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Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

secret garden Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett


Most agree that character growth and development is the key component of a successful narrative. After all, whats the point in completing a journey if one emerges from it utterly unchanged? Even a small change is significant in the greater scheme of things, with even incremental shifts in outlook changing the way we approach things. These small shifts are the standard shape of things in adult literature, where few individuals undergo a truly epiphanous experience.'In childrens literature, however, such changes are reasonably common: think of the myriad chosen one narratives out there, or those that could be tucked under the wing of the overcoming adversity through [random activity] sub-genre.

Frances Hodgson Burnetts much-loved'The Secret Garden is all about these sorts of dramatic changes, and is perhaps so universally so well-received because she allows her characters such flaws in the first place. Where many authors err on the side of the likeable protagonist in order to ensure that the reader is able to feel some sort of empathy with the character in question, Hodgson Burnett eschews all of this and gives us a trio of rather foul, down-trodden individuals who are more sour than a tub of off cream. Fortunately, Hodgson Burnett is skilled enough that she not only works her magic on her characters, but on us, too, and what should be a book thats rather pat and twee is something utterly superlative instead.

Indian-born Mary Lennox is a self-centred, snippy young girl who has spent the formative years of her life being waited upon by an array of servants and governesses. Mary is used to being treated with deference, to having her every whim attended to. But her being able to treat her servants as playthings doesnt hide the fact that Mary is utterly without companionship, and that her callousness and insularity is a shield that serves to protect her from the loneliness she feels. A loneliness that is only compounded when, after a bout of cholera churns through the population in her area, she is the only survivor. With no one to care for her, Mary is sent to Misselthwaite, a rambling manor deep in the heart of the moors of Yorkshire.

The contrast of vibrant, bustling India, with its dazzling heat and socially and linguistically complex way of life and quiet, bucolic Yorkshire, whose own soft beauty Mary has be coaxed to learn to appreciate, is a fascinating one. But while Mary was an outsider in India, so to is she an outside at Misselthwaite. Unversed in the Yorkshire dialect and unaccustomed with the pragmatic way of life of the localswhich includes things such as dressing oneself, a notion thats utterly foreign to MaryMary is equally out of her depth in this new environment as she was in India. But shes not the only one. Her new guardian, the aptly named Dr Craven, is a forlorn, lost man who has never recovered from the death of his wife some ten years ago. And, of course, theres Colin, the would-be cripple who lives out his days secreted away in his bedroom, counting down the days until his inevitable death.

It certainly sounds like an abject setting, and yes, at first one is rather tempted to slap a bit of sense into this moody lot. But Hodgson Burnetts way of doing so proves to be rather more beautiful than my own suggested open-handed approach. She uses a garden, a locked away, lost garden that has gone untended for years, to illustrate the way in which beauty, passion, and hope, lay dormant in all of us, and need only be tended to if it is to be brought to the fore. Hodgson Burnett highlights the way in which so much of our way of being is psychosomatic, with our self-concept being based upon fears and habituated behaviours that have simply gone unchecked and unchallenged. She highlights that the very act of tending to something, or indeed someone, necessarily involves tending to oneself.

Thus, as Mary throws herself into the new-found delights of the natural world, led carefully by the winsome country lad Dickon, who is the very embodiment of love and acceptance, she gradually comes into her own. With her every effort Mary becomes physically, emotionally, and spiritually enhanced, and she reinvests her new outlook into improving the lives of those around her. She helps to imbue Colin with the self-confidence he needs to cast of his own emotional shackles, and her increasingly robust presence brings life to Misselthwaite, raising the awareness of Dr Craven, who becomes more reflective and open and less lost in his own misery. The childrens breaking into the secret garden, of course, emphasises the importance of dealing with ones emotions and struggles rather than leaving them to fester: for both Colin and Dr Craven the garden represents a wound that no one has thus far been allowed to tend to.

Hodgson Burnett manages all of this with astonishing warmth, and though there is certainly a quixotic feel to the narrative at times, with every Yorkshire native a red-cheeked, plump, and universally loving individual, and motifs such as the garden and the robin redbreast (who is, oh, just a wee bit over-anthropomorphised) being trotted out time and time again, its impossible not to adore this book. Like The Little Prince (see my review), its gentle, suggestive, and so very evocative, and its hard not to do a little reflecting yourself once youve turned that final page.

Rating: star Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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See also our review of A Little Princess (Rating: star Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnettblankstar Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

Other books by Frances Hodgson Burnett

a little princess Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnettlittle lord fauntleroy Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett


  1. Sigh!
    When I read this as a kid, it was all about unlocking secrets and having adventures. When I re-read it many years later, I thought about the nuances and maybe enjoyed it even more. (Except for the small non-PC bit about India) But my favourite character has stayed the same Dicken with his magical powers.

    Great review!

    • Stephanie /

      So very true. It was all mystical and wonderful for me as a kid, and it was this time around, but in a different way. Its so interesting to go back and read all of these childhood favourites with an old fogey eye. :)

      There are plenty of classics that I havent even got to yet, so itll be nice reading those without the taint of high school study!

  2. Beautifully written review I have so much love for The Secret Garden. Its one of my favourite books, ever. And Dickens, oh how I love Dickens!

    • Stephanie /

      Its just a delight, isnt it? Im thoroughly enjoying catching up on these lovely classicsIm on to Heidi right now :)

  3. Oh, I actually just bought Heidi! I never read it when I was young, though I did see the movie(s). Looking forward to reading it.
    PS Whoops, I just realised I said Dickens instead of Dickon in my last comment, lol! I love both so I guess its OK. ;)

    • Stephanie /

      I never read it, eitherso Im reading it for the first time now, and thoroughly enjoying it! :)

  4. I confess I didnt read this one, A Little Princess or Little Lord Fauntleroy till I was an adult. They are indeed special. I love the gentleness of them all. :-)

    • Stephanie /

      I enjoyed A Little Princess, too, but I listened to Little Lord Fauntleroy in audio format and the audio didnt quite work for me. I think Ill try again in print format as well, because I do so love Hodgson Burnetts work.