In common with Frances Hodgson Burnett's other children's stories, it is a delightfully written book, well deserving of its description as a classic of Children's Literature. The well known tale of the transformation of Mary Lennox from Mary Quite Contrary into a happy, attractive and friendly child and her cousin, the hypocondriacal Colin into a strong, capable and happy boy is one that draws you in, and each one of us was eager to hear what the next exciting episode would bring for Mary, Colin, Dickon, Martha and the rest.
Can you hear the but coming? Okay...
But we have two huge criticisms of this book. The first is mentioned fairly often as a negative, and that is the New Age Spiritualism that accompanies Colin's almost magical transformation - you can read it here:
"Now we will begin," he said. "Shall we sway backward and forward, Mary, as if we were dervishes?"This passage also had us squirming:
"I canna' do no swayin' back'ard and for'ard," said Ben Weatherstaff. "I've got th' rheumatics."
"The Magic will take them away," said Colin in a High Priest tone, "but we won't sway until it has done it. We will only chant."
"I canna' do no chantin'" said Ben Weatherstaff a trifle testily. "They turned me out o' th' church choir th' only time I ever tried it."
No one smiled. They were all too much in earnest. Colin's face was not even crossed by a shadow. He was thinking only of the Magic.
"Then I will chant," he said. And he began, looking like a strange boy spirit. "The sun is shining--the sun is shining. That is the Magic. The flowers are growing--the roots are stirring. That is the Magic. Being alive is the Magic--being strong is the Magic. The Magic is in me--the Magic is in me. It is in me--it is in me. It's in every one of us. It's in Ben Weatherstaff's back. Magic! Magic! Come and help!"
He said it a great many times--not a thousand times but quite a goodly number. Mary listened entranced. She felt as if it were at once queer and beautiful and she wanted him to go on and on. Ben Weatherstaff began to feel soothed into a sort of dream which was quite agreeable. The humming of the bees in the blossoms mingled with the chanting voice and drowsily melted into a doze. Dickon sat cross-legged with his rabbit asleep on his arm and a hand resting on the lamb's back. Soot had pushed away a squirrel and huddled close to him on his shoulder, the gray film dropped over his eyes. At last Colin stopped.
"Do you believe in Magic?" asked Colin after he had explained about Indian fakirs. "I do hope you do."Frances Burnett herself became interested in Christian Science, Theosophy, Mind Healing and Spiritualism after the death of her son, Lionel, from consumption. Her, to me strange, beliefs pervade The Secret Garden, most particularly in the final chapter, where the book's theme of mind's potential for physical regeneration reaches its zenith:
"That I do, lad," she answered. "I never knowed it by that name but what does th' name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i' France an' a different one i' Germany. Th' same thing as set th' seeds swellin' an' th' sun shinin' made thee a well lad an' it's th' Good Thing. It isn't like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th' Big Good Thing doesn't stop to worrit, bless thee. It goes on makin' worlds by th' million--worlds like us. Never thee stop believin' in th' Big Good Thing an' knowin' th' world's full of it--an' call it what tha' likes. Tha' wert singin' to it when I come into th' garden."
"I felt so joyful," said Colin, opening his beautiful strange eyes at her. "Suddenly I felt how different I was--how strong my arms and legs were, you know--and how I could dig and stand--and I jumped up and wanted to shout out something to anything that would listen."
"Th' Magic listened when tha' sung th' Doxology. It would ha' listened to anything tha'd sung. It was th' joy that mattered. Eh! lad, lad--what's names to th' Joy Maker," and she gave his shoulders a quick soft pat again.
In each century since the beginning of the world wonderful things have been discovered. In the last century more amazing things were found out than in any century before. In this new century hundreds of things still more astounding will be brought to light. At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done--then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago. One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts--just mere thoughts--are as powerful as electric batteries--as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live.Then comes Archibald Craven's dream, where the voice of his late wife talks to him...
But enough about New Age religion, or whatever it is called when a book is written in nineteen hundred and ten. I don't like it. Maybe you do.
Anyhow. The other but.
The thing that really upset my family and me by the close of the book was Burnett's treatment of Mary Lennox. Is it possible that an author can actually dislike the heroine she has created so as to entirely ignore her at the end of the book that is written about her? Because this is how we felt at the conclusion of the story. Mary is completely forgotten. It is strange. Strange also is that I've not read this criticism anywhere else.
Let me show you what I mean:
Mary is introduced to the reader as the 'most disagreeable child ever seen'. Okay, fair enough, but how would you look if you had been nine-year-old Mary?
She had been born in India where she was always been ill. Ill enough to have been jaundiced, not just poorly. Her father had always been too busy to care for her; her socialite mother cares only for herself and the party scene didn't want a child in the first place. Mary is raised by her Indian Ayah, who keeps away from her parents.
"A little girl no one was fond of," Burnett says - as if it were Mary's own fault. "She was not an affectionate child and had never cared much for any one." Ummm...who cared for Mary?
Then, at age nine, remember - Jemimah's age - everything that is familiar is taken from her. Her Ayah - her carer dies. Her parents die. She is left alone and forgotten in the home where she fends for herself overnight until discovered by an officer acquaintance of her father's.
"She looked an ugly, cross little thing and was frowning because she was beginning to be hungry and feel disgracefully neglected." I would be frowning too.
This all happens in Chapter 1. In the next Chapter she is taken to stay with an English clergyman's family where she is bullied by the family's children for being disagreeable and is called 'Mary Quite Contrary' - a nickname 'which made her furious'.
Hello? Mary has just been left totally alone in the world!!! Is it surprising that she is ...um... disagreeable?
The children taunt her with images of her future in England with her "horrid hunchback" of an uncle who lives as a recluse in a "great, big, desolate old house in the country." Is it any wonder Mary who has never know affection "turned her face away when Mrs. Crawford attempted to kiss her, and held herself stiffly when Mr. Crawford patted her shoulder"?
Poor little Mary makes the long voyage to England under the care of an officer's wife who ignores her. When she reaches England, she is met by her Uncle's housekeeper, Mrs Medlock, "who didn't think much of her, and thought her 'marred' (spoiled and pettish). "You're going to a queer place," she is told.
Mary's strange uncle doesn't bother greeting his poor orphaned niece when she arrives to live with him. She is placed in a room quite unsuited to children with no playthings and no books. She is told that she must keep her room and not look around the rest of the Manor. She is given an "untrained Yorkshire rustic" to "wait on her a bit," who again makes no allowances for Mary's new surroundings and just expects who to get on with life.
Well, of course this is what the book is about, Mary's transformation from sullen yellow sour-faced child to happy strong capable friendly one, but Burnett never allows us to feel sympathy for poor orphaned Mary. She clearly holds Mary as solely responsible for her own character and behaviour - and also, therefore, responsible for her own healing.
We're never allowed to admire Mary for her self sufficiency, for her refusal to feel sorry for herself, for her lack of envy, for her lack of fear at what is to become of her, for her refusal to feel sorry for herself, for her strong will, for her ability to amuse herself, for her amazing ability to adjust whatever happens.
Contrast Burnett's treatment of Colin. Neglected by his grieving father, Colin has turned into a spoiled invalid. He is given beautiful books to read and "all sorts of wonderful things to amuse himself with". All the staff respond immediately to his every command. He has constant attention, beautiful surroundings and his every desire fulfilled. Despite the fact that Colin's behaviour is a million times worse than Mary's we are allowed to feel sorry for Colin.
From the time Colin is introduced to the Secret Garden, the focus of the book switches to his magical healing. Despite the fact that he continues to manipulate and deceive the servants, we are meant to rejoice in the improvements in Colin's health and in the relationship he has with his father. Mary is just ignored.
Finally by the end of the story Colin is fully healed and is reunited with his father. You can imagine the two of them travelling the world together. Colin will inherit Misselthwaite Manor and become a great and successful adult. But what about poor unloved Mary? There she remains in a big old house where she is entirely neglected. Her uncle wallowing in his own pity 'magically' begins to fall in love with his own son and to form a relationship with him. You just know things for them are going to be better in the future. But for his young niece he has no thought at all. What is going to happen to her? What will she do? Where will she go? Even if Dickon's mother cares for her, is this enough?
For my family the ending of The Secret Garden is entirely unsatisfactory. The heroine - the main character is absolutely and entirely and totally ignored. She is forgotten even by the author, her creator.
Now I'm not saying that you shouldn't read this book. It is a really beautiful story. But when you do, can you please at least spare some thought for poor Mary? Can you cut her some slack and imagine how you would behave in the same circumstances? Can you remind yourself that the behaviour of the parents does affect the child and that it is not Mary's fault that she had become the sullen yellow and unfriendly child that you are introduced to? Can you ignore Frances Burnett's veiled reminders that we are not to like Mary and feel sorry for her when she needs you to and celebrate her achievements with her as well? Can you feel a little sad for her at the end?
Jemimah and her Daddy and I would feel better if you did.
This interesting article by A S Byatt gives you some idea of how Burnett treated her own sons.
Read Aloud Dad discusses which edition to purchase here. We have the one illustrated by Tasha Tudor. It is beautiful.