Frances Hodgson Burnett had serious issues with the children of the Edwardian British upper class. Both The Little Princess and The Secret Garden featured wealthy girls whose parents had some connection to British rule in India. Sarah Crewe (Little Princess) is abandoned at an English boarding school (Miss Minchin’s) by her father and spoiled Mary Lennox (Secret Garden) is sent to a relative’s home in England during a cholera outbreak. I was neither British nor Edwardian nor rich nor–well, let’s just leave the spoiled question open for debate–but I certainly identified with these two girls. (I never did read Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy because I saw a film version and decided it was too saccharine for my taste–besides, it was about a boy.)
While I was given a hardcover copy of The Little Princess by a relative who probably thought it was funny to give me a book with that particular title (she told me more than once that I was spoiled), I’m pretty sure I picked up The Secret Garden at the book fair in fourth or fifth grade.
I used to think that my fondness for Gothic novels started with Jane Eyre, but now that I think about it, it must have started with The Secret Garden. The house to which Mary Lennox is sent is owned by an uncle-by-marriage, Archibald Craven. Like Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre, he roams the world mourning his tragic past. Petulant Mary is left in the care of servants; she eventually makes friends with Dickon, a chambermaid’s young brother who shows her real kindness and won’t put up with her unpleasantness. When Mary learns of the secret garden which has been locked since the death of Archibald’s wife, Lily, who fell from a tree, she explores it and eventually begins to cultivate it. She is eventually transformed by the act of caring for something outside herself–and when she discovers Colin, Archibald’s invalid son who is himself a spoiled recluse, she begins to rehabilitate him as well.
There is very little darkness in The Secret Garden. Lily’s death is a background event and she doesn’t exactly haunt the place. The garden itself is deliciously mysterious, and, of course, the existence of Colin is a real shock. (Colin’s invalidism embodies the height of the literary romanticism of the period. Think of Klara in Spyri’s Heidi, a much earlier novel.) The garden does seem magical, even if Burnett made it an overwhelming metaphor for spiritual rehabilitation. As unsentimental as I am and have always been, I appreciated the transformative nature of the story. I think I saw the possibility that I, like Mary, was capable of some act of goodness. (Funny concept, that–the desire to be good. I remember thinking that I wanted that, wanted to bask in the glow of approval for my elusive “goodness.”) The rebel inside me chafes at the notion that my reaction was just what Burnett and her Edwardian publisher were looking for!
The scene I remember most vividly is one in which Dickon and Mary conspire to have Colin (who has always been on an invalid’s pale diet) begin drinking fresh, warm cow’s milk. Somehow that just seemed amazing to me.