Reading Diary: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Women readers know what I mean when I say you're either a Sara or a Mary. That is, you had a definite preference between A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. As for my male readers, perhaps "some calls them Sara, some calls them Mary," but will any of them also get that allusion? =P
As I've mentioned before, I'm a Sara, and A Little Princess served as "training wheels" for me before I was finally ready for what was to become my favourite novel of all time, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. But now that I've revisited The Secret Garden, I realise that if I hadn't waited until I was twenty years old to read it for the first time, I could have easily said the same thing about it.
"I suppose you might as well be told something--to prepare you. You are going to a queer place."
Mary said nothing at all . . . [but] had begun to listen in spite of herself. It all sounded so unlike India . . . like something in a book and it did not make Mary feel cheerful. A house with a hundred rooms, nearly all shut up and with their doors locked--a house on the edge of a moor--whatsoever a moor was--sounded dreary. A man with a crooked back who shut himself up also! She stared out of the window with her lips pinched together, and it seemed quite natural that the rain should have begun to pour down in gray slanting lines and splash and stream down the window-panes. If the pretty wife had been alive she might have made things cheerful by being something like her own mother and by running in and out and going to parties as she had done in frocks "full of lace." But she was not there any more . . .
This time around, there was no way I could deny that Misselthwaite Manor was like a children's version of Thornfield Hall, with Mary Lennox as a cross between Jane and her charge Adele! And I found myself enjoying the first half, in which she explores both the mysterious house and its equally mysterious gardens, more than I ever had before.
But then I got to the part when all the children are finally in the garden and felt Burnett once more beaming her spiritualist agenda all over my face . . .
"When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead," [Colin said]. "Then something began pushing things up out of the soil and making things out of nothing. One day things weren't there and another they were. I had never watched things before and it made me feel very curious. Scientific people are always curious and I am going to be scientific. I keep saying to myself, 'What is it? What is it?' It's something. It can't be nothing! I don't know its name so I call it Magic. I have never seen the sun rise but Mary and Dickon have and from what they tell me I am sure that is Magic too. Something pushes it up and draws it. Sometimes since I've been in the garden I've looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden--in all the places. The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man. I am going to make the scientific experiment of trying to get some and put it in myself and make it push and draw me and make me strong. I don't know how to do it but I think that if you keep thinking about it and calling it perhaps it will come. Perhaps that is the first baby way to get it. When I was going to try to stand that first time Mary kept saying to herself as fast as she could, 'You can do it! You can do it!' and I did. I had to try myself at the same time, of course, but her Magic helped me--and so did Dickon's. Every morning and evening and as often in the daytime as I can remember I am going to say, 'Magic is in me! Magic is making me well! I am going to be as strong as Dickon, as strong as Dickon!' And you must all do it, too . . ."
Zzzzzzzzzzzzz . . . Ach, entschuldigung! Are you all still there? I hope you take my meaning now . . .
Whether Burnett calls it the Big Thought, as she does in The Lost Prince (See my Reading Diary entry!), or the Magic, as she does here and in A Little Princess (There's a Reading Diary entry for that, too!), it has the potential to make the story drag. It doesn't help that the only other thing happening at the same time is grass growing and flowers blooming.
I am reminded of Fantasy writer L. Jagi Lamplighter's "Two Strings" writing technique, in which she emphasises contrast as what makes art come alive. So every scene must have two things--two very different, but not necessarily antithetical things--going on in it. As she puts it:
When we make up stories to write, we often start with an idea: I want to tell the story of a Hobbit named Frodo; I want to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson; I want to tell the story of a prince who marries a princess.
Write about them doing . . . what?
That one idea by itself is never enough. A single idea is like the circle made out of a single line. It may be well-drawn, but it is still flat. Without shading, it does not come to life.
What is needed is a second idea to provide the contrast that brings the story alive: What if a Hobbit were drawn into a war story? What if Jefferson’s story were told as journal entries? What if the prince has been turned into a frog?
Note that the story of Jefferson does not necessarily need a second plot idea. Jefferson’s life already has events and conflicts. What it needs is an approach. Something that helps the author frame the story, to choose which events to mention and how to bring the biography to life.
(Years after I first wrote the above paragraph, I picked up an easy reader book on Jefferson for my son. The author chose to tell about Jefferson’s life from his interaction with food; food he ate, food he encouraged others to eat, like tomatoes, food he brought to America from France. It was interesting because the overlap between the known figure, Jefferson, and this unusual take, food during Jefferson’s time, contrasted to make this short reader fascinating.)
Now, wasn't that long excerpt easier to read than the one directly above it? Not just because of the formatting, either! I'm sure I could have turned it into an equally ponderous block of text and it still would have been interesting. It does not just explain the "Two Strings" technique, but also demonstrates it.
That's why the Magic doesn't get interesting again until Burnett switches the point of view to that of Colin's father, who has no idea what is going on in his dead wife's garden but is feeling--and fighting--the Magic thousands of miles away. It's the closest the Magic gets to two strings.
To sum up, I like The Secret Garden as a story of two bratty children whose characters are improved by learning to be interested in worthwhile things and by becoming good friends. But I don't like it as a vehicle for Burnett's belief that good thoughts and good words are all that we need to make the world a better place. Oh, I suppose that Dickon and his mother are worth examining as a spiritualist version of Jesus and Mary, who help Mary and Colin to return to an Edenic state (as opposed to redeeming them from a fallen existence); but the real problem with the Sowerby mother and son is that they're not characters as much as nutrients. Burnett takes it for granted that they will "work" on the readers, just as they have "worked" on everyone in Yorkshire, and that we will all become healthier in mind and body just by having read about them. Nice try, ma'am, but no sale.
I could keep this informal Frances Hodgson Burnett Reading Project going by trying one of her books for adults, The Making of a Marchioness . . . but at this busy point in the year, I'm not feeling very encouraged.
Image Source: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett