The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I suppose I would not be reviewing this book if life did not throw so many curveballs at me.

The last several weeks have been rough, between severe weather outbreaks, tax season, and a few other personal crises that left me struggling mentally. And so, when I could find nothing else to adequately occupy my mind during the long, loud, over-bright working hours, I decided to revisit a classic children’s story that I have not read probably since college.

The Secret Garden is like a fairy tale to me, in that I haven’t read the actual text in a long time, but through foggy childhood memories of watching movie versions and a community theater play, the story somehow sticks with me. And since another Frances Hodgson Burnett classic, A Little Princess, was such a balm to me last year, I thought I would find the same low-stakes magical comfort again with her other famous work.

Mary Lennox has grown up in India as a spoiled, selfish, unkind child. But when she loses both her parents to a cholera outbreak, she is sent to live with her uncle in a lonely manor out in the English moors. Mary finds very little to like about her new home until she learns of a secret garden locked up somewhere on the manor’s grounds. When she finds the key and unlocks the garden door, she begins an adventure that slowly draws everyone in the manor back to the long-forgotten magical place.

I’ll get the comparisons out of the way immediately. I do not like The Secret Garden as much as A Little Princess. It has almost as many moments of saccharine whimsy but does not fill me with quite the same wonder and joy. It may partially come down to which heroine I prefer: Sara or Mary.

If Sara is all sugar, then Mary is all spice. Mary starts out as a huffy spoiled child who doesn’t like other people’s company. She is petulant and haughty, but fortunately not annoying.

Mary is also curious, the very trait that leads her outside to the grounds and eventually to the garden. She has several charming encounters with the manor’s gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, and a special robin, who seems to communicate with him.

Despite being written after the Romantic era, the book is full of pastoral descriptions and sentimental notions about nature. Nowhere is this clearer than in Mary’s interactions with Dickon, the younger brother of her maid, Martha. Dickon is so gentle and friendly that he has befriended several local animals, who gather around to hear him play the pipe. It’s implied that Mary develops a crush on him, and it is so sweet watching Mary warm up to him and his “enchanted” animals. She even calls him a fairy and an angel, such is her enchantment with him.

That, however, is part of the magic of this book. While there is no clear indication of real magic in the gardens, the people who work and play in them, like Ben and Dickon, are so mysterious to Mary that they might as well be magic. Once Mary and her friends enter the secret garden, they can’t help but note how beautiful, peaceful, and welcoming it is, to the point of being magical.

However, the magic doesn’t truly come alive until Mary meets her cousin, Colin, who is stuck in bed with a supposed spinal injury. He, like Mary, is spoiled and petulant, often flying into feverish fits if he doesn’t get his way. He rules the manor when his father is away like a spoiled fairytale prince, and Mary is the only one who can stand up to him. But Colin becomes intrigued with Mary’s stories of the garden, and he joins Mary and Dickon on their excursions there.

The garden becomes a magical place to spend time, not just for Mary, Dickon, and Colin, but the reader too. They spend long days tending the garden and playing in beautiful weather, with their friendship growing stronger. It makes one nostalgic for the long warm days when you could spend hours outside with your friends playing games and getting into benevolent mischief. But more so, spending hours with friends in a place that was magical to all of you.

I could not help thinking of all the places that I’ve explored and discovered through the years. There are few things more magical than happening upon a garden and wandering the paths and riverbanks until you feel you are deep in a forgotten fairyland, and somehow you feel you’ve come back to a home you didn’t know was yours. 

I won’t divulge the other ways that the children discover the garden’s magic, but it’s such a warm, intriguing thing to believe: that the more Mary and her friends tend the garden, the more the magic comes back to help them. It becomes the very place to go when you feel sad or want to believe in something good.

The Secret Garden is a beloved classic for a reason. It makes magic feel possible in an everyday place and is great for helping one’s soul come out of winter again, the same way that Mary’s and Colin’s do.

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