Reread: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

secret gardenI’ve been in a big reading slump lately, but I recently went to see a stage production of The Secret Garden, and it inspired me to reread the book. I used to read this book a lot as a kid; I bought it a library sale at my school. I had never heard of it before, but the title immediately intrigued me. I hadn’t read it for about ten years though, so I was wondering how it would hold up.

Before I talk about the book, a quick review of the play. The Oberlin Summer Theater Festival produced it, and as usual, the sets, direction and acting were all top-notch (although adult actors playing ten year old characters was a bit jarring). I thought the adaptation into a play could have been better though; it was vastly simplified (the characters were all one-dimensional) and some of the events didn’t quite follow. I didn’t remember it being that way in the book, so that’s partly what prompted the reread.

I ended up enjoying the book a lot. Burnett has an engaging writing style, and even though her exposition can be a bit preachy, it rings true enough to be entertaining. The characters are (mostly) pretty complex, except for Dickon who’s basically magical, but that’s okay. Mary and Colin’s friendship made me smile – they’re both lonely, selfish and spoiled, but paradoxically they’re the only people that can help each other become a better person. Everyone else is just too normal.

I definitely picked up on a lot more of the subtle characterisation now that I’m older. The characters are all products of their experiences – Mrs. Medlock seems unsympathetic at first, but she’s just used to minding her own business, Dr. Craven is not terribly invested in his patient’s recovery, but he still holds to his Hippocratic Oath pretty strongly. I’d forgotten about the wonderful character of Mrs. Sowerby, who is responsible for everything sensible that happens in the book (the play omitted her entirely!)

The book is not without its flaws, some due to its time (I winced at the description of native Indians as “not real people”, although Mary was being particularly bratty at the time). Sometimes Burnett is pretty moralistic, and the serendipitous Magic that everything good is blamed on seems a bit hokey to me (but these days, everyone is taught to take charge of their own life and make stuff happen themselves, not depend on the universe’s goodwill – another sign of the cultural shift since the book was written). It is a book with ten year old protagonists, though, and I can distinctly remember being in awe of the wonders of the world then, so maybe I shouldn’t fault it.

My favourite Burnett book when I was younger was Little Lord Fauntleroy; I think I’m going to reread that next.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frederick A. Stokes, 1911 | Buy the book

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