05 March 2023

Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett book cover

I was on holiday recently and put the word out to see if there were any fellow Aussie reviewers who'd like to do a buddy read for The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It's always fun to read a classic with a buddy so you can chat about it, but it turned out many of us have had this book sitting on our shelves for far too long!

Joining me in the buddy read was: Veronica Joy - The Burgeoning Bookshelf,  Ashleigh Meikle - The Book Muse (with her Grandmother's copy), Claire - Claire's Reads and Reviews and Suzie Eisfelder - Suz's Space. We were also joined by Andrea and Liz over on GoodReads. Thanks to you all for joining me, it was loads of fun!

When reading The Secret Garden, a few words caught me by surprise, including the frequent use of the words 'fat' and 'ugly'. As I write this, the media is full of articles about the censorship of Roald Dahl's books. While it's a shock to see words you wouldn't ordinarily read in children's dialogue published today, it's a timely reminder that this book was published more than 100 years ago in 1911. I don't think publishers should be attempting to apply today's sensitivity standards retrospectively to a book published so long ago and I do hope The Secret Garden is safe from censorship in the future. That said, onto the book!

Precocious young Mary is orphaned in India and sent to live with her Uncle in his English mansion on the moor. Spoiled and sickly, Mary is a sour faced young brat who slowly starts to turn her lonely little life around. One of the first people Mary meets is the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and the scenes between him and Mary in the beginning were sublime:
'Tha' an' me are a good bit alike,' he said. 'We was wove out of th' same cloth. We're neither of us goodlookin' an' we're both of us as sour as we look. We've got the same nasty tempers, both of us, I'll warrant.' Page 45
Published in 1911, Mary's story has gone on to become a children's classic, so I'm going to be reviewing this story in full, with spoilers. If you are sensitive to spoilers and have yet to read the book, and honestly believe you'll do so one day, and that you'll remember the spoilers in this review, and readily recall I was the one who did that to you, then please close this tab.

Misselthwaite Manor has more than a hundred rooms, all of which are out of bounds until Mary covertly discovers a young boy also living in the house. The big family secret is that Colin is ill and bed bound and vulnerable to the most terrible tantrums. The children are cousins and both have had a privileged and indulgent upbringing as only children while also experiencing loss. Colin's mother is dead and Mary has recently lost both of her parents. The coming together of Mary and Colin was my favourite part of the book.

Both characters realise they're lonely and decide to become friends, despite a few false starts. The children begin enjoying each other's company which is a surprise to them both.
"And they both began to laugh over nothing as children will when they are happy together. And they laughed so that in the end they were making as much noise as if they had been two ordinary, healthy, natural, two-year-old creatures - instead of a hard, little, unloving girl and a sickly boy who believed that he was going to die." Page 168
Colin is ill and believes he'll die, making everyone's life a misery until he befriends Mary and meets her friend Dickon. Mary tells Colin there's nothing wrong with him and convinces him to get out of bed and outside in a wheelchair to live life and experience nature. Mary has discovered a secret garden and together with Dickon, the trio seek to bring it back to life.

The secret garden of the title is the walled garden where Colin's mother died, after which it was locked and abandoned for 10 years until a robin shows Mary the door and the key. As the children overcome their vast differences in class to help bring the garden back to life, Mary blossoms into a thoughtful and caring young girl, and Colin grows to believe he will live and is determined to show everyone he can walk again!

The entire time this is going on, Colin's father (Mary's uncle) is away on business, and I was worried he would return any minute and go ballistic about the garden, which was off limits. This created a sense of dread as eventually household members discover the children's secret and join the plan for Colin's big reveal moment.

Dickon's mother is the Mrs Weasley of the book and Mary and Colin gravitate toward her generosity of spirit and maternal love in the same way a sunflower follows the sun.

It's clear to the reader that the driving force behind Colin's recovery is the relationships between each of the characters - which boils down to love - as well as the garden, but Colin refers to it all as 'magic'. The author seems to have combined the laws of attraction, the power of positivity, and worship of nature to produce the essence of the 'magic'. To ask for your heart's desire, you just need to chant in a prayer like fashion and all the characters pull together to aid in Colin's restoration.

The 'magic' becomes a symbol or marker for nature, love and faith that is immediately obvious to mature readers, but innocuous for young children in the same way The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis does. The young characters in the novel reminded me of Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter and if you loved that, then you'll definitely enjoy this.

I love a good makeover, and in The Secret Garden we have three! Mary's transformation is the first to begin, then the garden is discovered before change is afoot to restore it to its earlier magnificence. Colin's recovery is the most radiant of makeovers, as he goes from being a spoiled, hysterical hypochondriac who thinks he's dying to a confident and enthusiastic young man, respectful of his elders and kind to all staff with the desire to carry out scientific experiments and live life to the fullest!

If you're a fan of up-lit (uplifting literature), feel good stories about nature as medicine and the power of friendship then The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett will enchant you.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. I agree about the censorship, in historical fiction today, they just write that words and depictions are from that time and not how they are today, apologies if they offend, or something along these lines. I'm sure parents can tell their kids the same thing if they are concerned, I don't even remember Roald Dahl books being bad as a kid, it wasn't something I picked up on. They can't change history by rewriting it.

    1. Thanks Claire, I completely agree with you. It's a learning opportunity, and changing it makes our culture look guilty of a cover up or revisionist history, as you said. Hopefully the power of the people rejecting this course of action in the name of 'progress' will be enough to slow it down.

  2. Lovely book. Don't like censorship either...


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