Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Secret Garden

And then she took a long breath and looked behind her up the long walk to see if any one was coming. No one was coming. No one ever did come, it seemed, and she took another long breath, because she could not help it, and she held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly--slowly.

Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight.

She was standing inside the secret garden.

I re-read this book by Frances Hodgson Burnett from time to time--like many of my favorite books, it's because it doesn't always work that I think I like it so much. The parts of the book that I love are the strange, magical scenes: the scene in India at the beginning where Mary Lennox finds herself abandoned by adults during a cholera epidemic; the wonderful, creepy Gothicky house in Yorkshire to which she's taken and her first meeting with Colin there; and of course her discovery of the secret garden itself.

The other stuff--wholesome Dickon and his family (and I do love the depiction of a working family, by the way), Colin getting better and his reconciliation with his father, and all the stuff about growing things--well, it's what the story is about, isn't it? The garden comes back to life as Mary and Colin heal themselves. (I just read yesterday, by the way, that Frances Hodgson Burnett was a Christian Scientist, which explains a lot of the mind-body stuff.) But I find the "healed" garden is just another pretty, manicured garden. It's disappointing. It's a safe, tamed garden with none of the wildness and mystery of the locked, secret garden.

Look at the potent images Burnett uses--the walled garden and the rose, both symbolic of the Virgin Mary and virginity in Christianity; and the rose, a symbol of eroticism in Kabbalistic and Islamic mythology. And above all, a wilderness of thorns, like the protective hedge that grew around the virginal Sleeping Beauty's castle. A pre-pubescent girl unlocks the secret of the garden, but we learn later that the garden killed Colin's mother--oh, no, she had sex (presumably) so she must die! On the other hand there's an idealized, fertile earth mother figure, Mrs. Sowerby (Dickon's mother), but I can't recall any mention of Dickon's father. All rather icky, isn't it?

I can't help wondering what happens to Mary, Colin, and Dickon when they grow up. I've always felt that Mary and Colin are destined for one of those marriages between cousins that the English upper-classes liked so much (keeps it in the family, don't you know). Dickon--not a chance, although I'm sure we could think of something to keep the three of them together.

Despite its peculiarities, I love this book for its richness of language, the wonderful descriptions of places and animals in particular. Your thoughts?


Robin L. Rotham said...

I loved the book, too, Jane, but it's been too long since I read it -- and I've never read it through the critical eyes of a writer/editor. I'll have to dig it out and give it another go.

Kate said...

I read it a lot when I was a I understand why. :)

I also wondered what happened to them and assumed they married. Cousins marrying is a big taboo here isn't it? I got told off in a contest once because my Regency h/h were cousins. I had no idea that was considered icky until I moved here!

jane george said...

Kate, did you tell that contest judge to read Mansfield Park?

I have to admit the idea of consanguinity w/cousins icks me out. It is one of the less honorable reasons Mansfield Park isn't among my favorite Austen works.

Besides, I run from my gene pool.

I did love the wildness of the untamed secret garden, and of India. I was drawn more to Dickon and his way with animals, than I was to Colin.

I've also previously identified with the displaced or the disenfranchised, so I liked Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess too.

Time to suggest them to my daughter. :-)

Celia May Hart said...

didn't someone actually write a sequel with the three grownup?

I loved the garden -- but frankly, found the adults more interesting than the children...

Maureen said...

Susan Moody wrote, "Return to the Secret Garden." Another woman also wrote a sequel but I forget her name. I am writing my own sequel and have 12 chapters completed. I love the story. I don't analyze it very much, it's the symbolism of restoration which interests me and the characters, the themes of grief and death and how a family is healed.