28 November 2013


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


Sheila said...

I get your allusion! It's Huck Finn. :D Now that's a book I read as a kid and really did like.

The Secret Garden, I think I read excerpts of. It's like every Victorian novel for kids: too preachy! Take Pollyanna (ugh) or Black Beauty (which actually has all the morals in *italics,* lest you should miss them!). In fact most novels for kids are too preachy. And yet the ones that try not to be preachy at all are usually awful. Better to just do a good job at it, I suppose -- like Narnia or The Hobbit.

love the girls said...

I did not get the allusion, and it only became more confusing with the addition of Huck Finn, but my daughter Lucy did. She says she prefers A Little Princess.

Now I have to ask my daughter Mary. Who was not named after Mary Lennox but could have been.

When I reread Jane Eyre this past year I too wondered if there was a parallel between the books, but at each place where I want to pull them together the differences outweigh the similarity.

love the girls said...

Miss Sheila,

Pollyanna is my favorite book for describing liberals, because of their disposition to step over the neighbor at their doorstep while on their way to stuffing the missionary barrel at the street corner.

My older sister when she was a little girl used to watch the entire disney movie, sound, coluour et all on the wall of her room. And then one day, she simply could not, and never could again.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- That was my favourite part of Huckleberry Finn! =D

While I've read Pollyanna and Black Beauty (and also Heidi!), I don't recall feeling preached at. I was either really tolerant as a child or really dense about what was going on. =P

LTG -- The uncanny similarities between Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden are making me want to put together a list of heroines who have to live in big, mysterious houses owned by men with "secret" wives. I wonder how many examples of a seemingly obscure trope I'll be able to find . . .

Sheila said...

Rebecca, by Daphne de Maurier. Though perhaps not quite the same because Rebecca is dead.

My favorite part of Huck Finn is Jim's captivity and Tom Sawyer's creative ways of helping him escape. All his talk of Jim training a rattlesnake that would let Jim put its head in his mouth... "Put his head in my mouf? I suppose he would, if I AST him!" And Jim had to keep a journal of his woes, dig tunnels, etc., when really he could slip his chain off the leg of the bed and be free the same day.

Enbrethiliel said...


Rebecca is on my list! =) As you've said, it's not quite the same, but I'd find a way to make it fit a Top 5 post anyway. ;-)

Now that you've brought up Tom Sawyer, I must put in a good word for the chapter in which he accumulates (through trade--LOL!) all the tickets he needs to earn a Sunday school bible. Clever boy!

love the girls said...

Choosing a favorite part of Huck Finn is akin to choosing a favorite flower in a meadow.

I pick Aunt Sally and the spoons, and then reach over and pick the Widow Douglas and the bad place, and pretty soon I've chosen the whole book.

love the girls said...

I asked my daughter Mary, (age 13 choleric, charismatic), but she unfortunately has not read them herself and says she doesn't remember them well enough from when they were read to her. But my daughter Cressie, (age 10 phlagmatic, and a social healer like her older sister Lucy) who has read them, what hasn't she read?, says she prefers Sarah. And Veronica (age 4) says she only likes princess ballerinas.

Enbrethiliel said...


Did you tell Veronica that Princess Sara has dancing lessons, too? =P

PS -- If I weren't determined to go in a completely different direction now, I could see myself rereading all the children's classics we've been talking about, just because it's so much fun to discuss them as adults!

Ugoki said...

Honestly, if you want to see Burnett's spiritualism really coming out, read The White People. The magic here is just positive thinking since there's literally nothing wrong with Colin physically and the magic in Sara is just Sara's imagination at work.

And I wish I can reply to comments on Blogger. That guy who disses Pollyanna doesn't even know it was written in the Edwardian era.

Enbrethiliel said...


Actually, I don't want to see Burnett's spiritualism coming out. The Lost Prince was bad enough. (Dare I link to my post about it? LOL!)

I was going to argue that the death of one monarch and the coronation of another don't wipe the slate of culture so clean that the influence of the former totally and thoroughly ends at his death, but then I realised you were arguing it yourself! Pollyanna came out in 1913; so it's actually Georgian. But it can be considered Edwardian in spirit. And if that, why not Victorian in soul as well? =D

Ugoki said...

Eh, I haven't finished The Lost Prince but it totally reads like a fairytale (did you know Burnett writes fairytales too?). So that conclusion is absolutely normal in one.

Pollyanna is quite similar to Fauntleroy, since it's also about an immensely cheerful and optimistic kid cheering up grumpy adults around them. Both also have a gracious amount of comedy. The only difference is in the ending where in Pollyanna, the girl breaks and she has to be restored by the now cheerful adults. So the whole Pollyanna Syndrome trope is a dumb thing regurtitated by people who haven't read the book.

I wouldn't call it Victorian since Pollyanna isn't really your typical Victorian heroine.

Enbrethiliel said...


It has been so long since I have read Pollyanna that I can't really comment on it.

So who are the typical Victorian heroines? Don't leave it at Alice!

Ugoki said...

Alice isn't really typical either. Then again, I don't like thinking of that book as a normal novel. It's more of a dream story where Lewis just puts whatever crazy or wacky things he wants.

I guess the typical Victorian heroine would be most of Dickens' heroines.

Also, The White People is pretty good. You will excuse the spiritualism if you know that Burnett wrote it right after her son died, so it was pretty much her consolation novel. And I read it for the heroine anyways. She's kinda like a more shy and less fierce Sara Crewe.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm sure that The White People would be interesting to someone already familiar with Burnett, but it has been years since this reading project and I've since committed myself to reading other things. But thanks so much for your comments, Ugoki! If I had received that recommendation three years ago, I would definitely have followed up. "A more shy and less fierce Sara Crewe" sounds like a great character.

Ugoki said...

I'll just warn you about the obvious Burnett self-insert in The White People, though it wouldn't be so obvious if you didn't know Burnett's life, like when I first read it.