in green joy

secret gardenMany things grow in the garden that were never sown there.  ~Thomas Fuller

The Secret Garden is a classic of children’s literature, or so they say.  It is another of those books that I should have read years ago but didn’t (I outgrew “children’s” books at an early age) and have always meant to pick up someday.  Now, thanks to B&N’s Nook Free Fridays I have and it turned out to be a much different sort of thing than I thought it would be.

[SPOILER alert!]

On the face of it, The Secret Garden seems like it will be another morality tale teaching kids how to be good god-fearing citizens (sort of like Little Women).  Mary Lennox is an unpleasant, spoiled, and unattractive ten year old girl living in the Raj with her wealthy parents.  To be fair, it’s not entirely her fault that she is ghastly.  Her parents aren’t interested in her and ignore her in favor of their glittery party-going lifestyle.  She spends her entire life in the company of servants who have been ordered to obey her every whim in order to keep her quiet and out of her parents’ hair.  She admires the Mem’Sahib’s beauty and clothes from afar and although she knows that distant woman is her mother she seems to have no real understanding of what a mother is.   It seems entirely justified when both her parents contract cholera and die, along with almost everyone else in the house.  Mary is found, forgotten and alone, waiting in her room for her servants to come and tend to her.

She is sent to live with an uncle in Yorkshire, her only known relative.   She is told the usual scary things bad children are told in these cases.  Archibald Craven is a hunchback, he doesn’t like children, he’s rich and travels a lot, he has a hundred locked rooms in his house and a terrible secret, and she should stay out of his way.  So the scene is set and Mary finds herself in the moors of northern England at the tail end of winter in a vast and empty house where no one really wants her and where, occasionally, she hears a child crying.

Although she really is an unpleasant child, she is taken under the wing of a kindly servant.  Martha is a local girl and very practical and the first thing she does is teach Mary how to dress herself.    Then she encourages this surly, lonely girl to go outside and play.  Outside Mary finds a strange new world waiting for her, one with an endless sweeping sky, impertinent robins, and crotchety yet loveable assistant gardeners.  Eventually Martha tells Mary about Mr. Craven’s young wife and how she died in childbirth, how he closed off her beloved rose garden and shut up his own heart with it and buried the key.  Mary is fascinated and spends hours every day wandering the grounds trying to figure out where the secret garden might be.  Eventually she finds it but it is still late winter and it looks dead to her.  She notices the green points of bulbs poking up through the old growth and almost despite herself starts digging in the dirt to free them from the weeds.  In short order she has asked her maid for gardening tools,  gotten permission from Mr. Craven to have her own little plot of land “out of the way”, and met Martha’s brother Dickon who soon joins her in the garden and teaches her how to tend the plants and make them live again.

Mary and Dickon spend hours in the garden every day and Mary slowly transforms into a healthier, happier child.  One night, while exploring the house, she hears the crying again and decides to find it.  In a room off a corridor hidden by a tapestry she finds Colin, Mr. Craven’s son and her cousin, who is a bed-ridden cripple.  Colin is another unattractive and unpleasant child.  Told from his earliest days that he inherited his father’s spinal deformity and likely wouldn’t live very long, he is sequestered in his own wing of the house where (at his wish) no one can see him and mock him.  Like Mary, his servants have been ordered to deny him nothing and he is prone to violent screaming tantrums if he doesn’t get his way.  Mary will have none of his attitude and despite the unpromising circumstances she and Colin become friends.   Eventually she invites him into the garden and the three children spend the whole summer there, tending their secret until it blooms spectacularly forth.   Colin’s strength improves and eventually he walks and runs and plays and when Mr. Craven comes home he is delighted to see his son the picture of robust health and  happiness.

This is a story about redemption, although perhaps not in the usual sense.  Both Colin and Mary are essentially wild children.  Although clothed in the outer trappings of society neither of them have any experience or understanding of love and so are not entirely human.   They have absolutely horrible childhoods and both are on a course for misery.  Mary is so unloved that even her servants didn’t bother to save her when they fled her house. Colin’s own father can’t bear to look on the face that reminds him of his lost wife and so Colin is essentially fatherless as well as motherless.   Left as is Mary will end up bitter and alone and Colin will die.   The old house shelters and protects them but it also limits and confines them and it is not until they are outside and losing themselves in the garden that the burdens on their young hearts lift.    These two have no ties to other people until they find each other and Dickon, but once they do their essential humanity blossoms along with the daffodils and they are saved.

The most delightful thing about the book is how well Hodgson Burnett captures a certain quintessential part of childhood, that sense that kids and adults live in two entirely separate worlds and are two different sorts of beings.   It is surprisingly easy for the children to keep their secret, and they do it mostly by using the adults’ rules against them.  Mary ingenuously asks Mr. Craven if it would be OK for her to have a small patch of ground “that one one else wants” to tend for her garden without mentioning that the plot of land she wants is the one place she has been forbidden to go.   Since the servants are all ordered to indulge Colin fully,  he, Mary and Dickon are able to escape the house together every day without anyone challenging them.  Although the adults all remark on how pretty Mary is becoming and how Colin’s appetite has improved no one actually follows them or watches them while they are together.   All of this clandestine magic happens well below the radar of the adults who are supposed to be looking after these kids.   Their secret is the bond that turns them into friends, the first friends that either Colin or Mary have ever had.

At many moments it seems that the book will veer off into more traditional directions and in different hands it might have.  The deformed Mr. Craven, who lives in a giant house with many secrets, is obviously going to be bitter and twisted and evil.  (If nothing else, his name is a dead give-away.)  The children willfully misbehave and deceive nearly every adult in the book and surely they will be punished for their transgressions.  That bewitched robin is probably doomed.  Colin is probably doomed, if only to serve as a lesson to bad little girls and because the tragic death of a child is often used for shameless dramatic effect  in these sorts of books (remember poor Beth?)

If this were a Christian morality tale, any or all of those things would probably  happen.  But this book is in fact unreservedly, unapologetically, and quite wholesomely pagan.  Despite the handful of Biblical names and Christian symbols and the tossed-off afterthought of a hymn toward the end it is obvious that Hodgson Burnett wasn’t remotely interested in appealing to the vapid spirituality of conventional religion.  She went much deeper than that and for a children’s book it is quite subversive.  There are the animal familiars that bridge the divide between man and nature and a boy who openly talks to them.  (Dickon, a wild child of a different sort, would have been burned at the stake in an earlier time).   As the earth warms and life emerges, so too do the spirits of nearly everyone in the book.  The garden is fecund, teeming with life and energy and potential, and as it grows the children grow with it, becoming more and more a part of the garden, of nature.  Even sad Mr. Craven has his epiphany sitting by the shore of a beautiful lake and his salvation comes not from an angel but from the spirit of his beloved lost wife who tells him to go home to the garden.  Colin’s life is saved by his wholehearted acceptance of the natural world’s Magic, which is literally what he calls it.  A multitude of sorrows are healed by this little walled plot of land and by the end of the book the garden and all those who love it are rosy (pun intended) with the glow of life and health, both physical and spiritual.  And they all have dirt under their fingernails.

‘Tis a good book.  Read it.

Score:  w00t!

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~ by gun street girl on October 27, 2011.

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