to English weather and seasons. I loved how she explored the healing nature of nature. I loved learning about 'wuthering' and the Yorkshire moors (a lovely nod to the Bronte's, I thought). The smells and textures and sounds of the moors were described beautifully - she made me want to go a wandering across the heather on the misty morn.

I was pleased to see an unlovely, unlikable, spoilt child as protagonist.

I felt uncomfortable with the racist attitudes towards the Indians, but could accept them as being of their times, reflecting the attitudes and assumptions of Victorian England. I felt a little weird about the miraculous cure of Colin, but of course, the only real malady he suffered from was hypochondria.

Mrs Sowerby, Dickon's mother, was a lovely, warm, generous character, but she also felt too good to be true most of the time. A mother of 12, living on the edge of the Yorkshire moors in grinding poverty being so cheerful and helpful and wholesome? Really?

I very definitely felt that the heavy handed 'magical' parable that the ending morphed into was evangelical and prissy. The only 'magic' involved in this story though, is the magic of mother nature doing her thing in the garden and some children discovering that keeping busy and active is better for you than sitting around bemoaning your aches and pains and only thinking about yourself. I'm not sure how this book has ended up with a magical realism tag in wikipedia.

I have since found out that Burnett embraced the tenets of Christian Science which believes that illness is an illusion that can only be cured by prayers. She also dabbled in the occult after the death of her son, Lionel. We can read The Secret Garden as being a tribute to Lionel and as a way for her to work through her depression and grief.

This explains the strong element of 'healing' via nature and 'beautiful thought', as Burnett called it, throughout the book.

I'm the first to acknowledge that being in nature and thinking positive thoughts are beneficial to one's health and well-being. A lovely story could have been crafted with this idea in mind. Colin's smug Magic lectures at the end could have happily been left out.

How did you find The Secret Garden when you reread as an adult?


  1. I have always loved The Secret Garden and read it over and over as a child. I still love it. I think it is hard to read a book objectively as an adult when you have loved it so much as a child. That being said, I found Colin intensely irritating. I liked Mary, she was satisfyingly naughty and difficult and I felt so sorry for her. I love the section where she finds the garden and then starts clearing it. I have wanted a walled, secret garden ever since!

    1. Yes, Mary's journey from spoilt brat to garden lover is the most touching storyline in the book. There's even a touch of Jane Eyre about it.

      Colin's character is far less sympathetic somehow. Maybe the way he lectures everybody, including the adults, about his magic idea actually suggests he hasn't learnt enough about humility yet?

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Brona, I don't think I ever read The Secret Garden in my childhood, but I have read it a couple of times in the past 10 years or so, and happily for me I liked it much more than you seem to have (which is not a criticism of course). I take all your points, but somehow just felt much more generous towards the author and the text.

    I reviewed it on my last reread in 2012

    1. I was really enjoying the book Louise, until the last few chapters. All her wonderful descriptions of spring emerging almost made me want to live in a cold climate area again (just to enjoy that kind of full-blown spring). The ending has coloured my opinion of the whole for now.

      Perhaps with time, the ending will fade & I'll be left with my beautiful cover and all those images of the secret garden coming to life.

  3. I think Jennifer is right; I've read this so many times since childhood that I can't be objective about it, although I'll certainly accept the criticisms of people coming to it fresh!

    1. There were some lovely moments and descriptions & I can see why it is such a nostalgic favourite. I just found the moralising parts heavy-handed and hard going.

  4. I love The Secret Garden ..... it has almost a mystical feel and I loved the focus on nature within the garden. I didn't know the background information about Burnett so thanks for that. It's always helpful to know how an author's experiences might have coloured their writing.

    I love the cover of the edition you have too!

    1. The idea of a secret walled garden is rather delicious & Burtnett's descriptions of it coming to life were breath-taking in their simplicity and joie de vivre. They were definitely the highlight of the book. And like Louise, I loved the section that was written from the nesting robins point of view.

  5. Interesting! I'm pretty sure I gave up on this book as a child, and don't think I've ever read it as an adult. That particular Penguin edition is just gorgeous.... it might even tempt me to read it one day.

  6. Anonymous5/12/16

    I love The Secret Garden. As a child I loved the story, but it has a lot to offer an adult, too, particularly the writing.


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