Frances Hodgson Burnett’s most famous novel, The Secret Garden, is a story I know very well, having grown up watching the 1993 film adaptation with Maggie Smith. Thus when I began reading the novel, number 51 in the BBC’s Top 100 Reads, I already had the characters’ faces in mind.
It tells the story of Mary Lennox, a ten year old girl from India who is left orphaned after her parents are killed by Cholera. Shipped off to Yorkshire to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven, at Misselthwaite Manner, Mary is at first a child of an unaffectionate, rude and spoilt disposition, used to ordering her Ayah around and having all her orders obeyed.
Unimpressed with the Yorkshire Moors and having to dress herself, Mary is initially unimpressed with the house and its servants, but with the help of her maidservant, Martha Sowerby, soon comes around to a different way of life – being grateful for the generosity of others and finding joy in the manor’s flourishing gardens. She befriends Martha’s brother Dickon, an animal charmer who restores The Secret Garden with her, and together they help bring her cousin Colin Craven, previously bed-bound, back to life.
The characters are beautifully constructed and described, with the residents of Misselthwaite Manor speaking in a Yorkshire dialect which really makes them come alive. The Yorkshire Moors are as prominent a character of the book as Mary, Dickon and Colin and provide the perfect atmospheric backdrop to this magical childhood tale.
As the daughter of two parents, both of whom are fanatical gardeners, I’ve witnessed the joy planting seeds and nourishing gardens can give, and thus this charming tale resonated deeply with me. Unlike much of today’s society, in which the greatest satisfaction is gained through materialistic wealth, The Secret Garden is a wonderfully narrated story in which the reader is taught that an abundance of pleasure can be found in the simplest of things.
My maternal grandfather Kingsley was of the mindset that the best things in life are free – a sentiment that was passed on to me by my mother who enjoys nothing more than a walk in the country, early morning birdsong or the blooming of a bud in springtime. This is a concept very much present in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best-loved novel, a story in which the fusion of nature and magic can change the unthinkable.