1911 – the secret garden ~ frances hodgson burnett

Some things belong in the past, and it’s there they should remain.

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone back in time and stolen the Mona Lisa. I’m not talking about time travel, the space-time continuum, or anything like that.

I’m talking about nostalgia.

Sometimes, when we look back at the things we loved when we were younger, and see them through adult eyes…we can’t help but realise that we no longer see them the same way we did when we were young. When I was sixteen, for instance, this was my favourite song:

Ugh. Now I’m older, I can see this song is a festering pile of dogs’ bollocks (and wtf is with that hat!?!). But, when I was a sixteen year old girl, I’m ashamed to admit I honestly believed it was a masterpiece.

The thing about nostalgia; about revisiting the things we loved when we were younger, is that sometimes, it leads to disappointment. While the things you remember fondly from your youth remain the same, you’ve changed.

This isn’t always the case, of course. There are some things that are just as cool as you remember them.

Punky is my hero!!

Unfortunately, the book I read this week wasn’t necessarily one of these things…

Here’s this week’s review:

The Secret Garden

by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Published in 1911

When I was very young, I had chickenpox, and had to take a long time off school. Well, at least, I think it was a long time. I was young, and, when you’re young, even a few days off school can seem like a blissful eternity.

I was sick. It was winter, and I spent many long days in bed, covered up in blankets, as the wind and the rain and the world whirled away outside.

It was just my Mum and I. And she read me The Secret Garden.

Those two weeks were so perfect, I never wanted to get better. But I did. I went back to school, I grew up. But I never forgot The Secret Garden.

I know what you’re thinking: Book to the Future is meant to be all about me catching up on all the books I’ve never read, Well, technically, I’m not cheating. I’ve never read The Secret Garden – it was read to me. This is the first time I’ve read it myself.

The story? If I tell you the story, I’ll have to give the whole plot away. If you’ve never read The Secret Garden before, be warned. There’s a twist in the middle of the story, and I’m just about to tell you what it is. Sorry in advance. I’m not a particularly good book reviewer.

The Secret Garden is the story of Mary Lennox. Well, that’s how it begins, at least. We’re told in the book’s very first sentence that “everybody said she [Mary] was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen”. And, in case there’s any room for  the reader to doubt the possibility that a little girl could be so disagreeable: “It was true, too” Frances Hodgson Burnett continues, rubbing the point in. Mary is a nine year old English girl, living in India with her parents. She’s a giant brat, and has treated her servants terribly. When an outbreak of cholera wipes out the entire household, Mary is the only survivor, forgotten by everyone. Karma, anyone?

Mary’s found, and brought back to Ol’ Blighty to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven, in a huge, rambling manor on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Between Mary’s gloomy sulks and angry outbursts, we can see glimpses of an inquisitive young girl, pining for a normal life.

When Mary learns that one of the gardens of the Manor has been locked up for ten years after a tragic accident that broke her uncle’s heart, Mary makes it her mission to get inside. It’s not long before, having been led to the key by a friendly bird, she takes her first steps into the secret garden. Discovering a tangle of overgrown plants, she resolves to bring the garden back to life.

In the meantime, her prickly personality is mellowing. She’s healthier, stronger, and beginning to discover that people aren’t so bad after all.

Just when Mary realises that she needs some help taming the garden, along comes the way-too-perfect Dickon:

“A boy was sitting under a tree, with his back against it, playing on a rough wooden pipe (…) And on the trunk of the tree he leaned against, a brown squirrel was clinging and watching him, and from behind a bush near a cock pheasant was delicately stretching his neck to peep out, and quite near him were two rabbits sitting up and sniffing with tremulous noses – and actually it appeared as if they were all drawing near to watch him and listen to the strange, low, little call his pipe seemed to make”

– Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, page 109

Dickon has the supernatural ability to charm animals – and little girls, too. Mary is infatuated with him from the moment she first sets eyes on him.

As a child experiencing The Secret Garden for the very first time, I thought boys were icky. End of story. So I didn’t pick up on the sweet, shy attraction between Mary and Dickon. I love a good romance, and Mary’s total devotion to Dickon gave me the warm fuzzies.

Together, Mary and Dickon work side by side in the secret garden, slowly bringing it back to life.

So far, so good, right? But things are about to change…

Throughout the book, Mary hears cries in the night. Convinced that it’s not the wind, as her maid tells her, Mary gets up and investigates. The source of the cries is her own cousin – Colin Craven. Colin’s believed to be crippled, confined to his room. Like the garden where his mother died, he’s been locked away and left to run wild. But Mary manages to tame him, convincing him to come with her in his wheelchair to the secret garden. It’s there that Colin takes his very first steps.

As the garden comes to life, so too do Mary and Colin. They’re both happy, healthy children by the end of the book, when Colin’s father (who’s had an epiphany of his own) returns home to find the garden he locked open and the son he thought crippled running to meet him.

That’s the story I remember. And it’s a lovely story. But reading The Secret Garden as an adult, I couldn’t help but notice things that I paid no attention to as a child.

The one, really big problem with The Secret Garden can be expressed in one concise word: Colin. Everything is lovely, until the moment he’s bought to the secret garden. From that moment on, he somehow manages to hijack the entire plot of the story, sending it off on a tangent from which it never returns.

The first time Colin mentions what he calls “the Magic”, it’s kinda cute. He simply begins by describing the healing properties of nature as magic. Which is fair enough…

But, the thing is, Colin simply won’t shut up about it. Before too long, he’s literally lecturing Mary and Dickon and anyone else who’ll listen on the power of “the Magic”. Then, he begins to lead them in strange daily prayer sessions:

“And he began, looking like a strange boy spirit. ‘The sun is shining – the sun is shining. That is the Magic. The flowers are growing – the roots are stirring. That is the Magic. Being alive is the Magic – being strong is the Magic. The Magic is in me – the Magic is in me…”

– Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, page 277

For me, having to wade through all this twee positive thinking guff seriously soured the book’s ending for me. It’s not that I don’t believe in the value of positivity – but when you take it too far (as Colin does – Frances Hodgson Burnett lays it on all too thickly), you end up in Oprahland (remember The Secret, anyone?).

There’s nothing more annoying than when an author uses one of their characters as a megaphone through which to yell their own viewpoints. It lessens the character and cheapens the story, in my opinion.

I was really enjoying The Secret Garden – up until this point. And it’s not just Colin’s preachiness that annoyed me. It’s the fact that he immediately becomes the central focus of the whole book. All of a sudden, Dickon and Mary are eliminated from the story. All they are by the end of the book is audience for Colin’s bizarre rants. While the first sentence of The Secret Garden was about Mary, the final sentence is about Colin. It’s like Frances Hodgson Burnett just suddenly forgets Mary and Colin are even there.

What happened? Why did Colin’s story ruin what was otherwise a brilliant book?

As an adult reader, I was so disappointed that, in the end, Frances Hodgson Burnett chose to focus on the boring, white, middle-class male character. It’s almost as if she doesn’t think Mary (a girl) and Dickon (from a poor family of fourteen) are worth mentioning any more, now Colin, the real protagonist of The Secret Garden, is on the scene. It’s so disappointing.

But perhaps, I should take a cue from Colin, and inject a little positivity into this review. Because I didn’t hate The Secret Garden – I was just disappointed to find that it wasn’t exactly the way I remembered (and loved) it.

When I was young, I loved the way that The Secret Garden was just that liiiittle bit scary – in a tantalising way. And, when I was a girl, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s descriptions of the moors made me all daydreamy with wonder. They still do. When Mary crosses the moors for the first time, it feels as if she’s entering a surreal new world. You can’t help but want to come along.

Talking of Yorkshire, reading The Secret Garden for the first time, I adored the way Frances Hodgson Burnett writes some of her characters’ speech in Yorkshire dialect. They’re frequently the lower class characters, such as Dickon and the household staff – but occasionally, Mary occasionally slips into dialect, too, bridging the class gap between her and Dickon:

“Then Mary did a strange thing. She leaned forward and asked him [Dickon] a question she had never dreamed of asking anyone before. And she tried to ask it in Yorkshire, because that was his language, and in India a native was always pleased if you knew his speech.

‘Does tha’ like me?’ she said”

– Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, Page 124

It it professional to write “SQUEEEE!!!” in book reviews?

Then, there’s Mary herself. Even though Frances Hodgson Burnett takes great pains to let us know just how disagreeable she really is, you’re still on her side. Her character would be so easy to hate…but, speaking for myself, I could never hate her (partially because I know exactly what it’s like to be a misunderstood little girl). The way her character changes through the book is absolutely inspirational. I wish I could write characters like the way Frances Hodgson Burnett writes Mary.

There’s so much about The Secret Garden that’s absolutely perfect. The scene where Mary steps into the garden for the first time, for instance. The moment Mary confesses, in defiant tears to Dickon that she’s stolen a garden. The creepy night when Mary first meets and befriends Colin. In the book’s idyllic middle section, everything is golden and beautiful. And utterly, utterly perfect.

It’s just a pity that, the moment Colin sets foot in the secret garden and takes over the story, my adult brain had to kick in and spoil the whole thing…


Pity. I was enjoying it so much up until that point…


Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should I read it?

Perhaps – if you’re not as cynical and twisted as I am. Or, read The Secret Garden aloud to a child. It’ll be an experience neither of you will ever forget.

In a word:


Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

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