Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden was the last book I read and happened to finish on the last day of 2012. I wonder what I would have made of it as a child? I can easily imagine I would have been captivated by the idea of escaping into a world closed off from adults. Someplace all my own, special and secret and full of beautiful wonders just waiting to be discovered. Or in this case rediscovered. To be honest the idea of a secret garden appeals to me even now. I would happily lock myself in and till the soil and try to revive all the flowers and plants that had been left to lie fallow. And then when everything was in bloom, and with the birds were chirping, I would turn my face to the sun and bask in its warmth and pick up a favorite book to read and rest and not give a thought to all the problems of the world. It's a nice thought especially during the cold, dark days of January, isn't it?
As an adult, however, I must admit that ten-year old Mary Lennox has to be one of the most spoiled, irascible, fractious little girls I've come across in literature. At the beginning of the story she is loathsome, but by story's end she does a convincing job of becoming a likable child. In her introduction to my edition, Lois Lowry notes that Mary "suffers from an advanced case of terminal obnoxiousness." Indeed. Mary's appeal to young readers isn't unsurprising, though, as what child wouldn't want to get away with just such indulgent behavior themselves? I shudder now to think it probably would have appealed to me.
I don't read a lot of YA literature, but one thing you can depend on is a lack of parental supervision in any good children's story. What fun would there be otherwise (for reader or character)? In Mary's case, her parents die in a cholera outbreak in India. An only child who is more or less forgotten by her socialite mother, it's left to the girl's ayah to look after her. And she's not so much as looked after as given any and everything she might desire. The servants cater to her every whim. No one even had realized that the Lennoxes had a child so forgotten is she. With all her family dead, and the servants long gone after the sickness, Mary is shipped off back to England to live with her uncle. And he doesn't really want her either.
When she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire her uncle doesn't even bother to greet her. She's told by the servants he is not to be disturbed and happens to often be away from the estate in any case. There are no books or toys or even children's furniture. She's left to a small section of the house, told not to stray or wander through other rooms and is absolutely forbidden to enter the walled garden outside, which in any case is locked and the key long lost and buried. This is of course an invitation to do all the things she's not meant to.
Mary's fortunate in that one of the housemaids, Martha, befriends her. She doesn't cave in to Mary's bad and bossy behavior, which is something of a shock to Mary as she has always gotten her own way. Even more shocking is the boy she discovers in one of the bedrooms. Muffled cries had been heard by Mary, but no one had admitted to hearing them as well. Colin is her uncle's only child. Sickly and bedridden he's perhaps even more obnoxious than Mary. As the only child of the lord of the manor, he gets everything he wants except his father's love. And if he doesn't he throws a holy fit. Archibald Craven, his father, suffers from a hunchback. Ill and unhappy, he sees in his son a fragility and fear of dying young that keeps him mostly bedridden. Mostly he suffers from sadness after the death of his beloved wife. It was her garden that was so much loved and cared for that he locked and closed off unable to bear any reminder of her there.
Of course it is this same garden that Mary and Colin, along with Martha's younger brother, Dickon, begin restoring. But it's really Mary and Colin who are restored. Mary finds the key and the three begin working in the secret garden. The fresh air, the sunshine and the hard work is all transformative. Colin and Mary gain health and color in their clandestine garden visits and are inspired by Dickon's natural abilties with the plants and animals and his cheery good attitude. It's quite an about-face for the two.
I'm sure the garden is metaphorical. And like all good children's literature from this era and earlier (The Secret Garden was published in 1911), Hodgson Burnett misses no opportunity to offer a moral lesson or two, but I suspect children enjoy the story for the adventure more than the lessons. It wasn't quite as heavy handed as Louisa May Alcott's Little Women was in parts, but you can't really fault the book for being a product of its times. I can easily see how it has remained a classic. It's really a lovely story and an enjoyable read--even for an adult. I'm sorry I missed out reading it when I was a child, but I probably appreciate it even more now. There are so many children's classics I didn't get around to reading when I was young, I hope to squeeze in a few more this year at some point. Now I may have to treat myself to the movie, which I suspect is a visual feast!