Review of The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
By ALEXIS NEAL
Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And marigolds all in a row!
So goes the nursery rhyme taunt sung to the central character in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, The Secret Garden. And the shoe certainly fits: Mary Lennox is quite contrary. And little wonder: Born in India to wealthy British parents, she’s always been given her way in everything. By her servants, anyway—her parents were far too busy to be bothered with her. Functionally raised by native servants too terrified of her to challenge even the most unreasonable of her demands, Mary has never had to give a moment’s thought to anyone but herself. But when her parents are carried off in a tragic cholera epidemic, Mary is shipped off to Yorkshire to live with her hunchbacked old uncle, Archibald Craven, in an immense mansion at the edge of the moor. Left to her own devices, and with no one to wait on her hand and foot or provide her with entertainment, Mary begins to experience firsthand the benefits of fresh air, exercise, and the beauty of nature (none of which were apparently available in India). Mary gradually begins to think of things besides herself and her desires, and nothing occupies her mind more than the mysterious Secret Garden where Craven’s young wife is said to have met her tragic and accidental end ten years earlier. But the Secret Garden isn’t the only mystery Mary’s determined to solve; she keeps hearing cries in the night.
This being a children’s novel, it will come as a shock to precisely no one that Mary does, in fact, discover the Secret Garden. She also hunts down the source of the nighttime cries: Colin, the invalidish son of Archibald Craven and wife. Colin’s been coddled his whole life for fear that upsetting him will aggravate his condition: when he says jump, everyone in the manor says ‘How high?’ Everyone, that is, except the equally selfish and autocratic Mary Lennox, whose stubbornness is more than a match for the spoiled, sickly Colin. However, Mary has grown since her own apex of contrariness, and has a certain amount of compassion for Colin, who lives in constant terror that he will develop a hunchback like his father and/or die young. Mary is able to take his mind off his health by regaling him with tales of the Secret Garden, and soon Colin is every bit as excited about the prospect as she is. With the help of Dickon, a local boy with a gift for befriending animals, they busy themselves planting and weeding and pruning and generally getting everything ship-shape. In the process, Colin’s health improves significantly.
He attributes this improvement to the ‘magic’ of the Garden—indeed, the whole book is essentially an ode to the beneficial power of nature. Both Mary and Colin have led fairly sedentary lives, and the fresh air and exercise (particularly working in the garden) work wonders on them, increasing their appetites and fattening them up quite nicely. Burnett’s high opinion of the benefits of outdoor play for children is reminiscent of Louisa May Alcott’s similar attitude, displayed clearly in Eight Cousins, and, to a lesser degree, in the excellent An Old-Fashioned Girl.
However, the beneficial influence of nature is not limited to the children’s physical condition; it also affects their temperaments. Both Mary and Colin start out as selfish, unpleasant children. They are rotten little beasts, in a way that the protagonists of children’s books are rarely permitted to be. It’s actually kind of refreshing. As a child, I remember identifying more strongly with the willful and autocratic Mary than I ever did with more angelic storybook children.
The cure for this rottenness turns out to be, well, each other. Yes, the garden helps, and the outdoors, and a curious robin, and a gruff-but-goodhearted groundskeeper. And Dickon, who fascinates Colin and is basically idolized by Mary. He is their shining example—kind and friendly and generous and, despite his poverty, happy in a way neither Mary nor Colin has ever been. But as influential as Dickon is, he is not the primary catalyst for change. The greatest change in Mary and Colin is worked by … each other. Until he meets Mary, Colin has never encountered anyone willing—or able—to stand up to him. Mary is impervious to his tantrums and refuses to cosset him when he’s engaged in a neurotic fit. In Colin, Mary sees what she used to be (and what, in many ways, she still is). She realizes that the things that helped her be less awful might have a similar affect on Colin, and so, for the first time in her life, she decides to do something for the benefit of another.
In many ways, this is a rather upside-down example of ‘iron sharpening iron.’ (Proverbs 27:12) Rather than spurring one another on to good deeds, Colin’s sinful selfishness bumps into Mary’s sinful selfishness, and in order to get on together, they each learn to abandon their respective egos (at least to some degree) and become better, happier children in the bargain. And there’s certainly some practical truth to this. When we see our sins reflected in others, we get a better picture of just how awful and ugly our sins really are. And experiencing the practical consequences of our sin (like broken relationships) can certainly motivate us to behave ourselves better.
But despite Burnett’s optimistic view of human relationships, the changes resulting from our interactions with others and with the world around us are, at best, external changes. Other people can’t change our hearts. The only way we can actually be transformed from rotten sinners into ‘good children’ is through the saving work of Jesus Christ. He is the only one who lived a perfectly good life, and He died in our place, taking the punishment we deserved, so that we can experience not only the forgiveness of our sins, but genuine heart transformation that begins at conversion and continues throughout the whole of our lives. (Ezekiel 36:25-28; I Corinthians 3:18) Through this gospel, God changes us into people who, though still sinners, now loathe the very sins we used to love, and love the righteousness we once despised. (Romans 7:7-21; Romans 12:9) Sometimes, God does use other peoples as instruments of that change, but it is ultimately God who works in us. (Philippians 2:13) It’s a long process, and it won’t be finished in this lifetime, but ‘a change is gonna come’—gradual at first, and riddled with setbacks. John Newton described it well:
[T]hough I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was …
We hold on to the hope that one day the change will be complete (I Corinthians 15:52) and we will be not only justified, but glorified (Romans 8:30)—not only credited with righteousness (Galatians 3:6), but well and truly free from our sin. And when that day comes, God and God alone will be able to claim the credit for our transformation—He will get the glory.
Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.