Burnett, Frances Hodgson

Review: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett [1911]

There’s something so wonderfully mature about this children’s classic. The Secret Garden begins with Mary Lennox, an unwanted and isolated ten year-old living in colonial India. Her mother, a beautiful and graceful woman, is much more concerned about parties and society than about her sullen, sickly child. Left alone almost all her life with her Indian servants, Mary grows to be a spoiled and snobbish girl who has come to expect that everything much be done for her. When an epidemic of cholera wipes out most of the village including her parents, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle.

In England, Mary lives at Misselthwaite, a relatively secluded rambling estate on the Yorkshire moors. With the no-nonsense attitude of the servants, Mary soon learns that her usual behaviour will not do at Misselthwaite and that she must learn to be independent.

“Are you going to be my servant?” Mary asked, still in her imperious little Indian way.

Martha began to rub her grate again. “I’m Mrs. Medlock’s servant,” she said stoutly … “but you won’t much waitin’ on.”

“Who is going to dress me?” demanded Mary.

Martha sat up on her heels again and stared. She spoke in broad Yorkshire in her amazement.

“Canna’ tha’ dress thysen!” she said.

“No,” answered Mary, quite indignantly. “I never did in my life. My Ayah dressed me, of course.” – p. 25.

Mary eventually warms to Martha and they become friends. While Martha works, Mary explores the manor’s vast gardens displaying a surprising affinity to nature and wildlife. While she is free to wander the grounds as she pleases, Mary soon finds out about a secret garden that has been locked up for the last ten years after the devastating death of her aunt who had loved the garden.

During one violent storm, and strong winds circling the house making the noise known as ‘wuthering’, Mary hears somebody cry. Everybody denies there is anybody else in the house but Mary hears the cries again in the next few days and goes exploring. She finds Colin, her sickly, spoiled cousin, with a temper as bad as Mary’s when she first arrived. Colin has been isolated in his room ever since his mother died in childbirth. As a sickly child, Colin was expected to die but he clung on to life and for the last ten years, everybody, including Colin himself, has been waiting for his death. To the servants’ surprise, Mary and Colin enjoy each other’s company and together with Dickon, Martha’s good willed, nature loving brother, they set out to find and restore the secret garden and in doing so, effectively restore and regenerate themselves.

One of the most loveliest thing about reading this is seeing the growth of Mary and Colin under their own direction. Both sickly, bad tempered and spoiled when we first meet them they mature into healthy and empathetic children. Mary develops an endearing quality when she attempts to speak Yorkshire to Dickon and Martha to their amazement. With minimal help from the adults, both Mary and especially Colin uses the garden and positive thinking to transform themselves. It is also interesting to read the colonial undertones. Mary is made better by the fresh, wholesome Yorkshire wind and her ramblings along the moors with the wind blowing away the sickly heat and humidity Mary acquired in an ‘unnatural’ land. There is really nothing better than retuning or finding one’s home.