Before Thomas Thwaites dreamed up the idea of being a GoatMan and before Peter Wohlleben communed with the trees in Germany, Frances Hodgson Burnett gave us the original back to nature, talk with the animals, boy child, Dickon.
Dickon is a kindred spirit to all the creatures that live on the moors. He mothers orphaned lambs and squirrels, talks to the robins and is followed around by a fox cub. He grows the best herbs and vegetables to feed his large family and he has the sunniest, most positive disposition of any human I’ve ever known!
He is too good to be true.
Mary and Colin are not.
Two more self-indulged, self-involved, selfish children you will not find anywhere.
The Magic of the garden and Dickon’s influence changes all that though.
And there you have The Secret Garden in a nutshell.
My lovely Penguin Threads edition was designed by Jillian Tamaki. It’s hand-stitched, then sculpt-embossed – front and back – to create a gorgeous tactile, aesthetically pleasing cover. I confess, the cover, ultimately, had more lasting appeal than the story.
The Secret Garden is one of those books I was sure that I had read as a child, but as the years went by I felt less and less certain about this. I knew what the book was about in general, but it didn’t feel familiar or known.
Now that I have really and truly read it, I’m pretty sure that this was my first time.
The Indian section at the start and the finding of the garden were vaguely familiar, but I suspect I gave up on the book as a kid at this point. As an adult I loved the descriptions of the moors and the garden coming to life after winter, but as a kid I would have got bogged down by the exuberant and somewhat excessive garden love.
The preachy part of Burnett’s voice, I could push into the background as an adult, but as a child, her obvious attempts to tell me how to be a good child got up my nose!
My thoughts and feelings about this book are more ambiguous now.
As an adult I could appreciate Burnett’s use of perspective and how this led to her character’s developing self-awareness and personal growth.
I thoroughly enjoyed the early sections that read like a homesick homage to English weather and seasons. I loved how she explored the healing nature of nature. I loved learning about ‘wuthering’ and the Yorkshire moors (a lovely nod to the Bronte’s, I thought). The smells and textures and sounds of the moors were described beautifully – she made me want to go a wandering across the heather on the misty morn.
I was pleased to see an unlovely, unlikable, spoilt child as protagonist.
I felt uncomfortable with the racist attitudes towards the Indians, but could accept them as being of their times, reflecting the attitudes and assumptions of Victorian England. I felt a little weird about the miraculous cure of Colin, but of course, the only real malady he suffered from was hypochondria.
Mrs Sowerby, Dickon’s mother, was a lovely, warm, generous character, but she also felt too good to be true most of the time. A mother of 12, living on the edge of the Yorkshire moors in grinding poverty being so cheerful and helpful and wholesome? Really?
I very definitely felt that the heavy handed ‘magical’ parable that the ending morphed into was evangelical and prissy. The only ‘magic’ involved in this story though, is the magic of mother nature doing her thing in the garden and some children discovering that keeping busy and active is better for you than sitting around bemoaning your aches and pains and only thinking about yourself. I’m not sure how this book has ended up with a magical realism tag in wikipedia.
I have since found out that Burnett embraced the tenets of Christian Science which believes that illness is an illusion that can only be cured by prayers. She also dabbled in the occult after the death of her son, Lionel. We can read The Secret Garden as being a tribute to Lionel and as a way for her to work through her depression and grief.
This explains the strong element of ‘healing’ via nature and ‘beautiful thought’, as Burnett called it, throughout the book.
I’m the first to acknowledge that being in nature and thinking positive thoughts are beneficial to one’s health and well-being. A lovely story could have been crafted with this idea in mind. Colin’s smug Magic lectures at the end could have happily been left out.
How did you find The Secret Garden when you reread as an adult?