This review contains spoilers!
This timeless classic is a poignant tale of Mary, a lonely orphaned girl sent to a Yorkshire mansion at the edge of a vast lonely moor. At first, she is frightened by this gloomy place until she meets a local boy, Dickon, who’s earned the trust of the moor’s wild animals, the invalid Colin, an unhappy boy terrified of life, and a mysterious, abandoned garden…
Source: Penguin Stacks
Ten-year-old Mary Lennox, raised in India and the daughter of English parents with neither time nor inclination to care for her, is “a disagreeable child”. “Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her”, and when a cholera epidemic kills her parents and all the household servants, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven.
That’s the start of The Secret Garden, a classic children’s story from 1911. The book struck me right away by the terrible portrait it paints of Mary, a spoiled, apathetic, sulky and willful little girl, who’s never received affection from anyone and doesn’t like a single person in the world.
After arriving in England, Mary is ignored again: her uncle doesn’t want to see her, and the girl is left to her own devices. To get rid of boredom, she starts exploring the property’s extensive gardens – except one, which has been closed for 10 years and belonged to Archibald’s late wife. The girl’s curiosity is piqued and, lacking anything else to do, she begins to talk with the mansion’s servants, in particular Martha, a cheerful girl, and Ben Weatherstaff, an intractable gardener whose personality reflects Mary’s. But Ben also has a sensitive side, and soon contact with nature and interest for the garden start to reveal an active and curious personality that Mary didn’t even know she had. This is also aided by her friendship with Dickon, Martha’s brother, a smart and good-natured boy who can communicate with animals.
It doesn’t take long for Mary to uncover two secrets of the Craven mansion: the first, the door that leads to the secret garden; the second, the answer to a cry she heard in the house, coming from some unknown room. One night, Mary goes out to investigate and discovers she has a cousin: Colin Craven, a boy her age that has spent his entire life on his bedroom. He was born weak and sickly, and his father and doctors thought he’d die at any moment.
The garden opens Mary’s eyes to beauty – “It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place” – while interacting with her cousin makes her feel compassion for the first time in her life. Not that she and Colin don’t have confrontations – he is also extremely spoiled and is used to being obeyed by the servants. Their fights are hilarious and force Mary to confront her notions about herself and to see herself in her cousin’s behavior.
“You are a selfish thing!” cried Colin.
“What are you?” said Mary. “Selfish people always say that. Any one is selfish who doesn’t do what they want.”
Even so, the kids quickly establish a connection. Soon enough, Mary and Dickon tell the secret of the garden to Colin, and the three of them do all they can to keep anyone else from discovering their secret place.
The book is enchanting, and not only for children. The author manages to address serious topics – like Mary’s neglect and Colin’s isolation – with a soft touch, and the work has a somewhat magical air. Colin’s portrayal, in particular, impressed me: Burnett describes the ails of the “hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac” very perceptively. It’s only by interacting with other kids that Colin discovers there is nothing wrong with him, except the terror that has been instilled in him by adults and the fears produced in the solitude of his bedroom. At one point, when his doctor begins to remind him of all he can’t do, Colin snaps:
“When I lie by myself and remember I begin to have pains everywhere and I think of things that make me begin to scream because I hate them so. If there was a doctor anywhere who could make you forget you were ill instead of remembering it I would have him brought here. […] It is because my cousin makes me forget that she makes me better.”
Incidentally, I loved how the kids act alone throughout the book. Mary and Colin become more sensitive and conscious people not only without the help of adults, but in spite of them.
Another favorite moment is when, during Colin’s recovery, the boy creates a theory that there is “magic” in the world, present in nature. This magic is, supposedly, what made the boy happy, and the first step to obtain it would be “to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen”. (Yep, that’s right: The Secret Garden anticipated The Secret by 100 years.) Through this magic, Mary learns how to live, Colin frees himself from an oppressive existence, and the garden – abandoned for 10 years, like the children – regenerates.
Adult readers should rid themselves of their cynicism to enjoy the book in all its bucolic wonder. Whichever magic impregnates the life of the characters, it is also present throughout the book: entering the secret garden is making a pause in your day to enjoy nature, feel like a child again and reflect on simple – but not always obvious – truths.
This edition includes a small glossary with unknown, regional or older terms. About the narrative, I have to mention that the characters from Yorkshire (Martha, Dickon, Ben) all speak with an accent, which the author wrote phonetically. For Brazilian readers, it’s more annoying than difficult: you soon grasp some equivalencies (i.e., ‘tha/thee = you) and get used to an enormous amount of apostrophes, but I finished the book still having no idea how to pronounce those lines. Even so, I loved the book. It’s easy to see why it has kept its charm for a century.
The Secret Garden
Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year of publication: 1911
Year of this edition: 2002
Book ceded by Penguin Stacks English.