The Secret Garden is a children’s book but its deceptive simplicity hides complex themes, characters and skilled writing. It slowly achieved classic status before finding new resonance in more recent times for those who enjoy its message of natural healing and spiritualism.
Mary Lennox is a young English girl growing up in India where her father has a position in the Raj government and her mother is a somewhat vain socialite. Ignored by her parents, Mary is a spoiled child, ‘ugly’ in appearance and manners, who bosses her Indian servants like a tyrant. When a cholera epidemic leaves her an orphan, she is sent back to England to live with an uncle, Mr Craven, in Misselthwaite Manor.
She receives no more attention here than she did in India as her uncle is a widower and a loner who spends long periods away from the Manor. The servants in her uncle’s home are not as easy to intimidate as her previous ones in India and soon Mary finds herself forced to do a little self-reflection about her manners and her temperament.
Since she had been living in other people’s houses and had had no Ayah, she had begun to feel lonely and to think queer thoughts which were new to her. She had begun to wonder why she had never seemed to belong to anyone even when her father and mother had been alive. Other children seemed to belong to their fathers and mothers, but she had never seemed to really be any one’s little girl. She had had servants, and food and clothes, but no one had taken any notice of her. She did not know that this was because she was a disagreeable child; but then of course, she did know that she was disagreeable. She often thought that other people were, but she did not know that she was so herself.
As soon as she realises that she is perhaps quite lonely, Mary makes her first friend. Dickon is the younger brother of Martha, Mary’s maid. Outdoorsy and resourceful, Dickon has a love of animals and nature that soon appeals to Mary. Freed from the confinements of privilege, Mary begins to rapidly grow and mature.
[…] she had run in the wind until her blood had grown warm; she had been healthily hungry for the first time in her life; and she had found out what it was to be sorry for some one. She was getting on.
But Mary is also intrigued by the mysteries that surround her at the Manor. Secrets that Martha and the gardener, Ben, avoid talking about. She is certain she can hear the sound of a child crying, echoing through the huge mansion. She is also curious about the story of her uncle’s dead wife and the garden she tended, said to have been locked away, its location now forgotten.
The Secret Garden is, of course, a children’s book, but I had never read it as a child. One of the pleasures of reading it as an adult is to enjoy the simple, easy-to-read, style of it. The simple style, though, hides an intricate story with more than one mystery, characters with complex psychology and concealed themes. Burnett, I felt, shows considerable storytelling skill in choosing when to say very little and when to let the story bloom with details. I also appreciated her grasp of the speech and mannerisms of the child characters.
Already a fan of them, I loved the gothic elements in the story. The eerie early chapters, where Mary is largely alone in a large dark mansion; forbidden from exploring its long corridors and unvisited rooms full of collections of eccentric objects, mysteries and secrets; where the eyes of the portraits and murals seem to follow you as you wander and where strange haunting sounds echo throughout.
If the early plot – an unloved girl orphaned after an epidemic, living in a dark and empty mansion whose master is absent and where someone is secretly confined – reminds you of another favourite gothic classic, Alison Laurie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, suggests in her introduction to this Penguin Classics edition that these clear similarities to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are no coincidence but she also cites Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Six to Sixteen as influential as well.
I felt one of the strong themes of the novel was of the need to have space of one’s own. Mary has lived surrounded by carers and servants with little privacy, no space, no need or ability to keep secrets and no awareness of her own personal failings and how they might be related. The garden allows her room to develop unguided, unhindered and unaided.
[…] If she liked it she could go into it every day and shut the door behind her, and she could make up some play of her own and play it quite alone, because nobody would ever know where she was, but would think the door was still locked and the key buried in the earth. The thought of that pleased her very much.
There is the sense here that to have wealth and class are not only privileges but are also confining. Character, like the mind, the body or a garden needs to be worked, nurtured and maintained in order to develop and grow. Combining these, the healing power of nature and of rebirth is also one of the main themes of the story.
“That’s fresh air,” she said. “lie on your back and draw in long breaths of it. That’s what Dickon does when he’s lying on the moor. He says he feels it in his veins and it makes him strong and he feels as if he could live forever and ever. Breathe it and breathe it.”
The Secret Garden did start to lose me at the end. Towards the end of the book the children begin indulging a fancy for magic, natural healing, positivity and New Age spiritualism, much of it under the guise of being ‘scientific’. It was something I found at times silly, at times cringe-worthy, at others misguided. If you don’t find it adorable you have to try and remind yourself that these characters are children, though this aspect does reflect the views of the author.
For moderns American readers in the 1970’s, The Secret Garden became something of a cult book among high school and college students. And it isn’t hard to see why, considering that The Secret Garden is the story of two unhappy, sickly, overcivilised children who achieve health and happiness through a combination of remedies that were popular at the time: moving to the country, communal gardening, mystical faith, daily exercise, encounter-group-type confrontation and a health-food diet.
– From the Introduction.
Lately The Secret Garden has attracted other criticisms for its portrayals or ideas about gender roles, social classes and race. It is another example of applying todays moral standard to works from the past, unfairly. Though, child readers won’t know to consider the historical context, so an abridged version may be preferable to the original. Laurie defends the novel by pointing out the ways in which The Secret Garden was ahead of its time and that it was never intended as a ‘realistic’ story.
“I dare say it’s because there’s such a lot o’ blacks there instead o’ respectable white people. When I heard you was comin’ from India I thought you was a black too.”
Laurie also discusses the legacy of The Secret Garden in her introduction. Though Burnett was already as successful writer when she wrote it, The Secret Garden became her most enduring work. Several adaptations in multiple forms have been produced. Laurie mentions its influence on TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. The latter is a comparison I never thought of when reading The Secret Garden but is plain to see in hindsight.
Maybe if I had read The Secret Garden as a child I might have gained a greater affection for it. Instead, while I did enjoy much of it, I don’t think it will be a favourite of mine but one of many classics that I can at least enjoy saying that I have now read it.