Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden

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Mary Lennox was born in India into an oppulent family of British colonists at the beginning of the 20th century. She is miserable – both physically weak and, being a spoiled little tyrant, she is also constantly dissatisfied and dislikes everyone and everything. And everyone and everything dislikes her.

Then her whole family dies of cholera and Mary is brought to England – Yorkshire, to be more precise. There, the climate is different. Her servants treat her differently. Things look different and feel different. Can these circumstances change a person as fundamentally spoiled as Mary Lennox? When she hears of a Secret Garden, locked for the better part of ten years, this gets her interested – what might it look like in there?

Child-relatedness:

Even though ‚The Secret Garden‘ was penned more than a hundred years ago, I believe children can still connect with the story. Things may have changed, but some themes – I believe – haven’t ceased to enthrall all sorts of children. Haven’t all of us day-dreamed about having our own little spots, where no adult can ever annoy us? Like, for instance, a secret garden to play in that hasn’t been touched in years? Or haven’t we all thought about what we’d been doing all day if we didn’t have to go to school? Or how to tackle boredom, when we did not have anyone to play with?

As a student of anglophone literatures, I believe I can tell that the original appeal was meant to be somewhat different: The whole elite setting tells me that it was supposed to be read by (spoiled) upper-class children (as most other children probably wouldn’t get much access to books in these days) that were used to bossing their servants around.  In short: Spoiled tyrants like Mary Lennox or Colin Craven. These children, I believe, were supposed to reconsider their comportments and their lifestyles upon reading – not only in terms of social behaviour, but also regarding healthy living in general.

Even though the intended audience of ‚The Secret Garden‘ has probably ceased to exist that way (at least in Britain), I still feel that aspects like bossing people around (parents, educators or servants) or healthy living with plenty of movement (be it because of being served all day or because of playing computer games all day) are still – or again? – paramount issues that children should think about. In addition to these behavioural aspects, I believe that especially the aforementioned topics (like tackling solitude, having isolated children-only areas or being constantly on vacation) are issues children wish for and can thus relate with. This is, I believe, what both the appeal and the purpose of the novel consists of with regards to children-relatedness.

Personae:

The novel uses relatively few different personae – but those are all very formative for Mary Lennox’s personality. I would add that all of them are somewhat like prototypical types of people in this era of the British Empire; be it an oppulant landlord, a spoiled upper-class child, English (or Indian) servants or a gardener. I believe they all play their roles pretty well when it comes to showing children how (not) to behave and thus also for the development of Mary Lennox as a fictitious person. I would, however, also like to add that they also have their distinctive features and characteristics that make them more than just stereotypical Empire-era figures.

Especially Mary Lennox’s path – but others too – are very interesting to follow; also the issue with the secret garden is something children (and also adults) will still find exciting and most interesting. I also enjoyed the structure of the book – though I must admit that there were several passages in the centre of the book, but also the very ending, that could have been written far more concisely. The action and also the developmental changes of the protagonist would have improved as a consequence of this.

Language:

When we consider that the book was published in 1911, the language is pretty accessible to ordinary readers – except for the passages that are narrated in Yorkshire English. I found these a bit of a challenge when it came to understanding everything, but on the other hand, I think these passages make the book more genuine – and Mary Lennox‘ usage of Yorkshire English also mirrors her deculturation from a bossy Indian colonist to a proper and upright English citizen with manners.

Other than that, I believe the language is still understable to ordinary British citizens and the little glossary in the back of the book helps children that might stumble over English terms they might not know.

Conclusion:

I found this an enthralling and enjoyable read. Whoever is interested in secret gardens, England at the beginning of the 20th century and developmental changes of a young girl in the course of some months, this novel is something you might to be go for. I cannot go into this much deeper because of spoilers, but there are also some almost creepy passages in the novel that I found – and there is one Mary-like figure whose development is also pretty amazing.

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