Cover - Frances Hodgson Burnett - The Secret Garden - illus. Inga Moore - paperback 2009

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, illus. Inga Moore (London: Walker Books, 2009)

“Is the spring coming?” he said.  “What is it like?  You don’t see it in rooms if you are ill.”

“It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine, and things pushing up and working under the earth,” said Mary.  (144)

“You learn things by saying them over and over and thinking about them until they stay in your mind for ever, and I think it will be the same with Magic.  If you keep calling it to come to you and help you, it will get to be part of you and it will stay and do things.” (260)

“Of course, there must be lots of Magic in the world,” he said wisely one day, “but people don’t know what it is like or how to make it.   Perhaps the beginning is to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen … I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us – like electricity and horses and steam.”  (258-59)

This is the perfect book to read as spring begins unfurling tips and buds or if you are emerging from some kind of winter. There are three elements to this elemental story: the garden of the title, the spring, and magic.  Not magic of the witch-and-broom variety, but the quiet, real, slow magic wrought in gardens by the spring and in human beings by both.

I first read and loved The Secret Garden as a child, and then pretty much put it to the back of my mind, though I always kept the slim Puffin paperback my mother gave me for my ninth birthday and its cover illustration (featured) can still transport me to the imaginative world it opened up, the safest of safe havens you could find in a book.

Then a few years ago I saw this new edition, printed on high quality paper and with wondrous illustrations by Inga Moore which capture the enchantment of the story and the place.  I read it again and was swept away by its richness, wisdom and charm, most of which I believe I missed as a child for all I looked upon it as a faithful friend.

Like some other children’s classics I have or will review here, it gave me a shot of hope and joyful confidence during a period of flux and uncertainty (or ‘transition’ to give it a more planned and purposeful ring).  I can’t help thinking that many adults who seek guidance and nourishment in the groaning shelves of the self-help department could find more inspiration and sustenance through The Secret Garden and similar books allegedly aimed at children.  And without the hollow sugar rush high and inevitable low that such books often give: manufactured and marketed formulae promising all and yielding little.  The Secret Garden promises nothing and delivers much, just as a garden gives no thought to reviving your spirit as it goes about the business of blooming anew.

The garden has been abandoned for ten years, about the same length of time as the two cousins: Colin, abandoned to the housekeeper and medical staff by his father on the death of his mother, and Mary, made an orphan after cholera takes her parents away in the course of a day or two, although she had already been abandoned by them in being handed over to an army of nannies and servants. Being orphaned is what brings Mary to Misselthwaite, where she is well provided for materially but again somewhat abandoned.

Mary’s meals were served regularly, and Martha waited on her, but no one troubled themselves about her in the least.  Mrs Medlock came and looked at her every day or two, but no one inquired what she did or told her what to do.  (65)

As Mary is independent and spirited, she just goes exploring, ignoring prohibitions.  Although the book’s main locus is the garden, the house itself is a dream of secret, endless, forgotten rooms and corridors, an accretion of centuries of memories.  The kind of place I still seek.  In her wanderings, she hears mysterious cries and when she asks questions, they become nervy and fob her off by insisting the cries are just the wind.  First secret.

Ambling through the garden, asking questions, poking around, she learns of a walled garden, closed to the world for ten years, the key buried and lost.  With the help of a perky robin she finds the key, and like all the best keys, it unlocks not just a door, but a world and, eventually, hearts and lives.  Second secret.

“If I have a spade” she whispered, “I can make the earth nice and soft and dig up weeds. If I have seeds and can make flowers grow, the garden won’t be dead at all – it will come alive.”  (97)

Mary is the agent bringing secrets into the open, later also deciding whom to trust with this one. She then forces out the secret of the cries she hears in the corridor.  An unusual aspect of the book is that two of the principal characters are, or begin by being, stupendously awful.  Both Colin and Mary are objectionable brats who terrorize the servants around them.

He’s been spoiled till salt won’t save him.  (195)

Mary, having only recently been just as obnoxious as Colin, holds a mirror up to his tantrums and so has a healthy neutralizing effect on him.  She is then further aided by a naturally well-adjusted country boy, Dickon, an animal-whisperer a century before we heard of ‘whisperers’.

“A boy, and a fox, and a crow, and two squirrels, and a new-born lamb are coming to see me this morning.  I want them brought upstairs as soon as they come,” he said.  (211)

In time you get to the bottom of why the cousins became so ghastly in the first place, really the effects of the adults around them.  And it is the children who heal first themselves, physically and emotionally, and later, the adult who needs healing more than anyone: Colin’s father and Mary’s guardian. And they do it indirectly, by bringing the secret garden back to life, apparently sensing that this is the key to their own growing strength.  They decide to keep both projects under wraps until Colin can present his straight, healthy body to his absent, sorrow-struck father.  Third secret, though this one is not a blanket of silence, but a surprise being prepared, meant to bring joy.

The theme of magic pulses through the book, the magic of life and its forces.  It is the magic that makes things happen underground in the garden, working out of sight until green spears pierce the earth, a magic echoed in Colin’s recovery.  Sometimes, when you are working on something, inside or outside yourself, you may need to ‘go underground’ for a while.

“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing.  Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people.”  (260)

The book also captures the fragility and tenderness of life, as well as its strong impulses, in particular through a moving description of eggs.  If you have watched the hatching of turtle eggs on nature films (or in real life), and their determined, desperate, dangerous rush to get to the relative safety of the sea, this may resonate:

The immense, tender, terrible, heart-breaking beauty and solemnity of Eggs.  If there had been one person in that garden who had not known through all his or her innermost being that if an Egg were taken away or hurt the whole world would whirl round and crash through space and come to an end – if there had been even one who did not feel it and act accordingly there could have been no happiness even in that golden springtime air.  (281)

But ‘magic’ is also a state of mind, and the book is a paean to the will to grow and live fully.  Colin’s recovery is spurred on when he ceases believing he will die and instead becomes sure he will live forever.

“I’ve seen the spring now and I’m going to see the summer. I’m going to see everything grow here.  I’m going to grow here myself.”  (237)

And in the end, the magic of renewal in him, Mary, and the garden is somehow transmitted to the shadow-man who abandoned himself to being a widower, to the exclusion of being a father.  The book ends in the no longer secret garden, all reunited and whole again.

And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.  (280)

Having just re-read it for the second time, I have that warming afterglow and zip of inspiration such as you might have after a holiday walking in the hills.  Inga Moore’s images are a perfect complement to this timeless book.  Give it to any children you know and take the time to read it yourself if you are in want of enchantment.  It’ll also give you the energy to go and grapple with spring digging in the garden.

Let me also mention the film version by Agnieszka Holland made in 1993, similarly captivating and true to the spirit of the book.  I now have a BBC version and will report back when I’ve seen it.

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 for ever 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 someone’s eye. (232)

This long and winding quotation enchanted me to the extent that I wrote it out by hand some 20-30 times and sent individual copies to as many friends. It is one of a small trove of prose quotations that I mean to commit to memory. Perhaps I will then recite it at dawn to the birds, and enjoy their baffled chirping: “What is she on about now?”

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