Breathe it and breathe it: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden

The Secret GardenI think I might be one of the only grown women in the world who didn’t read The Secret Garden (1911) as a child. Had I done so, I’m sure it would have been a life-long favourite; there is magic in this book. I don’t mean the weird mystical stuff that young Colin believes in; I mean the way Burnett wrote about being outside. Really, almost just that. She describes and then amplifies how I feel when I’m out riding my bicycle–like the world is made of pure joy and I’m a necessary part of it. There’s no way, I would bet, that Burnett read anything by Rumi (1207-73), but if this book were distilled down into one of his poems it would clearly be this one, appropriately called, simply, “Spring”:

Again, the violet bows to the lily.

Again, the rose is tearing off her gown!

The green ones have come from the other world,

tipsy like the breeze up to some new foolishness…

I wrote my bestie an email a few days ago, in which I informed her I was just weeping my way through this book; I was. I spent a great deal of time getting red in the face and swallowing sobs as I read The Secret Garden. And because most of that reading time occurred while I was riding public transit, a number of random strangers witnessed me losing my shit over a book written for little girls.

Well, there’s a lot going on, besides all the nature. Some of it made me weep even more. Some of it made me feel extremely uncomfortable. The ending confused and disappointed me.

The good bits first. The Secret Garden is about Mistress Mary (who may very well have “sour buttermilk” in her veins instead of blood when the novel begins) and how she ends up in England. She is a sad, neglected, vicious, spoiled, sickly little beastie when the story opens in India, where she was born. Her parents and most of their servants die with terrible alacrity when cholera tears through her home. She is left literally alone–everyone forgets her, she’s so unloved and contrary–until officers come to take the dead bodies away, and find her cross and confused in a room by herself.

Mary has one living relative, a queer and rather morbid man named Mr. Craven; he exudes pain and churlishness but nonetheless brings her over to live with him. He pays her no attention, of course–no one does, unless forced to because she’s such a jerk. Not just a jerk either–a racist jerk. But something magical happens. She takes a slow and very unwilling liking to her homely servant, Martha. She begins spending time outdoors and begins to become interested in life, in other people, even eventually in herself–but in a healthy way. Most of this happens because of two things: she finds a secret garden and she makes some friends– with Martha’s younger and ridiculously earthy, animal-charming bother, Dickon; and with a robin.

She begins, as she says with increasing pride, “getting fatter.” And then she meets Colin, the son of Mr. Craven. These latter two don’t have a relationship, for the boy killed the mother, Mr. Craven’s heart’s delight, in childbirth; also, Colin is–just because he’s born sickly, it seems–assumed by everyone to be on the verge of death and doomed to spend what little life he has left him as a cripple. He spends literally 10 years in bed and makes life hell for everyone. Mary, because she is becoming healthily curious about everything going on around her, hears him crying one night and hunts him down–even though his very existence is supposed to be a secret! (Why, I don’t know–all the servants certainly know about him.)

They become friends immediately for two reasons: she’s not afraid of him, and that because she also is a spoiled little shit and kind of understands him. She gets him to begin doing basic things like sitting up–just because he begins to enjoy himself enough to forget he’s sick. She gets him to enjoy fresh air by opening the window. She helps him become a real boy over time, as she become a real, ruddy, sturdy, glad little English girl herself.

It’s all lovely but it’s also very odd and kind of disturbing.

Here’s the thing: If my copy of The Secret Garden hadn’t been footnoted, I would never have found cause to be more than mildly weirded out by it. But every time the narrator or another character commented on the great power of laughter and fresh air and exercise to heal the body and mind, there would be a footnote indicating what bat-shit crazy mush written by Mary Baker Eddy Burnett had specifically in mind.

Without the illuminating and disturbing editorial commentary, all those moments seemed sensible, if a little over-stated–but it’s a kids’ book, where overstatement doesn’t usually seem at all out of place! But to realize that what reads as at least partially allegorical, partially intentional hyperbole (very effective), is meant to be literal–i.e., that Mary and Colin become strong specimens of childhood simply and literally by coming to believe that they were merely mistaken to believe they weren’t…! Crikey. I don’t know what else to say. Crikey.

Young Mary’s indoor life with Colin and her outdoor life with Dickon in the secret garden eventually coalesce because Colin becomes human and strong enough to begin going outside with them. And, of course, he becomes even stronger there, with them, running about eventually and become just generally interested in life and gardening. Together they become a community that is secret, but it’s a secret so rife with metaphors of renewal made literal that their secret must out.

Which, of course, it does. Colin, over several months, goes from being entirely bedridden to running races with Mary. His one desire is to have his father come home (he’s been on the Continent, nursing his self-absorbed misery) and then to march into his office and show him that he’s a real boy now–ready to be a real son. Colin never blames his father for neglecting him and secreting him away–which he bloody well should–and Burnett comments only very briefly on it, writing “He had forgotten and deserted his home and his duties.” That’s an understatement of the most extreme kind–he tried to mad-boy-in-the-attic his own son!

Mr. Craven preempts him by arriving home unexpectedly, but their reunion and reconciliation are nonetheless complete. Together–Colin having narrated to his wondering father the whole story of his resurrection through the caring but firm hands of Mary, Dickon, and a crotchety old gardener named Ben Weatherstaff–they march back towards their ancestral home as the servants watch in awe. Lovely. But Mary, who until about ten pages before this closing scene seemed to be the primary subject of this book, and her beloved Dickon are forgotten. They get no last word. The proper relationship of the core family comprising Archibald and Colin Craven, the line of primogeniture having being restored to its natural order, everyone else just melts away.

Yes, I am rather irritated. It ended so abruptly with that scene that the whole book looks, in retrospect, like it was only ever about making the man and the boy come together as social order demands they should–like it was never about the profundity of a broken kid like Mary learning to make friends and become interested and human. This is made worse by the fact that the last thing she becomes aware of–and the only thing she ever expresses real pride in–is that she’s told she’s becoming pretty like her mother was! And Dickon? Well, obviously, all he wants in life is to help make rich kids better because we hear nothing of him again–him and his 500 siblings living in one room and half starved.

So, yes, I bawled unabashedly through most of The Secret Garden but the footnotes and conclusion ensured the illusions that caused the weeping and sniffling couldn’t stand. Then, the post-emotionally charged reading thinking began tearing it all down and I’m becoming increasingly disappointed about the whole thing.

Given this and my experience with The Water Babies, I’m wondering if reading kids’ books for the first time as an adult is just an essentially doomed exercise. There’s no escaping the weird ideologies that seem to crop up and no nostalgia to relegate them to the part of my brain that doesn’t care. It would be an interesting experiment–but one I’m frankly too terrified to try at the moment–to re-read my all-time favourite children’s book now and see what happens. (Bambi, by Felix Salten, if you’re curious. No, not the Disney film or the book it made to accompany the film–I mean the original book Disney made unrecognizable with their film.)

Maybe in 2014 I’ll risk everything to see how Bambi reads now. But not now, not this year; I’m going to enjoy my comforting memories¬†about it without complication awhile longer.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. I wonder if I read this book when I was too young for it. It always seemed like a mystery, like I never learned the secret. Young enough, I mean, where I was vague about things like “cholera” and “India.”

    Given the pseudo-science, though, perhaps it was best that I did not understand it.
    I would have allegorized the recovery from illness, but taking it literally kind of shifts the allegory somewhere else, doesn’t it? Like now the garden is the wisdom of Christian Science, available only to the few.

    I would have thought Bambi would be safe, but I began Googlin’ and discovered that it has been interpreted as an allegory about the persecution of Jews in Europe. The passive voice there is kinda strange. I also learned that Walt Disney learned about the book from Thomas Mann!

    1. Colleen says:

      That’s interesting–that Bambi might be an allegory about the persecution of Jews. My memory of it tells me it’s a pretty blatant anti-hunting tract dressed up as a children’s book. These things need not be distinct, of course.

  2. Alex says:

    And yet it still has a magic. It’s still in print and you can’t say that about many books from that period whoever their intended audience. And, more to the point, it’s still being adapted both for the stage and screen which certainly wouldn’t happen if the people putting up the money didn’t think they were going to get it back several times over.

    1. Colleen says:

      I would never deny this book’s magic; it’s just that the magic can’t work on me entirely because the subtext is too weird. And I really want the magic to work on me.

  3. Adaptations have the luxury of jettisoning the allegory and bad ideas, perhaps replacing them with a new set of bad ideas, or draining the story of any ideas but nostalgia, or even, sometimes, repairing and improving the original.

    1. Colleen says:

      Absolutely. The Silence of the Lambs, for example.

  4. I reread The Secret Garden aloud 2 years ago to my daughter while we were spending a couple of weeks in hospital after her diagnosis with type 1 diabetes. I had remembered it being a special book, but the early chapters were kind of gloomy and she kept asking, “where is the secret garden?” and so I had to stop reading while she opened the paint application and created her own digital secret garden, which I used to illustrate the review I eventually wrote.

    In fact, it was this 2 week stay in hospital that got me writing blog reviews, because I had a period of time with no other distractions than to be with my daughter (and learn all about managing childhood diabetes). The silver linings.

    1. Colleen says:

      I just read a really affecting piece about reading in the hospital over at The Millions:

      I’m glad your experience was shorter and ended better, A silver lining, indeed.

  5. I think you get weird ideologies in _Victorian/Edwardian_ children’s books, although it’s true that even classics from the 50’s and 60’s have dated behaviors and attitudes now (like the racism in the Little House books). But I probably had exactly the same experience that you have had with The Secret Garden, even as a child – I always got bored towards the end of the book. I loved the rehabilitation of Mary, the outdoor bits, the garden, but found Colin irritating.

    1. Colleen says:

      I felt bad for Colin–it’s just so gross how he’s treated. I imagine I’d have behaved just the same way he did in that situation. But I did find the turn away from Mary frustrating–she went from being the protagonist to a mere catalyst.

  6. Stefanie says:

    I read the book when I was ten. My best friend had read it and shoved it at me and made me read it. I loved it! Of course I didn’t see any of the weirdness in it you discovered. I read The Little Princess too but didn’t like it as much. I have avoided reading favorite childhood books as an adult for fear them being “ruined.”

    1. Colleen says:

      I think it’s a fair thing to avoid–it’s not like there aren’t many other things to read!

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