Book Review: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Burnett wrote many books, but the two that are best known to us are The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Both are girls’ stories, so perhaps you will forgive me for mostly favoring boys’ stories in this view, but after all, I’m a boy! Nevertheless, I enjoyed these stories. Both are magical books that begin with a little rich girl moving from India, where she was born, to England.

In The Secret Garden, the little girl is ten-year-old Mary Lennox, a very spoiled, stiff, cold child with a selfish temper and a bad case of yellow jaundice. Her parents have ignored her all her life, and the native servants who have waited on her were hardly better off than slaves, and then an epidemic of cholera leaves her orphaned. Her uncle, a wealthy recluse named Archibald Craven, becomes her guardian.

Uncle Archie is not a cheerful man. He has a crooked back and is tortured by a grief as old as Mary, and he only sees the girl once before going off on a European tour of self-loathing and despair. Mary finds herself in a 100-room mansion with strict orders not to go nosing around, no one to wait on her as the Indian servants did, and nothing to do except run around outside (which turns out to be good for her health). Then she takes an interest in a walled garden that has been locked up since her Uncle’s beautiful wife died 10 years ago, and she develops a sudden interest in digging and planting things (which is even better for her health).

Next thing you know, she has made friends with a cockney boy who charms animals, and a horrendously spoiled bedridden cousin whose father can’t stand the sight of him and who is convinced that he is going to develop a hunchback and die young. And at that point the book suddenly becomes the story of how the secret garden transformed cousin Colin from a shrieking, whining weakling into a tall, happy athlete in the course of one summer.

This shift is one of the main flaws of the novel, and the fact that there is but little conflict or suspense toward the end is another; but from another point of view, everything kind of develops inevitably from one end to the other. The story’s outlook is a little preachy and has some very strange theology in it. God is equated with something impersonal like Magic, and the effect of good attitude and honest effort sounds almost miraculous. But it isn’t a tract or a book of doctrine after all, it’s a romance story and it’s quite effective.

The remarkable thing is that the heroine is such an unattractive character to begin with; though the real savior may be Dickon, the boy who talks to animals, and who is at least once referred to as an angel. It’s neat to see the progress Mary and Colin make. A male author would probably have thrown in a subplot about the housekeeper and the boy’s doctor conspiring to keep him ill so that he could die young and they could inherit the estate, and I think the film adaptations do a bit of that. It makes better cinema maybe. But the real heart of the story turns out to be how the sickness in a father-son relationship is cured by the application of a little “magic” and the contrariness of a headstrong girl.