REVIEW: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
As a child, I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It’s considered a classic novel and is the story of children beginning to blossom as they bring a locked, abandoned garden to life.
I was introduced to Burnett via a serialized reading of Little Lord Fauntleroy that was part of a children’s hour radio broadcast I listened to as a young child in Israel (yes, I got my childhood programs from the radio as well as the television). I looked forward to those broadcasts with bated breath and I still remember the song “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” which bracketed the radio readings of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Sometime in the past couple of years I revisited Little Lord Fauntleroy and was stunned by how bad it was: quite possibly the most treacly book I have ever read, poorly researched, and racist. Had I reviewed it here, I would have given it a big fat F. My expectations of The Secret Garden, my favorite Burnett novel in childhood, dropped at that time, but I thought that the book could not possibly be as bad as Little Lord Fauntleroy. For one thing, I remembered that the novel’s main character, Mary Lennox, was not an idealized, sugary, Marty Stu figure like Cedric, the eponymous Little Lord Fauntleroy.
The recent pandemic outbreak seemed like a good time to test that theory. The stress and anxiety has made me more amenable to reading something simple and potentially heartwarming. Some of my suppositions were correct; The Secret Garden is considerably better crafted than Little Lord Fauntleroy. But in other ways I was wrong.
The novel begins when nine-year-old Mary Lennox loses her parents to cholera. Mary is a spoiled and surly child living in India (no more specific location is given) when her home is struck with the illness. Mary’s parents and her Ayah (nursery maid) die, other servants desert the house, and the orphaned Mary is discovered utterly alone by two soldiers who come in to see if anyone has been left alive.
After a brief sojourn with a clergyman’s family (the children of the household mock her stubborn, angry demeanor by dubbing her “Mistress Mary, quite contrary,”) she is sent to her uncle’s Yorkshire country house. Mr. Craven, her uncle, is largely absent and his household is run by his housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, who picks up Mary in London and conveys her to her new home.
Mrs. Medlock doesn’t suffer fools gladly; she expects Mary to dress herself and amuse herself on her own (not wholly believable but I went with it), something Mary is unused to. Martha, a young Yorkshire maid, serves Mary a bit, chattering and catching Mary’s reluctant interest.
At first Mary is furious at being treated in such a way; she is arrogant and expects everyone to kowtow to her (we’re told more than once that her Indian servants did her bidding with alacrity).
As the days go on, though, Mary realizes she’ll have to find a way to fill up her time on her own. Martha gives her a jump rope encourages her to seek out the gardens; Mary does, and discovers the location of the “secret garden” Martha has mentioned to her.
The garden has been locked for a decade, Mary learns—ever since Mr. Craven’s late wife was badly injured when she fell off one of the garden’s trees. When she subsequently died, Mr. Craven could not bear the place, once his wife’s favorite spot. He locked the walled garden and buried the key. No one knows where it’s buried. Even more mysteriously, the garden appears to have no door.
Mary becomes acquainted with a handful of people one by one, and very gradually her circle of acquaintances, and not only that, of people she likes, widens. Martha is the first person Mary grows slightly fond of, then Ben Weatherstaff, a grumpy gardener, and a robin he likes. After that Deacon, Martha’s twelve-year-old brother, who can literally charm birds out of trees.
One day, the robin leads Mary to dig around in the soil at a particular spot, and she finds the key to the garden. Later she discovers the door, hidden under a thick cluster of ivy. She wonders if the garden is truly as dead as it appears to be, and begins to weed it, keeping her possession of the key to herself. The garden is a forbidden place, after all.
Mary’s friend Deacon is without a doubt an idealized figure, at times to an eye-rolling degree. He attracts animals and can make any plant thrive. He has tamed a crow and two squirrels (all three take turns sitting on his shoulders), a fox cub and a lamb. He can even speak to the robin in its own chirpy language. Mary lets Deacon in on her secret, and he begins to work in the garden with her.
Working in the garden and skipping with the jump rope strengthens Mary’s muscles. Whereas once she had a sallow complexion and a pinched expression and pecked at her food, now her appetite grows, her skin takes on a healthy glow, her eyes and her cheeks brighten. She loses her sullen demeanor and the people she likes come to like her in return.
On a particularly windy night, Mary hears a childish cry in a distant part of the house. Martha tells Mary that she has mistaken the howling of the wind for a human sound. On another occasion, while exploring the house, Mary hears another such cry and approaches the room it originates from. But Mrs. Medlock catches her and forbids her from encroaching on that part of the house.
Who is the child crying in the night? Can Mary and Deacon bring him or her to life and good health, much as the garden has brought Mary to both? And what will happen when Mr. Craven comes home and discovers the secret garden in bloom?
I can see why The Secret Garden is considered a classic—the concept of the children’s bodies and spirits healing as they awaken a nearly magical garden is not only heartwarming but also has an almost mythical air. There is more than a touch of the fantastical to this book, but most of the magic in it can be explained and viewed as natural rather than supernatural. Much of this is simplistic. Neither the major characters or the natural world have much complexity. But this is a children’s book, so I didn’t necessarily expect complexity.
The one human character who might be said to exist on the other side of the natural / supernatural divide is Deacon—he is a human boy, so we’re told, but he has capacities no boy can possess in reality. No creature, no matter how shy or secretive, can fail to trust him. There were times when I couldn’t suspend my disbelief where he was concerned.
Fortunately, Mary, being a more flawed and therefore more believable character, balances him out, as does the child who cries out in the night. Mary’s transformation is at the core of the novel. It’s easy to want to read more in order to see how she changes, even as she changes the garden. Still, the book approaches sappiness.
The book is also horribly racist. Indians are othered to an extreme degree, from beginning to end. In the very first chapter, the Lennox family’s Indian servants are portrayed as hard to fathom.
At that very moment such a loud sound of wailing broke out from the servants’ quarters that she [Mary’s mother] clutched the young man’s arm, and Mary stood shivering from head to foot. The wailing grew wilder and wilder.
“What is it? What is it?” Mrs. Lennox gasped.
The “natives” (a word that seems pejorative to me) are portrayed without dimension. Multifaceted desires, needs, emotions and skills are absent from their characterizations. They are not given names or personalities, either.
Contrasting the maid Martha and the servants Mary had in India, the novel’s omniscient narrator tells us: “This was plain speaking and Mary Lennox had never heard the truth about herself in her life. Native servants always salaamed and submitted to you, whatever you did.”
Even the climate in India is a monolith in this book, with no distinction from season to season or place to place:
“I can’t help thinking about what it will look like,” he answered.
“The garden?” asked Mary.
“The springtime,” he said. “I was thinking that I’ve really never seen it before. I scarcely ever went out and when I did go I never looked at it. I didn’t even think about it.”
“I never saw it in India because there wasn’t any,” said Mary.
A line drawn is from India’s stifling heat to Mary’s initial ill-health and sallow complexion, and another from Mary’s newfound haleness and well-being to the salutary effects of the crisp Yorkshire air.
Worst of all is the dehumanizing of Indians. In one scene, after Martha tells Mary that she’d expected her to be an Indian child, we get this:
Mary sat up in bed furious.
“What!” she said. “What! You thought I was a native. You—you daughter of a pig!”
Martha stared and looked hot.
“Who are you callin’ names?” she said. “You needn’t be so vexed. That’s not th’ way for a young lady to talk. I’ve nothin’ against th’ blacks. When you read about ’em in tracts they’re always very religious. You always read as a black’s a man an’ a brother. I’ve never seen a black an’ I was fair pleased to think I was goin’ to see one close. When I come in to light your fire this mornin’ I crep’ up to your bed an’ pulled th’ cover back careful to look at you. An’ there you was,” disappointedly, “no more black than me—for all you’re so yeller.”
Mary did not even try to control her rage and humiliation.
“You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people—they’re servants who must salaam to you. You know nothing about India. You know nothing about anything!”
If not for the racism, I might have been swept up in the quiet magic worked by the secret garden and the Yorkshire moors. I was able to not only read to the end but to turn pages pretty well, considering that the book has a leisurely pace. I was able to compartmentalize and enjoy the story to a degree. But not entirely–my mind ping-ponged from the comforting calm of the garden to the awful bigotry.
This is a hard book to grade because I can see why it’s a classic to some and why others will find it offensive. To an extent I felt nostalgic due to my childhood enchantment with it. Splicing these factors together brings me to a grade of D/C-.
I’m not sure if the concept was original with her, but in Jo Walton’s WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT, she talks about the “suck fairy” who arrives when you’re not looking and sucks all of the fun and joy from your favorite childhood books. Of course, as an adult you’re seeing things and are aware of things that as a child went right over your head. Other than the ANNE OF GREEN GABLES books (and even they include some eyebrow-raising “othering”), I’ve never had much success rereading books I loved as a child. I know I wouldn’t dare venture to rereading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books now, although I loved them as a kid. Sometimes it’s best to leave certain doors locked.
@DiscoDollyDeb: I pretty much had every word of the entire “Little House on the Prairie” books memorized as a child, but after reading several biographies about Laura Ingalls Wilder that highlighted how she portrayed Native Americans and black people, I can’t bring myself to open them again. I was sad but in agreement when the children’s book award named after her was changed.
I can’t remember if I read this as a kid or not – I kind of think not? I remember we had a copy of A Little Princess but I don’t remember if I read that either, though I kind of remember the movie (Shirley Temple, I think?).
Was there any sense that Mary’s horrible attitude towards the “natives” was part and parcel with her bad and bratty attitude early on? That would be the only thing that might redeem it a little for me. But it doesn’t sound like she repented, anyway.
I just finished reading Little Women, and while I didn’t catch much overt racism in it (there’s a boy simply referred to as a “quadroon” late in the book), the sexism and the treacliness made it hard to enjoy. I’m undecided on what grade to give it.
@DiscoDollyDeb: I’ve heard of term “suck fairy” but didn’t know Jo Walton used it and that possibly it originated with her. What Makes This Book So Great sounds like an interesting book. The suck fairy has definitely visited The Secret Garden.
@SusanS: I had the entire set of Little House books on the shelf for a long time but threw them all out about ten years ago for the same reasons.
@Jennie: Yes and no. Mary’s attitude toward Indians does seem to be an extension of her behavior but there is also an underlying sentiment (conveyed by the omniscient narrator) that life in India is what her horribleness originated from in the first place.
Childhood books that stood the test of time for me the blue sword and beauty by mckinley, not traumatic to re read but less magical as an adult, daddy long legs (probably the start of my love of romance)
I wonder about a winkle in time and the other L’engle books?
@Sue: Ones that hold up well are A. A. Milne’s classics, Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. I have heard from friends that Madeleine L’Engle’s books don’t hold up well, but I have no idea if this because they are offensive or for a different reason.
Having read A Wrinkle in Time not long ago, it mostly just seemed more Jesusy than I remembered, and also just somehow slighter than I remembered. I looked up Walton’s essay on the Suck Fairy, and it’s the “water gate” phenomenon–some of what I remembered from the book was actually from my head.
Winnie the Pooh,somehow not surprised! Kelly’s comment is interesting, I wonder how often that happens with me now… very philosophical, we read different books even when we read the exact same book…
@Sue: two of my favorite sayings regarding reading are: (1) No two people ever read the same book. And (2) You never read the same book twice—because you’re always a different person the next time you pick it up.
@DiscoDollyDeb: I remember that historical romance author Judith Ivory (what happened to her?) used to say that a novel was a collaboration between the author’s imagination and the reader’s. That is one of the best remarks I’ve heard said about reading. IMO when a book is hurtful, offensive or even just strikes a very jarring note, the two imaginations are decoupled. The reader’s balks and says, “I won’t follow you there, author.”
Very interesting book my son loves reading.
I think I am confused about what people expected from this book given it’s history. It was written in 1911 when the rulers of England were still considered “The Emperor and Empress of India”. The author has a racist bias that a huge amount of people had at the time but she is also writing about a girl with two horrible, nasty, selfish and racist parents. It’s no wonder Mary is a mess. She has a mother who is so shallow she’s not interested in her daughter because she isn’t cute enough. I always understood Mary sees the servants in India through a mirror of her parents -including her father (who is an embodiment of British oppression if India as he is a military officer). I’m sure they treated their servants as slaves and Mary does as well. There is no sense that the author even thinks Imperialism is a good thing. Mary’s parents die from Cholera there and Mary is literally expelled from India.
Mary Lennox is horrible across the board for a good part of this novel. She is literally described as “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.” That’s about as harsh as you are going to get hearing about the child “heroine” of a book. There’s no sense the author is approving or condoning any of Mary’s ideas.
From the minute we meet Martha it’s clear she is not a racist and was very happy and excited to think Mary will be something other than white. Mary treats, or tries to treat, her as horribly as she did the servants in India (presumably learned from her awful parents) but that isn’t going to work on Martha as she isn’t living in “Imperial” India.
Every depiction of India is seen from the bitter and sour Mary’s eyes. She hates everything about it as it encapsulates all her ugly feelings about life with her parents. She is the one who says there is no spring there, because for her there wasn’t any friendship, love or good feelings. In India she was the ugly, unwanted daughter of two selfish, shallow people.
There are a lot of other disturbing contemporary ideas, apart from the racism. The way Colin speaks to the 70 year old gardener telling him he is the master there when his father is gone and he must obey him. Mary gets around Colin’s bossiness and imperiousness because he’s a child, ill, sheltered and somewhat dependent on her for part of the book, but the truth is when he’s older he is going to be calling the shots in her life in most ways. Edwardian England has a hierarchy just as much as Imperial India does and if you are wealthy and male and powerful you can lock your children away, ignore them and pretty much do what you want. As much as Mary “claims” the garden she discovers (one could argue like the British “claimed” India) it’s not hers just as in the end, India wasn’t Great Britain’s to “take”.
I think when reading any work that reflects the ideas of its time, it’s very valuable to examine to understand the mindset of the author and the people it depicts. I would no more throw away Frances Hodgson Burnett or Laura Ingalls Wilder than I would Shakespeare because I don’t like all of his attitudes or depictions.
Trying to ignore that people you may have liked if you had met them had racist views is ignoring history. I don’t think anything would help children to understand how insidious racism is can be explained better than a conversation about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her works. How she was a strong intelligent and capable woman but who held racist ideas about Native Americans she learned from her parents. That these were pervasive ideas held by a lot of white people, including settlers who wanted Native American land, and it helped the systematic destruction of Native Americans. Putting Laura Ingalls Wilder in her historical context, flaws and all, while examining that shameful part of US history would have stuck in my mind as a child more than any regular history lesson could have.
We wouldn’t expect a reading of Huckleberry Finn without examining the truly disturbing parts of it and the attitudes of people of that era. It would be like reading it in a vacuum. I don’t think we can do less with other works that still hold value today.
@Chrisreader: That’s a well-made argument and a debate worth having.
There is room to argue that most of the book’s depictions of India are seen “from the bitter and sour Mary’s eyes.“ Some clearly are and others are open to interpretation. But not every one fits into these two categories. For example, from the first page, when Mary is introduced by the narrator, “ Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India […].”
Later on in the book, there’s also this:
Clearly this implication that being in India prevented her mind from stirring and caused her not to care much about anything is not in Mary’s thoughts, because the narrator’s. “[…] though she did not know why,” signals otherwise—the narrator explains why, but Mary doesn’t know why.
Martha’s desire to see what she calls a black (Indian) may not be overtly critical of India and Indians but it is othering.
Further, there are ways to signal to readers that a character’s POV is inaccurate, but Burnett doesn’t use them in the book.
Yes, racist beliefs were widespread at the time the book was written. But there are different degrees of racism. For example, I’m Jewish and I find Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice a lot less offensive than Heyer’s depiction of Goldhanger in The Grand Sophy, though both are Jewish moneylenders who will not forgive a debt even under extenuating circumstances.
Shylock is a character with some dimension—he shares his POV with the audience and gives an argument that antisemitism is what influences him. Goldhanger is less nuanced and motivated by greed, not by anger that he feels is righteous. He not only demands his money back and threatens Sophie’s brother, he also behaves lecherously with Sophie (an implication that he is planning to exploit her brother’s death to force her into some kind of sexual contact) and is described has having greasy hair and (in the original 1950 edition) “a Semitic nose.”
Lastly, I can only review a book from my own perspective, and not anyone else’s. So of course my attitudes (informed by life in the 20th and 21st centuries) will affect how I see and review a book.
I read “Gone With the Wind” when I was about 12 and loved it. When I went back to the book as an adult I didn’t get very far because the racism, which I’d not noticed when I was young, was so blatant and so horrible it made the book unreadable. I agree with you that Heyer’s “The Grand Sophy” was spoiled by the anti-Semitism, which was especially heinous because it was written shorty after WWII and the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis were known when the book was written. However, I think I agree with Chrisreader on “The Secret Garden”. Mary’s ideas and attitudes are those of a child who doesn’t know an better, and while in India they are influenced by those of her parents. If in India Mary was too hot and languid and weak, it was because that was how she was expected to be. I don’t think Hodgson Burnett is necessarily saying it’s India’s fault, I think she’s saying Mary was never challenged to be otherwise whereas in England she was. Although, as an aside, today was hot and steamy in Washington, DC where I live, and I felt pretty hot and languid and weak myself.
@Susan/DC: Hmm, and what do you think about the othering? In addition to Martha’s desire to gawk at a dark-skinned girl, there are Mary’s thoughts about a young marharaja and about snake charmers.
I disagree about Burnett’s intention. There was a drumbeat of India bad /Yorkshire good thoughout the book and nothing the omniscient narrator said or did refuted that. It is possible in fiction to show that a character’s perception is wrong, or at least unreliable, but while this was done in regard to Mary’s perception of Yorkshire and of other people, it wasn’t done in regard to her perception of India and Indians.
We can agree on The Grand Sophy and disagree on this one. This thread has been thought-provoking and fun. We all have books the suck fairy has visited. I wasn’t able to finish Gone with the Wind even as a teen, but I think the racism flew over my head then.
I just remembered. What about Mary’s skin being so yellow and her hair being like straw? That was ascribed to her life in India too.
I remember being so confused by the “yellow” skin thing as a kid. I didn’t know anything about racism or colorism and thought she was literally Crayola yellow and couldn’t figure out how that had happened. Nope, she just has a tan.
@Janine: Mary’s skin color and certainly her hair texture may have been because she was sickly and malnourished and indoors all the time; I seem to remember other books with sickly characters whose skin is so described which had nothing to do with any foreign countries (although I can’t remember specific examples right now). Martha’s wish to see someone with a different color skin may have just been curiosity relating to her first view of this stranger and not othering; I can actually understand wanting to see someone with characteristics I’d heard of but never seen. But I now am expressing possible wishful thinking, as it’s been too long since I read the book and don’t remember those details. Perhaps I will reread and hope that the suck fairy doesn’t visit me as it did you. Have you also reread her “The Little Princess”? I seem to recall there’s a positively portrayed Indian character in that one. IIRC, he is a servant, and I have a feeling he’s probably portrayed as “exotic”, but I don’t remember.
@Susan/DC: Your interpretation isn’t invalid and I could see reading the book that way. I think for me it was a cumulative effect–any one of these things alone might not have given me the impression I had.
I did read A Little Princess but not in many years. It’s another that I remember loving–even into my teenage years, when I shared my love of these two books (and Anne of Green Gables, also) with my younger sister around the time that she was ten or eleven.
@Kelly L. & @Susan/DC: It just occurred to me that Mary’s skin color (if not her hair texture) could also be attributable to jaundice.
Even with the racism, I think this is a useful book for children to talk about , at their level, the issues raised in the review and all these comments. I read it as a tween, and had a “whoa that seems racist” reaction to some aspects. I ultimately thought it was nice that the children in the book all worked out how to get along in the end despite all their different upbringings and ways of thinking. Kids are capable of understanding where some lines are.
Chrisreader raises lots of very interesting points that a kid could think about. I think these books provide kids some insight into the history of colonialism, how people in power thought (and still think, sadly) , and some of the origins around systemic and institutional racism that we are seeing today.
Do we want to wrap kids in cotton wool ? By sidelining books that make us – and kids – uncomfortable limits their opportunities to think critically about certain issues we find toxic, with the risk that kids end up not knowing why they should feel uncomfortable about certain issues.
@Katie: I agree that there are some interesting insights to glean from the book, although I think reading it could be hurtful to an Indian child in a way it would not to a child from a different background. Regardless, I don’t advocate sidelining it. God know there are many works of literature that could be sidelined on the basis that they contain bigotry—just imagine if we sidelined Shakespeare, or the Bible. My goal was just to relate the reading experience and impressions that resulted from revisiting one of the books I loved in childhood.
I’ve never been quite sure why criticizing an old book is sometimes interpreted as wanting to wipe it from existence! Continuing to talk about problematic classics (including by reviewing them) is exactly what we *should* be doing with them.
It’s like a meme I saw once about free speech: criticism of your speech is not censorship, it’s *more speech*.
@Kelly L.: Thanks, I think so too.
Laura Ingalls Wilder depicted life as it was for a girl like her. What could we replace her with? A completely anachronistic story where white girls knew Native Americans, respected them, and recognized that her house was on their land? They all sang Kumbaya together?
Most of the Native Americans I remember depicted in the books were scary because they were strangers from an unknown culture who didn’t speak English, outnumbered the settlers and were, therefore unpredictable. Anyone in Laura’s situation would be scared of them.
Do we outlaw history because we don’t like it?
@SAO: I’m not sure where you got the idea that I was proposing the outlawing of history. I’m not suggesting that the book should be censored or that parts of it should be redacted. My review mentions the racism because it affected my experience of reading the book and my reading experience is the basis for all my reviews. Hopefully the information included in the review will allow readers to decide for themselves whether or not the book is something that they would like to read.
@Janine: I am Indian, and it was definitely confusing as a child; as an adult, I can see the context. But in childhood, this book was often recommended to me, and the non-Indian adults and teachers around me couldn’t see the problem.
The new film has many problems too. Just a few: Mrs Medlock refers to the savagery of India and is unchallenged. Mr Craven specifically refers to Mary’s lack of civility. And the setting is moved up to partition, with cholera barely mentioned. Partition is depicted as unfair and difficult on a boat full of British children, with a few token Indian adults in serving positions or following the children. The colonialist attitudes in the book are quite explicit, which is both disappointing and disturbing in a film released in 2020.
I think it’s a matter of context.
This is a book written in the imperialism era, people really thought Indians, native Americans ecc… were inferior people or not people at all back then. Society were so strict, with so many rules about status. They had a different view of life in general.
When reading a book written a long time ago, we should take in mind how life and moralism were at the time. Reading pride and prejudice and be appalled for sexism has not sense, women were their husbands’s propriety and that was ok at that time. The same book with modern femminism sentences (Elisabeth is a femminist in the book) would be anachronistich.
Read thoose books to children and talk about their “modern” flaws to me is the way. Made this or that racist line arguments for healthy debates and learn the past and from the past is the best method in my opinion.
For me, we need to contextualize.
Sorry for my bad English, not my first (nor second) language