Lucy Mangan: Why The Secret Garden is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s masterpiece

As readers seek solace in some of their favourite comfort reads, we take a look at one of ours through the lens of an extract from Lucy Mangan's Bookworm (2018).

Lucy Mangan
An image of The Secret Garden Vintage Children's Classics edition

My introduction to the Edwardian classics was an absolute belter. The writer and critic Marghanita Laski once said that she had loved it because it was ‘a book for introspective town children’. As one of that happy, if pallid, breed I can confirm that she was absolutely right. It was The Secret Garden (1911), and it had absolutely everything you could possibly want in a story. An admirably sour- faced orphan – Mary Lennox, whose parents die when cholera sweeps through their home in India. A country house – Misselthwaite Manor, to which Mary is sent to live with her even more sour-faced uncle who is still mourning the death of his wife. A disabled boy – her cousin Colin, who has a non- specific spinal problem and is the source of the mournful cries that have been keeping Mary up at night and improving her temper not at all. A SECRET GARDEN – the key to which Mary discovers as she begins to warm to and explore Misselthwaite Manor. And finally a proto-sexgod called Dickon, brother of the manor’s friendly maid Martha Sowerby, who knows all about gardening and how to roast eggs in a tree hollow. Together in the peaceful privacy of the garden they bring hope, Mary’s tender side and Colin’s legs back to life. Who could ask for anything more?

An image of Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frances Hodgson Burnett

It is undoubtedly The Secret Garden that is Hodgson Burnett’s masterpiece. The seed of the tale of lonely Mary and Colin, upon whom nature and the gradual gathering of friends slowly work miracles, was sown at Great Maytham Hall but its full flowering took time. It was published in 1911 to good reviews (most along the simple lines of Outlook magazine’s ‘a more delightful mystery for the child mind could not be imagined than that of this long locked up, deserted, almost dead garden’, though one did say that ‘The Secret Garden is more than a mere story of children; underlying it there is a deep vein of symbolism’) but no great fanfare. When Hodgson Burnett died in 1924 it was – unlike Little Lord Fauntleroy – barely mentioned in her obituaries.

But fate, as Sara Crewe will tell you, is a funny thing. Over the years, Cedric’s star faded and The Secret Garden’s has only risen. It was a book children loved and kept passing on to their own children in turn. Thus it survived until 1949 when a beautiful illustrated edition was published on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hodgson Burnett’s death. Buoyed by and resonating with the post-war atmosphere of optimism – and what was a blasted Europe but a giant garden just beginning to put out new shoots again? – it was granted a second more public lease of life and entered firmly into the cultural consciousness, from where it is frankly unlikely to be dislodged.

"It is undoubtedly The Secret Garden that is Hodgson Burnett’s masterpiece"

It is a book that lends itself brilliantly to whatever sociocultural concerns the age happens to be gripped by. The religiously inclined can see the story of Mary, her character remoulded gently but firmly as she digs and prunes the forgotten garden, as a lament for our lost prelapsarian innocence. Or, if you are still shaking your metaphorical fist at the Industrial Revolution, a paean to England’s bucolic golden age. Alternatively, if you’re a Freudian, I’m sure you can interpret it in all sorts of ways unsuitable for this book. Many have seen the garden as a symbol of motherhood – Mary nurtures it and brings it back to life and it does the same right back to her. Or perhaps it’s a story of exile and homecoming, or the journey through grief.

It was written when the bereaved Hodgson Burnett had become interested in Christian Science and various forms of spiritualism that perhaps offered her more comfort than more inflexible, established religious doctrines did, and perhaps the magic that Mary, Colin and Dickon come to believe is at work in the garden is her attempt to depict or grasp hold of them. But I suspect that for most children the characters’ faith in the garden’s magic reads, as it did to me, as a simple appreciation of the wonder of nature. That plants push up through the earth at certain times of year, bloom and fade in unison without any outward instruction is, when you first become aware of it, utterly extraordinary. A rose is always a miracle, but you only appreciate that when you’re young. You don’t need to reach for an external God looking down and orchestrating everything. But you might just reach for a trowel.

"The Secret Garden inspired me ... to try and bring some of the glory of that imagined world into the real one"

I actually did. The Secret Garden was one of the few books that inspired me to get off the sofa and do something to try and bring some of the glory of that imagined world into the real one. I hadn’t had a doll’s house or a knackety-kneed owl or a vortex-friendly garret to try other things out in, but I had a garden. My mother was thrilled. I was DOING something! Bending at the waist, moving limbs, using muscles we had all presumed atrophied long ago. She bought me seeds, a little bag of compost and showed me how to dig it into the soil to prepare the ground for sowing.

For a few days all was well. But the thing about gardening, it turns out, is that it is very slow. Very, very slow. Slow even for a child who was usually so inert she was technically a mineral. You have to dig for ages and then you scatter the seeds and instead of just turning the page to find them bursting into bloom, fuck all happens for months. No robins come to visit you. Or sex gods. Just your mother and your sister, who are out every five minutes to see what you’re doing and explain how you’re doing it wrong. I began to understand why you needed a secret garden.

And you have to do it all out in the fresh air. There was nothing to redeem the experience at all (Mum rejected the idea of hollowing out the apple-tree trunk so that we could try roasting eggs, with a firmness that was surprising even for her) so I returned to the sofa and the book, in which seasons and events unfolded quickly, pleasingly and reliably. I would not make the mistake of trying to find contentment in real life again anytime soon.

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