The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was published in 1910 in serial form, in a magazine intended for adults. Upon its publication in book form in 1911, it has become a popular and classic book for children.
Mary Lennox is an unpleasant child who has been raised in India, mostly by Indian servants — her parents have very little to do with her. Her parents are wealthy British citizens and are very beautiful, so they have hired servants to keep their disagreeable, sickly looking child out of their way; the servants subsequently give Mary everything she wants in order to keep their lives easily and to keep her from throwing fits, so she has grown up to be a very spoiled, albeit lonely, child. Her only associations are her ayah, who raises her but doesn’t particularly like her. She’s unaffectionate, rude, and has a quick temper when she doesn’t get her way.
When cholera breaks out at the Lennox house, most of the servants die from the disease. Amid the panic and the horrible sounds of people dying and others mourning, Mary hides herself in her nursery. She falls asleep and when she wakes up, the house is silent. She hears footsteps in the hall and a few military officers enter her room and are very surprised to see her standing there. It turns out that while Mary was asleep, her parents died of cholera and the remaining servants left the house, abandoning her.
She is sent to live in Yorkshire to live with Mr. Archibald Craven, her uncle through marriage (Mr. Craven’s wife was the sister of Mary’s father). When she gets to Misselthwaite Manor, it seems that her life is not going to change much from her life in India — Mr. Craven is often away on business and when he is home, he likes to be alone. Mary is told that she will have to entertain herself and has a list of rooms she’s not allowed to explore in the house. Mrs. Medlock, who runs the house, is an older woman who doesn’t wish to be burdened with Mary, so Martha, a young servant in the house, is given the task of keeping Mary’s room. Martha is a cheerful young girl who entertains Mary with stories of her family, including her younger brother, Dickon. It’s Martha who tells Mary the most about Mr. Craven, in her friendly Yorkshire gossip way: Mr. Craven had a wife whom he loved dearly. One day, she was sitting in her rose garden when the tree branch she was on broke; she fell and died. Mr. Craven locked the door to his wife’s garden and buried the key and has been mourning her loss ever since. Mary is intrigued by the garden and wants to find it and enter it somehow. Mrs. Medlock, however, tries to keep Mary from discovering too much of the house; she discourages her when she asks about the garden, and when Mary hears crying in the house, Mrs. Medlock insists that it’s the wind.
She occupies her time in the house by exploring the grounds and the moor. She meets the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, and becomes friends with a redbreasted robin that Weatherstaff has raised. Mary becomes friendlier and more acclimated to British life as she spends more time with Martha and Weatherstaff; when she first arrived to Misselthwaite Manor, she had never dressed herself and is embarrassed when Martha teases her about it. She spends more time outdoors and her skin gradually loses the sickly yellow pallor.
One day, as she’s whistling and following the robin, the bird lands on a section of unturned ground. Mary notices a key there, which she imagines has to be the key to the secret garden. A few days later, she follows the bird again and the wind moves some of the ivy covering the walls to the garden and reveals the door that had been hidden by overgrowth for ten years. She enters the garden and is amazed by its beauty and that some of the flowers are still growing after ten years of neglect (hello, symbolism). She begins weeding and working in the garden, determined to make it thrive again. When Mary asks Martha at her lunch that day about different plants and tells her she wishes she could garden a little to further improve her health, Martha tells her that Dickon knows all about plants and writes a letter for Dickon to use Mary’s allowance to buy seeds and garden tools and have him deliver them to the manor. When Dickon arrives, Mary is instantly taken with him, as he has a gentle way with animals and is very knowledgeable of the landscape. She shows him the garden and he agrees to help her, though she makes him promise to keep the garden a secret. She also develops a crush on him, much to Martha’s amusement.
When she finally meets Mr. Craven, she’s surprised to find that he isn’t an ogre, though his face is lined with pain, from a back ailment, and misery, from mourning his wife. Mary convinces him to not hire a governess for her, but to instead grant her “a bit of earth” for her to plant a garden. He agrees, and tells her that he’ll be gone for the summer. All the better for her to grow a secret garden.
During her stay at Misselthwaite Manor, she has heard the sound of crying in the manor, but whenever she asks Mrs. Medlock or Martha about it, they either blame the wind or deny its existence. One night, determined to find the source, she discovers a hidden room, with a boy lying in the bed and crying. They’re both equally as surprised to see each other; it turns out that the boy is Colin Craven, Mary’s cousin. Colin stays in bed because he has something wrong with his spine, and his father rarely visits him because Colin reminds him of his wife. Mary tells Colin about the garden, and in order to keep the garden a secret and from Colin demanding the servants to take him into the garden that is supposed to not exist, Mary promises that she will take him to the garden once she has fixed it up.
Mary begins to visit Colin regularly, telling him stories of living in India and what happens in the moor with Dickon, his animals, and the garden. Mrs. Medlock and Mr. Craven discover them and mildly panic, but after Colin tells them that he wants to see Mary (he is treated as if he’s made of glass by everyone and is granted everything he wants; if he doesn’t get something or is unhappy, he throws a fit and everyone worries about his health. Mary compares him to a Rajah) and after a few warnings from Mr. Craven about being careful and minding Colin’s health, they allow it. Everyone in the house is nervous about Colin’s health because, as a baby, Mr. Craven was afraid that Colin would inherit his spinal deformity. He has stayed in bed because of it, which has made Colin sickly and weak, which makes everyone think that he’s dying. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Mary and Dickon continue with their adventures in the garden. After Colin has a particularly horrid tantrum (he thinks that he felt a lump on his back and that he’s going to die), Mary helps him to calm down and tells him that they will take him into the garden in a chair so he can get fresh air. Just the idea of going outside helps Colin feel better, until the day comes when Dickon pushes Colin out to the garden in a wheelchair. The garden, which changed his life as a baby when his mother died in it, changes his life once more:
But Colin had actually dropped back against his cushions, even though he gasped with delight, and he had covered his eyes with his hands and held them there shutting out everything until they were inside and the chair stopped as if by magic and the door was closed. Not till then did he take them away and look round and round and round as Dickon and Mary had done. And over walls and earth and trees and swinging sprays and tendrils the fair green veil of tender little leaves had crept, and in the grass under the trees and the gray urns in the alcoves and here and there everywhere were touches or splashes of gold and purple and white and the trees were showing pink and snow above his head and there were fluttering of wings and faint sweet pipes and humming and scents and scents. And the sun fell warm upon his face like a hand with a lovely touch. And in wonder Mary and Dickon stood and stared at him. He looked so strange and different because a pink glow of color had actually crept all over him—ivory face and neck and hands and all.
“I shall get well! I shall get well!” he cried out. “Mary! Dickon! I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever and ever!”
However, while they’re in the garden, Weatherstaff sees them when he’s on a ladder. Considering that the garden is supposed to be locked and impenetrable, this is a little difficult for Mary to explain. When Weatherstaff confronts the kids, Colin pulls the old “do you know who I am?!?!” routine. Weatherstaff identifies Colin as “the cripple” which angers Colin so much that he throws his covers off his lap and stands up to prove that neither his back nor his legs are crooked. He demands that Weatherstaff keep the secret of the garden, to which Weatherstaff reveals a secret of his own — he’s been kept on the staff because Colin’s mom liked him, and he has been tending to the garden since her death.
Colin and Mary visit the garden daily, and Colin gets stronger and healthier. They conspire to keep Colin’s improving health a secret to surprise his father, who has been away. They, as well as Dickon, begin referring to Colin’s improving health as “Magic,” from Mary’s stories of magic in India.
Around the same time that Colin realizes that he is well, Mr. Craven finds that his mood is also improving. He has been in mourning and miserable for ten years, but now finds himself thinking of Misselthwaite Manor fondly and appreciating the world around him. He has a dream that his wife is calling to him from her garden. As he travels home, he finds himself thinking of Colin and regretting his time spent away; he also reflects on how he could have been a better father. He makes a promise to himself to try to do better. Maybe he should have thought of that before his son turned into a spoiled, entitled brat. Just a thought.
When Mr. Craven arrives at Misselthwaite, he asks Mrs. Medlock where Colin is; when she replied that he’s “in the garden,” he somehow knows that Colin is in his wife’s garden, even though the key is supposed to be buried. He runs to the garden and literally runs into Colin, who has been running out of it with Mary. Mr. Craven can scarcely believe that the tall, healthy boy standing in front of him is Colin, but Colin takes him into the now blooming garden and tells him about the Magic.
There were several things that irked me about this book. The native Yorkshire characters (namely Weatherstaff, Martha, and Dickon) spoke in a Yorkshire dialect that I’m not convinced wasn’t just Burnett throwing letters together. Also, when the English characters talk about the people of India, whether they were Mary’s servants or just Indians in general, they refer to them as “blacks,” which struck me as unnecessarily racist. I know that there’s something to be said for historical context and understanding the atmosphere of the time, but it made me squirm nonetheless. The character of Colin was completely insufferable. Mary’s character had growth — she began as “Mistress Mary, quite contrary” but changed into a girl who could dress herself and had people who liked her. Colin was introduced late into the novel, but even to the end, he holds himself as a prince and makes demands of people three times his age. He just….ugh. And he wasn’t even sick! Luckily Dickon’s character was there to be goodness and light and talk to animals and just generally be great at life.
The symbolism of the garden was very strong in the novel. It was the place where the Craven family was destroyed, with the death of Mr. Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother, but was also the place where the family was reformed, with it ending with Mr. Craven and Colin in the garden. There’s also a restorative power granted to living things: both Mary and Colin are told by different characters that they need to get fresh air in order to heal and become better people. Indeed, it isn’t until Mary starts exploring the moor and Colin gets into the garden that they become “real” children, laughing and playing. However, as a child who preferred being inside and reading to being outside and sweating, I don’t appreciate this message as much.
Burnett’s classic story of a disagreeable and self-centered little girl and her equally disagreeable invalid cousin is as real and wise and enthralling now as it was when it was first written over 75 years ago. The strength of her characterizations pulls readers into the story, and the depth inherent in the seemingly simple plot continues to make this sometimes forgotten story as vital to the maturation of young readers as Tom Sawyer and Little Women. Hague’s illustrations enhance the story beautifully, capturing as they do, both the old-fashioned and timeless quality of the tale. The charm, clarity, and muted tones of Hague’s paintings add dimension to each part of the tale. A reissue of an old classic to be treasured by a new generation of children (and their parents)!
School Library Journal (1987)
Bratty and spoiled Mary Lennox is orphaned when her parents fall victim to a cholera outbreak in India. As a result, Mary becomes the ward of an uncle in England she has never met. As she hesitantly tries to carve a new life for herself at imposing and secluded Misselthwaite Manor, Mary befriends a high-spirited boy named Dickon and investigates a secret garden on the Manor grounds. She also discovers a sickly young cousin, Colin, who has been shut away in a hidden Manor room. Together Mary and Dickon help Colin blossom, and in the process Mary finds her identity and melts the heart of her emotionally distant uncle. Bailey makes fluid transitions between the voices and accents of various characters, from terse Mrs. Medlock and surly groundskeeper Ben to chipper housemaid Martha. And most enjoyably, she gives Mary a believably childlike voice.
Publisher’s Weekly (2003)
The easiest use would be to manipulate the garden theme. Using this in a teen craft project would give several options — making origami flowers, doing a floral arrangement, working in the library flowerbeds. It could also be used as a teen book club or book of the month for April, with a gardening project for Earth Day.
Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The secret garden. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17396/17396-h/17396-h.htm
Central Park Conservancy. (2010). “The official website of new york city’s central park.” Burnett Fountain. Retrieved from https://www.centralparknyc.org/visit/things-to-see/north-end/burnett-fountain.html
Mellon, Constance A. (1987). “The secret garden (book review).” School Library Journal. 33(11), 80. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/5733324/secret-garden-book-review
Publisher’s Weekly.com. (2003). “Religion review: the secret garden.” Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-4001-0072-9