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The Secret Garden: Edwardian lady’s hardy perennial

by
23 October 2020

Catriona Gray writes about the enduring appeal of a children’s classic, filmed again

Sky Cinema

Dixie Egerickx as Mary and Amir Wilson as Dickon in The Secret Garden, scheduled for release today. See gallery, and below, for more images

Dixie Egerickx as Mary and Amir Wilson as Dickon in The Secret Garden, scheduled for release today. See gallery, and below, for more images

FEW books have survived the test of time as well as The Secret Garden. First published in 1911, this children’s classic has captivated generations, and has been repeatedly adapted for film, television, and the stage — most recently by StudioCanal, whose new production hits the screens this month.

Part of the novel’s appeal is how instantly gripping it is: it opens with a terrible tragedy; an abandoned girl; a long journey across desolate moors; and an ancient house with a hundred rooms, most of them out of bounds. Yet, for all of its Gothic beginnings, The Secret Garden is fundamentally a story of salvation: how two emotionally damaged children learn to heal themselves through the act of reviving an abandoned garden.

Frances Hodgson Burnett was 60, and a leading writer of fiction for both adults and children, when she began writing The Secret Garden, which first appeared in instalments in the magazine The American in 1910. Although she enjoyed tremendous commercial success, her personal life was far from easy.

Born in Manchester in 1849, her family fell into financial difficulties after her father’s death, and eventually emigrated to the United States when Hodgson Burnett was 15, settling in Tennessee. Always a keen writer, she quickly began to sell her stories to magazines, and forced herself to become “a pen-driving machine” to earn enough money to support her mother and siblings.

Throughout her life, she seemed to feel as if she was responsible for financially supporting those around her — a pattern that repeated itself as she shuttled back and forth between the US and England, and led to periods of exhaustion and depression.

In the years immediately before she had the idea for the novel, she had undergone a series of particularly turbulent events. In 1890, her eldest child, Lionel, died from consumption while still in his teens. This was to have a profound impact on her in all aspects of her life, including her religious beliefs.

Sky CinemaDixie Egerickx as Mary in The Secret Garden, released today

Several years later, her marriage broke down, and she moved to England, taking a lease on Great Maytham Hall, in Kent, where the extensive grounds included a series of walled gardens. After her divorce, she was swiftly married again, to a struggling actor ten years her junior; this disastrous match lasted less than two years before they, too, separated. Hodgson Burnett, having been driven to the point of physical collapse, fled back to the US and entered a sanatorium.

She returned to England in 1904, and resumed her residence at Great Maytham Hall, and it was then that the plot of The Secret Garden first came to her. She had found solace in gardening, and, as she walked in the rose garden of her red-brick Kentish mansion, a very different house began to form in her mind: Misselthwaite Manor, set in the middle of the windswept Yorkshire moors, seen through the eyes of an awkward, unprepossessing little girl, who hates everyone she meets.

 

AT TEN years old, Mary Lennox ought to be in the depths of grief, having abruptly lost both her parents and her home, and yet she is curiously numb. Deprived of maternal affection, she has grown up materially spoiled, but emotionally starved, and arrives in Misselthwaite, “the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen”. Her sickly cousin, Colin, has been raised in near-identical conditions, after the death of his mother. Bed-bound, weak, and fed on a diet of adult paranoia, he is convinced that he is either going to die young or else become a hunchback like his father.

When we first meet both Mary and Colin, they are selfish, rude, and thoroughly unlikeable, and yet these qualities are not inherently part of their characters — they are a direct result of how their parents have treated them. The pair are the embodiment of that very Old Testament concept of the fathers’ sins’ being visited on successive generations.

Chronicle/AlamyFrances Hodgson Burnett

Colin’s father, Archibald Craven, is unable even to look at his son out of fear that Colin has inherited his crooked back. Mr Craven is so racked with guilt and grief over his wife’s death that he has unintentionally transferred that burden on to his child.

What follows is a parable of self-healing. As Mary and Colin turn their attention outward, to the wider world around them, they gradually unfurl and bloom, in tandem with the garden that they tend. The simple act of manual labour — digging the soil, clearing the weeds, and cutting away the dead wood — leads to their own change and growth.

They abandon their dark thoughts for positive ones — “Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow” — and begin to come back to life, just like trees and bulbs. It is a tribute to the restorative power of the great outdoors. In the same way as Hodgson Burnett was drawn to Great Maytham Hall during a difficult period of her life, finding comfort in nature, her youthful characters similarly benefit from its healing powers.

Raised in the Anglican tradition, Hodgson Burnett began in middle age to explore other beliefs, most notably Christian Science, Theosophy, and Spiritualism. This interest deepened after the death of her son, and by the time she wrote The Secret Garden her faith seemed to be in a fundamental goodness, an omniscient higher power that can be felt most strongly in nature.

The most explicit reference to this is made by Dickon’s mother, Susan Sowerby, who is presented as the wisest character in the book. When Colin tells her about the mysterious, healing presence in the garden — which he calls “magic” — she says that she knows exactly what he means: “I never knowed it by that name but what does that name matter? I warrant they call it a different name in France and a different one in Germany. . . Never thee stop believing in the Big Good Thing and knowing the world’s full of it — and call it what tha’ likes.”

For Mrs Sowerby, the product of a traditional upbringing, the “Big Good Thing” is, presumably, God. As Mary has been raised by Hindu servants in India, and Colin has been brought up in utter isolation, they don’t naturally gravitate towards this conclusion, instead piecing together a belief of their own; yet their self-discovered creed is, in principle, the same as the Christian one.

Sky CinemaAn image from the film The Secret Garden, scheduled for release this month

Although Hodgson Burnett turned away from the faith that she had been brought up in, it seems as if it never really left her. There is no explicit mention of God or Christ in The Secret Garden, and yet it is steeped in Christian themes: the walled garden at the centre of the book evokes irresistible comparisons with the Garden of Eden.

Colin’s father has spent ten years in self-imposed exile, unable to come to terms with his wife’s death. He has banished himself from her beloved garden, buried the key, and moves ceaselessly about Europe, a hunted spirit. His reconciliation with his son, spliced together with his re-entry to the garden, is one of the most moving passages in the book: “Late roses climbed and hung and clustered, and the sunshine deepening the hue of the yellowing trees made one feel that one stood in an embowered temple of gold. The newcomer stood silent just as the children had done when they came into its greyness. He looked round and round.

“‘I thought it would be dead,’ he said.

“‘Mary thought so at first,’ said Colin. ‘But it came alive.’”

Sky CinemaAn image from the film The Secret Garden, scheduled for release this month

These themes are also found in the new film adaptation, in which Colin Firth plays the reclusive Mr Craven. The sense of loss and devastation is amplified by moving the setting of the novel from the Edwardian period to the late 1940s, so that it shows the India-Pakistan conflict and presents a Misselthwaite left gutted and empty after being used as a military hospital during the Second World War. This background bleakness serves to emphasise the joy in the vivid reawakening of the garden.

New scenes have been added that build on the message: Mary wades through a pond on first entering the garden, which is very suggestive of baptism, and she quite literally saves her uncle’s life in the film’s climactic scene. There is a strong sense of redemption: the promise of a fresh start, just like the coming of spring after a long winter.

As gardens around the country are fading into autumn, it is worth digging out a copy of The Secret Garden. It offers a welcome reminder that, even in the most troubled times, there is always solace to be found in the cyclic beauty of nature.

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