Isolation, abandonment, neglect and loneliness. All themes that one would not expect in a children’s book about a garden, yet those form the basis of the story about two 10-year-old children.
The first book that I tackled on my list was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published in 1911. It begins with the story of Mary Lennox. Mary was born in India to wealthy British parents who essentially abandoned her, letting servants care for her until everyone in the household died from a cholera epidemic. Everyone except Mary. She was found by British soldiers and then sent to live with a wealthy uncle, Archibald Craven, who lived on the moors of Yorkshire, England.
A Redemption Story?
The second child, Colin Craven, is Mary’s cousin and son of Archibald Craven. This poor child lost his mother shortly after he was born. In Mr. Craven’s grief, he could not bear to look at Colin, who reminded him too much of his wife. Fearing that something horrible would happen to Colin, Mr. Craven kept him isolated and in bed, treated as if he were an invalid. Cared for by housemaids, nurses and doctors who felt that by giving in to the child’s every wish, he would get better (even though there was nothing really wrong with him in the first place).
Both of these children were described as unpleasant and disagreeable. Left to her own devices, Mary breaks out of the manor house first and learns of the secret garden, locked up after Colin’s dear mother died. She finds it and becomes transformed by nature with the help of her maid Martha’s brother, Dickon.
My mother always says people should be able to take care of themselves, even if they’re rich and important.
Martha, Dickon, their mother Mrs. Sowersby, and their 10 other siblings show what a loving family with happy well-adjusted children looks like. Mrs. Sowersby runs her household, and very little money. Dickon also possesses a talent for charming animals (and when he meets Colin, charming boys). Dickon’s robin, squirrel, rabbit and other animals are key metaphors to humanity.
Do I need to give a spoiler alert here? Hasn’t everyone in the western world read this tale, but me? Well, if you haven’t and think you might… spoiler alert. Jump to the bottom and you can find my score for The Secret Garden (based on a scale of 1-10).
Much more surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable, determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.
Mary and Colin get it together and turn out ok. Mary sees her disagreeable self in Colin and by helping transform Colin, she transforms herself. Colin becomes a strong believer in Magic and Positive Thinking, learns to walk again unaided, and wants to be a scientist. He also wants the approval of his father, who also turns out to be an ok guy, finally seeing Colin as a “real boy” and not an invalid. He was suffering from severe depression after his wife’s death and needed 10 years or so to complete his grieving.
The garden has been transformed back to its former glory as well, and no longer has to remain a secret.
Where you tend a rose, my lad, A thistle cannot grow.
In spite of their early exposure to, well, nothing positive, both Mary and Colin overcome this adversity with both the guidance of each other and Dickon.
It’s a happy ending!
I can’t decide if this story would have appealed to me as a child, but as an adult, having experienced some familial neglect myself, it did, honestly, kind of irritate me. It was a relief, however, to discover that formerly bratty children could find some resilience within themselves and become kind, pleasant people.
On a scale of 1 (the negative end) to 5 (it depends) to 10 (the positive end), my conclusion:
Does it deserve to be on “must read” reading lists: 5
Am I glad I read it: 8
Would I read it again: 1
Would I recommend it for children: 5
Average Score: 5.9