Young adult books through regular adult eyes.
Based on knowledge gleaned from heart-warming turn-of-the-century classics like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, as well as even earlier Victorian works such as Jane Eyre, it is safe to assume that historically, in the British Empire, it was a common custom for people to tell young girls how unattractive they were. “Hey, lookin’ weird!” various guardians, family members, classmates, mentors, friends, and co-workers tell poor orphaned Jane Eyre as she silently tries to blend into the curtains. But of course she looks kind of pale and twitchy and bug-eyed. She’s constantly getting insulted by strangers and close friends! Every day of her life is like, Will this person hire me as a governess, or will they call me a goblin? Probably both! This seems nerve-wracking.
Meanwhile, Anne gets mad attitude for her red hair from the denizens of Prince Edward Island, who are tragically unaware that future Rita Hayworths, Julianne Moores, Joan Holloways, et al. will conclusively prove that red hair is always, always what’s up. (Gilbert Blythe knows the score.)
And then there’s Mary Lennox, the heroine of The Secret Garden, who has jaundiced skin, “a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression.” When Mary’s parents die of cholera in India, she is sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven—a recluse with a hunchback—in a mansion on the English moors. As soon as she sets foot on English soil, people begin proclaiming that she is an unusually ugly ten-year-old girl.
Luckily, this doesn’t really bother Mary. At first, she’s too busy being contrary to care what people think of her looks. She’s been both neglected and spoiled rotten all her life, and as a result she’s kind of an alien. She doesn’t know how to dress herself, she hates basically everything (food, fresh air, the wind), and she’s rude to Martha, the friendly and inquisitive maid who talks in a Yorkshire accent.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s bitter little protagonist is quite believably horrible. In the space of a chapter or two, Burnett establishes Mary as selfish, prejudiced, spoiled, stiff, and sulky. But she’s not fundamentally rotten—just unloved and ignorant. In India, her parents forsook her for work and glamorous parties. Mary’s own racism, and the broader power dynamics of colonial England, prevented her from developing close relationships with the men and women who worked for her family. (The book both exoticizes India and subtly critiques Mary’s racism by contrasting her views with those of the more enlightened Martha.) Mary’s never had anyone care about her, and she’s never learned to care about anyone else either.
Basically, Mary is under-nourished in body, mind, and soul. It’s no surprise, then, that things really start turning around for her once she forces herself to go outside, where there are crusty gardeners to bother and robins to anthropomorphize. Wind and sun help, too. Soon Mary’s getting stronger, feeling healthily hungry for the first time when she sits down to meals, and—even more surprisingly—starting to come around on her whole misanthropy deal.
“She had begun to like the garden just as she had begun to like the robin and Dickon and Martha’s mother,” Burnett writes. “She was beginning to like Martha, too. That seemed a good many people to like—when you were not used to liking. She thought of the robin as one of the people.”
Once Mary starts liking people and things, she can’t seem to stop adding more to her list. Inevitably, people start liking her back. (You can tell they’re softening up because they start telling her that she’s much less ugly than she was a little while ago.) And when she finds her way into the secret garden—a once-beautiful space that’s been neglected since her aunt died in a tragic accident ten years earlier—Mary gains a sense of purpose.
Dickon, Martha’s younger brother, becomes Mary’s confidante and green-thumb mentor. Explaining how to take care of plants, he tells her to just treat them as you would a person: give them water when they look thirsty, and space if they look crowded. “All a chap’s got to do to make ‘em thrive,” he adds, “is to be friends with ‘em for sure. “ But the reverse is also true. Being friends with something—even and including roses and robins—and learning to pay attention to the needs of living things makes Mary thrive too.
Re-reading The Secret Garden, I was struck by how passionately Burnett makes her case for letting children be children, playing freely outdoors. She believes in the importance of this point so much that she illustrates it twice over—through Mary’s transition from sour forty-year-old trapped in a child’s body to actual kid, and through her cousin Colin’s transition from a bedridden, sick young boy to the picture of health. Their recoveries from parentally-created ills are aided, and mirrored by, the secret garden as it comes to life:
“[Mary] was beginning to like being out of doors… She could run faster, and longer, and she could skip up to a hundred. The bulbs in the secret garden must have been much astonished. Such nice clear places were made round them that they had all the breathing space they wanted, and really, if Mistress Mary had known it, they began to cheer up under the dark earth and work tremendously. The sun could get at them and warm them, and when the rain came down it could reach them at once, so they began to feel very much alive.”
Burnett’s most persuasive piece of evidence in building her outdoors case may be Dickon, the wide-mouthed, blue-eyed twelve-year-old with an entourage of baby animals. Having grown up tumbling around the moor, Dickon is deeply connected to the earth. He speaks robin and walks around with a coterie that includes a baby fox named Captain and “a tiny little shaggy moor pony with thick locks hanging over his eyes and with a pretty face and a nuzzling velvet nose named Jump.” I mean! Dickon is the stuff pre-teen crushes are made of. And no kid is going to turn down going outside if it means you can make friends with a baby fox. No way, no how.
One strange thing about The Secret Garden, however, is the way it switches perspectives about two-thirds through. Although Colin plays a large role in the novel throughout, Mary has been our trusted guide to the moor and its inhabitants. But as she’s in better shape than Colin to begin with, her recovery is much speedier. Once Mary is cheerful and healthy and liberated, Burnett gives over the rest of the book to Colin as he learns to walk.
Not coincidentally, this is also the part of the book where things start getting kind of hokey. Dickon, Colin, and Mary sing psalms in the garden and talk constantly of Magic. Colin makes grand proclamations. Even the crotchety old gardener Ben Weatherstaff sheds tears and seems generally wowed by Colin. Yes, but what is so great about that guy? I kept asking myself, reading hesitantly on. Without Mary’s contrary, stubborn perspective, the novel loses its winning tartness.
But even with Mary unfortunately relegated to the background for the last sixty pages or so, The Secret Garden remains enchanting through adult eyes. What I found most moving, this time around, was the book’s message that long-neglected spaces can be saved.
Everyone has parts of themselves that they believe to be withered or grown in wrong or closed off for good. At the novel’s outset, Mary’s inner life has all the savor of a fossilized piece of tree bark. Archibald Craven throws away the key to his wife’s beloved garden when she dies, and spends the next decade living his life as if it’s already over. He passes his despair onto his young son, who grows up convinced that he will die young and terrified that he will develop a hunchback like his father.
The Secret Garden reminds readers that those withered, closed-off, twisted parts are not entirely dead. Like the grey and brown secret garden that Mary first encounters, they’re just waiting to be paid a little attention.
Early on in the book, Dickon cuts open a thin branch in the garden and shows Mary its green-brown interior, calling it wick—a word Mary’s never heard before. She seizes on it like an amulet. “I’m glad it’s wick!! I want them all to be wick. Let us go round the garden and count how many wick ones there are.”
It’s as good a place to start as any, when you’re trying to make something under-nourished come alive again. Like Mary, you can move around in a grateful triage, counting all the still-wick things left. You can find crocuses and snowdrops ready and willing to breathe again, once the weeds that have been suffocating them get cleared away. You can dig and trim and run around on the windy moors of your own newly re-opened heart, and you can feel your body clamoring for whatever hot meal is placed in front of you, eager to devour it all and get back outside, to help what grows.
All of which, Burnett says, is really nothing to be amazed at. “Much more surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one,” she writes with a sensibly stiff upper lip. “Two things cannot be in one place.” Agreed.