The Secret Garden review – ‘Might I have a bit of earth?’

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett has to be one of the most memorable classics of childrens’ literature. For me it is also one of my guilty pleasures in books and movies. I can’t recall how old I was when I first read the book and saw the 1993 movie of it. (For that I must have been more then 6. So I would say about 10 or 12 years old.) I fell in love with the story straight away. I think the same reasons why I liked it so much back then are still the same reasons why I am into it today.

I recently finished reading it on my Kindle and that’s why I am keen to write about now. At one point I owned a copy of the above edition. (Knowing me I’ve still got it somewhere!) I think it did become very tried out due to me re-reading it so many times though! And I really think that of all the books and stories in general that I often return to, The Secret Garden is high up on the list. So, why is a lover of horror, supernatural and vampire stories so attracted to a children’s book? Well, some would say there are supernatural elements in it, but its the story of finding the garden, the setting, the development of the characters, the dialogue used and the magic of nature that attracts me.

Burnett was an English-American playwright and author. She was born 24th November 1849 in Cheetham, near Manchester and is best known for her children’s stories. She moved to America in 1852 aged 19 and begin writing and publishing stories in magazines. During the 1880s she travelled to England frequently and in 1890s moved to Great Maytham Hall in Kent. It was here, during her return some years later, that she had the idea for The Secret Garden due to her love for gardening and the series of walled and rose gardens at the Hall. Most of the writing happened during a visit to Buile Hill Park in Salford. It was published in serial format in The American Magazine 1910 and then published in 1911 as a book. She moved back to the USA in 1907 and settled in Long Island where she died on 29th October 1924. The Secret Garden was the 5th to last book she wrote.

Of course, living in England I should be familiar with the places that Burnett is connected to. I first thought that she had got the idea, written and set the novel close to me, but on researching this I found out that the places were further away then I had realised. Kent is far away from me as it’s down near London, but Buile Hill Park in Salford is about 40 minutes and the Yorkshire dales might be two hours away, but somehow they feel a lot closer!

I really like the book cover of my edition because it fits with the title and the robin looks so attractive. I’ve always had a love of nature and maybe it was seeing this as a child that started my love for robins? Your eye is also drawn to the doorway behind the bird, which must be the entrance to the garden. Even the title gets you thinking and interested to find out more. Where is this secret garden? What’s in it? Who finds it? What’s it’s history? And it’s because you need to have those questions answered that you pick it up.

The story starts in India and the introduction to the main character 10 year old Mary Lennox. She is selfish, self-absorbed, sour, a loner, angry, rude, use to getting her own way and unloved. She doesn’t know how to respect, give care, be compassionate and show love to others. Everything revolves around her and she believes herself to be at the centre of the universe around her. Her British, wealthy parents don’t want her, so she has been raised by servants, who have been told to keep her quiet and happy, which is the reason behind her behaviour. When a cholera epidemic hits and kills nearly all the household, Mary is rescued and sent to live with her only relative, her uncle Archibald Craven in Yorkshire, England.

His house Misselthwaite Manor is set on Missle Moor far from anywhere else. She crosses the moor at night and so doesn’t view them until the morning. The name of the moor is fictional, but Thwaite is an actual village in the Dales and is probably the setting of the Manor. The moor is first described by Medlock- Craven’s house keeper, who goes to collect Mary and bring her to the Manor;

‘Its just miles and miles and miles of wild land that nothing grows on but heather and gorse and broom, and nothing lives on but wild ponies and sheep….It’s a wild dreary enough place to my mind, though there’s plenty that likes it.’

I prefer Matha’s – Medlock’s maid who also becomes Mary’s- describtion of the moor a few pages later;

‘I just love it. It’s none bare. Its’ covered wi’ growin’ thing as smell sweet. It’s fair lovely in spring an’ summer when th’ gorse an’ broom an’ heather’s in flower. It smells o’ honey an’ there’s such a lot o’ fresh air-an’ th’ sky looks so high an’ th’ bees an’ skylarks making such a nice noise hummin’ an’ singin’.

Moors have always had the supernatural connected to them in some way, but they also have the magic of nature too. I find them interesting and beautiful places. The moors aren’t the actual setting of the story though they are connect. There is symbolism between the moor and the characters though. For example, the cold, bleakness, un-interesting nature of the moors in winter is symbolic of Medlock’s and Craven’s attitudes towards Mary. The changes between the winter and spring season could be said to be symbolic of the changes in Mary and her cousin Collin. As like the plants starting to become active, the children’s minds and bodies do as well. My favourite symbolism has to be between the moor and the character Dickon, (he is Matha’s younger brother) because he represents the wild spirit of the moor and nature.

The description of Misselthwaite Manor is minimal, but you get the impression that this massive house reflects the look of the moor. It is a dark, gloomy, empty and a half abandoned place. I guess some what spooky and mysterious would also fit also and during Mary’s secret wanderings of the house the supernatural element is touch upon. Nothing else comes of this, though you do learn that Mary has no fear of things. The house could symbolise the lack of love and the loneliness that Mary has come accustomed too. Since there is nothing for Mary to do inside and the fact that Medlock doesn’t want her poking around, she is sent outside to ‘play’ by Matha. However, because of her up bringing, she doesn’t know how to play and finds the Manor’s gardens boring.

Mary is told the tale of the secret garden and the reader receives some answers to the questions raised at the beginning. The garden was created by Mrs Craven, who loved roses, but she fell off a swing/ tree Branch and was injured. She died and Mr Craven couldn’t get over her death, so he had the garden closed forever and forbid anyone to enter it. This is also the reason why he can’t stand to spent the spring and summer months at the manor, as these seasons remind him of his wife. The loss of a Lady at the manor can be seen in the state of the place as well. Mrs Craven wouldn’t have let the place get so dull and gloomy! This does stir something in Mary and she becomes interested in finding the garden.

Thus she is led to talking to an old gardener, Ben Weatherstaff and his friendly robin. At first Mary appears her normal self, but as she starts talking to the robin and putting human qualities onto the bird, she starts to become a different child. In away, Weatherstaff takes the role of grandfather like figure to Mary. He is wise and she does learn things from him. However, he is also a loner and does become bitter and anger later on. As for the robin, he has a very important role to play in the novel. He leads Mary to the garden because it is his home and he also helps her find the key. I love the character of the robin, because he is well written and acts just like a cheeky, friendly robin would do! He symbolises freedom as all birds do in novels, but it is also because he can enter the secret garden when no one else can. He becomes Mary’s first friend and does turn the novel around at this point.

So, Mary gets into the garden, but because she doesn’t know anything about plants and believes the garden is dead. There’s no one around to ask or help her, that is until my favourite character, Dickon, appears. I think its his animal charmer nature and the fact he has the spirit of the moor inside of him, that makes me like him so. He shows Mary that the garden isn’t dead and they begin to tidy it up and plant new flowers. One thing that I do love at this point is that they decided to let the garden stay wild and not try to re-tame it and make it fancy as it once most have been. You also get to meet all of Dickon’s animal friends, who each have their own story about how he found them. Many were baby animals that he saved and we see this with the newly born lamb that appears later on. These animals have developed a bond with him and see him as one of them. I also like how he can talk to the robin, because Dickon brings a voice to him to confirm his friendship with Mary.

Just as the garden has given up it’s secret, the house does too and one night, Mary finally follows the crying noises she has been hearing and discovers her cousin, Collin. She is already changing into a much more caring and less selfish girl. The fresh air and having the garden to look after have given her mind and body fuel that wasn’t there before. It is interesting when she meets Collin for a number of reasons;

Firstly, because the reader can see that Mary is mirrored in Collin. He is just like her in manner and nature, but he is also mentally unstable due to his depression, his belief of dying and getting a hunch back like his father. Secondly, because they didn’t know about each other. Thirdly, there is a sense that Mary will be the salvation of him and help change him. Mary tells him about the garden and he becomes interested in finding it. However, she is worried he won’t be able to keep it a secret and so doesn’t let him into the fact that she’s all ready been inside. Fourthly, we learn more about Mrs and Mr Craven through him. Mrs Craven died soon after having Collin, who was born too early and it is hinted at that her fall in the garden might have had something to do with this. Collin hates her for dying and doesn’t like the portrait of her that hangs opposite his bed. Also, he has no relationship with his father because Collin is blamed for his mother’s death and looks too much like her.

There are only three parts in the novel where we get to meet Craven. The first is when Mary goes to him and asked for her bit of earth. Like Medlock, he seems dis-interested in her and lost in his own affairs. He hasn’t got the time to deal with her and like his own son, doesn’t want anything to do with her. He does agree to give Mary her garden though and her worries about stealing it are put to an end. This also shows how her character is developing, because before she would have just taken the garden she believed it was her right to do so. Giving the garden to Mary doesn’t allow Craven to escape his past though and he leaves the manor to travel around the world.

All the children build a friendship and Mary tells Collin about the garden. When he visits the place, his mind becomes awakened and he realises that he is not as ill as he has been led to believe. He also starts to believe in magic and uses it to explain things. These are mostly connect with Nature and God because it is suggested when Dickon’s mother appears. Collin starts to appear like a healthy boy again, though he decides to keep it a secret from the adults as he wants to surprise his father. This soon does happen as his father has a strange dream about his wife calling to him from the garden. For some reason, his mind has been taking in the countryside scenery of the country he is currently in and he begins to feel more alive. He arrives home and on trying to see his son is direct to the garden. He is shocked when Collins runs into him just outside the walk way to the secret garden and he realises how wrong he was about his son.

There are lots of themes in this novel, the main ones are; nature, family, growth, change, secrets and magic. I don’t think there is much of a reason for me to go into them because I’ve touched upon them in talking about the characters and the plot.The writing is simple and aimed at children, however given its publishing date, the language is old fashioned. This doesn’t effect the overall reading experience and for me it just adds to the setting of the story. I love the Yorkshire dialogue that is used throughout because it creates a realistic feel to the characters and their words. In some places this can be hard to understand though, but most of the time the speech is then explained. I think it because even more enjoyable when Mary and Collin start to speak it because you can see a real change in their attitude towards other people.

Overall, there are many reasons why I love The Secret Garden. I can easily see why it is a classic children’s book and I hope this continues. The story brings nature to life in a different way, through the eyes of children looking upon it for the first time, which is where the magic comes in. It is wonderfully written and very easy to talk about as well!

The movie

The other thing that really got me loving the secret garden was the 1993 movie adaption of the novel. Okay, so maybe its not the best movie, but it does get the themes and points across well. You can sit down and just watch it as a family. The children actors are quite good and emotions come off strongly. Of course it is different from the novel in places, but this doesn’t effect the plot that much. There isn’t as much Yorkshire dialect in it as I wise there had been, but I guess there was a worry that some of the characters might not have been understand! There are some wonderful scenes of the moor and gardens coming to life which adds to the magical tone of the movie. I think I like it because it is very enjoyable and you can loose yourself in the joys of creation.

Images from :

http://leahstps.wordpress.com/
http://www.northyorkshirestay.co.uk/NorthYorkMoors.html
http://www.illustrationcupboard.com/gallery_book_illustrations.aspx?bId=480
http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/the-secret-garden
http://distractionsoflola.tumblr.com/post/942844289/the-secret-garden-1993

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