Sunday 19 August 2012

The Secret Garden

I just finished a reread of The Secret Garden. And what a wonderful secret garden it is. 

The Secret Garden was initially published in serial form in 1910, and as a book in 1911. Frances Hodgson Burnett was more well known as a writer for adults in her lifetime, now her books for adults are little known, and she is thought of as a children's writer. She was twice married and a somewhat controversial figure, leading a trans-Atlantic life long before it was easily possible. This most English of books was actually written in Long Island, New York! The Secret Garden was not particularly successful during her lifetime, when Little Lord Fauntleroy was the more popular title. 

Mary Lennox is the spoilt, pampered and ignored only child of a wealthy couple living in India during the British Raj. She is tended to by servants, and rarely sees her parents. Very soon Mary is orphaned in India during a cholera outbreak. Mary is sent back to England to live with her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, except her uncle is never home, and spends the vast amount of his time travelling the Continent to assuage his grief. 

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too. She had a thin little face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.

When Mary meets her cousin Colin he is a similarly difficult child. A coddled invalid, and a ranting hypochondriac prone to tantrums so severe that he needed to be calmed with bromide. Colin takes to Mary and they forge a strong bond centred on their deep love for the secret garden.

Misselthwaite Manor and the Yorkshire moor are almost other characters in the book. There are near continual references to the colour and smell of the moor in spring and summer. The winds wuther around the house. There are mysterious nocturnal cries in the way of Jane Eyre. It was not a surprise to find that Frances Hodgson Burnett was a great fan of the Brontes.

Frances Hodgson Burnett extolls the healing properties of nature, and the health giving properties of a strong bond with the natural world. A charming, inquisitive robin inhabits the secret garden and a lovely section in the latter stages of the book is actually narrated by the robin! This seems rather avant garde for such an early 20th century work.

Ultimately redemptive and restorative, The Secret Garden is an uplifting read for adults and children alike. It has been nominated as a comfort read by the  Reading Agency in Britain. I can well see why. My only challenge now will be to not buy the gorgeous edition I saw last week illustrated by Lauren Child. 


bermudaonion said...

I'm kind of embarrassed that I've never read that classic.

Louise said...

It's a beautiful read Kathy, I'm sure you'd enjoy it. It's always worthwhile to read a classic I think.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I thought it was a great read, too.

Hannah said...

Oh my gosh, this is so strange! Just yesterday I had the strongest craving/desire to reread this and A Little Princess!

Louise said...

Glad you enjoyed it too Deb.

Hannah it's a sign! Planets aligning all that. Do you have an ereader with you? I'm sure there would be free versions you could get. I've not read A Little Princess yet.

Susan said...

I didn't read this when I was young, but read it with my daughter a few years back. It was such a beautiful story. I was so glad to have "discovered" it with her.

Playing by the book said...

For me, when I reread this as an adult, (aloud to my eldest) I was first shocked at the opening passages - some descriptions that made for uncomfortable reading about attitudes towards Indians (and race) in general, but once past this early section I fell in love with the book again, as did my then 6 year old. Truly a classic.

skiourophile said...

It is so charming, isn't it? I read it as an adult and found it quite magical.

Kristen said...

I listened to it several years ago with my kids when we were on a long car trip and it was charming (and the reader's accent was yummy too).

Brona said...

I really enjoyed the book too 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 edition and all those images of the secret garden coming to life.

Burnett's use of different perspectives (including the robin's) was one of the highlights of the book for sure.