Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Secret Garden

It's Earth Day, and of all the nature-y books out there (some of which I've written about), The Secret Garden is one that never fails to inspire. I don't know how she did it, but even as Frances Hodgson Burnett takes you into Mary's psychological world - and all the emotional intangibles that entails - she takes you outside so you can feel the dirt on your hands and under your nails, and the damp breeze on your cheeks.

Mary Lennox is a pretty well known literary heroine, I think. But then, her story fascinated me when I was younger (well, it still kind of does), so maybe I take it for granted that everyone knows all about her. Just in case, though. Mary was raised in India, where she was incredibly spoiled by the attention of her parents' servants. In all of children's literature, I think Mary is the only thin, blonde child who is described as ugly (as much in attitude as in appearance). Anyway, at the beginning of the story, everyone in Mary's life dies from cholera, virtually overnight. And that is how Mary comes to find herself at Misselthwaite Manor, staying with her uncle on the edge of the English moorland.

As I've already said, Mary was not a pretty child, and she had a terrible temper. After being waited on in India, she had a very hard time adjusting to life in a house where none of the servants were paid to dote on her. She barely saw her uncle (whose wife had died tragically come years before), so she was very much alone. After puttering around and throwing several tantrums, Mary gets bored with her old ways and sets out to something. The Manor has large gardens and Mary starts digging around. One day, a robin shows her a door in a wall, but the door is locked and after trying to get in for a few minutes, Mary gives up.

The outdoor activity is good for Mary and she starts to perk up. Martha, one of the younger servants, introduces Mary to her brother Dickon (who has a way with animals) and they become tentative friends. Mary shows Dickon the door in the wall and they decide to try and find a way in. Mary does some poking around in the house and finds a key, which proves to fit the lock. Mary and Dickon open the door to the secret garden (which is encased by high brick walls) and go in. After playing in there for a while they decide to look after it and start trying to restore garden to its obvious former splendour.

Meanwhile, in the house, Mary has been hearing strange wailing noises at night. After being woken up several nights in a row, she decides to follow the sounds and discovers that she has a cousin named Colin. Her Uncle, Mr. Craven, is a hunchback and his son is similarly disfigured. So Colin is kept confined, away from everyone, so no one can see his condition. Because he's lonely, Colin is prone to tantrums (much like Mary was upon arrival at Misselthwaite). But as Mary slowly befriends her cousin, drawing him out of his shell and eventually out into the garden, his health also improves.

Clearly, this story has a happy ending. Colin's health improves so much that he is actually able to walk up to his father, and Mary is pretty and has friends for first time. It's fairly predictable, but as far as classic children's stories go, the moral is much more interesting.

Burnett places a huge importance on the children's life outdoors. Neither Mary nor Colin really begin to improve until they start spending time outdoors, in the company of other children. And it isn't just their health that improves from the exercise and fresh air, but also their temperament and emotional well-being. Essentially, Burnett is extolling the benefits of spending time with the natural world and illustrating how important it is for people to stay in contact with the Earth.

It may be a book written for children, but The Secret Garden is almost more important for adults. Kids are always reminded to play outside (whether in the park or their backyard) but it seems the older we get the more time we stay indoors, which often as a negative affect on both our moods and our health. Reading The Secret Garden when I was a kid made me wish I could find a place like that to look after and revel in; now, it makes me want to build something like that - I would even settle for a window-box garden, at this point. Or, I guess, sitting outside and reading.

The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
First published in 1911 (cover image shown from that edition)

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