20 May 2011

Poor Mary Lennox

We've been reading The Secret Garden as a Family Read Aloud.

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?"

"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.
This passage also had us squirming:
"Do you believe in Magic?" asked Colin after he had explained about Indian fakirs. "I do hope you do."

"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.
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:
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.


  1. Excellent review, Jeanne. I have not read the book yet, but I surely have your review in my head. It is very interesting what you brought up here.

    You say it is still a good book, but the things you have talked about really put me off. I guess when the time comes I´d have to decide for myself, and my daughters will have a saying too.

  2. I have read the book - and felt similar to you about Mary... I do feel that she chose to behave badly, but that the vast majority of children with the same things happening in their life would to. And yes, I think that at the end of the book I was thinking... ok, but what about Mary?

  3. OK, are you ready, Jeanne? I don't particularly like this book ~ but I do like Mary; it is Colin I want to clip around the ear for behaving badly. However, having said that, I find your comments interesting. Firstly it is perfectly possible for an author to dislike a character they have invented/written about. C.S Lewis was not mad keen on Screwtape & found that a very difficult book to write ~ for obvious reasons. Secondly, I always feel that one must keep the culture of the times in mind. Many of the views Burnett expresses you see in other books of around this period: Anne of Green Gables for instance. It is a wonderful stepping of place to discuss how parents of bygone times saw children ~ very differently to the indulgent way we see them today. Mary could have been relegated to the workhouse so by the standards of the time the charity shown her, cold & harsh as it is, saves her from a worse fate imo.

    As for the magic element, I don't recall it standing out particularly any time I have read the books. I suspect I just found it rather silly because it doesn't have any of what I consider to be magical elements ~ aka Alan Garner & things like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen or The Owl Service. Mind you I didn't know Burnett was something of a Spiritualist. There was a lot of it going round & she was not the only one affected by some very strange ideas.

    In the end one must make a choice. I adore all of Wilde's fairy tales without exception , for example, & own a beautifully illustrated by Rackham copy of them but would never endorse anything about his lifestyle or some of his religious views. Who an artist is must be separated from their work & the work must stand or fall on it's own merits. Them;s my thinks. On those grounds I suspect Burnett's work will continue to stand the test of time. ♥

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  4. We read that not too long ago. I loved it and wondered how I missed it as a child. Anyway, I don't remember feeling that Mary was slighted. But it is probably a simple case of sexism.

    The new age magic stuff? Yeah. Disappointing, but just goes to show us that just because a book is OLD doesn't mean it's totally "safe."

  5. Well Jeanne, I always liked Mary and, like Ganeida, I too have wanted to give Colin a good clip around the ears.

    The adults, well, they deserved a good clip around the ears as well. :( Fancy treating children like that?

    The article by AS Byatt I found very interesting - thanks for the link, and certainly sheds some light on the author that I was previously unaware of.

  6. Interesting points, girls.

    Like you, Amy and Ganeida, I found Colin's hysterical illness hard to stomach, and the way he lorded (or rajahed) it over everyone made me really irritated. Mary, on the other hand was strong and capable and self sufficient, despite the fact that really things were harder for her than Colin in many ways.

    Ganeida, I do agree that the book was written in a time where people inherently understood what Burnett was saying. They were sort of caricatures in some ways, and were expected to behave in a certain way - rich as rich, poor as poor.

    I did not think of Mary being poor. Her parents (unlike Sara Crewe's father) did not appear to have lost their money when they died, and as an officer her father would not have been poor. In addition, I wondered whether if Colin were to die whether she or Dr Craven might inherit Misselthwaite. I suppose being a Craven through her mother would suggest that Dr Craven might be next in line.

    Jimmie, you are right about old books not necessarily being safe!!

    Anyhow, interesting topics to think over all around. Thanks all!!

  7. I read your review last night and have been thinking about it since then. You brought up things that troubled me about the book but that I couldn't figure out or articulate.

    I read the book aloud to my daughter when she was about 5 or 6. (I didn't read it myself as a child.) As we got to the last chapters, it started to feel creepy and I stopped reading it. We never made it to the end.

    I felt as if on the surface the story is appealing, but there is something unappealing lurking underneath. Your mention of Theosophy popped out at me, and is giving me lots to think about it. I've never heard anyone else say anything about this book other than glowing praise and I wondered if I were the only person puzzled by it.

    I do recall that while we read the book, my daughter and I liked to talk in what we imagined Dickon's accent to be. We had fun with that.

  8. Great post, Jeanne. Thank you for the links, too. Nancy Pearcey mentions your first concerns in her book Total Truth.

    I couldn't find your e-mail, so I'm sorry for posting the answer to your question here. :(

    My lens is a Canon Zoom Lens EF-S 55-250mm. Happy shopping! :)

  9. Thanks for the review. I too have felt that Mary was terribly misunderstood and badly treated. She showed incredible resilience to even begin what she did for Colin, who hardly deserved her attentions. He too was neglected and manipulated and deserves some sympathy I think.
    I have not read it with Lucy yet but when we do I will bear in mind what you have mentioned about the spiritual aspects of the book.
    I am attempting to read 'The Five Little Peppers...........' to Lucy at the moment. I am finding it heavy going, so moralising and annoying! Lucy enjoys it so I persist. Did you like it? It's an AO2 free-read.

  10. No, Louise, it drove me mental! A found her writing irritatingly ungrammatical too, from memory.

    I blogged about it here:


    For what it is worth, I did finish it!!

  11. This is excellent! I just found your blog through a recommendation. Your post is right on target with what I thought about the book as well. You expressed it beautifully.

    I am a new follower. We are a military, homeschool and sometimes roadschool family in the US. Thanks for letting me peak in and I am going to enjoy leaving my footsteps all over your blog. ;)


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