A book from your childhood: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Revisiting this novel was a pleasant walk down memory lane. I believe this was the first chapter book I ever read as a very young girl, and the spirit of the story has stayed with me throughout my life. This is the first time I’ve reread the book in years, and I was pleased to discover that much of the magic I felt when reading it as a child was still present for me as an adult. It was also the perfect story to read at the onset of Spring, when one can feel the growing things stirring all about oneself.
The story begins in India, where sour ten year old Mary Lennox lives with her rich, Aristocratic parents in some distant outpost for the British military. Mary is a spoiled little thing who is kept out of the way of her beautiful but emotionally distant mother. The native servants give Mary her way so as not to disturb her socialite mother who takes no interest in being a parent. Unfortunately, an illness sweeps through the village and kills Mary’s parents and many of the servants. Those who are not killed flee, leaving Mary alone. Two soldiers come across her when searching the home which is otherwise desolate. She is sent off to Yorkshire to live with her rich, eccentric uncle, Archibald Craven.
Master Craven is a hunchbacked hermit, who shuts himself away after the grief of losing his young, beautiful wife in a tragic accident. He spends his time hermiting abroad and Mary is at the house for several months before he even sees her. Most of the house is dingy and locked away, and there is no consideration for Mary’s care other than the basics. She’s left to her own devices in this gigantic gloomy house with no toys, books, or entertainment. She’s forced to go outside and play and this turns out to be the best thing for her. It inspires her imagination to begin working, the fresh air and exercise make her hungry, and she soon loses her sallow color and begins losing her horrible attitude as the beauty of nature inspires her to see the world in a new way.
As the rest of the story unfolds, Mary explores the mysterious mansion and its two biggest mysteries, the secret garden and the wailing inside the corridor. These mysteries help Mary grow out of her self-centered demanding shell and into a cheerful inquisitive child. It is a wonderful journey to watch her undergo and it truly does feel “like magic” as the characters proclaim at the end of the story.
Reading it through with my “English teacher eyes” I was surprised to see how much dialect comes into play throughout the story. Many of the characters speak a “broad Yorkshire” dialect and Mary even goes so far as to learn this unique style of speech. Dialect can often be imposing for young readers, so seeing it in a children’s story was interesting, but I don’t remember struggling with this as a child—I was as enchanted with Yorkshire speech as Mary and Colin are in the story. That was a particularly enjoyable part of the experience for the linguist in me.
I also saw a much different view this time around of how the author treats the issue of race when the characters discuss the natives in India. It provides an excellent opportunity to engage in a Post-colonial literary analysis of the text which I wouldn’t have thought of before rereading. Mary’s awful treatment of the natives is suspect as, to be frank, Mary treats everyone in the same manner (as if they are not fit to lick her boots). However, perhaps the most telling aspect of the colonized-colonizer relationship is the discussion between Martha (Mary’s maid) and Mary regarding the natives of India. Martha is very curious about the “blacks” and how they behave, often referring to them as heathens, though the undertone is that they “can’t help how they act.” This would be an excellent area for further inquiry.