Regrettably, I never read The Secret Garden as a child and I missed out on one of the best books ever written for children. Maybe if I had, I would have had a more positive outlook on life. The author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, was a follower of New Thought, and believed that positive thinking could heal everything. And while I do not subscribe wholly to the same beliefs, I do feel that a positive outlook makes for a much more enjoyable and fulfilling life.
The main character, Mary Lennox, is often described in book reviews as a spoiled child who learns to to be good and giving . While I will agree that Mary is spoiled, I don’t believe that she “learns” to be a good girl. I believe that she is as good as any child, but she has been neglected and needs to love and be loved to to bring out her own goodness. In the first few pages of the book, I was gripped by my motherly desire, to reach down into the words and pages and pull Mary to me.
Mary has spent the first ten years of her life in India being tended to by her “ayah”. She never sees her parents, who, although they live in the same household, are more concerned with their social engagements than their daughter. Her mother is vain and never wanted a child. She never interacts with Mary, who only gets to spy on her mother from afar.
When her parents and ayah die in a cholera outbreak, Mary is sent to live with her previously unknown uncle in England. He lives in the austere Misslethwaite Manor in Yorkshire. Mary is struck at once with the gray and dismal appearance of the Manor and the surrounding moor.
However, it is here that Mary experiences her first acts of love and kindness. First from her chambermaid, Martha, who refuses to dress Mary but chatter away with stories about her family in her most “broad Yorkshire”. It is Martha who is so concerned with the sad, skinny, sallow Mary that she gives her a skipping rope. Martha tells Mary she must go outside and breathe the fresh air and get lots of excercise.
Then, it is Dickon, Martha’s brother who shows Mary kindness. He helps her in the secret garden. He shows her how to plant seeds and tend to growing things. Dickon has an uncanny ability to befriend every bird and mammal he meets on the moor. Mary believes him to be magical, and is enchanted by his magic.
When Mary learns of her cousin, Colin, the biggest secret of Misselthwaite Manor, she learns to love. Colin, much like Mary, has been pampered and spoiled his whole life. Because his mother died while giving birth to him, everyone believes that he is ill and will surely die before reaching adulthood. Colin, who has heard this his whole life, believes it as well. Mary does not, and does everything she can to convince him. She shows her love for him by bringing him to the garden where he also gains health and strength from fresh air and exercise.
Through their love, Mary, Colin, and Dickon bring life and love to everyone at Misselthwaite Manor. Love and happiness spread as quickly as the cholera that took Mary’s parents. But this virus heals the deepest and oldest wounds.
I recommend this book as a read-aloud for seven years and up and as a read-alone for children eleven years and up. The author uses Yorkshire dialect, which could be hard for some children to read and/or understand.
One warning about this book: Indian people are referred to as “blacks”. I was thrown by this initially and contemplated not continuing to read it to my daughter. However, I used this as a teaching moment instead. My daughter and I discussed how the term is used and how people in the nineteenth century used it. We also talked about prejudice and how to deal with people who think that one group of people is better than another.
Overall, I love The Secret Garden because it reminds us that this life that we have is a magical and wonderful gift that we should be thankful for every moment.