Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Randomly Retro Reading: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The original 1911 cover
It's been a really long time since I read The Secret Garden, but I decided to sit down and reread it last weekend.  I remember loving every word of it when I read it as a middle schooler, so I was curious as whether it would stand the test of time for me.

A brief recap, with spoilers:
Though British, ten-year-old Mary Lennox was born and raised in India.  Her father was a wealthy Army captain, and her mother was a beautiful but vain woman.  Neither wanted anything to do with Mary and left her care to their Indian servants.  As a result, Mary has become a spoiled, unfriendly, unlovable little girl who can't do anything for herself.  When both parents die of cholera, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle Archibald Craven in Yorkshire, whom she has never met.

Arriving in Yorkshire, Mary finds herself living on a massive estate, Misselthwaite Manor.  Uncle Archibald is a severely depressed man since the death of his wife ten years ago and wants nothing to Mary, who is told by the housekeeper not wander around the manor, with its one hundred closed doors.

Martha Sowerby is a friendly, chatty young maid assigned to care for Mary and who teaches her how to dress herself, tells her about Dickson, her 12 year old brother and shows her how to jump rope.  Outside, Mary meets Ben Weatherstaff, the old gardener.  Mary learns about a secret garden that has been locked for 10 years since her uncle's wife died.  The key to the garden has been buried somewhere.  Curious, Mary finds the garden and key with the help of a robin.

But Mary also hears crying at night.  One night she goes to investigate and discovers her cousin Colin Craven, also 10, lying in bed.  Colin has been told he will not live to manhood, that his body is crooked and he will eventually develop a hunched back.  Colin is also spoiled, but desperate for Mary's company.  The two strike up a friendship and eventually Mary tells him about the secret garden and about Dickson, whom she has gotten friendly with and has been helping her tend the overgrown secret garden.

Colin wants to see the garden, and eventually gets to go in his push chair with Mary and Dickon.  The three friends spend the summer in the garden tending flowers and playing games.  Eventually, they also help Colin learn to walk and run but keep it a secret from the servants, except for Ben Weatherstaff.  Colin wants to surprise his father when he returns home from his extended trip abroad.

Through all this, Martha and Dickon's mother has been kept abreast of what was going at the manor and, after visiting the secret garden, she takes the liberty to write to Colin's father telling him he needs to come home to see his son.  Suddenly, Craven has a feeling he must get to the garden and immediately returns to England and his estate, where he literally runs in Colin.  Craven's depression is immediately lifted when he sees how healthy and active Colin has become and they are reunited as father and son.

Well, did I still love The Secret Garden?
Yes, I did, but I have forgotten how wordy it was.  I can see why kids might prefer an abridged version.  Some expository paragraphs just went on for too long, even for me.

But I can appreciate Mary as a different kind of protagonist more now than I did before.  She began as a very irritating girl - sour, unfriendly, even mean.  Everyone in the book commented on how her attitude was reflected in her countenance.  And that is true - a sour person has a sour face.  But this time, it was wonderful watching her transformation into someone who didn't love and was unlovable to a girl to began to experience loving feelings.  And yes, everyone commented on that as it happened.  In other words, as her garden bloomed, so bloomed Mary.

As a young reader, I probably didn't make the connection between the garden and the characters.  In fact, the garden is a lovely symbol of the state of mind not only of Mary, but of Colin and his father.  On the surface, it looked like the garden was dead, but underneath, there was still life.  That was certainly true of these three characters.  If things hadn't changed, if Mary hadn't discovered the secret garden, they would have eventually all shrived and died.

And I have forgotten how much Colin attributed magic to his recovery.  As a young reader, I probably took that as just the kind of thing a child thinks when they have not other explanation for something.  This time, I could see that Colin's recovery had nothing to do with magic as much as it had to do with realizing that there was nothing wrong with him in the first place.  Magic is also attributed to the garden's regrowth, but I think both instances of magic have more to do with the essence of nature, a force that is so well represented in the character of Dickon.

A word about the Yorkshire accent - young readers may find this to be difficult, I know I did at first.  But I also found that after a short while, I could read it with no problem.  I don't know if newer versions take out the Yorkshire dialect, but I felt it really worked to heighten Mary and Colin's feelings of isolation and loneliness and later their acceptance and inclusion when they starting using it, too.

I hardly ever get time to reread a book, so I was happy that I was able to reread The Secret Garden.  In fact, I may try to reread some old favorites a little more frequently from now on.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg


  1. You might know this Alex, but this is one of my all time favorite books. Thanks for bringing it off the shelf and sharing it here.

    1. I think I did know that, and I can see why. Rereading it was quite an interesting experience and I am so happy I wasn't disappointed by it;.


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