There’s something strange about The Secret Garden. The classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published 100 years ago this summer, takes the traditional children’s literature trope of the orphan protagonist and twists it. Mary Lennox is not a good-hearted, put-upon creature, cut from the cloth of Oliver Twist or Cinderella (or Anne Shirley, Pip, Jane Eyre or Heidi). Rather she is spoiled, homely, mean and sometimes violent.
We meet her in India, in the midst of a cholera outbreak that wipes out her British parents and their servants. During the crisis, Mary is forgotten. She’s later found in her nursery and shipped off to Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire moors to live with an uncle she’s never met. Mary doesn’t miss her dead parents, and given that they didn’t want her it’s hard to blame her for this. While readers might feel their hearts soften at Mary’s situation, her disagreeableness – not to be confused with rascally Tom Sawyer-style mischievousness – is off-putting. Brimming with colonial imperiousness, Mary says of the house staff in India: “They are not people – they’re servants who must salaam to you.” She has a tantrum when she meets Martha, a Misselthwaite servant with a Yorkshire accent, calling her the “daughter of a pig”. She complains about the food and waits expectantly for someone to put on her shoes for her. Mary’s self-centredness undercuts the sentimentality common in Victorian-era portrayals of children. It also makes Mary far more interesting than, say, Pollyanna, the title character of Eleanor H Porter’s 1913 novel.
Because she has nothing else to do, she begins to wonder about a locked-up garden on the grounds left abandoned for a decade. (Not coincidentally, Mary is 10 years old.) She gets closer and closer to the garden before, with the help of a robin, she discovering the key. Slowly, she begins to interact with the seasons, the dirt, and the flowers – as well as the stories of people who love this landscape, including Ben, the groundskeeper, and Dickon, Martha’s brother. For Mary, it’s not a benefactor or romantic love that catalyses her growth. Rather, she learns to take care of herself, to experience un-lonely solitude in the natural landscape. She keeps company with local eccentrics from across the social spectrum, and begins to enjoy the movement of her body; her transformation begins when she learns to jump rope.
Meanwhile, the book’s tackling of disability and the life of “invalids” is at once intriguing and troubling. Most notable is the depiction of Colin Craven, a cousin of Mary’s even more unpleasant than she is. After his mother died giving birth to him, his father, the master of Misselthwaite, left his son to be hidden in the house. He grows up to be an angry, self-loathing boy who unnerves the servants and has a neurotic fear of becoming a hunchback. While Mary is the protagonist, her story is paralleled in Colin’s. Indeed, one of the book’s strangest features is that it is the two most wounded and unlikable characters who do the most to heal one another. The moral guidance of kindly adults doesn’t have much to do with it.
The secret garden is a catalyst for healing in the characters who see it, and with Colin the effect is literal. Unable to walk when we meet him, he discovers in the garden that he can stand. He secretly practises until he is able to shock his father by getting out his wheelchair and walking. With Colin, it’s apparent from the start that his disability is psychological, rooted in a loveless childhood. But it’s not surprising that Burnett’s notion of cures is informed by Christian Science. The philosophy is plain in the text: “When new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones, life began to come back to [Colin], his blood ran healthily through his veins and strength poured into him like a flood.” On the page, Colin’s story is haunting. In context of a larger literature that has relatively few complex characters with disabilities, the diagnosis of “it’s all in his head” feels disappointing.
The history of the novel’s reception is as strange as the text. While The Secret Garden is now catalogued as children’s literature, it was originally serialised in a magazine for adults before being published in its entirety in 1911. Marketed to both young and adult readers, it had lukewarm success and became little more than a footnote in Burnett’s prolific career; her other novels, such as A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy, were far more popular at the time of her death in 1924. What probably saved the book from the out-of-print netherworld was the 20th-century rise in children’s literature scholarship, and general attentiveness to literature for children as a distinct genre. That, and the fact that the book’s copyright expired in the US in 1987, and most other places in 1995, opening the way for untold numbers of abridged, unabridged and adapted editions.
This unusual story, then, has proved to be the most lasting element of Burnett’s literary legacy. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us, given how ahead of its time it was. In The Secret Garden, the orphan Mary’s rightful inheritance is ultimately herself and the natural world, the ability to speak truth to others and to have it spoken back to her – to live a full life of both the body and the imagination.