Friday, September 9, 2011

Module 2: The Secret Garden

"Might I have a bit of earth?"

Via FYTSG (language warning in URL)
"I've stolen a garden," she said very fast.  "It isn't mine.  It isn't anybody's.  Nobody wants it, nobody cares for it, nobody ever goes into it."
-The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

If you're like me (I was born in the 80's) then at some point you may have had a small huge overwhelmingly gigantic crush on Andrew Knott.  If his name doesn't ring a bell, his face and accent surely would, at least if you watched the Black Beauty and/or Secret Garden (1993) movies a trillion times like I did.  I had quite the crush, as I'm sure many pre-teen girls did.  And really, as far as literary characters go, you can't really be blamed for liking Dickon Sowerby.

I just have to gush a moment about the film before I dive into the actual classic book (which, by the by, you can read on Google Books for free).  If the book doesn't make you want to live out on the moors, the movie most assuredly will.  (Also, I'll take a little moor pony with my Misselthwaite manor -- just say it, Misselthwaite, isn't it lovely? -- thank you!)


I mean really, it's gorgeous.  It's a good example of a book-to-film adaptation done brilliantly.

Alrighty that that's out of my system (a little) I'll move on to the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Since the book is really what I'm here about.

Artwork by Tasha Tudor, via FYTSG

Mary Lennox grew up in India and when her parents are suddenly killed, she is shipped off to England as an orphan to live with an unknown Uncle Craven and (as she later discovers) her sickly cousin, Colin, who live in Misselthwaite manor in the moors.  Mary is quite unlikable, and is truly Mistress-Mary-quite-contrary.  As she listens to Mrs. Medlock (the woman in charge of the manor) tell her about the manor, it's explained that "Mary had begun to listen in spite of herself.  It all sounded so unlike India, and anything new rather attracted her.  But she did not intend to look as if she were interested" (pg 18).  Slowly, Mary meets people like Martha and Dickon and Ben who nudge her out of her unlikeable shell, and Mary also becomes friends with her once-disagreeable-but-also-nudged-out-of-his-shell cousin.  Eventually, Colin learns to walk, and the garden brings the friends together, Mary is less contrary, and ends up feeling more loved than she ever has before.


The book is really quite lovely, and would be great for young readers, or wonderful for reading aloud.  Accents are written ("tha'" etc.) and it would make for a lively book to read aloud to a young one before bed.  Hodgson Burnett takes her time letting Mary come out of her shell, and the characters in Misselthwaite are very real-seeming, and I find certain passages to be charming and sweet.  Hodgson Burnett works in new vocabulary with ease.  For example:

"It's as wick as you or me," he said; and Mary remembered that Martha had told her that "wick" meant "alive" or "lively." (pg. 130)


There are some things to consider when reading Frances Hodgson Burnett.  If you've read (or watched) A Little Princess then you may link the two stories together because of the theme of little-British-girls-growing-up-in-exotic-India.  Hodgson Burnett does display some Orientalism, but I think Elizabeth Lennox Keyser says it well when she writes "Phyllis Bixler, in her Twayne Masterwork study, concludes her summary of the ongoing critical debate over Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden as follows: "It would be inaccurate to consider the appreciative and the more critical scholars . . . as belonging to two armed camps. Few if any of the first group would deny that The Secret Garden reflects attitudes about gender and class we would like to believe we have put behind us; . . . On the other hand, critics who set themselves the task of unearthing the various ideologies in Burnett's text discover it to be amazingly fertile in their hands. . . . Finally, it is likely that all the critics whose work I have described would name The Secret Garden as . . . certainly among the most important children's books written during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries"..." (Bixler, 1996, as cited in Lennox Keyser 1998).

Linda Parsons writes in her work 'Otherways' into the Garden: Revisioning the Feminine in The Secret Garden that one can even view the story as a Sleeping Beauty fairytale.  Parsons writes: "I interpreted The Secret Garden as a Sleeping Beauty tale. It brings the love and devotion of Lilias and Archibald, the Queen and King, to the foreground and locates, in Archibald’s grief and despair following Lilias’ death, the source of the cursed blackness that penetrates the manor. It positions Colin as the object of the curse that removes his agency with the dark sleep into which he and Archibald descend. It would continue with Mary’s arrival at the manor, her entrance into the garden, and her awakening of Colin. Just as the Prince cuts through the rose bushes to gain entrance to the castle, Mary negotiates the ivy to enter the garden. Just as the Prince enters the sleeping castle and searches until he finds the sleeping Princess, Mary winds through the labyrinth of hallways and stairways, journeying through the dark, stormy night to the very heart of the great house wherein she discovers Colin. The tale would include the ever-present influence of the wise and knowing Great Mother, Mrs. Sowerby, and her intercession with Mr. Craven. There would be the dream in which Lilias tells Archibald that she is in the garden and which precipitates his return to find Colin restored to health and ready to take his place alongside his father. This partial retelling establishes the basic tenor of the tale. It establishes the nature of Mary’s quest, for it is Mary whose need and courage propel her forward. It is Mary who defies authority and takes the initiative to discover the key, the door, and Colin; it is she who is the catalyst through which the garden works its magic to restore the manor and its inhabitants" (Parsons, 2002, p.255).  Thus, while in Sleeping Beauty it's the male prince who does most of the work, here Mary takes on that more purposeful role, while Colin is the one to be awakened in the castle.  

She also notes that "A key state in a quest journey is the transcendence of ego, and Mary achieves this, in part, because of the total loss she has experienced and her increasing introspection and self-reflection. She sees truths about herself mirrored in others, and she ponders observations they make about her" (p.260) So, some may argue that Mary takes a back seat at times to the male characters, I think that Mary is actually quite a strong female character in her own right.  "Mary does not exhibit the accepted qualities of young girls under patriarchal rule but rather characteristics of strong, independent women. Because of her unorthodox upbringing, Mary has developed initiative and qualities of leadership that enable her to make decisions and follow them through. It is precisely because of her disobedience of male edicts that she discovers the garden as well as the source of the mysterious, nighttime crying. Her bluntness, obstinance, initiative, and contrariness are empowering" (p.262).


The book can  be read in a variety of ways.  It's a story of self-discovery, of making friends in unexpected places, of change, of loss and regrowth.  As such, the book can be recommended to a variety of readers.  I would recommend it to readers ages 9-13, generally, although as mentioned before, the fact that the accents are so vividly written makes the book a good candidate for reading aloud, should a parent be looking for such a chapter book.  It's a great book about being out in the wild as a child -- jump-roping, gardening.  For parents interested in books that aren't set in the Internet age and are more about children being "free range" this might be a good pick.

Art by Inga Moore, via FYTSG


Hodgson Burnett, F(1911). The secret garden. New York: The Phillips Publishing Company. Retrieved from

Lennox Keyser, E. (1998) "Nurture Versus Colonization: Two Views of Frances Hodgson Burnett." Children's Literature 26: 229-237. Project MUSE. Retrieved from

Parsons, L. T. (2002). ‘Otherways’ into the Garden: Re-Visioning the Feminine in The Secret Garden. Children's Literature in Education, 33(4), 247-268. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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