About Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frances Hodgson Burnett was an Anglo-American novelist born in Manchester, England. She began writing at a young age, using her active imagination to support her family in times of need. Although she has many adult works, she is best known for her children’s novels including The Secret Garden (1911), which remains a beloved story. During her time as a writer, she was able to create beautifully written stories, often spanning the full scale of the British social hierarchy. Source: Study.com
The Secret Garden – A Summary
Published in 1911, The Secret Garden was a novel that became a classic of children’s literature. The book begins with one of the central characters, 10-year-old Mary Lennox, who loses her parents to the cholera epidemic in India and is subsequently sent to England to live with her reclusive, widowed uncle at his Yorkshire estate, Misselthwaite Manor. Described as a disagreeable and spoiled young girl wholly used to having her every whim tended to, the story unfolds as her discovery of a secret garden sets her off on a journey of self healing that also touches the lives of those she comes in contact with.
When Mary first arrives at Misselthwaite, the desolation of the house matches her sentiments. Assigned two adjoining rooms by the housekeeper, she is strictly told that the rest of the rambling house is off limits. When Martha, her chambermaid, begins to talk about her own family, siblings and 12-year-old brother Dickon, however, Mary’s interest is piqued. With nothing else to engage her attention, she begins to explore the grounds, determined to find the walled garden, which was locked 10 years earlier by her grieving uncle on his wife’s death. In the process, Mary befriends two children—Dickon who has a uniquely intimate relationship with the moors and the many species that inhabit it from a fox to Soot, a crow and two squirrels, Nut and Shell; and Colin, her uncle’s son, and the same age as Mary who has spent all his days indoors because he was told he is sickly and fears he will die before adulthood. As their worlds intersect, a journey of connection and healing begins for Mary and Colin who are drawn into a world of enchantment through Dickon.
The natural world and its rhythms are as much a central character and strong presence in this book as the children. Mary’s first encounter with wonder is when she comes upon a jaunty robin. ‘His red waistcoat was like satin and he puffed his tiny breast out and was so fine and so grand and so pretty that it was really as if he were showing her how important and like a human person a robin could be. Mistress Mary forgot that she had ever been contrary in her life when he allowed her to draw closer and closer to him, and bend down and talk and try to make something like robin sounds. Oh! to think that he should actually let her come as near to him as that! He knew nothing in the world would make her put out her hand toward him or startle him in the least tiniest way. He knew it because he was a real person—only nicer than any other person in the world. She was so happy that she scarcely dared to breathe,’ writes Burnett.
The book is replete with rich descriptions of the nature and the sense of magic and wonder it evokes. As Mary continues to tend the secret garden, a transformation is underway with every weed she clears to make room for the flowers to breathe again. She grows kinder, softer and stronger in body and spirit—“Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden – in all the places.”
The Secret Garden remains a book as much for adults as children in that it kindles the spirit of wonder that we all seek with the natural world. Because as Burnett writes, “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”
Read: Guide to the Classics: The Secret Garden and the healing power of nature
Discussion Themes and Questions:
– What were your overall thoughts about the book?
– How does the author connect themes of magic/wonder and health?
– What place does the Secret Garden hold in shaping the journeys of each child?
– Which themes in the book did you connect with? What does a connection to the natural world evoke for you?
– What are your key takeaways from this book?