Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'The Secret Garden', Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1909 novel about an orphan who gardens her way to a good character.
When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable child ever seen. It was true, too.
Somewhere along the line, along with straw prams and caning rods, having a child character not even the narrator can stand went out of business. (Off the top of my head, I can only think of Ingalls Wilder's condemnation of Nellie, and you know she was just writing the God's honest truth.) But in the case of Mary Lennox, daughter of Colonial India, Frances Hodgson Burnett does not stint:
She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow, because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.
This is all on the first page, mind. Because Mary, whose father serves in the colonial government and is cared for only by servants because her careless, beautiful mother and her sickly, absent father cannot be bothered with her, is not only ugly but possessed of a terrible character. Here's where we are by the second page:
...by the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.
Okay. Ugliest child ever, most loathsome child ever. Check! But it now strikes me that Burnett may have established how profoundly awful Mary is at this precise moment simply to arm the young reader against all of the terrible things the author is about to do to her: namely, kill her mother and father and the entire compound they live on with a cholera outbreak.
And...done! That's page 4. Moving right along, we soon find Mary in the hands of Mrs. Medlock, who is not a bad woman but is more interested in the cold chicken and beef (19th century British food porn, sigh) they serve on the train than in Mary's welfare. Mrs. Medlock is in the employ of a certain Dickensian-ish Mr. Craven, a rich, reclusive old soul and Mary's uncle by marriage and now guardian, after his beautiful young wife's early death. Miss Medlock is empowered to transport Mary back to England to Misselthwaite Manor, where Mr. Craven lives in splendid, therapy-free isolation.
Okaythatisallyourbackstory. Misselthwaite is the kind of gloomy old 100-room barn now made stock through a battery of media (see: My Cousin Rachel, The Others, Gosford Park, the works of Merchant Ivory, who might all actually *use* the same house), and this abrupt rustication is the first step in Mary becoming not the COMPLETELY worst child in the world. As Burnett (who, in her age, was something like J.K. Rowling mashed with Oprah with a little Elizabeth Taylor thrown in) spends about 300 pages establishing this, you can't fault her for dogging on the girl in the beginning.
Mary's first reeducation begins with waking to meet her young, red-faced, way talkative Yorkshire servant, Martha:
The native servants she had been used to in India were not in the least like this. They were obsequious and servile and did not presume to talk to their masters as if they were equals. They made salaams and called them "protector of the poor" and names of that sort. Indian servants were commanded to do things, not asked. It was not the custom to say "please" and "thank you" and Mary had always slapped her Ayah in the face when she was angry. She wondered a little what this girl would do if one slapped her in the face. She was a round, rosy, good-natured-looking creature, but she had a sturdy way which made Mistress Mary wonder if she might not even slap back—if the person who slapped her was only a little girl.
Okay, now I know why I had any awareness of Colonial India at all, because obviously, I did not learn about it in school. Anyway, it's Martha who is the first person to take any interest in Mary, even if a good part of the interest is wondering why Mary is so completely retarded that she doesn't even know how to tie her own shoes.
But through Martha — on literally the first day, I think; if Burnett is anything, she is speedy — Mary learns that she is, um, SUPPOSED to do that, and also about how it's rude to not eat your oatmeal when all of Martha's 8 brothers and sisters in a shack on the moor would eat it in about two seconds, and, about Martha's brother Dickon, who can talk to all the animals of the moor, like missel thrushes, whatever those are.
But most important, Mary, who if not a "that's classified" sort of person, tells Mary about one of the house's gardens:
"Mr. Craven had it shut when his wife died so sudden. He won't let no one go inside. It was her garden. He locked th' door an' dug a hole and buried th' key. There's Mrs. Medlock's bell ringing — I must run."
Goddamnit Martha, don't leave a girl hanging! But actually it's Martha leaving Mary hanging that saves her from a life of misery. Because in failing to follow her orders to spill, Martha has moved Mary from a life of idle indifference into one of curiosity, which apparently kills cats but is very good for children, as are the hot cross buns and milk Mary finally develops an appetite for from running around on the moor.
Because Mary has been put in a house of secrets. The garden is paramount, but on top of that there is the mystery of Dickon, and how a boy can talk to animals; there is the question of why Mr. Craven is so miserable and hunchbacked; there is the problem of what the hell everyone is saying, because Mary cannot understand the Yorkshire accent at all; and, most important, there is the issue of the wailing Mary often hears through the halls, a fretful sound she knows is more than the wind.
I will not go into the mysteries of the house, because I don't want to ruin the book for the two of you who may not have read it, or repeat it for those who have surely read it 6,000 times, as everyone who reads it once does immediately thereafter. But The Secret Garden, more than anything, is about those who are locked up, and those who grow — both literally and emotionally.
This is true of persons and of nations. Mary is not the only one who, before she becomes a careful gardener, idly skims her wealth off the labor of the poor and is made sick by it. Hodgson is also writing about the wasteful, destructive nature of England — its despicable conquest of another country, its rampant profiteering, the corruption from within being caused by the corruption without. England's idle rich are wealthy, but in The Secret Garden, their wealth only serves to oppress — even to deform! — those who possess it. Misselthwaite's owner, its heir, and Mary are England the colonizer — and its as piggish, tyrannical and sickly a country as Mary ever was.
But this is not true of the simple people of the moor, armed with their strategic knowledge of larkspur and hot-cross-buns! Schooled by the simple people of the moor, by their own servants, Mary and the other inhabitants of locked-up Misselthwaite are revived. Of course, the servants and Dickon are a little too joyously occupied with the happiness of their employers to make this a handy pamphlet for Mao, but in the case of wealthy versus healthy, colonizer versus fertilizer, they win absolutely. In Burnett's view, England itself is a locked-up garden which, only tended by the wealthy and humble alike, can express the true beauty of the nation.
In fact, Burnett is saying, there is an instinctive shovel in all of us that would improve our spirits if we were only left to dig, and if we then ate enough hot cross buns and milk to feed our newly fired appetites, our characters would improve as well. Today, we mainly have the loops of IKEA and the concourses of Newark airport to run around in, building our appetites through synthetic buttercream, and the only secret is what is that horrible-smelling blue cake they put in the public toilets. Still, Burnett, I raise my Cinnabon to you, and toast you with my Frappuccino. We will get there eventually.
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