Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 9, 2008

Reading The Secret Garden

Here are a few sentences from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden that remind me it wasn’t published recently. We start the novel: “When Mary Lenox 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.” Wouldn’t most editors – the editor in me – want to tell the narrator to keep out, and if you must comment, be nice. “Disagreeable” is so subjective. But Mary goes on to be not only not pretty, but bossy and spoiled, and don’t we love to watch her have a bratty fit.

Another chapter begins: “One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live for ever and ever and ever.” The last phrase if often repeated, and in addition to this omniscient narrator’s mysticism, Colin often lectures on Magic, explaining how one can achieve this. Again that inner editor says: you can’t talk about eternal life, sweetheart. (And was it really okay to kill off the parents in the first few pages, with cholera, a really nasty disease?) Yet I love a book that takes such chances. I read on in some kind of awe, and think if we can get philosophical sidetracks in Moby Dick, War and Peace, and Middlemarch, why not in a book about children in a garden? I have some problems with the mother of Dickon and eleven, at last count, other children being so perpetually wise and cheery and energetic, but mostly I’m happy to listen to Susan Sowerby’s lectures, too. The world is an orange, she says, meant to be split and shared.

Point of view keeps shifting, in the way of bulky 19th century books, but the only place it bothers me is at the end, when Colin and his father bump Mary from the center. The book is about message as much as character. The metaphors don’t seem especially subtle. But The Secret Garden is one of my favorite books forever and ever and ever.

Am I so uncritical because this book came from another century? Or am I, and others, simply hungry for messages about self-determination and universal love that don’t always make it to the bookstores in contemporary novels?



  1. It’s funny, I tried to read this to E a while back and he made me stop. I think we might have made it about halfway through. Then, just recently, he insisted that we had finished the book. When I told him we hadn’t, he just shook his head. “Who has the best memomory here, you? Or me?” He as a point. But I KNOW we didn’t finish it.
    p.s. We DID finish A Little Princess and he loved it!

  2. Good for you for trying those books, and I think A Little Princess really is a better book for children. Great plot, if classic Cinderella, and more suspense and that wonderfully quirky Sarah Crewe. I just wondered if I’d lose even the few guys we have in class if I had too many titles with princess or women in them. E is so above that, good for him and his parents! And then in college, Secret Garden does have the sexuality and empirialist critiques to explore.
    I can’t believe E. is already starting with the memory competiion. I’m at the point where I’ve long surrendered. But I believe you re not finishing. I’d be curious how it all ended in E’s mind. Maybe he figured out when Mary finds the key to the garden (which is about halfway through) that that was it, and of course he’d be right.

  3. One of my favorite openings of all time is There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) I think we can still get away with at least some of this sort of editorializing.
    And with killing off parents horribly in fiction, too. But probably not so much with the long philosophical digressions.

  4. Are you reading this for your class? I love this book. I’m obviously going to have to go back and reread it as a writer/editor, just for the fun.
    The parents dying at the beginning, I think, works. It’s a pretty modern trick–think of every Disney movie’s first five minutes. 🙂 Actually, though, I think it sets up the sympathy we have to have for Mary, in order to stay with her for the first chapters. Not just because she lost her parents, but because of the loneliness of that early life–that bit about nobody even remembering she was there, explains a lot about who she is to start and keeps the reader, I think, hoping something good will come her way. It also explains the strength (stubborness!) that Mary has in her.
    If this is for your class, I’d love to hear a vote from your students when they finish it. I always hated the ending of the SG movie, because they wed Mary & Colin. I felt that was so NOT part of the book, but I’d love to hear what 30 or so readers had to say! 🙂

  5. The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books from childhood, and I have an old edition, so worn that you can barely make out Mary leaning over to insert a key in the lock on the cover. The color plates want to fall out, the book has been read so often over the years.
    I can’t read it totally uncritically now, but I wonder what people will say about our books, a hundred years hence?
    I do love that opening still.

  6. Ooh, I love that opening, too! I like how he changed over the course of the novel.

  7. Yes, nothing’s new under the sun and nothing much too old. Just as we write this, we’ll probably see something come jammed with philosophical digressions.

  8. I do think, fortunately, we can love AND be critical. And critical as I can be, how I would love for even one person to wear out one of my books the way your Secret Garden is! Obviously despite any analysis something is there that made this so favorite — as it was for Burnett, too, out of her 60 something books and plays, so she must have felt its (what she calls) Magic.

  9. Becky, that’s a great description of why that beginning works. We’ll be talking about the book in class tomorrow and endings will be a topic. One of the flaws of this mostly wonderful fabulous book, I think, is how we lose the point of view of Mary. Though in my memory, that happened way earlier than what I’d read. We want Mary at the center — but, please, no weddings! I love Marsha Norman’s musical/operatic version of it and the ending is perfect. Colin’s father apologizes for ignoring her and she says well it’s hard to remember everybody.
    “No, I should be able to remember three people.”
    “And sir, would I be one of them?”
    Then he proclaims, with much stirring music and audience tears, that it shall be her garden forever and ever.

  10. I fear an editor might call it a quiet book and pass on it nowadays. 😦

  11. I hate that phrase “too quiet” more than most any other!
    Hope you’re feeling better, Nancy.

  12. Me too!!!!!
    Getting better every day 🙂

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