The story of The Secret Garden is well-known. After the death of her parents in India, ‘Mistress Mary’ comes to Yorkshire to live in the house of her brooding uncle where she discovers a garden that has been locked up for ten years (by no coincidence, Mary’s own age). Later, she discovers her sickly cousin Colin locked away in one of the manor’s chambers and meet the ‘Yorkshire Angel’, Dickon. Over the course of the novel she brings life back to the garden, her cousin and not least of all herself; by the end, the redeeming magic of nature has come to resurrect all.
As one of those children who spent much of their time rummaging around hedgerows and riverbanks looking for potential dens, The Secret Garden instantly captured my imagination, and it would be my suggestion for a World Book Day read. Secret places are always alluring to adults and children alike, for they hide all the magic and mystery that exists in our world (if only we could find them!).It is a novel that exudes sweet waffs of fresh air, and conjures up images of wild flowers and sun dappled walks, although not all is rosy in the garden.
When Mistress Mary finds the door to that uncharted domain, she unlocks more than a garden: she unlocks the path to her own self-fulfilment, and this comes not a moment too soon. Unlike the typically saccharine orphans of children’s books, Mary is a brat, and all the more compelling for it. Hodgson Burnett mercifully inverts many of the tropes of children’s literature; the didactic tone which is all common in children’s literature is absent, as is the moral guidance of any kindly adult. Perhaps skill that Hodgson Burnett brought to her children’s writing has been overlooked thanks to the seemless nature of it.
Ultimately, it is Mary and her cousin Colin, the two most ungenerous characters, who do the most to heal the other. One of the main joys of the books is that its author recognises that children are perfectly capable of learning about their own world, and so she gives her readers a complex world in which we can to play, explore, and discover themselves amongst overgrown shrubbery.