Sunday, 7 October 2012

'The Secret Garden' by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

Synopsis: Mary Lennox is a spoiled 10 year old girl who has been brought up in India. After her parents die of a cholera outbreak, she is then sent to live on her uncle's estate Misselthwaite Manor in the Yorkshire moors (Bronte country!) Her uncle is very reclusive and wants nothing to do with her, and neither do the housekeeper Mrs Medlock or any of the other servants. Bored, Mary explores the grounds and finds a secret garden. This garden has been locked-up, abandoned and left in ruins. Mary then befriends a boy called Dickon who is the brother of her maid Martha. Dickon is good with animals and plants, and he and Mary get to work by planting things and making the garden look beautiful again. Then Mary hears someone crying at night and discovers that she has a cousin called Colin who is also 10. Colin is a hypochondriac, he can't walk, is ignored by his father, throws tantrums, hates the thought of going outside, and is convinced that he's going to become a hunchback and die young. He and Mary fight at first but they then become friends and help each other to become nicer people. Mary and Dickon then start to take Colin to the garden in the hope that it will do him some good.

I read lots of books as a child but The Secret Garden is one of those classic children's novels that just slipped my radar. I think it's a bit of a shame that I didn't read the book when I was younger because I'm sure I would have loved it and would have re-read it often. It's moving, very uplifting and encouraging, and is beautifully-written with some absolutely stunning descriptions. I especially loved this particular passage:

"One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun–which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in some one’s eyes."

The Secret Garden is very well-paced too. It never gets boring or drags and is engaging all the way through. It could have been quite a sappy, schmaltzy read but it really isn't. The characters are very likeable too, my favourites being Dickon and Martha. Even Mary and Colin are both quite likeable. They both start off as being annoying and spoiled brats, but because you can understand why they're the way they are you can still sympathise with them and you can't really hate them for it. There's a fair bit of Yorkshire dialect in the book as well but Hodgson Burnett writes it in such a way that it's much easier to understand and follow than the Yorkshire dialect in Wuthering Heights and Dracula. Also, even though the book is clearly a child's fantasy novel it doesn't really seem that unrealistic or unbelievable. It really makes you want to take up gardening as well! There really aren't that many negative things that I can say about this book. There is quite a bit of India-bashing at the beginning however, with India always being compared unfavourably to England. It does reflect the common English attitudes of the time but it's still annoying to read and some readers are likely to find it very offensive. Another issue that I had with The Secret Garden is a scene that comes towards the end of the book, where Colin starts chanting and singing praises to the "magic" of the garden over and over again. I thought that was a really weird scene : S I still really enjoyed The Secret Garden though. It's a beautiful book and and I'd like to check out some of its film adaptations and the Broadway musical.

Rating: 4.5/5

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