The Secret Garden

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The Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett


(Full name Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett) English editor, playwright, and author of juvenile fiction, short stories, and novels.

The following entry presents criticism on Burnett's juvenile novel The Secret Garden (1911) through 1998. For further information on Burnett's life and works, see CLR, Volume 24.


While fondly remembered as a classic of girl's fiction, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911) is equally well known for its focus on strong recurring thematic motifs of rebirth and transformation, neatly captured in the symbolic emblem of a lost garden springing to life. Popular for its unlikely focus on a pair of "difficult" children who are nonetheless sympathetic, Burnett's novel features a densely structured plot which examines such mature themes as class standing, strained familial relationships, and adolescent growth. The text's open acceptance of disagreeable characters acts as an atypical departure from the other orphan narratives of the same era, such as Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Kate Douglas Wiggin's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna, among others. The subject of a bevy of critical studies, The Secret Garden has remained popular with young female readers since its initial publication, leading to a host of reprintings and reinterpretations in various mediums, including motion pictures, stage musicals, and cartoons.


Born on November 24, 1849, in Manchester, England, to Edwin and Eliza Hodgson, Burnett was the eldest of five siblings. Her father initially supported his family by managing a furniture store, but after his death in 1853, Burnett's mother opened a wholesale firm that supplied art materials and hardwares to local textile manufacturers. The economy in Manchester collapsed during the 1860s and, as a result, Burnett's family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where her mother hoped that her brother might provide financial assistance. Unfortunately, upon their arrival, the Hodgsons received little help from their extended family and were forced to live in harsh circumstances. For Burnett, while the continued lack of money was stressful, she nonetheless found the new surroundings a welcome departure from the polluted climate and depressed economy of Manchester. While Burnett had long fancied herself a writer, penning her first poem at the age of seven, in Tennessee she began to submit stories to magazines in hopes of providing supplemental income for her desperate family. Her first published story appeared in Godey's Lady's Book in 1868 and, despite her young age, by 1871, her stories were soon running in several prominent magazines. Tragedy struck the family again with the death of her mother when Burnett was eighteen, forcing her to support herself and her four younger siblings solely on the basis of her growing literary career. Enjoying her increasing reputation and prosperity for the first time, she returned to England for a year-long visit in 1873, where she became more closely acquainted with Swan Burnett, a Tennessee ophthalmologist she had known for several years, ultimately marrying him in September of 1873. Together they had two children, Lionel and Vivian, even as Burnett's literary career began to boom. She released her second novel That Lass o'Lowrie's in 1877. While the novel was well-received and sold well in both America and England, she failed to receive any royalties from the British editions due to the lack of cooperation between the English and American governments over the respective countries' copyright laws. Once again, she found herself under a growing cloud of monetary concern, and the family returned to America after the birth of Vivian. Settling in Washington D.C., where her husband set up a medical practice, Burnett's fortunes began to improve, and she became a well-known figure in Washington's social circles. During this period, Burnett turned to converting her more popular books into stage plays, partially in response to the demand for her works born from several unauthorized English stage productions derived from her novels. However, she remained professionally focused on writing novels for women until the twin voices of Henry James—who in a review of the stage version of Esmeralda suggested her talents would be ideally suited to children's literature—and her son Lionel swayed her to consider writing for younger readers. Already in the process of writing a story called Little Lord Fauntleroy for her children, she agreed to allow it to be serialized in the preeminent children's magazine of the era, St. Nicholas, in 1885. The story proved immensely popular and convinced Burnett to write for children almost exclusively for several years. As Burnett became a best-selling children's author, her new success was balanced out by a series of personal tragedies, including her divorce from her husband and the death of her son Lionel from tuberculosis. In 1900, two years after her divorce became final, Burnett caused a scandal by marrying Stephen Towne-send, ten years her junior, who was a doctor, actor, and writer. However, the marriage was short-lived, and the couple separated in 1902. In 1905 Burnett was finally granted U.S. citizenship. Her later years saw her public support fade despite the late critical and immensely popular success of her last great novel, The Secret Garden, which she released in 1911. She retired into seclusion at her beloved estate in Plandome, New York, where she lived quietly until passing away on October 29, 1924.


One of the primary distinctions between Burnett and her contemporaries, which is particularly evident in The Secret Garden, is her willing embrace of unlikely heroes. Burnett biographer Ann Twaite has argued that "the most original thing about [The Secret Garden] was that its heroine and one of its heroes were both thoroughly unattractive children." When the reader is first introduced to Mary Lennox—a young English girl living with her parents in India—she is a spoiled girl prone to tantrums. However, Burnett offers a more complete portrait of Mary's life throughout the text that makes her somewhat churlish nature more understandable. Elizabeth Lennox Keyser has commented that "[Mary's] mistreatment of the Indian servants, though shocking, seems excusable, since she had an apathetic, invalid father and vain, frivolous father," noting further that, "after her parents' death, [Mary] is passed from one reluctant guardian to another, her suspiciousness seems justified." After her parents die suddenly in an epidemic, Mary is sent to live with her only relatives, the Cravens, at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England. In her new setting, the wealthy Mary meets the Sowerby family who help awaken a change in her nature, despite their class differences. Martha works as a maid in the house, and her younger brother Dickon is a free spirit who talks to animals and has an uncanny knack where the natural world is concerned. They become her first friends and allow Mary to see herself as others do. The next stage in her rebirth occurs when Mary rescues a robin who leads her to the titular secret garden. Left to grow wild after the death of the lady of the manor, the garden was ordered closed by the grieving Archibald Craven, Mary's uncle. Mary, with Dickon's help, begins transforming the garden back to its former glory. One night she hears crying and discovers a cousin she never knew she had, Colin, Archibald's son. A naturally sick boy who's convinced he's an invalid, Colin is spoiled, angry, and lonely. Burnett even goes so far as to describe him "as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived." Recognizing a kindred spirit—Mary once behaved as Colin did—she shows Colin the garden, and he begins to help with its revitalization. Colin eventually regains his strength, as well as the friendship of Mary, Dickon, and Ben Weatherstaff, a favored caretaker of Colin's mother who had surreptitiously cared for the garden in its mistress's absence. All the plot points coalesce in a climatic resolution where Colin surprises his father with his vitality, everyone is shown the miraculous rebirth of the secret garden, and Colin, Mary, and Archibald complete their respective transformations to create a new family from the ashes of their individual personal tragedies.


Many scholars have contended that the elements of emotional and spiritual death and rebirth in The Secret Garden were, in large part, inspired by Burnett's conflicting emotions surrounding the death of her son, Lionel, particularly the role of her work in relation to his illness. Elizabeth Lennox Keyser has posited that "like many successful writers, including Louise May Alcott and Burnett's prolific friend Mrs. Humphry Ward, [who] tried to rationalize her writing as unselfish service, and, when she could not ignore its self-assertive and self-serving role, punished herself with ill health" and "chastened her self-assertive female characters." The examination of societal roles is another major thematic thread in The Secret Garden. The lives of Colin and Mary are contrasted with that of the Sowerbys, who are their opposites in many respects. Whereas Mary and Colin have all their physical needs met, they still suffer from emotional neglect, whereas the Sowerbys are full of love but are victims of privation. As a sign of their growth, Colin and Mary eventually try to help the Sower-bys's lot in life, the first time they have shown a desire to help others. Further, the book examines the lives of the Cravens' servants and demonstrates a surprising sympathy for their sacrifices and difficulties. For example, the narration notes how the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, is forced to miss her niece's wedding so that she can instead pick up Mary in London and deliver the girl to Misselthwaite Manor. In so doing, Phyllis Bixler has suggested, "The Secret Garden avoids glamorizing working-class life by indicating the personal sacrifices of being a wage earner." But perhaps the story's greatest thematic element is its dedication to the principal of rebirth and transformation. Ulf Boëthius has argued that the garden of the title is reflective of more than just a powerful setting but a core feature of the story's promise of life, growth, and generation where "magic accordingly also becomes a moral power. When first Mary and later Colin have been caught up in the rebirth of the garden, they are changed: they become not only stronger and merrier but also less selfish, less spoiled, and more disposed to care about other living creatures." In an obvious nod to the overt power of symbolism, Burnett links the rebirth of the garden to the spiritual transformations of Mary, Colin, and Archibald. Bixler has further asserted that Burnett's use of this device is actually borrowed from traditional Cinderella folk tales where "in some variants of that tale, Cinderella's dead mother aids her through a plant growing on her grave or an animal she had given to Cinderella before she died. Through her portrayal of the secret garden and a robin who lives there, Burnett uses both of these motifs."


The Secret Garden has remained popular with critics and readers since its first publication and has inspired several scholarly studies meant to delve deeper into the seemingly obvious symbolism of the garden's rebirth. Adrian Gunther has called the book "one the great icons of children's literature," while Phyllis Bixler has claimed that "The Secret Garden is also one of the richest, most complex, and most resonant of recognized children's classics." However, there has been recurrent criticism among critics, particularly feminist scholars, expressing abiding disappointment in the apparent disappearance of Mary as the central character over the last third of the novel. Indeed, several critics have stated that, in the novel's conclusion, Burnett idealizes Colin at the expense of Mary. Agreeing with this reading, Lissa Paul has commented that "the story fades from Mary's quest to Colin's," thus depicting Mary's "ultimate defeat." This idea that The Secret Garden progresses from a ideal of feminine determination to one of masculine power has occupied the attention of many prominent critics, including Elizabeth Lennox Keyser who has argued that "Colin, having had the advantage of 'wonderful books and pictures,' is more imaginative than Mary, and as he recovers his health he acquires both extraordinary physical beauty and a charismatic power. At the end of The Secret Garden we see Colin besting Mary in a footrace, and, indeed, he has already run away with, or been allowed to dominate, the final third of the book." Keyser has concluded that the book may essentially be "a defense of patriarchal authority." Despite such interpretations of Mary's loss of power, critics such as Adrian Gunther have countered that Mary "advances so much further along the path of self-discovery than does Colin that we cannot help but experience her as more important. Add to this the fact that what Colin does achieve is predominantly a product of Mary's wisdom and effort rather than his own." Shirley Foster and Judy Simons have concurred with this interpretation, asserting that, "the bulk of the novel focuses not on the achievement of external goals, nor on the acquisition of skills, but on the personal values of sharing, of selflessness and on the healing properties of love."


Juvenile Works

Little Lord Fauntleroy (juvenile novel) 1886
Editha's Burglar: A Story for Children (juvenile fiction) 1888
Sara Crewe; or, What Happened at Miss Minchin's (juvenile fiction) 1888
Piccino and Other Child Stories [illustrations by Reginald Birch] (juvenile short stories) 1894; published in the United Kingdom as The Captain's Youngest
A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe, Now Told for the First Time
[illustrations by Ethel Franklin Betts] (juvenile novel) 1905
Racketty-Packetty House (juvenile fiction) 1906
Queen Silver-Bell (juvenile fiction) 1906; published in the United Kingdom as The Troubles of Queen Silver-Bell
The Cozy Lion, as Told by Queen Crosspatch
[illustrations by Harrison Cady] (juvenile fiction) 1907
The Good Wolf [illustrations by Harold Sichel] (juvenile fiction) 1908
The Spring Cleaning, as Told by Queen Crosspatch [illustrations by Harrison Cady] (juvenile fiction) 1908
Barty Crusoe and His Man Saturday (juvenile fiction) 1909
The Children's Book [editor, with Katherine New-bold Birdsall and Vivian Burnett; illustrations by Harrison Cady and others] (juvenile short stories) 1909
The Land of the Blue Flower (juvenile fiction) 1909
The Secret Garden (juvenile novel) 1911
My Robin [illustrations by Alfred Brennan] (juvenile fiction) 1912
The Lost Prince [illustrations by Maurice L. Bower] (juvenile fiction) 1915
The Little Hunchback Zia [illustrations by Spencer Baird Nichols and W. T. Benda] (juvenile fiction) 1916
The Way to the House of Santa Claus: A Christmas Story for Very Small Boys in Which Every Little Reader Is the Hero of a Big Adventure (juvenile fiction) 1916
The White People [illustrations by Elizabeth Shippen Green] (juvenile fiction) 1917


Elizabeth Lennox Keyser (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. "'Quite Contrary': Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 1-13.

[In the following essay, Keyser challenges Burnett's characterizations of The Secret Garden's protagonists, Mary and Colin, as "disagreeable" and potentially unlikable children.]

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.1

Thus begins Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Ann Thwaite, Burnett's biographer, remarks that "the most original thing about [The Secret Garden ] was that its heroine and one of its heroes were both thoroughly unattractive children."2 And Marghanita Laski has written, "I do not know of any children's book other than The Secret Garden that frankly poses this problem of the introspective unlikeable child in terms that children can understand."3 Burnett herself describes Mary Lennox as wondering "why she had never seemed to belong to anyone even when her father and mother had been alive. Other children seemed to belong to their fathers and mothers, but she had never seemed to really be anyone's little girl…. She did not know that this was because she was a disagreeable child; but then, of course, she did not know she was disagreeable. She often thought that others were, but she did not know that she was so herself" (p. 12). Unattractive, unlike-able, disagreeable—these are the ways in which the critics and the author herself characterize Mary Lennox and the way in which the critics at least characterize Colin Craven. But I want to examine closely what the term "disagreeable" really means in connection with the heroine, Mary, and to distinguish between the ways in which the two children are unattractive or unlikeable.

Mary initially "disagrees" with the adult characters in the story not only because her looks and manners fail to please them but also because she refuses to accept their authority. From the outset, however, she is by no means "thoroughly unattractive" to the narrator, who, in the passage quoted above, conveys sympathy as well as antipathy for Mary by mingling the child's point of view with the omniscient. Nor is Mary "thoroughly unattractive" even to the critic who so labels her, for that critic obviously finds a powerful attraction in that very unattractiveness. As the book proceeds, Mary becomes at least moderately agreeable, both to others in the novel and to the narrator, who grants her a grudging approval. But as Mary ostensibly "improves," her role in the book diminishes, and she loses for the reader her main appeal. Instead the other "thoroughly unattractive" child, Master Colin, increasingly gains the center of the stage.

Colin, I would argue, is never as unattractive to the narrator as Mary, nor is he ever as attractive to the reader. Unlike Mary, who is never described as more than "almost pretty" even when she gains flesh and color, Colin, though far more fretful and selfish, is described from the beginning as having a "sharp, delicate face the color of ivory" and great black-fringed eyes like those of his dead mother (p. 124). The narrator tells us that Colin, having had the advantage of "wonderful books and pictures," is more imaginative than Mary, and as he recovers his health he acquires both extraordinary physical beauty and a charismatic power. At the end of The Secret Garden we see Colin besting Mary in a footrace, and, indeed, he has already run away with, or been allowed to dominate, the final third of the book.

The race is not always to the swift, however. Ask an adult what he or she remembers from a childhood reading of The Secret Garden. 4 Memories will differ, of course. But what I remembered before I re-read it recently was Mary's first finding and awakening the garden and then, in a reversal of the "Sleeping Beauty" story, her finding and awakening Colin. I remembered Mary exploring the winding paths and gardens within gardens, and indoors the winding corridors with their many locked rooms. And I remembered Mary as stubborn and defiant in her attitude toward adult authority and even toward Colin, but also tender and nurturing. I remembered Colin, too, but always as lying in his room being comforted by Mary or being wheeled by her into the garden. And I remembered his first faltering steps, supported by Mary, but I did not remember his digging, his running, and his calisthenics. And I certainly did not remember his expounding on magic and science. In fact, if my memory serves me, the more conventionally attractive that Colin grew and the more he came to dominate the book, the less memorable both he, and it, became.

Burnett seems to have intended to evoke sympathy for both Mary and Colin while at the same time portraying them as genuinely disagreeable children—children who treat others hatefully and are hated in turn because, having never known love, they feel hatred for themselves. She then apparently meant to show their transformation from self-hating and hateful to loving and lovable through the acquisition of self-esteem. For reasons which I will suggest later, however, Burnett makes Mary too attractive in her disagreeableness and Colin too unattractive in his agreeableness. As Mary becomes less disagreeable, she becomes, after a certain point, less interesting. And Colin, as he becomes more agreeable in some ways, becomes something of a prig and a bore. But before speculating as to why Burnett allows both characters to get out of control, let us consider how Mary, despite—or rather because of—authorial severity, becomes such a compelling figure.

An early example of Mary's unpleasantness earns her the nickname "Mistress Mary Quite Contrary." As a little boy named Basil watches Mary "making heaps of earth and paths for a garden," he suggests that they make a rockery. She spurns his offer, but what strikes us is not so much Mary's ill temper at what she takes to be his interference as her attempt, literally and metaphorically, to make something grow from barren ground. Although the narrator later tells us that Mary is less imaginative than Colin, we, having witnessed her persistent efforts to bring forth life, tend to disbelieve the narrator or at least to question her use of the word imagination. True, Mary must overcome the distrustfulness that makes her contrary with well-meaning people like Basil. And she succeeds by admitting first Dickon and then Colin to her secret garden. After admitting Dickon, she tells him about the incident with Basil. He replies, in characteristic fashion, "There doesn't seem to be no need for no one to be contrary when there's flowers an' such like" (p. 108). But Dickon is, in some respects, more naive than Mary, who knows there is more to the world than flowers and friendly wild things. Sometimes, as it was for Mary in India, contrariness is necessary for self-preservation; and sometimes, as for Mary in England, it is even necessary for self-renewal.5

We can sympathize with Mary even though she is not a "nice sympathetic child" in part because of the deprivation she has endured. Her mistreatment of the Indian servants, though shocking, seems excusable, since she has been left almost entirely to their care by an apathetic, invalid father and a vain, frivolous mother. When, after her parents' death, she is passed from one reluctant guardian to another, her suspiciousness seems justified. And when, on arriving at Misselthwaite Manor, she overhears the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, being warned to keep her out of her uncle's sight and confined to her own two rooms, we can understand why Mary "perhaps never felt quite so contrary in all her life" (p. 23). Yet while we can see that Mary's unhappiness gives rise to her naughtiness,6 the narrator, by saying that Mary never belonged to anyone because she was a disagreeable child, implies that the reverse is true. In fact, the narrator's refusal to intervene on behalf of Mary, as she does on behalf of Colin, forces us into the position of defending her ourselves.

If Mary's contrariness consisted of mere sullenness, we might agree with the narrator and the adult characters' assessment of her. But there is, as I have suggested, a positive side to her contrariness, which is supported by other characters in the book as well. On her first morning at Misselthwaite, Mary awakens to find the servant Martha in her room. There had been no reciprocity in Mary's relationship with her Indian servants. She could verbally, and even physically, abuse her ayah with impunity. On meeting Martha, however, Mary wonders how she would react to being slapped. Something tells her that Martha would slap her right back. Sure enough, when Mary calls her a "daughter of a pig," as she was wont to insult her ayah, Martha reproves her. The way Martha reacts to and affects Mary resembles the way in which Mary later reacts to and affects Colin. When Martha forces Mary to make at least some effort to dress herself, the narrator comments: "If Martha had been a well-trained fine young lady's maid she would have been more subservient and respectful and would have known that it was her business to brush hair, and button boots, and pick things up and lay them away. She was, however, only an untrained Yorkshire rustic" (p. 30). When Mary later tells Colin that she hates him and contradicts him when, in a bid for her pity, he says he feels a lump on his back, the narrator similarly comments: "A nice sympathetic child could neither have thought nor said such things" (p. 175). But in fact both the untrained Yorkshire rustic and "savage little Mary" have a salutary effect on those who are used to being coddled, and the ironic treatment of Mary's antitypes—the well-trained maid, the fine young lady, and the nice sympathetic child—suggests both the author's need to condemn plainspokenness and her even stronger desire to condone it.

Martha insists that the reluctant Mary play out-of-doors, where she meets another character whose contrariness matches her own. Ben Weatherstaff, the crusty gardener, "had a surly old face, and did not seem at all pleased to see her—but then she was displeased with his garden and wore her 'quite contrary' expression, and certainly did not seem at all pleased to see him" (p. 34). But when Mary mentions a robin and Ben describes how it was abandoned by its parents, she is able for the first time to recognize and admit her own loneliness. Like Martha, Ben Weather-staff is given to plainspokenness. He says to Mary: "We was wove out of th' same cloth. We're neither of us good lookin' an' we're both of us as sour as we look. We've got the same nasty tempers, both of us, I'll warrant" (p. 40). Mary is taken aback and contrasts him, like Martha, with the native servants who always "salaamed and submitted to you, whatever you did." But Ben's bluntness, too, helps Mary both to know herself and to see herself as others see her.

Dickon, with his intuitive understanding of nature, and his mother, with her equally wonderful understanding of human nature, not only aid Mary but also counter the asperity of the narrator toward her. But in doing justice to Dickon and his mother, one tends to forget that it is Ben who befriends the robin, whose plight was analogous to Mary's and Colin's, and that it is Ben who kept the garden alive during the ten years it was locked up. It is also Ben who, along with Martha, piques Mary's curiosity about the garden but refuses to satisfy it, thus arousing by his contrariness all her stubborn determination to seek it out. And during the time that Mary searches for an entrance to the garden, Ben and Martha provide her with the insights necessary to appreciate her eventual discovery. In the chapter in which Mary finds the key, Martha forces Mary to consider the possibility that perhaps she does not really like herself. In the chapter in which Mary finds the gate, Martha, with her gift of a skipping-rope, persuades Mary that she is likeable and that she, in turn, is capable of liking others. Thus encouraged, Mary actively seeks and gains Ben's approval, so that by the time "the robin shows the way," Ben and Martha have already helped her find the key to her own heart.

Contrariness then, of the kind that Mary gradually loses, originates in sourness, irritability, an unwillingness to be interested or pleased. But the kind of contrariness that Mary retains, at least until Colin comes to dominate the book, arises from emotional honesty and reliance on one's own judgment.7 Mary finds both the garden and Colin largely because "she was not a child who had been trained to ask permission or consult her elders about things" (p. 66) Despite repeated denials by Martha that Mary hears crying in the night, and despite repeated warnings from Mrs. Medlock against exploring the house, Mary continues to believe the evidence of her own senses and to search for the source of the cries she hears. What she finds is a boy very similar to herself. Like Mary, Colin has been rejected by his father and has become used to overhearing terrible things about himself, many of which he now believes. Even more than Mary, he has become a tyrant to those who are paid to wait on him. Given everything he ever requested, never forced to do what he didn't wish, he is the object of pity but also of dislike and disgust. But because Mary has also played the tyrant out of misery, acting the little ranee to her ayah, and because she is not afraid to impose her will on others, she is able to do for Colin what no doctor or even Dickon can.

Mary not only encourages Colin to believe that he can live; she persuades him that he need not live as a chronic invalid. In order to do so Mary must oppose her contrariness to Colin's own and act in a way not "nice" by conventional standards. When Colin unjustly accuses Mary of neglecting him, she becomes angry but, after reflection, relents. When she awakens to hear Colin in hysterics, however, she becomes enraged at the way her emotions, and those of everyone else in the house, are being manipulated. In expressing to Colin what no nice child would say or, according to the narrator, even feel—namely, that Colin is an emotional rather than a physical cripple whose self-centeredness has made him an object of contempt and loathing—Mary is actually expressing what everyone, including the reader, is feeling or would feel in similar circumstances. Her "savagery," as the narrator calls it, her ability to set aside the civilized veneer which has thinly disguised everyone else's hostility towards Colin, has a purgative effect on the entire household. And by disclosing what the nurse and doctor have long known but feared to say, that Colin is only weak from lying in bed and indulging in self-pity, Mary relieves him of his morbid fear and sets him on the road to recovery.

Gradually, with Mary's and Dickon's help, Colin gains enough strength to enter the garden. But although Dickon plants the suggestion that Colin will one day be able to walk, it is plain-spoken Ben Weatherstaff who brings him to his feet. Like Mary, Weather-staff will express the unmentionable thoughts in everyone's minds: on finding the children in the secret garden, he blurts out, "But tha'rt th' poor cripple" (p. 222). And he is condemned as "ignorant" and "tactless" (p. 223) just as Mary is castigated for being "savage" and not "nice." But his bluntness also has a salutary effect on Colin. "The strength which Colin usually threw into his tantrums rushed through him now in a new way…. His anger and insulted pride made him forget everything but this one moment and filled him with a power he had never known before, an almost unnatural strength" (p. 223). Though "magic" later enables him to run and perform calisthenics, it is his passionate desire to refute Ben that enables him to take his first steps.

After watching Colin stand and walk, and after examining his legs, Ben decides that Colin, far from being "th' poor cripple," "'lt make a mon yet" (p. 224). From that point on Colin's athletic prowess, his leadership ability, his interest in science, and his magical powers all seem meant to prove Ben right. In the early chapters the narrator often reminded us of Mary's unattractiveness and unpleasantness; now she stresses Colin's beauty and charisma. At one point the narrator intervenes to tell us that Colin "was somehow a very convincing sort of boy," and it is doubtless this convincing quality that is meant to convince us of Colin's ascendancy over Ben, Dickon, and even Mary. Whereas earlier Colin had been a peevish little tyrant, he now becomes a benevolent despot, a combination rajah and priest. Colin, "fired by recollections of fakirs and devotees in illustrations," arranges the group cross-legged in a circle under a tree which makes "a sort of temple" (p. 241). Later Colin heads the rajah's procession "with Dickon on one side and Mary on the other. Ben Weatherstaff walked behind, and the 'creatures' trailed after them" (p. 243). It has been argued that "in this Eden, nature dissolves class—gardner and Pan-boy share the broadly human vocation of nursing the invalid boy to straight health."8 These doings in the garden, however, suggest a definite hierarchy, one that includes sex as well as class.

During Colin's lectures, "Mistress Mary" is described as feeling "solemnly enraptured" and listening "entranced" (pp. 241-42). Although we are doubtless meant to be as charmed by Colin as the other characters are and to see in his domination of the little group the promise of his future manhood, we are in fact disenchanted to find Mary little more than a worshipful Huck to the antics of Colin's Tom Sawyer. Yet Mary and Huck are the truly imaginative and convincing children who do not, like Colin and Tom, need the stimulus of books in order to have real adventures and solve real problems. Huck's escape from Pap and his flight down the river with Jim, Mary's discoveries of Colin and the garden, and, above all, her self-discoveries, make Tom's "evasion" and Colin's "magic" anticlimactic. And just as Jim loses stature because of the indignities inflicted on him by Tom, so the roles of Martha and Ben Weatherstaff, so important to Mary's development, diminish. Martha, as remarkable in her way as Dickon and their mother, simply disappears from the final chapters; but since she is the first person for whom Mary feels anything like trust and affection, it is hard to believe that Mary would forget her. Ben, like Mrs. Sowerby a party to the secret in the garden, is treated condescendingly by Colin—and by the author. When Ben makes a joke at the expense of Colin's "scientific discoveries," Colin snubs him, a snub which Ben—acting out of character—takes humbly (p. 245). But at least at the end of Twain's book we are left with its true hero. In The Secret Garden Burnett shifts from Mary's to Colin's point of view shortly after the scene in which Mary confronts him with his cowardice and hypochondria. From there on Mary slips into the background until she disappears entirely from the final chapter. The novel ends with the master of Misselthwaite and his son, Master Colin, crossing the lawn before their servants' admiring eyes.

Perhaps the analogy between Mary and Huck can do more than suggest why the final third of The Secret Garden is so unsatisfying. Huck is a memorable, even magical, creation not only because he is a very convincing boy (so is Tom, for that matter), but because he is, at the same time, unconventional. He resists being civilized in a way that Tom, for all his infatuation with outlaws, does not. Mary, too, is a more memorable creation than Colin because she is both recognizably human and refreshingly different. Thwaite and Laski have tried to link this difference with her unpleasantness, but I believe it lies more in her freedom from sex-role stereotypes.9 (This, of course, is why girls have always found Jo March so appealing, especially in Part 1 of Little Women.)

From the first Mary is an independent, self-contained, yet self-assertive child. Unlike Colin, she discovers and enters the secret garden all by herself, and she defies adult authority in order to find, befriend, and liberate Colin. Unlike her mother, she is never vain of her appearance; she is proud when she finds herself getting plump, rosy, and glossy-haired, but only because these are signs of her growing strength. When she receives a present from Mr. Craven, she is delighted to find books rather than dolls, and she works and exercises in the garden along with Colin and Dickon. She does not wish to have a nurse or governess but seems to thrive on an active life out-of-doors. Early in the relationship with Colin she is the leader, and even when he is able to run about, it is she who, on a rainy day, suggests that they explore his house. Colin, when we first meet him, is a hysterical invalid, and his father, as the name "Craven" signifies, is a weak and cowardly man, still mourning after ten years his dead wife and, in doing so, neglecting their living son. It is as though Burnett so generously endowed Mary at the expense of Colin and his father that she had to compensate for it by stressing Mary's disagreeable traits and exaggerating Colin's charm. And in the final chapter Colin's ascendancy suggests that if he becomes a "mon," as Ben predicts, then Mary will have to become a woman—quiet, passive, subordinate, and self-effacing. Huck at the end of Huckleberry Finn cannot escape civilization; Mary cannot escape the role that civilization has assigned her.

Burnett's ambivalence toward Mary and her indulgence of Colin probably reflect lifelong conflicts. As a child Burnett was encouraged by her widowed mother to cultivate genteel and ladylike manners. And as a young married woman she is described by Thwaite as "obviously trying her best … to appear as the nineteenth century's ideal of womanhood" (p. 52). Often, especially during these early years, Burnett regarded her writing as a necessary, even sacrificial task, performed for the sake of her husband, struggling to establish himself as an ophthalmologist, and their sons. Yet Burnett continued to write long after Dr. Swan Burnett was well able to support his family. By then, however, writing, and the fame and fortune which attended it, seems to have become a psychological necessity. Her favorite image of herself was that of a fairy godmother, and the power as well as the magnanimity of that role must have appealed to her. So like many successful women writers, including Louisa May Alcott and Burnett's prolific friend Mrs. Humphry Ward, she tried to rationalize her writing as unselfish service, and, when she could not ignore its self-assertive and self-serving role, punished herself with ill health. And finally, again like other women writers (great ones such as the Brontës and George Eliot as well as minor ones such as Alcott and Ward), she chastened her self-assertive female characters.10

The Secret Garden, written in 1911 toward the end of a long, successful career, seems to suggest not only self-condemnation and self-punishment in its treatment of Mary but an attempted reparation for wrongs Burnett may have felt she inflicted on the males closest to her. Most obviously, the idealized Colin seems to represent her elder son, Lionel, and his recovery a wish-fulfilling revision of what actually happened. After the extraordinary success of Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1886, Burnett began to spend much of each year abroad. Although she was a doting mother, able from her earnings to give her sons whatever their hearts desired, she may have felt that even these luxuries, like those Colin's father provides for him, could not compensate for her absence. And when, during one of these absences, Lionel became consumptive, her guilt must have been intensified. To assuage it she nursed Lionel devotedly and especially prided herself on protecting him from the knowledge that he was dying.11 But in a notebook entry, written a few months after Lionel's death, she asks: "Did I do right to hide from you that you were dying? It seemed to me that I must not give you the terror of knowing."12 The situation in The Secret Garden is significantly reversed: Colin is kept in ignorance not of his imminent death but of his capacity for life; Mary, by breaking the conspiracy of silence, enables him to live.

The figure of Colin is reminiscent not only of Lionel but also of Swan Burnett and of Mrs. Burnett's second husband, Stephen Townesend. Swan, himself crippled in his youth, became a successful eye specialist, but the marriage seems never to have been a happy one. Two years after their divorce, Burnett married Townesend, a doctor and aspiring actor ten years younger than herself. Burnett had long attempted to use her theatrical connections to further his acting career, especially after Townesend helped her to nurse Lionel through his fatal illness. As her son Vivian wrote: "This was one of the few solaces that Dearest had in her dark hours, making her feel that surely some good had come out of her wish to help her older—disappointed—Stephen boy."13 And as Burnett wrote to her friend Kitty Hall, "If I had done no other one thing in my life but help Lionel to die as he did, I should feel as if I ought to be grateful to God for letting me live to do it—but if I can help Stephen to live, that will be another beautiful thing to have done."14 As these quotations suggest, Burnett's interest in Stephen Townesend was largely maternal, a desire to play fairy godmother as she had in the lives of her sons. To use her fortune and influence to aid a struggling young man would somehow justify her possession of it. But although Stephen, unlike Lionel, survived, she never succeeded in helping either him or their marriage to "live."

Thus The Secret Garden, far from combining "the ideal remembered holiday in a golden age … with a classless, reasonable, and joyous Utopia for the future," reflects its author's ambivalence about sex roles.15 On the one hand, she vindicates Mary's self-assertiveness and her own career by allowing Mary to bring the garden, Colin, and, eventually, Mr. Craven back to life. On the other hand, she chastens herself and Mary by permitting the narrator to intervene only to reprove her and by making her subordinate to Colin in the final chapters of the book. By idealizing Colin at the expense of Mary she seems to be affirming male supremacy, and the final version of the master of Misselthwaite with his son, Master Colin, further suggests a defense of patriarchal authority. While Mr. Craven can be seen as the neglectful, erring parent of either sex—and thus still another means by which Burnett atones for her material failings—he, like the peevish invalid Colin, can also be viewed as an expression of her impatience with male weakness. And her attempts to glorify Colin are unsuccessful enough to make us wonder if even here her ambivalence—even her resentment and hostility—does not show through. For all her efforts to make Mary disagreeable and to efface her, Mary remains a moving and memorable creation, whereas Colin's "magic" never amounts to more than a mere trick. Mary, like the author herself, seems to have both gained and lost from her contrariness, and The Secret Garden succeeds and fails accordingly.


1. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911; rpt. New York: Dell, 1977), p. 1. All further references will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

2. Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1849–1924 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974), p. 221.

3. Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett (London: Arthur Barker, 1950), p. 88. Although Laski sees Mary and Colin as original, she also places them in the tradition of Charlotte Yonge's Ethel May, the heroine of The Daisy Chain (1856).

4. Madelon S. Gohlke, in "Re-reading The Secret Garden," College English, 41 (1980), 894-902, insists that The Secret Garden withstands the test of adult rereading. On subjecting the book to the same test, however, I find that only the part I remember most vividly from childhood—that in which Mary predominates—meets my adult criteria.

5. When the cholera epidemic strikes the Lennox compound, Mary is the only one who neither flees nor dies. In the midst of death and destruction she remains calm and self-possessed, partly out of ignorance, of course, but largely out of toughness. Burnett tells us that "as she was a self-absorbed child she gave her entire thought to herself" (p. 8). It is this self-absorption that insulates her from fear during the epidemic and from desolation on learning of her parents' death.

6. Clarissa M. Rowland, in "Bungalows and Bazaars: India in Victorian Children's Fiction," Children's Literature, 2 (1973), identifies the connection between naughtiness and unhappiness as a theme of Victorian children's fiction set in India (p. 194).

7. In "Little Girls without Their Curls," pp. 14-31, U. C. Knoepflmacher argues that the guise of fantasy enables Juliana Ewing, in "Amelia and the Dwarfs," and Burnett herself, in "Behind the White Brick," to indulge more fully a wish for female aggression in defiance of Victorian taboos than is possible in a realistic fiction such as The Secret Garden. I would argue, however, that because less "anarchic," Mary's aggressiveness or contrariness, at least that which she retains until Colin comes to dominate the book, has more social value than that of Amelia or Jem/Baby and thus her "domestication" represents a loss rather than a gain.

8. Fred Inglis, The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1981), p. 112.

9. Inglis, in his chapter on sex roles in children's fiction, praises Burnett for endowing her heroines with the intelligence and independence of Elizabeth Bennet (ibid., p. 165), but this seems true of Mary only in the first two-thirds of the story.

10. Another interesting topic for exploration would be Burnett's use of the Brontë novels in her children's fiction. The Yorkshire setting of The Secret Garden, of course, resembles that of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but Mary has elements of Jane Eyre and both Catherines, Dickon resembles a more benign little Heathcliff, and Colin seems a blend of Rochester, Linton Heathcliff, and Hareton Earnshaw. As Inglis says, "The influence of the Brontës is felt on every page" (ibid., p. 112).

11. To a cousin she wrote: "It will perhaps seem almost incredible to you as it does to others when I tell you that he never did find out. He was ill nine months but I never allowed him to know that I was really anxious about him. I never let him know he had consumption or that he was in danger." Quoted in Vivian Burnett, The Romantick Lady (New York: Scribner's, 1930), pp. 211-12.

12. Ibid., p. 214.

13. Ibid., p. 212.

14. Ibid., pp. 222-23.

15. Inglis, p. 113.

Marlene San Miguel Groner (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Groner, Marlene San Miguel. "The Secret Garden." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume Three, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 1180-185. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1990.

[In the following essay, Groner offers an introduction to the narrative and symbolic aspects of The Secret Garden.]

About the Author

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born Frances Eliza Hodgson on November 24, 1849, in Manchester, England. In 1865 the family's ironmongery failed, triggering the Hodgsons' move to Knoxville, Tennessee. Burnett began writing to supplement the family income, and by the time she was twenty, she was writing and publishing as many as six short stories a month in a wide array of potboiler magazines. Soon Burnett's work was accepted by established magazines such as Scribner's and Harper's; her commercial success financed the first of many trips to England. In 1873, back in Tennessee, she married Dr. Swan Burnett, a prominent physician. Burnett, however, was unhappy in Tennessee and persuaded one of her editors to advance her enough money to move to Paris with her husband and young son, Lionel, in 1874.

Returning to the United States in 1877, Burnett published her first novel, That Lass o'Lowrie's, a story about miners in Lancashire. A tremendous success both in America and in England, the novel was adapted for the stage, the first of fifteen dramatizations of Burnett's fiction. Burnett became well known as she wrote and published adult fiction almost incessantly over the next six years. In 1883 Henry James, in a review of the London production of her play Esmeralda, suggested that Burnett's style and moral focus would make her a good children's writer. At this time Burnett was actually writing Little Lord Fauntleroy. Although originally written solely for her two sons' entertainment, the book was serialized by the magazine St. Nicholas in 1885. This novel, in part a portrait of her own sons, proved so successful that Burnett continued writing for young people as well as adults until her death in Plandome, New York, on October 29, 1924.


Although The Secret Garden depicts the dismal effects of a loveless home, its goal is to show how nature, coupled with positive thinking, can transform people's lives. The central characters, Mary and Colin, initially seem to be spoiled, mean-spirited, and completely self-absorbed characters. Although they do not recognize their own emotional emptiness, they are both hungry for affection and companionship. The novel concerns itself with the process of Mary and Colin's awakening to the world, other people, and their own feelings. In many ways the story has the texture of a fairy tale: the magical effects of a special and secret place save the children. However, the story is more satisfying than a fairy tale because Burnett's characters evolve into caring, sensitive beings through their own efforts, demonstrating that people are capable of changing their lives for the better.


The story begins in colonial India, where Mary Lennox lives with her mother and father. When Mary's parents die, the scene shifts to Misselthwaite manor, the Yorkshire home of Mary's reclusive uncle, with whom she has been sent to live. At Misselthwaite, Mary discovers a garden that her uncle has kept locked up and abandoned for ten years, ever since his wife suffered a fatal injury there. The garden has run wild and is choked with dead or dying weeds and grasses. Mary decides to make the garden her secret place and begins to try to revive it.

Themes and Characters

Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, the two main characters in The Secret Garden, are cousins but psychologically resemble twins. Both have been effectively orphaned—Mary by her parents' death, and Colin by his mother's death and father's subsequent abandonment. Brought up by servants who dislike and fear them, the two are unruly, nasty children, prone to temper tantrums whenever they do not get their way. The servants, however, meet only the children's physical needs and desires; they do not satisfy their need for love and affection. Without being aware of it, Mary and Colin are exceedingly lonely, isolated, and frightened that life will continue to bring them no genuine, lasting joy.

Mary, however, begins to understand herself and her needs when she is brought to the home of her uncle, Mr. Archibald Craven, and must learn how to dress and care for herself. Having no peers or playthings, Mary comes to identify with the craggy, angry gardener, Ben Weather staff, as well as with a robin who has been abandoned by his nest mates. She recognizes for the first time that she has always been lonely, yet she does not know how to bridge her isolation. With the robin's help she discovers the dying secret garden, and, because it too has been abandoned, Mary becomes determined to restore the garden to its former loveliness. The act of reviving the garden restores Mary's physical strength, and she is gradually transformed into a vibrant, healthy, happy young woman capable of looking beyond herself.

Colin does not appear until almost halfway through the novel, when Mary discovers him hiding from the world in his room. Colin's mother died in childbirth after a tree branch in the garden struck her and forced her into premature labor. Unable to recover from the shock and grief of her death, Mr. Craven has become reclusive and avoids seeing his son. Although he does not consciously wish Colin any harm, he cannot see him without remembering his deceased wife. Colin fears that he will develop a hunchback and die. A hysterical, angry young man who has been deeply hurt by his father's unthinking rejection, Colin needs companionship; he needs to learn how to love and be loved, and he needs to learn how to help himself. Mary, recognizing much of herself in Colin, forces him to see that there is nothing physically wrong with him except the debilitation brought on by spending most of his life in bed. Lashing out at him with her own very violent temper, she challenges him to recover and introduces him to the secret garden.

Dickon, the housemaid Martha's younger brother, is the exact opposite of Mary and Colin. A static character, he offers unqualified acceptance to the two troubled children and thus helps them grow. He has an uncanny, almost supernatural ability with wild animals and nature, drawing squirrels, rabbits, foxes, and lambs to his side by playing his pipes. A Yorkshire lad, he is at one with nature and at peace with himself. He has no doubts, no fears, no feelings of isolation, and no selfishness. Innately kind, he provides Mary and Colin with the first positive, nurturing friendship they have ever experienced. Dickon's character gently reinforces the novel's themes of rebirth and redemption through nature, and helps make The Secret Garden a novel of hope and joy fulfilled.

Literary Qualities

Although The Secret Garden has many of the characteristics of a fairy tale, its most elemental symbol is rooted not in fantasy but in nature. The abandoned garden's rebirth parallels the rebirth of Mary and Colin. Like them, it has been left to die of neglect, yet it still has the seeds—albeit hidden and buried—that will allow it to flower and grow if only someone will nurture it. As the garden grows, so too do the children who work there. Once the garden is revived, the children come to recognize its tremendous strength and power. Although they label this power "magic," they recognize that magic works "best when you work yourself." They sing hymns and chant incantations in the joyous knowledge that they, too, share in and help perpetuate the miracle of life.

Symbolically, Burnett draws on an old pastoral literary tradition that transforms the garden into a substitute, benign mother. The garden nurtures the children by offering them a safe, secluded spot in which to learn how to care for themselves and others. Indeed, the children spend approximately nine months—spring, summer, and fall—hidden behind the protective walls of the garden before they emerge triumphant.

The Secret Garden 's tightly unified plot is controlled by the changing seasons, allowing the rebirth of both the garden and the children to take place smoothly and cohesively. Burnett also makes good use of dialogue: Colin's and Mary's increasing use of Dickon's Yorkshire dialect vividly illustrates the young pair's growth as they learn to see the world through their friend's eyes. Ultimately, the characters' growth and their ability to transform their lives makes this novel a story of redemption.

Social Sensitivity

Some readers may be disturbed by Burnett's sentimentalizing of poverty and the class system, but her portrayal does not lack sensitivity. As Mary and Colin grow healthier, they learn what it means to be physically hungry and unable to satisfy their needs. For the first time, they understand how difficult it must be for Dickon's mother, Mrs. Sowerby, to feed her twelve children. When she sends them milk and freshly baked bread, they feel genuine gratitude, but they also recognize the cost to all of the Sowerbys. No longer are the two children oblivious to the needs of those less fortunate than themselves, and they find a way to help the Sowerbys in return.

The novel demonstrates that everyone needs love and understanding, but it stresses that these must be given in order to be received. The lessons the children learn—to care for others, to work to make others happy, and to understand the pain of others' lives—make The Secret Garden a sensitive and strong novel.

Jerry Phillips (essay date December 1993)

SOURCE: Phillips, Jerry. "The Mem Sahib, the Worthy, the Rajah and His Minions: Some Reflections on the Class Politics of The Secret Garden." Lion and the Unicorn 17, no. 2 (December 1993): 168-94.

[In the following essay, Phillips studies the legacy of British colonialism in India through an analysis of class structures and sociological politics in The Secret Garden, particularly with regards to Mary Lennox's experiences as an "Anglo-Indian orphan."]

Introduction: The Empire's Homecoming1

The preeminent influence on twentieth-century British society has arguably been the decline of the British Empire. For over three hundred years, the construction and maintenance of the imperial system provoked themes which reverberated at every level of the British polity—that is to say, it set limits, effective cultural parameters, on what it was and what it meant in terms of lived experienced to be British in relation to foreigners from the four corners of the globe. Empire—and the perennial desire for its enlargement—is massively implicated in the historical and political categories whose overlapping constitutes the ground for interrogating the British story of modernity. Chief among these categories are the organization of material interests and forces around mercantilism, finance, and industry; the development of a powerful and far-reaching military; the establishment of a bureaucratic state and "disciplinary" political culture to define and administer law and order, rights and obligations, the necessity of work and patterns of acceptable play; and, finally, the generation of an ideology of the national culture, and its concomitant bounded identity. Clearly, the British Empire was not the sole cause of any one of these historical trajectories, but its pervasive influence is detectable in all of them. Thus, the end of empire has had significant consequences on a number of fronts, ranging from the macroeconomic to the micropolitical.

For example, as the high tide of imperial ideology has receded, it has left behind a social landscape strewn with murky controversies concerning citizenship, ancestry, race, and the law.2 At this moment of writing, British immigration legislation expresses a political will to deny certain groups of British subjects the right of citizenship and ergo the right of residence (e.g., Hong Kong Chinese); at the same time, the door is kept open (or at least unlocked) for those foreign nationals whose cultural profile is ideologically acceptable (e.g., South Africans of English descent). This deliberate inequity can only be understood in relation to a fundamental historical impasse, a vexed and sometimes vicious legacy: the diverse racial make-up of the former British Empire and the existing Commonwealth. Race alone has turned the notion of Britishness upside down and inside out. Where the empire was "an extension of the English nationality" (John Robert Seeley qtd. in Bennet 273), postcolonial nationalism has sought to contain national identity within an implacable existential frame. The paradoxical result is that Britishness has simply exploded into a speculative politics about whether or not nationality can be defined as an ethnic or legal identity, a language or language of values, a cultural state of mind or an essential state of being. British-ness has been invested with differential racial, legal, moral, cultural, and political value; it has become a signifier with overdetermined significance. In short, where imperial certainty once ruled, ideological uncertainty has gained apace.

The open-endedness of the debate about British identity throws brilliant light upon the enduring legacy of empire—the way it returns home, what might be called its blowback effect. I borrow the term "blow-back" from espionage jargon, in which it refers to "unexpected—and negative—effects at home that result from … operations overseas" (Simpson 5). The return of the imperial program inevitably establishes a critical dialogue with the domestic institutions of "the mother country," the same institutions that promoted the program in the first place. The effect can often be unsettling, nowhere more so than in the field of social class. The measure of social class is a powerful analytic tool for prising open the ideological secrets of nation building and national self-regulation. Class allows us to appreciate the political meaning of blowback; through a reading of class, we can detect the cultural impact of the end of empire on how elites control their subordinates at home.

The concern of this essay can be summarized thus: if one form of empire—colonialism—is the great program of extending home away from home, then what happens when the program collapses and how does the mother country cope when the colonies have to return home? This cardinal question guides my reading of the narrative poetics and politics of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911). A central text in the canon of children's literature, The Secret Garden is not so much a discourse on the end of empire as an embryonic commentary on the possibility of blowback.

The Allegorical Inference

Ideological extrapolations play a major role in my reading of The Secret Garden. The political discourse of the text has an unusually rich relationship to that which is "not said" or only partially expressed. Insofar as the silences and the stutters run concurrently with clear ideological statements, the narrative demands a speculative reading, a symptomatic critique that respects hybrid patterns. Such criticism is dedicated to what I shall call the allegorical inference.

Allegorical inferences in no way cheapen the text. Indeed, they heighten the sense of the trickster that is narrative. As an aesthetic intervention into the political status quo, literary narrative orders layer upon layer of ideological values; some of these values are known, others are well-kept secrets, which run into one another like different colored threads in a weave. A dramatic investigation of significant social priorities, the allegorical inference comments on the influential power of partial truths, the natural province of ideology. Reductive arguments—overstated "deep" analyses—always cheat on the richness of cultural themes; thus, vulgar Marxism and Freudianism eschew those aspects of the text that do not play into their respective critical agendas. The allegorical inference arises from the crossover or overlap of discrete ideological values. In my reading of The Secret Garden, the concept addresses the promotion of social fantasy through an aesthetic of Utopia; the reissue of a colonial lingua franca in a domestic setting; the celebration of romantic ideals of nature and the self; the consolidation of patriarchal imperatives; and, finally, the proclamation of a discourse of social engineering having to do with the physical and spiritual well being of the average child. As demonstrated by the range of issues involved, the textuality of The Secret Garden must be seen as a veritable ideological riot. The approach of the allegorical inference seeks to realize the complex motives of these discourses involved in the riotous action.

"India Is Quite Different from Yorkshire"

Barrackpore is, I see, to save me from India … a charming place, like a beautiful English villa on the banks of the Thames—so green and fresh.

                          —Emily Auckland

Mary Lennox's passage from India to Yorkshire is best understood as a kind of pilgrimage—a homecoming to an ideal space and place of values she has always known but never seen. Her relationship to Yorkshire, to England generally, is typical of a child whose parents serve the British Empire as colonial settlers, government agents, military personnel, or otherwise. Mary is Anglo-Indian—born in India of English parentage. She grows up accustomed to the reality of India but attuned to the spirit of England, culturally, linguistically, and ethically. Mary identifies with England, but India is all she has known; in other words, she lives in India, but John Bull inhabits her soul. The cultural fashioning of colonial children, to be sure, is beset with ironies, ambiguities, and schizophrenic desires about "the pleasures of exile" and the lure of "back home." The mother country defines her manners, her values, her social position, and her racial identity, and yet, is still only a partial truth of her day-to-day reality. The glorious garden called England, is near and far, everywhere and nowhere.3

This is the peculiar dynamic, the maddening dialectic, that we find operative in Emily Auckland's statement. To Emily, the quintessential Mem Sahib, Barrackpore is "charming" to the extent that it reminds her of "a beautiful English villa on the banks of the Thames." The resemblance, however, is more than fanciful, it is also purposeful in that it lessens or even negates what is unacceptable and intolerable about the Indian scene generally. Barrackpore, the little island of England in the midst of India, is less important for itself than for the memory of home that it triggers. In this way, the best parts of India become copies of English ideals; the copy, the recycled image, saves the colonist from having to face India in the raw. In other words, one aspect of India—its similarity to a certain English setting—is used to block off experience of the whole. The confusion of values and desires registered here is typical of the Anglo-Indian predicament.

The Secret Garden uses a shock tactic to seize the attention of the reader. Swiftly, almost brutally, the opening pages of the novel remove the ground from beneath Mary's feet; a wave of cholera kills her parents and evacuates their household. Mary is left "all alone … in a deserted bungalow" (10). Burnett uses the omnipotent, deadly power of the writer to turn her character into an orphan, dependent on the good will of strangers and the hospitality of relatives. In the construction of the orphan, I detect a generic value, which yields the possibility of an allegorical inference.

From Jane Eyre to Oliver Twist and from David Copperfield to Heathcliff, child orphans are key figures in the world of nineteenth-century narrative. The figure of the child orphan was typically a critical ideological commentary on provocative issues of class and gender and the attendant discourses on power and justice, propriety and unfreedom. In fine, the orphan figured as a metaphor for the instability of identity, the crisis of representation, in certain social relations. For instance, the character of Jane Eyre is a powerful critique of the patriarchal will to typify and control the identity of itinerant and indigent young women.

In the bestowal of an orphan's fate to Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden pays homage to the fundamental concern of much nineteenth-century fiction: the displaced person within. Yet, in another way, the text asks many difficult questions about a figure who might well be the index of our troubled modernity: the migrant, the refugee, the exile—the displaced person without. In this century of great travels, the fortune of nations—the rise and fall of hegemonic economic powers—has led to an unprecedented cultural mix of ethnicities and races and cultures and religions throughout every continent of the globe. Thus, the displaced person without, the stranger in search of a home, is an awesome reflection on problems of social identity in the contemporary world. A few of these problems can be reached through the principle of the allegorical inference in The Secret Garden.

Mary Lennox is an English child born, and raised to nine years old, far from England's shores. Her predicament is testing, beguiling; she is a foreigner who leaves home, which is not home, and returns, in a manner of speaking, to a native land she has never actually known. Little wonder, then, that the confusion of cultural values, which is the ideology of British colonialism, radically disorients Mary's sense of place in the world. The children of the English clergyman taunt Mary because she has to ask, "where is home?" They know that "home" is "England, of course" (8-9). Mary's failure to recognize her true point of origin eloquently conveys the double bind she is caught in: England is the home of meaning in her world, and yet the notion of "home" seems meaningless. The meaning of homelessness is crucial to the class politics of blowback. For the great ideological issue inherent in the literary discourse of the child orphan is, of course, the crucial and exorbitant question of assimilation—how is it to be done and is it desirable? The Secret Garden is a relentlessly complex meditation on just this issue.

At the center of The Secret Garden is an anatomy of social hierarchy, a laboratory of class relations: the great country house. The trope of the great house is a mainstay of Victorian fiction, particularly the gothic romance with its heightened interest in declining aristocracy. The gothic romance enabled prose fiction to delve into sexual, religious, psychological, and political controversies—"deep" troublesome areas that social realism, for one reason or another, would often balk at or avoid. In the initial characterization of Misselthwaite Manor, the great house in which Mary is to reside, the action of the text is placed on the edges of a gothic stage. En route to England, Mary learns that her uncle, Mr. Archibald Craven, "lives in a great, big, desolate old house in the country and no one goes near him…. He's a hunchback and he's horrid" (9). On Mary's arrival in the mother country, Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, gives her a description of the house itself: "a grand big old place in a gloomy sort of way…. The house is six hundred years old, and it's on the edge of the moor, and there's near to a hundred rooms in it, though most of them's shut up and locked. And there's pictures and fine old furniture and things that's been there for ages" (13). Although Mr. Craven is a victim of rumor and the target of much exaggeration, the basic tenet of the gossip is valid: the master of Misselthwaite Manor has ceased intercourse with the world. Since the accidental death of his young, attractive wife, Archibald Craven has renounced all but the most basic of familial and social duties; he lives only for the past. He is a man of lost ambitions who is locked inside his own secret world of grief. Mr. Craven may not be a "hunchback"; but, in Burnett's eyes, he is just as surely incapacitated by his refusal to let the past die. Burnett implies that a "gloomy" old house, strongly suggestive of the dead weight of history, is the natural objective correlative for Mr. Craven's damaged psyche. For, no less than a lonely heart, the manor is packed with forgotten treasures that are largely inaccessible. Thus, I propose that The Secret Garden uses a gothic register but only to subvert the gothic's usual political calling. Gothic romances are often heroic obituaries for the nineteenth-century aristocracy; in contrast, Burnett sets herself to the task of rescuing the great country house and the decrepit members of the elite class who own such properties. Her narrative structure performs this "socially symbolic act" by exploring the social value of a returning colonial elite, symbolically figured in Mary. We have to look to the ideologies of discourse and to the dialogic standing of each character to appreciate the intricacy of the salvage process.

When Mrs. Medlock tells Mary about what life in Yorkshire holds, Mary thinks to herself that "it all [sounds] so unlike India" (9); yet the dramatic tension of the first half of The Secret Garden derives precisely from the emigrant's failure to appreciate the cultural differences between her old and new home. In India, as a child of the colonial elite, Mary exercised total authority over native domestic servants. Such power (I shall call it Oriental despotism: power without just limits) forms her cultural identity, determines her capacity for moral empathy, in ways that accord with the subjective world of the "Mem Sahib," the canonical feminine ideal of the British Raj—the good, stable wife who efficiently manages a native-run household. That this vaunted ideal sentimentalized the difficult reality of the Mem Sahib's life, Burnett hints at in her portrayal of Mary's mother, who is selfish, callous, vain, and frivolous, an instance of the type of woman—"[she] cared only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people" (1)—Calcutta society was notorious for. Not infrequently, this woman, with her genius for exacerbating racial tension in her careless treatment of the natives, was seen, particularly by Rudyard Kipling, as a blot on the empire.

According to Pat Barr in her defense of the "Victorian lady" abroad, the Mem Sahib carried over her frustrations, difficult feelings induced by the patriarchal character of colonial society, into her dealings with domestic servants; in this view, her despotism is a form of transference, a compensation—played out in class and racial privilege—for her own subjection to the "Sahib" (her husband or father), the manly ideal of the British Raj. If Barr's interpretation holds, then Burnett is not so much interested in the transference process as in its moral and political effects. For, the relationship between the Mem Sahib and the subaltern, the house mistress and her minion, is premised on a sadomasochistic model, a power that knows few limits and therefore corrupts. The embryonic stirrings of this power are rendered visible in "Missie Sahib" Mary's "tyrannical" behavior. With her parental guidance found wanting and with no fear of sanction or reprimand, Mary insults and even assaults "her Ayah," her Indian body servant. This is power colored by total egoism; bear in mind its title in this essay—Oriental depotism.

Constituted on religious and racialist values and operating in the service of the British imperial state, Oriental despotism is the appropriate class system for India, crude faults and all; it cannot function in England without controversy. This "territorializing" of a certain political ideology—Oriental despotism—is the key to a distinct pedagogic vein that runs through the book. When Mrs. Medlock collects Mary's luggage at the train station, we are told that "the little girl did not offer to help, because in India native servants always picked up or carried things, and it seemed quite proper that other people should wait on one" (16-17). Although England exported its manners to the colonies, that which is "proper" to India might be wholly improper to England. That is to say, the fitting of propriety to a colonial setting makes it unfit for unreconstructed re-entry into Britain. Mem Sahibs and Ayahs have no real place in the British class system. Mary's "sentimental education" is aimed at her recognition of this point.

Authority learns about itself from those it subjects; as Hegel suggested, the subordinate classes are existential mirrors for the self-serving desires, the political subjectivity, of elites. The action of The Secret Garden expresses a profound interest in the reflective culture of power. Mary is first estranged from her Missie Sahib perspective by the behavior and demeanor of Martha, the "untrained Yorkshire rustic" (26) turned housemaid:

Mary listened to [Martha] with a grave, puzzled expression. 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 their 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.


Mem Shaib and Ayah—colonist and native, sadist and masochist—these are the opposing players in the theatre of Oriental despotism. Note that the master's desires annihilate the individuality of the servant; the servant loses her self as the master develops her own. "Good natured Yorkshire Martha" (24-25) fails to appreciate the awesome character of protective power and thereby negates "Mistress Mary's" ability to utterly control her. In contrast to the typical "Indian servant," Martha refuses to see herself as a mere instrument of her social superiors. She resolves to do her duties, but no more; she is thus able to hold onto a core of self-worth, the very quality power would destroy. In Martha, Mary sees the limits of her own authority, the relativity of despotism, and its possible inapplicability to the Yorkshire scene. The lesson is also learned from her initial confrontations with Ben Weatherstaff, the head gardener. In "her imperious little Indian way," Mary first speaks to him as if he were "a native" (23). She soon discovers that "a cross, sturdy old Yorkshireman was not accustomed to salaam to his masters, and be merely commanded to do things" (83). In short, she discovers the crucial difference between the colonial and British class systems; the former rests on power without dialogue, the latter on power with a vein of consensus. I now turn to the motif of the garden—its significance for reading class.

"Gardens and Fresh Air"

… a new kind of garden … a garden of children. This is the true garden. All others come as the prophecy of the human garden of paradise.

                           —Margaret McMillan

No great house is complete without its garden. In the trope of a perfect verdant space—cultivated by religious, political, and aesthetic values (picture Eden or Arcadia)—the garden has long figured as an image of pastoral Utopia. Mythically, the garden is a site of innocence, eloquent of harmony and order and opposed to mundane history. In aesthetic terms, the exquisite artifice of the garden, what Kipling called its "glory," represents nature at its most cultured or culture at its most admirable. In purely political terms, as demonstrated by the works of Jane Austen, the pastoral ideal of the garden holds a certain sway over the imagination of the landowner; the garden implies an ordered workforce, based on divided labor, with the landowner as its natural spiritual head. A summary is warranted: whether as a myth of social freedom or a myth of ordained rule, in pastoral dreams of political transcendence, all Utopian roads lead to a garden.

So many themes flow into Misselthwaite Manor's garden that its meaning is textually overdetermined. A symptomatic reading, careful in its use of the allegorical inference, can tease out the nexus of values manifest in the "deserted," "closed," and "mysterious" garden (adjectives that converge on the category of the "secret") and discover what "symbolic capital," what cultural meaning, is realized for dreams of social perfection in the discourse of the exchange. Burnett invites us to read the garden as metaphor. Metaphor compels the signifier to release new meaning from itself; the signifier, however, can cause metaphor to "turn," to fall into a self-sustaining controversy, which ruins the desired order of thematic significances. This perplexed scenario can be argued for in less abstract terms by reading Burnett's principal metaphor. Three discourses meet inside the walls of "the secret garden": a Wordsworthian romanticism, a progressivist child psychology, and an Oriental mysticism. As the metaphor of the garden turns, it forces this putative trio into conversation; competition; and, possibly, contradiction—a subversion of the comfortable Utopianism of the text.

In one respect, Wordsworthian romanticism names a rhetoric of values in which the perfect space of nature, the Utopian moment of culture, becomes a figuration of the self as opposed to an objective entity in the world. That is to say, the Wordsworthian critique of materialism (the industrial society) is at bottom an assertion of an individualistic spiritual code. A celebration of imagination, of that which is unschooled, the code naturally involves a search for the archetypal child, or what Carolyn Steedman calls "the meaning of childhood" (63) for a fallen adult world. The Wordsworthian child is a complex ideological commentary on the adulteration of "virgin" subjectivity, the forced narrowing of our capacity for reverie, and creative self-understanding. In losing our ability to commune with nature, we lose a vital part of ourselves.

Not to be confused with the cloying little "angels" of Victorian fiction (cf. Little Lord Fauntleroy ), the Wordsworthian conception of the child exerted a powerful and lasting hold over literary and social institutions, which represented the meaning of childhood for British culture at large. In The Secret Garden, Wordsworthian themes are extensively quoted in the character of Dickon. Dickon—"a common moor boy … as strong as a pony" (89, 176) who knows "how to talk to the wild creatures" (171) and who, though practically illiterate, knows "all the flowers by their country names" (185)—constitutes the ideal standard of physical and mental harmony by which the other characters are to be judged. Indeed, his role in the text is to bring Mary and Colin to an awareness of what they might be capable of if only they relinquished their pride. The emphasis on Dickon's athleticism and his unschooled, superior intelligence rests on the Wordsworthian conviction that pristine nature is the best parent of the child; however, it also alludes to a contemporary social discourse concerned with weakened, stunted, and indolent children's bodies, what might be called a Spartan regimen for the needy young.

From the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the First World War, the social definition of childhood underwent significant reinterpretation. Broadly speaking, the working-class child was transformed from a laboring subject into a target for "disciplinary" education.4 The transformation took place within a rhetoric of spiritual well being (i.e., a society was "civilized" to the extent that it protected its children) and a rhetoric of social hygiene as an expedient political goal. Both rhetorics converged in areas of state policy. A key thinker and a major activist in these areas was Margaret McMillan, journalist, writer, educator, and Labour party propagandist. McMillan was acutely aware that, in many industrial areas, children were "a constituency in need of rescue" (Steedman 9). As a socialist, she believed that, if one were to have any chance of rescuing working-class life from the hell it was steeped in, one had to rescue the castaways of the age, slum children. Clearly influenced by the romantic theories of Friedrich Froebel, the famous nineteenth-century proponent of the kindergarten, McMillan—in 1911, the year in which The Secret Garden was published—established a "camp school" (i.e., a city garden) for the sick and impoverished children of Deptford, South London. Bridging the divide between education ideology and welfare policy, the camp school was an ideal cultural space designed to counter the spiritual deficits of urban working-class childhood. The organizing principle of the project was explicitly Wordsworthian. The garden sought to realize the organic unity, what Wordsworth called "the primal sympathy," that allegedly existed between the child and the natural world.5 McMillan's descriptions of the camp are never less than lyrical; she called the camp "a new kind of garden … a garden of children" (McMillan, Rachel McMillan 88), a place where "our rickety children, our cramped … and … deformed children get back to earth with its magnetic currents, and the free-blowing wind" (qtd. in Steedman 90). In comparison with the raw squalor of the city, the garden offered a transcendent moral aesthetic—that of nature itself. "Will [the] children ever forget the healing joy of such nearness to the Spirit as is possible even in Deptford?" asked McMillan (qtd. in Steedman 84-86).

The significance of Margaret McMillan's camp school for reading The Secret Garden resides in a crucial ideological vision promoted by both urban project and text: the notion that gardens constitute a form of social therapy and that they can rescue culture from political controversy, even from national decline. In the true spirit of the liberal reformer, McMillan was interested passionately in giving vent to the imaginative capabilities of the poor, but, in order to substantiate her cause, she tapped into a social hygiene debate, "a vocabulary of national efficiency" (Steedman 54), which had as its absolute subject the imperialist (and quasi-racist) discourse of a declining national culture. As Steedman puts it, "in the first years of the twentieth century … the rather casual public interest in the health of schoolchildren suddenly became a widespread fear over the apparent deterioration of the British working-class" (54), the very class that was needed to maintain the empire.6 Thus, the urban garden was not only called upon to take the slum out of the working-class child, it was also set the task of building fit bodies and keeping the bulldog spirit in place. The dovetailing of progressive Wordsworthian tenets with the reactionary politics of empire belongs, perhaps, to the history of the relationship between British socialism and nationalism, a history that cannot be dealt with here. But we can glimpse some of the contours of that history in the textuality of The Secret Garden, where the garden as therapeutic political space is center stage.

A shorthand definition of the ideal "disciplinary" regime for training children's bodies, and cultivating their spirits, is the phrase "gardens and fresh air" (139). This regime is particularly associated with Susan Sowerby, Martha and Dickon's mother, who functions as a stark corrective to the example of Mrs. Lennox, the mother who fails to appreciate her familial duties. Susan's advice to others on how to raise children would not look out of place in a Margaret McMillan treatise.7 For instance, her prescription for lifting Mary out of her habitual Indian enervation is that Mary should be given "simple healthy food" and must be encouraged to "run wild in the garden … she needs liberty and fresh air and romping about" (109). Little wonder, then, that Mr. Craven sees Susan as "healthyminded" (109). Susan's philosophy, however, is more than a matter of social medicine; it is very much a politics of fitting social elites to rule over their particular cultural domain.

The narrative of The Secret Garden can be seen as structured by the incompletion of the three characters—Mary, Colin, and Mr. Craven; we are led to suspect that their respective social failings—Mary's cultural ignorance, Colin's hypochondria, and Mr. Craven's chronic depression—will, one way or another, find resolution at the close of the tale. The elitist ramifications of the Spartan ideal of health are manifest in the teleological characterization of Colin. Colin, like Mary, has had his identity shaped by the psychological impact of surviving a fractured family; his (unfounded) fear that he will eventually develop a "hunchback" is a none too subtle way of stating that he carries the paralysis of the Craven estate on his back. In other words, his indolent, impotent body implies a social critique of the functioning of Misselthwaite Manor. Colin's retreat from his body (coupled with his father's retreat from parental responsibility: "I don't know anything about children" [107]) incites him to practice on his subordinates emotional manipulation and outright tyranny. "He [Colin] … could have anything he asked for and was never made to do anything he did not like to do" (117). A despot to the bone, "everyone is obliged to do what pleases" him (117). The similarity of Colin's behavior to the initial deportment of his Anglo-Indian cousin is all too obvious; both Colin and Mary act despotically because their (socially ratified) egoism keeps them from knowing better. As we have seen, Mary is eventually "decentered" by her relations with Martha and Ben Weatherstaff. For Colin, the situation is somewhat different; his overweening social power is entirely home grown, whereas Mary's is the strange fruit of elsewhere. How, then, does Burnett undo the authoritarianism, the despotic ego, of the "very spoiled boy" (28)?

Quite simply, she sends him to the Wordsworthian clinic—the "garden of children"—where he imbibes the "magic" elixir of "spirit." Note that throughout The Secret Garden a theme of spiritual egalitarianism consistently undercuts the realpolitik of class-based elitism. The animality of Dickon does not suggest slowness or barbarism (the orthodox snobbish line on "unsophisticated yokels"), rather, it pertains to the free and ideal state of nature, the true home of ethical values. Mindful of the romantic democracy of the imagination, where vital insight is less about erudite learning than the flight of individual desire, Burnett celebrates the preeminence of immediate experience in the very simplicity of Dickon. In this sense, the "common cottage boy" (154) is as much, or even more than, his evident social superiors. For Colin's alienation from the body makes him ignorant of what sensual life has to offer: "I hate fresh air and I don't want to go out" (116), he insists. As Mary tells Dickon, Colin knows "a good many things out of books but he doesn't know anything else" (148). The literate but unworldly Colin might thus be seen in the ideal space of the garden as an upper-class version of the deserving slum child. "I should not mind fresh air in a secret garden" (121), says he, after listening to Mary's promotions.

Work and play in the garden enable Colin to transcend his fear of the body; a "rapturous belief" in the wonder of the sensual life and the "realization" of its dependence on nature takes hold of him and infuses him with backbone or moral character (248). Translated into a social context, Colin's "epiphany" valorizes the garden as a moderating political influence. In fine, brute despotism—getting one's "own way in every detail" (264)—is critically undermined by a moralistic appeal to a culture of discipline, a value system of humility and consideration for "other people" (152). Thus, as Utopian social therapy, the secret garden implies that political stability, balanced relations between elites and their domestic subordinates, is more at home in discipline than in despotism. Notice that Colin's recuperation makes him fit not only for child's play but also to inherit the title and paternal status of his father—the attribution "Master Colin" is the last phrase of the entire narrative, which draws all the uncertainties of the text into a closed social statement, like tributary roads converging on Rome. Allegorical inferences, therefore, lead me to assert that Margaret McMillan's dream of using the garden to take the slums out of working-class children, becomes in Burnett's novel, a dream of using the garden to put the young, gentleman back into the heart of the great house. But, inside that house, political controversy still reigns.

A Rajah in Yorkshire

I have been talking today about the acts and symptoms of British rule in India. What is its basis? It is not military force, it is not civil authority, it is not prestige, though all these are part of it. If our rule is to last in India it must rest on a more solid basis. It must depend on the eternal moralities of righteousness and justice.

                                 —Lord Curzon

What intrigues me is the notion that despotism is forever expelled and yet somehow retrieved by the text. This curious "respiratory" action—forcing out the irritant only to draw it back in—directly relates to a concatenation of cultural values associated with race, class, and gender; the remittal of these values covers a range of ideology and discourse from cultural authenticity to social harmony, from national well being to political authority. This range begins and ends at the same difficult point in history—the problematic of the empire coming home, the ambiguous challenge of blowback.

I contend that the narrative interest in making damaged children whole creates a space, a sort of political reserve, for rehabilitating the language and cultural values of empire. The Secret Garden is premised on the idea that environment determines character; class, region, and nationality are seen as the parameters of consciousness. Mary's egoism, her lack of courtesy and manners, precisely results from her upbringing in the colonial setting, where servants minister to every need and desire and encourage indolence and complacency. Thus, Burnett tells us that Mary "was a disagreeable child … who did not know that she was so herself" (11). As Mary learns, à la belle étoile, to temper privilege with grace, only then is the author ready to concede that she is "getting on" (44) in terms of moral development. The point is clear: children owe their natures to the nature of their social conditioning—"where you tend a rose … a thistle cannot grow" (257). Yet, the general reasoning that informs this worthy platitude is somewhat contradicted by the outcome of the textual struggle between elite political philosophies. I am saying that the "thistle" of despotism grows in such a way as to strangulate discipline's "rose."

Despotism is properly an Oriental phenomenon. Despotism belongs to India.8 This is first implied by the narrative critique of Mary and is then openly stated in a telling anecdote, which Mary relates to Colin:

Once in India I saw a boy who was a Rajah. He had rubies and emeralds and diamonds stuck all over him. He spoke to his people just as you spoke to Martha. Everybody had to do everything he told them—in a minute. I think they would have been killed if they hadn't.


This carefree anatomy of the "exotic" barbarities of "the East" is not short on the typical Orientalist ruses which Edward Said, in Orientalism, alerts us to. Note how Mary passes from innocent eyewitness to political ethnographer ("I saw" … "I think"); notice also the implicit connection between outrageous luxury and violent rule, which has been, and remains, a standard Western trope of the Oriental political scene. The fact that Burnett can furnish such a description at a time when despotism was gaining widespread association with British imperial rule might be seen as an instance of the literary sleight of hand colonial discourse excels in; yet, the passage also dances to the tune of blowback. The memory of the Rajah is brought forth by the (very British) class structure that allows Colin (the gentry) to abuse Martha (the peasantry) with impunity.9

Despotism is a creature of the East. The spiritual trajectory of the text is to remove those aspects of the East considered unsuitable for elite social performance in an English setting. The transformation of the colonial subject anticipates a similar transformation in Master Colin, her home-based cousin. Thus, it seems fair to say that both characters are disoriented, stripped of alien authoritarian political tendencies. This staging of the English class question on an Orientalist platform is not as one way as it might seem. Class relations at the manor are filtered through the ideal(izing) medium of the garden in a way that challenges the liberal conception of social hierarchy and allows the narrative to arrive at what must be called back-door despotism. The key to it all is a symbolic power, a metaphorical valence accorded the proper noun "India."

India is signified in the text by at least two modes of discourse, both Orientalist at root: on the one hand, the rhetoric of despotism (values and images of servants and potentates, minions and rajahs) and, on the other, the rhetoric of mysticism (the discourse on "fakirs," "animal charmers," storytelling, and priests, those farthest removed from the cares and concerns of this world). Now The Secret Garden criticizes the former and largely celebrates the latter, but elements of the rhetoric of despotism are smuggled into the praise of mysticism. This secret readmission of the inadmissible (power without limits) through the back door, as it were, is betrayed by the functional value of "magic." Magic, we are told, constitutes the index of Oriental mysticism and is particularly associated with the Eastern "tradition" of storytelling. Leaving aside the questionable ethnographic values which typically inform this kind of cultural constructionism, Burnett's interest in magic, in prerational intuitive force, while leading her in life to spiritualism, leads her text to the heart of mundane politics: the issue of the appropriate balance of power. As her Ayah was to her in India, Mary, in Yorkshire, becomes a function of Colin's feeble body, which is overly fixated on itself and socially performs without proper limits. To calm his volatile nerves and to send him off to sleep, Mary massages Colin's hand and sings "a very low little chanting song in Hindustani" (124; cf. 152). If Mary is an "Ayah," then Colin should be the equivalent of a colonial elite. But this is not so; he is described as a "boy rajah" (135), a "young rajah" (175), "Mr. Rajah" (153), "a rajah flesh and blood" (204); at no point in the text is he equated with the "Sahib," the British imperial ideal. Thus, colonialism and the English class system are conveniently displaced into the alleged social patterns of the Oriental scene. This might not matter if the text did not claim for this displacement an absolute political value.

The politics of Oriental despotism, summarily dismissed in the great house, comes into its own in the garden. Colin is waited on by servants, literally hand and foot. His authority is so total that "Mary could not help remembering how the young native prince … had waved to command his servants to approach with salaams and receive his orders" (176). A chapter later, Burnett describes "the rajah," Master Colin, waving his hand to command his "manservant" and his "nurse" (192). Fired by the challenge of manual labor (i.e., the Spartan regimen) and the fear of appearing less than fit to rule in front of his social inferiors, the "fretful invalid" (254) is soon on the road to becoming a "real boy" (241), confident, intelligent, athletic. The fact that magic—the rhetoric of mysticism ("that sense of the beauty of land and sky" [265])—makes for a social reality of the garden that undercuts its value as a place of spiritual equality is an ideological contradiction hardly resolved by the text. If resolution does occur, then it is achieved in a manner that represents an uncertain assimilation of colonial power, a power which had largely operated free from the moderating measures deemed necessary at home. Power has its secrets, and it is to these we now turn.

The Secret Dreams of Power

And there you'll see the Gardeners, the men and / 'prentice boys / Told off to do as they are bid and do it without noise.

      —Rudyard Kipling, "The Glory of the Garden"

On the whole, however, it may be admitted, that our Indian government is the best example of a well administered despotism, on a large scale existing in the world … our rule in India must needs be despotic.

                  —Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke

The province of magic is essential human equality, the classless society. Magic and the Spartan regimen of health overlap in the character of Dickon. With his Pan-like pipes, Dickon can charm animals "just as the natives in India charm snakes" (131). "There really was a sort of magic about Dickon…. 'He'd be at home in Buckingham Palace or at the bottom of coal mine'" (188). Dickon encapsulates the best of what "the East" has to offer; his intelligent spirituality liberates him from the strictures of class and enables him to exist as a "free spirit" in a society of radical unequals. It is clear that Burnett wants us to think of Dickon as a juvenile fertility god. But the mythological angle does not close down the house of political debate; it creates yet another point of entry. For, if gods are metaphors for various social interests and schemes of power, then whose garden of interests does Dickon cultivate?

Far from being an independent spiritual hero, Dickon is a creature of a ruling elite fantasy, a secret desire of the more reactionary face of the British class system—a rank domestic subaltern. No master could ever find Dickon wanting; the "common cottage boy" (154) is the perfect trusty retainer, a mirror in which a master might find a fair reflection of himself, a prime worthy. The worthy is a dream of the "self sacrificing person" (150), invariably apolitical and lower class. Burnett gives us a glimpse of how the colonial model of the worthy (the Ayah or body servant) might insinuate itself in the politics of the mother country as a consequence of blowback.

That which is latent in Dickon becomes wholly manifest in the character of Ben Weatherstaff. If you recall, Ben Weatherstaff, the blunt old boy of the earth, had aided in the collapse of Mary's despotic ego by refusing to provide it with a suitable narcissistic reflection. Burnett openly states that Yorkshire peasants are in no way as pliable as their Indian counterparts. But then the narrative proceeds to contradict this statement; in the dreamy space of the secret garden, Ben completely submits to the "Oriental" authority of Master Colin, as he doffs his cap and even recognizes the heir to the manor as a kind of "king" (211). Thus, as regards the children's drama of nature worship, for all that, Ben is usually opposed to participating in "prayer meetings," "this being the rajah's affair he did not resent it, and was, indeed, inclined to be grateful at being called upon to assist" (220). Perhaps the acme of Ben Weatherstaff's loyalty is the fact that he, seemingly untroubled by differing levels of culture or class, can accept Colin as part of a regional family. "Tha'rt a Yorkshire lad for sure," he insists.

The issue of belonging is felt everywhere in the text. For an elite to be recognized by a subordinate as belonging to the same cultural grouping clearly confers upon elite status an air of political legitimacy. This, as might be imagined, was no small problem for the British Empire, dependent as it was on the consent—albeit enforced—of at least some of the colonized peoples. For the colonial elite, belonging to India meant exercising power firmly but fairly, what Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke called a "paternal despotism" (qtd. in Bennet 238). This moderate ideal of immoderate power migrates to England in the guise of the Yorkshire worthy, who accepts authority without complaint. For contra the notion of their distinct cultural difference, a clear interest is shown in the possibility of Yorkshire as a substitute India, a surrogate colonial space. The theme develops on the back of an ethnography of the rural poor. From the germ of Mary's reckoning that "Yorkshire people seemed strange" (66), a branch of allusion grows to keep them just so: "to talk about Dickon meant to talk about the moor and about the cottage and fourteen people who lived in it on sixteen shillings a week—and children who got fat on the moor grass like wild ponies" (134). We reach the lives of the poor through indirection; the Yorkshire peasantry is not so much shown as narrated through stereotypical indices—indigence, rough readiness, and "cottages crowded with children" (257). It is no difficult task from here to find parallels with colonial India. Thus, to Mary, "broad Yorkshire" becomes the equivalent of a native Indian "dialect," "which only a few people understood" (55). Mary, soon to be followed by Colin, learns Yorkshire on the basis that "in India a native was always pleased if you knew his speech" (100). But, often, the colonizer learned the language not to "please" the colonized but to cement his own social control.

I sense that what we have been talking about is the dream life of the imperial ego, the colonizing mentality which abhors resistance—be it in the form of a territorial border, a cultural otherness, or a language difference. As a product of the history of colonial conquest, the imperial ego has long stood as the destination of so much nationalist and class ideology—"Britishness" just is the ability to manage empire. Hence Gladstone's assertion that "the sentiment of empire may be called innate in every Briton. If there are exceptions, they are like those of men born blind or lame among us" (qtd. in Bennet 264). "Gardens and fresh air" are a distant echo in Gladstone's statement. He would have us believe that physical capability—interpreted as a willingness to go abroad and seize territory—is the greatest of national political virtues.10 This sort of reasoning is the sine qua non of the imperial ego.

What happens to the imperial ego when it has no place to go? The Secret Garden elliptically explores this large question—one of the largest of the twentieth century—through the characterization of Master Colin. Mr. Craven's failure to put limits on his son's desires encourages Colin to feel "that the whole world belonged to him" (118). Indeed, the "rude little brute" (212) is nothing less than a crypto Robinson Crusoe: "he had lived on a sort of desert island all his life and as he had been the king of it he had made his own manners and had no one to compare himself with" (212). Robinson Crusoe is the fullest expression, but also the reductio et absurdum, of the border-crossing, other-hating, self-loving imperial ego. Crusoe lives for himself and has a world unto himself in which to do so—no wonder his story has held such attraction for colonial discourse! Now Colin would be Crusoe; but a world of difference exists between the "New World" and Yorkshire. It is only when Colin enters the secret garden—that is, an ideal island—that his Robinson Crusoe fantasy becomes viable.11 In other words, the garden is a compensatory space for the mental drama of colonialism—but a colonialism of certain cultural limits. An allegorical inference is the evidence that I offer. At one point in the text, Susan Sowerby, the mother who knows best, relates to Mrs. Medlock a parable about territory, ownership, morality, and aggression:

When I was at school my jography [sic] told as th' world was shaped like an orange an' I found out before I was ten that th' whole orange doesn't belong to nobody. No one owns more than his bit of a quarter … [if] … you … think as you own th' whole orange … you'll find out you're mistaken, an' you won't find out without hard knocks.


Whether or not intended, the banal simile of the orange encodes a critique of the arrogance of imperial power, the very power which Colin is keen to inherit. On this issue, the text pulls in two directions at once. For, although Colin learns "that the whole orange does not belong to him," and thus discovers "the size of his own quarter" (190), within that quarter he is both the Kubla Khan and Robinson Crusoe of Yorkshire.

In the view of the eminent apologist, Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (quoted above), British imperialism in India is at best a benign despotism. In her evocation of some aspects of blowback, Burnett implies that said despotism is also the most efficient way of managing domestic class struggle. Overseas, the imperial ego expended much effort "to reproduce in the alien environment some similitude of dear home" (Barr 25); at home, the same ego yearns for India. The desire for India to be Yorkshire and for Yorkshire to be India is, at bottom, a desire for a working knowledge of power, a desire for absolute order—a fixed social world of lords and peasants, or rajahs and subalterns. We are, of course, expounding a never-never land, the land of fantasy, myth, and fairy tale. Witness the description of Dickon pushing Colin in his wheelchair around the garden: "it was like being taken in state round the country of a magic king and queen and shown all the mysterious riches it contained" (197). This sentimental vignette speaks volumes about the precocity of the imperial ego and the culture of elitist Utopias.

Conclusion: Ugly Ducklings and Beautiful Swans

England in the East is not the England that we know. Flousy Britannia, with her anchor and ship, becomes a mysterious Oriental despotism, ruling a sixth of the human race, nominally for the native's own good….

                —Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke

When Mary first arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, she conducts an exploration of its great interior, "the hundred rooms with closed doors" (48). What she discovers is not so much her roots as her own alienation from the august cultural tradition of her ancestral family: "the portraits of men and women in queer, grand costumes made of silk and velvet" make her feel like "a little girl from India" (49), who is trespassing in their house. The irony of colonialism—that one could be English in India but not easily English in England itself—could hardly be made plainer. It takes an exchange of social energies to allow Mary to feel at home. As a displaced person from without, Mary transmits a superior cultural force, which rein-vigorates the stale and paralyzed order of the Yorkshire scene. (Mark that prior to her arrival "everything" in the Manor is "locked up" [115].) In return, she discovers the garden of delights, which she had dreamt of, but never realized, in India (8). Mary's passage from migrant to native plays out, at an individual level, the dynamic of cultural reciprocity that always informs, to a lesser or greater degree, the lived experience of assimilation.

However, the space that defines all the others is, ultimately, not the secret garden itself but the "little Indian room" in Misselthwaite Manor, "where there is a cabinet full of ivory elephants" (242). This quasi-museum, with its exotic curio collection, constitutes the beau idéal of assimilation. Neatly lodged in the great house, so that it might enter the British cultural tradition, the cabinet of Oriental artifacts becomes a model of otherness displayed, framed, and under control. In other words, the "Indian room" is really about the mother country, a quotation of national prowess and a tribute to the British imperial spirit. Not unlike that promiscuous cultural dialectic where the other defines the self, the Indian room makes the great house truly British—a curious cross-cultural irony whose sun has yet to set.

The Secret Garden is a richly confused text: the narrative "turns" on points of ideological dissonance. "The garden of children" is simply a catch-all space—a meeting ground for social ideologies, literary conventions, and political dreams. It makes known how ideology works by aesthetics, particularly the aesthetic of nature. Nature is the metaphorical medium where desirable metamorphoses can occur: thus "the mysterious garden" creatively redefines "Oriental" values while providing a spiritual laboratory in which children might grow. The Utopian drive of ideology is to turn "thistles" into "roses," ugly ducklings into beautiful swans. The Secret Garden reflects and refracts the work of ideology and leaves troubled all notions of Utopia.

According to Humphrey Carpenter, Burnett's novel is "the last [children's] book which uses the Arcadian image quite so comfortably. It is the last occasion on which we meet with utopia pure and simple" (190). Carpenter argues that growing suburbanization negated "the garden of England" as both a social reality and an attainable spiritual ideal. I have endeavored to show that Utopia is neither "pure" nor "simple." And, moreover, as Raymond Williams points out in The Country and the City, the sense that the garden of England is disappearing has marked English literature for quite sometime. But the neofeudal politics of the garden ideal has remained extraordinarily resonant. Doubtless, the end of empire has much to do with its preservation. The "paternal despotism" of the Raj may well have found a home in the great British class system, articulating itself in the nostalgic dreams (and practices) of so much contemporary politics.12 For instance, ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher clearly governed on the assumption that a country was like a great household.

Ninety years ago, J. A. Hobson, in his classic study of empire, warned against the reactionary potential of blowback, the possibility that thistles would strangle the roses and that ugly ducklings would take the place of beautiful swans. I close this essay with a passage that still holds meaning for today:

[T]he South of England is full of men of local influence in politics and society whose character has been framed in our despotic Empire, and whose incomes are chiefly derived from the maintenance and furtherance of this despotic rule. Not a few enter our local councils, or takes posts in our constabulary or our prisons: everywhere they stand for coercion and resistance to reform…. It is, indeed, a nemesis of Imperialism that the arts and crafts of tyranny, acquired and exercized in our unfree Empire, should be turned against our liberties at home. Those who have felt surprise at the total disregard or the open contempt displayed by the aristocracy and plutocracy of this land for the infringements of the liberties of the subject and the abrogation of constitutional rights and usages have not taken sufficiently into account the steady reflux of this poison of irresponsible autocracy from our "unfree, intolerant, aggressive" Empire.

                                (Hobson 375)


1. A reduced version of this paper was presented at the 1992 Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association in New York on the panel "Theories of Class in Children's Literature." I would like to express my gratitude to those colleagues whose criticisms helped to shape the finished product.

2. Immigration was first turned into a major political issue in the 1950s. As early as 1954, Lord Swinton, the secretary of state for Commonwealth relations, intimated that future immigration controls would necessarily be racist: "I appreciate the force of the contention that, if we are to legislate for restrictions on the entry of British subjects and their employment here, the legislation should be nondiscriminatory in form. This will not, however, conceal the fact that the problem with which we are concerned is that of the colored immigrants from colonial territories" (qtd. in Cale 15). The current concern over the question of asylum seekers addresses the same problem that Swinton identified: too many people of color with a legal right to residence.

3. Sentiments of cultural presence and absence wrestle with one another interminably in the colonial situation. Hence J. A. Froude's advice: "Let it be once established that an Englishman emigrating to Canada, or the Cape, or Australia, or New Zealand, did not forfeit his nationality, that he was still on English soil as much as if he were in Devonshire or Yorkshire, and would remain an Englishman while the English empire lasted" (qtd. in Bennet 247). The breathtaking arrogance of Froude's formulation, its nationalistic obliteration of geography, reveals how imperial Englishness is invested with far more significance than it can meaningfully carry. In other words, English national identity becomes dangerously overdetermined and stretched too far, it becomes too thin—too anemic—to signify anything essential about Englishness.

4. In her excellent study of the early history of the infant and child welfare movement in England, War Is Good for Babies and Other Young Children (1987), Debroah Dwork shows how industrialism, imperialism, and militarism played major roles in inaugurating "the establishment of a welfare system" (206), itself the forerunner of "the modern welfare state" (207). Employing an incisive form of discourse analysis, Dwork persuasively argues that "the philosophy of Eugenics, the policy of national efficiency, and the reaction to the Boer War did not create the infant and child welfare movement, but they did focus attention and provide a stimulus for it…. Furthermore, concern about national degeneration provided a justification and a rhetoric for … health care. It validated an enlarged role for the physician to play in this issue of national importance…. [T]his justification and rhetoric were used repeatedly to convince the public (particularly the opposition) of the national, imperial importance of such seemingly mundane matters as milk, meals, and routine medical examinations" (20-21). In this ideological context, the school became the key site, and the schoolchild the key target, for the exercise of reformist knowledge and power. For instance, Margaret McMillan was a member of the Bradford School Board from 1894 to 1902; during her eight-year tenure, she "promoted the cause of physical health and hygiene. She introduced the use of school baths, instituted programmes to provide meals for students, and it was she … who undertook the first recorded medical inspection of elementary school children in England" (Dwork 182). Opponents of child welfare systems argued that such programs violated the essential privacy of the family and therefore expressed the antiliberal bias of socialism. In one respect, there is much truth to this claim: the school welfare system effectively made the state the ultimate guardian of the child. However, it should also be noted that capitalism has a direct interest in "socialist" initiatives insofar as they secure healthy workers and capable soldiers. Thus, Thomas McNamara, a schoolteacher and liberal MP, campaigned vigorously for educational reform and child welfare; not on the basis of radical political critique, but on the (quasi-eugenic) grounds of "national efficiency." He stated: "All this [reform] sounds like rank Socialism…. But as a matter of fact it is, in reality, first class imperialism" (qtd. in Dwork 178). An interesting history of the crosscurrents between child welfare, empire, and socialism—as played out in the themes of early twentieth-century British children's literature—remains to be written.

5. In romantic ideology, childhood and the natural world stand as paradigms of "paradise lost." Indeed, in one sense, romanticism is precisely the attempt to synthesize the "child" in all of us—the imagination—with the only Utopia available to us on this earth, nature unspoiled. The key bridge between self and the natural world is small-scale agricultural labor (hence the Wordsworthian celebration of the simple peasant). Elements of this view were preserved in the regimen of McMillan's camp school. According to McMillan, children ought to learn how to tend vegetables for "nothing trains the mind and fills it with wholesome memories better than carrying out all of this work" (McMillan, Nursery School 91). As Carolyn Steed-man puts it, "in McMillan's writing … the garden is able to do what working class mothers are increasingly seen as unable to do; to promote speech in children, to allow, as the vegetable beds did, the naming of many things" (Steedman 12). The theme of the vegetable garden as the locus of discourse and desire is explicit in The Secret Garden. Thus, Colin's discontent cannot be cured by "picture books" and "medicine," but only by going "into a garden and watch[ing] things growing." For, as Mary tells us, such activity "did [her] good" (128). Mary's realization is later echoed by Dickon: "I was thinkin' that if he [Colin] was out here [in the garden] he wouldn't be watchin' for lumps to grow on his back; he'd be watchin' for buds to break on th' rose bushes, an' he'd likely be healthier" (147). In The Secret Garden, children recover the lost world of the peasant. Of course, in doing so, they rehabilitate a paternalistic social hierarchy where peasants are children to be controlled.

6. A clear exposition of what the British establishment thought about the urban poor was provided by Lord Rosebery in a speech at Glasgow University in 1900. His subject was Britain's "race problem": that is, how to improve the imperial race. Rosebery was adamant that this could only be achieved in rural areas and not in the cities: "In the great cities, in the rookeries and slums which shall survive, an imperial race cannot be reared. You can scarcely produce anything in those foul nests of crime and disease but a progeny doomed from its birth to misery and ignominy" (qtd. in Richards 33). For Rosebery and his cothinkers, there was no question that those who dwelled in urban "foul nests" were in some sense responsible for their own fate. Even a relatively "enlightened" thinker like William Beveridge, the main inspirer of the welfare state, shared Rosebery's elitist contempt for the so-called dependent classes. "The line between independence and dependence," wrote Beveridge in 1906, "between the efficient and the unemployable has to be made clearer and broader" (qtd. in Richards 33). Karl Pearson, the prominent eugenicist and mathematician, played no small part in developing the type of classification system—a sort of spiritual taxonomy—which Beveridge called for. According to Pearson, conflict between nations was really only another manifestation of the eternal struggle for dominance, which Darwin had termed "the survival of the fittest." Thus, for Pearson, the racial stock of a nation was crucial to its progress through history. Like so many other racial theorists, Pearson was a socialist; in many ways he anticipated the concerns of National Socialism. Consider these extraordinary words: "From the standpoint of the nation we want to inculcate a feeling of shame in the parents of a weakling, whether it be mentally or physically unfit. We want parents to grasp that they have given birth to a new citizen, and this involves … a duty towards the community in respect of his breed and nurture" (Pearson, National Life 27). Or consider the following proposals, which surely anticipate the racist totalitarianism depicted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and, perhaps, in our own day by Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: "society will have in some fashion to interfere and restrict the anti-social in the matter of childbearing." "Antisocial" for Pearson meant "the propagators of inefficient and unnecessary human beings" (Pearson, "Socialism and Sex" 417, 424). Pearson's prejudice towards weaklings and his celebration of the yeoman Englishman is mirrored in The Secret Garden to the extent that the sickly Colin is assimilated to the ideal of virility represented by Dickon.

7. In terms of sexual politics, the action of The Secret Garden unfolds in the ideological space between two ideal poles: on the one hand, a discourse of the father, which articulates the social reproduction of the appropriate form of manhood, and, on the other hand, a discourse of the mother, which relates to the role of the family in consolidating the social order. To the extent that her narrative focuses on the demands of authority and propriety, Burnett investigates the patriarchal imperatives hidden in the desire for the mother. Mary Lennox is rejected by her mother; yet, her mother—or the mother imago—remains a telling object of desire. As Burnett puts it, "Mary had liked to look at her mother from a distance" (7). The loss of her mother and father leaves Mary orphaned as well as stateless, the implication being that the family is a model for the nation state. In the mother country, England, Mary searches for a mother figure who will help her to assimilate to the prevailing cultural order (i.e., the father's word or "the law of the land"). We are told that Martha's "familiar talk" captivates Mary: "when Martha told stories of what Mother said or did they always sounded comfortable" (47). "I like your mother," said Mary, "she doesn't seem to be like the mothers in India" (56, 79). Susan Sowerby, Martha's mother, becomes the human equivalent of the garden as therapeutic space: "she is the comfortable wonderful mother creature" (229), the subject who knows best, as evidenced by her impromptu pearls of wisdom ("Mother says as th' two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way—or always to have it" [166]). Susan becomes a surrogate mother not only to Mary but also to Colin. In short, as a "motherly creature" (26), she attends to the ideal of the family as much as the ideal garden attends to society. The analogy made between the Earth Mother and Mother Earth, between the great nurse and the nursery garden, to be sure, is at one with the concerns of industrialism, the patriarchal family, and the imperial state. Debroah Dwork has shown how early twentieth-century educational reformers promoted an "ideology of mother-craft" (214) to supplement the nascent child welfare system, with its goal of protecting "the race" from disease and degeneration (124-66). Dwork quotes a mother who argued for maternity centers or schools for expectant mothers on the basis that "the child is the asset of the nation, and the mother the backbone" (165). Like so many other social reform issues, the ideology of the strong woman as mother to the nation is sotto voce in Burnett's text.

8. In his invaluable "Representing Authority in Victorian India," Bernard S. Cohn points out that, by the 1870s, what he terms "the British theory of Indian sociology" (190) had fallen into serious disrepute. Some colonial officials saw India as a feudal entity composed of "lords and peasant"; others saw it as a country fiendishly Balkanized by ethnicity and religion. Cohn comments: "Indian titles had been a vexing question for the British rulers since the early 19th century. There appeared to the English to be no fixed lineally ordered hierarchy or any common system of titles such as the British were familiar with in their own society. What were thought to be royal titles such as Rajas, Maharajas, Nawab or Bahadur, seemed to be used randomly by Indians, and were not attached to actual control of territory" (191). Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India, believed in the importance of cultivating a "native aristocracy" whose power would aid colonial rule. In 1876, Lytton wrote a letter to Lord Salisbury, the Indian secretary of state, in which he opined: "Politically speaking, the Indian peasantry is an inert mass. If it ever moves at all, it will move in obedience, not to its British benefactors [sic], but to its native chiefs and princes, however tyrannical they may be" (qtd. in Cohn 191). In an article in the London Guardian entitled "Maharajas Seek to Regain Privileges for the Princely Lifestyle on Which the Sun Never Set," Derek Brown reports that the powers of the Maharajas, Rajas, and Nawabs, surviving the upheaval of independence, were "all swept away in 1971, when Indiri Gandhi, in the first flush of socialist reform, removed the clauses on princely privilege from the constitution." According to Brown, however, that is merely "one version of reality"; another version, so much nearer to the truth, suggests that princely elites retain considerable powers. To the extent that these princes, who traditionally gained much of their powers from the colonial authorities, continue to subvert the democratic ethos of contemporary India, then, it might be said that the sun of empire has yet to set, that the British Raj lives on.

9. In 1907, the future Labour party leader, Ramsay McDonald, remarked that "the empire is governed by the most narrow visioned of our social classes" (qtd. in Bennet 354); two years later, his fellow socialist Kier Hardie lamented that "the gulf between the British official and the Indian people is widening" (qtd. in Bennet 358). Both McDonald and Hardie viewed the empire as a prism for understanding the British class system better.

10. The equation of national identity with imperial prowess often involves racist presuppositions (cf. Karl Pearson). Consider the jingoistic words of Joseph Chamberlain in a speech given at the Imperial Institute in 1895: "I believe in the British empire … I believe in the British race. I believe that the British race is the greatest governing race that the world has ever seen" (qtd. in Bennet 315). The twentieth century has borne witness to apocalyptic horrors partly as a consequence of such arrogant formulations.

11. If The Secret Garden explores the ideological dynamics of blowback (the effect of the return of empire on the domestic order), then, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe explores the ideological value of exporting aspects of the domestic order overseas. Note that, for all that, Crusoe is a prototype of the bourgeois individualist. His political self-conception is resolutely feudal: "I was king and lord of all this country" (101); "I was lord of the whole manor; or if I pleased, I might call myself king" (129); "I had a seat in the country as most princes have" (253). In my view, Robinson Crusoe rehabilitates feudalism by relocating it in the New World, just as the The Secret Garden rehabilitates empire by relocating it in rural England. The former text involves the politics of projection; the latter, the politics of inversion. See Phillips and Wojcik-Andrews for a discussion of the political dialectic between colonial "master texts" and modern children's literature. We argue that Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons is a classic attempt to preserve the libidinal charge of building and protecting empire. In this respect, it belongs in the same discursive formation as The Secret Garden.

12. The end of empire continues to direct—some would say deform—contemporary British society. Consider the vexed issue of the national economy. Economic data indicate that John Bull remains fatally wedded to the ghost of the British Empire. As John Pilger puts it, "It can be argued Germany and Japan were compelled to leave behind their imperial past…. Britain has never made that basic change. Today, with manufacturing facing the biggest investment collapse since the Second world war, British overseas assets investment stands at almost 30 billion pounds. How can this be justified?" Britain's military expenditure remains comparatively high for the "unstated reason" that it allows "a small ruling interest to cling to an emotional vision of what they imagine we once were. It is time finally to leave behind the imperial past" (Pilger 10). What price empire, then? Endless conservative governments dedicated to the postimperial daydream that things have to change so that they can remain the same?

Works Cited

Barr, Pat. The Mem Sahibs: The Women of Victorian India. London: Secker and Warburg, 1976.

Bennet, George. The Concept of Empire: Burke to Atlee, 1774–1947. 1952. 2nd ed. London: Black, 1962.

Brown, Derek. "Maharajas Seek to Regain Privileges for the Princely Lifestyle on Which the Sun Never Set." London Guardian 3 Nov. 1992.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. N.p.: Aerie, 1981.

Cale, Kirsten. "Immigration Controls Cause Racism." Living Marxism (1992): 12-16.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Cohn, Bernard S. "Representing Authority in Victorian India." The Invention of Tradition. Ed. Eric Hob-sbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. 165-211.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 1719. New York: Signet, 1961.

Dwork, Debroah. War Is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England, 1898–1918. London: Tavistock, 1987.

Hobson, J. A. Imperialism—A Study. 1902. 3rd ed. London: Allen & Unwin, 1938.

McMillan, Margaret. The Nursery School. London: Dent, 1919.

―――――――. Life of Rachel McMillan. London: Dent, 1927.

Phillips, Jerry and Ian Wojcik-Andrews. "History and the Politics of Play in T. S. Eliot's 'The Burial of the Dead' and Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons." The Lion and the Unicorn 14.1 (1990): 53-70.

Pearson, Karl. National Life from the Standpoint of Science. London: Black, 1901.

―――――――. "Socialism and Sex." The Ethic of Freethought. London: Black, 1901.

Pilger, John. "Kinnock's Secret Speech: What the Labor Leader Should Do for Britain." New Statesman and Society 5.189 (1992): 10-11.

Richards, Frank. "The Underclass: A Race Apart." Living Marxism 37 (1991): 30-34.

Simpson, Christopher. Blowback: America's Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War. London: Weidenfeld, 1988.

Steedman, Carolyn. Childhood, Culture, and Class in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860–1931. London: Virago, 1990.

Phyllis Bixler (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Bixler, Phyllis. "The Secret Garden 'Misread': The Broadway Musical as Creative Interpretation." Children's Literature 22 (1994): 101-23.

[In the following essay, Bixler offers a comparison between stage versions of The Secret Garden and Burnett's original book, concluding that the musical version reflects a "creative interpretation" of the classic story.]

"What distinguishes the most important literature is its ability to engender new interpretations," Perry Nodelman has recently suggested (107), citing Frank Kermode's identification of such textual "openness" as a defining characteristic of what we call "classics" (44). By this measure, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden (1911) is a "most important" classic. Few if any children's texts are more frequently discussed in papers at scholarly assemblies; few have been more often adapted in other media. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film starring Margaret O'Brien was made in 1949; television films were produced for the British Broadcasting Company in 1975 and the American Columbia Broadcasting Company in 1987; and Warner Brothers released yet another version in 1993. In the last decade there have been at least four musical adaptations. Nona Sheppard and Helen Glavin turned the book into a children's opera, performed in England in 1991, and in that year an opera by Greg Plishka and David Ives was given its world premiere in Pennsylvania. The book has also been twice adapted for the musical theater, in Great Britain in 1983 and in America in 1991. Although the latter adaptation did not receive unalloyed critical praise, it was the musical production nominated for the most awards in the 1990–91 Broadway season. Marsha Norman received a Tony for her musical book, the producer Heidi Landesman won one for her set, and Daisy Eagan won another for her portrayal of Mary Lennox; Grammy-winner Lucy Simon composed the music, and Tony-nominee Susan H. Schulman directed the production. The Secret Garden ran successfully on Broadway from 5 April 1991 to 3 January 1993; beginning on 28 April 1992, a North American road tour was scheduled to run longer than its Broadway version.

Professional obligation more than personal desire drove me to Saint Louis to see the tour production in May 1992. The movie adaptations had seemed aesthetic lightweights compared to Burnett's novel, and I considered my interest in The Secret Garden nearly exhausted by years of teaching it, writing about it, listening to papers and reading articles about it. Happily, only a few short scenes snapped me out of this smugness. Unlike the movie adaptations, whose power was largely borrowed from Burnett's original, the musical had an energy of its own. Set, staging, words, and music offered in different media the textural unity and complexity that had sustained my interest in the novel over the years. I felt the presence of a persuasive and provocative interpretation of the novel—persuasive because the musical was in important ways reading the book as I and other female readers and feminist critics had, provocative because the musical had found new openness in Burnett's text. Reminding myself that the playwright, composer, set designer, and director were all women, I affirmed my intuition that on some issues in some books we can indeed speak of communal female responses. Considering the deletions from and additions to Burnett's text, I recalled Harold Bloom's assertions that poets (and presumably musical theater creators) necessarily "misread" their precursors (or sources) in moving beyond them (14). Recalling reviews suggesting that the musical had distorted or eliminated some essence of Burnett's text (for example, see those by Frank Rich and David Richards), I mentally retorted that different readers find different essences, as I had at different times over the years, that reviewers and critics also misread, if usually less venturesomely, according to Bloom. Finally, comparing my enjoyment of the musical to my earlier pleasure in writing about The Secret Garden and in reading articles that taught me something new about it, I agreed with Bloom that critical essays, like poems—or musicals—are "creative" (43), adding to the text as much as zeroing in on some primary essence. What follows, therefore, is a misreading or "creative interpretation" (Bloom 43) of the musical The Secret Garden, as well as a commentary on the musical as a misreading or creative interpretation of Burnett's novel.1

Having introduced myself as a misreader, it is appropriate to provide more information about these primary creators of the musical as well as their collaborative process. Many interviews and other articles marked the opening of the musical, in part because the multimillion-dollar Broadway venture was headed by a team of women. Though ambivalent about this focus on their shared gender, the women described their collaboration as especially "comfortable," "caring," and "nurturing" (Watts 25, 70); these are mothering values stressed in Burnett's novel, of course, and the women also spoke of their work as a kind of collective gardening (Watts 70; Simpson 21). That they had a very close collaboration is suggested also by the fact that often, in interviews, they individually gave a question the same or very similar answer. They brought to their teamwork a variety of professional and reading backgrounds, however.

Turning The Secret Garden into a musical was originally the idea of the producer and set designer, Landesman. A cast album for the British musical—which she has appropriately labeled "a bad My Fair Lady"—sent her back to Burnett's novel. Convinced that the book contained a good musical, Landesman gave it to Norman—Landesman had designed sets for two of Norman's plays. Landesman's interest in adapting a children's classic was not surprising, for she had coproduced and done considerable creative work on Broadway musical adaptations of Mark Twain, in Big River (1985), and the Brothers Grimm, in Into the Woods (1987). Although The Secret Garden had made little impression on her as a child, she had loved Alice in Wonderland and E. Nesbit, as well as the later Narnia series. Norman, however, was not an obvious choice to write the script. Plays such as her Pulitzer Prize-winning 'night, Mother (1983), ending in a suicide, and Getting Out (1977), portraying a young woman's first day out of prison, had earned her a reputation as, in her words, "this queen of tragedy" (Mootz). She had not previously read The Secret Garden and in fact had read few children's classics, having skipped from the missionary-adventure books that her mother bought for her to her own choice of the Brontës and Jane Austen. However, Norman had always wanted to work on a musical, she had written an unproduced one on the Shakers, and she was eager to work with Landesman again.

After working on The Secret Garden for four or five months, Landesman and Norman sent lyrics to six composers; Simon, they discovered, "knew exactly what the music should sound like" (Jones). Unlike Landesman and Norman, Simon belonged to what they would eventually call the Secret Garden Club (Simpson 20), composed of the many adults they met, usually female, who had a highly personal, often proprietary, affection for Burnett's classic; Simon had often reread The Secret Garden, as well as her other childhood favorites, The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins, and she had been working on a musical adaptation of the Little House on the Prairie. As Simon describes it, she "grew up in the heyday of American musical comedy. Arthur Schwartz was my parents' closest friend. I used to sit at the piano as a toddler and listen to his new songs" (Barbour). Simon also brought the team her experience in folk, rock, classical, and children's music; before her Grammy-winning albums for children, In Harmony I and In Harmony II (1980, 1982), she had cut solo albums and had done backup singing for her sister, Carly Simon, who, along with Judy Collins, contributed demonstration tapes during the composing and arranging of music for The Secret Garden (Grabel 13). Norman and Simon soon "moved from a respectful relationship to a real working marriage," says Simon, letting words and music influence each other while composing (Simpson 20). They eventually took a draft to a workshop production at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs; during those two weeks Norman did a complete rewrite, and together Norman and Simon wrote ten new songs (Grabel 13). A tryout production at Norfolk's Virginia Stage Company in late 1989 convinced them that major reworking was still needed. At this point, Schulman joined the team as the new director.

Like Landesman, Schulman had been a childhood fan of Victorian and Edwardian children's literature, including Little Women and "all" of Burnett's books; like Simon, Schulman had had a special fondness for The Secret Garden. By age twelve she was also haunting Broadway stage doors, and in junior high school she directed The King and I (Wolf 8). As an adult, she had directed many musicals, including a number during her eight years as artistic director of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and a 1989 Sweeney Todd on Broadway, for which she received a Tony nomination. Schulman's joining the team apparently created the right chemistry. The Secret Garden underwent its final major revision for an October 1990 New York City workshop, and this workshop production elicited the financial backing necessary for an April 1991 opening on Broadway. Development of the musical took three years, "a short time for a musical," according to Norman. "We've done it fast because everyone involved worked so well together" (Mootz).

Asked how The Secret Garden was affected by her earlier work on Big River and Into the Woods, Landesman replied that "one learns negatively," that she wanted The Secret Garden to be "less linear, more imagist";2 in a similar vein, Schulman praised Norman for knowing "how to approach non-literal storytelling" (Wolf 10). The audience of the musical is expected to appreciate the imagist, the nonlinear, the nonliteral from the very start. The set re-creates a Victorian child's toy theater, with proscenium arch inside proscenium arch; overlaying the entire set (including, in New York, the floor) are muted images, reminiscent of Victorian valentines or decoupage—some viewers have been reminded of Joseph Cornell's intricate boxes and collages (see, for example, Rich; Richards). Some images, such as patrons looking down from a balcony, identify the set as a toy theater, but many appear in dreamlike assembly, as in Maurice Sendak's illustrations for Fly by Night (1976) and Outside over There (1981). Landesman wanted "to portray the world of a child's dreams, including its terrifying images," and so a sinister, horned Victorian mask and a witch on a horse mingle with happier images of birds, animals, flowers, toys, children, and babies.

The suggestion that the stage is at one time exterior—a theater—and interior, within a child's mind, is reinforced by music, words, and action in the prologue to the play. Mary Lennox, in bed, is circled by a dreamlike re-creation of her parents' party, which turns into a nonliteral dramatization of the cholera epidemic. Colonial British partygoers, Indian ayah and fakir, all in white garb, use bloodred handkerchiefs to play a circle game in which participants' elimination indicates that they die. Meanwhile, children's voices sing a minor-key "Mistress Mary, quite contrary" in which the question "How does your garden grow?" receives the reply that the flowers are dying and must be eliminated, like the dancers in their drop-the-handkerchief game: "Dig it up,… you're up, you're out, you go" (prologue). The prologue signals the conflation of not only dream and waking worlds but also past and present, living and dead. As the curtain rises, the first voice heard is that of Colin Craven's dead mother, Lily, singing about flowers safe in her garden; in the New York (but not the touring) production, Lily sits in a Victorian picture frame suspended above and behind Mary Lennox, who plays with her dollhouse until her father comes and lifts her into bed.

The first of the two acts is especially nonlinear and nonliteral while Mary, her uncle Archibald Craven, and to a lesser extent Colin are developed as characters haunted by the past and unable to enjoy the present; as Archibald tells Mary later, people who die remain ghosts as long as "someone alive is still holding on to them" (1.2). When Mary moves to Yorkshire, the ghosts from her past in India go with her, and the portrayal of Mary's first night in Misselthwaite Manor typifies how we are often asked to set aside our usual temporal, spatial, and reality categories. The ghosts, who generally adopt a protective attitude toward the living, sing that this strange house must seem to Mary "like a frightful dream" (prologue). (In the published playscript, the ghosts are labeled "the Dreamers," reversing the more usual notion that it is the living who dream of the dead; I am reminded of Tweedledee's assertion that the sleeping Red King is dreaming about Alice [Carroll 144, 208], which also makes us question our assumptions about who is dreamed and who is dreamer.) Past and present, as well as dream and waking life, are often staged simultaneously. During the presentation of Mary's first night in Misselthwaite, for example, we hear and see Mary's father, Albert, urge his wife, Rose, to take Mary away from the cholera epidemic; meanwhile, Mary is unable to sleep. (Did her parents' conversation occur in her dream or her memory? The ghost scenes often admit more than one interpretation.) Along with the ghosts and Archibald, Mary carries a candle through the corridors of the manor, suggested by three sets of ornate picture frames dropped into a nearly dark stage. What follows is one of many examples of ghosts joining living characters in choral singing; here, as elsewhere, specific lines or slight variations can be credibly sung by several characters. Mary, Archibald, Lily, and the other ghosts sing "I heard someone crying" and posit possible sources of the cry until Mary's parents and Mary herself, Lily, Archibald, and Colin are all, appropriately, nominated by someone (prologue). The living as well as the dead are lost souls crying in the dark, wandering and never meeting.

This emphasis on Mary, Archibald, and Colin as ghost-ridden is a misreading of Burnett's book attributable, no doubt, in large part to Norman. Having loved the Brontës in her youth, she was able to recognize the Gothic elements in Burnett's novel—the parallels between The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre have been described by more than one reader (Thwaite 220-21; Bixler, Burnett 100; Bixler, "Gardens" passim), and the 1987 and 1993 movies heighten the Gothic elements in the book as well. Norman had portrayed the dangers of excessive grief, of inappropriately holding on to the past, in her plays Third and Oak (1978), The Holdup (1983), and Traveler in the Dark (1984) and her novel, The Fortune Teller (1987). In addition, Norman believes that the line between the living and the dead is "very faint"; her reading of Ann Thwaite's biography confirmed her sense that Burnett was a "spiritualist," which Norman defined as someone sharing her own belief that "people are watched over by spirits." Having read Thwaite, Norman must have known that Burnett wrote stories about the living being visited by their beloved dead—In the Closed Room (1904) and The White People (1917)—although she apparently did not read them. In Getting Out, Norman had already written a play simultaneously dramatizing past and present; Arlie's present self, who is trying to make a new start outside prison, shares the stage with her younger, cynical, delinquent self, a past self who comments on the present action. Although Norman had toyed with the idea of having ghosts early in the creative process, they were a relatively late addition to the musical; except for Lily, they appeared after its Norfolk and just before its final workshop production. (However, they were added over a year before the release of the phenomenally popular movie Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze, after he dies, manages to communicate with his still-living, beloved Demi Moore.) The team felt that the Norfolk version was too literal, lacking in "magic"; it was "just a nice story with a bunch of nice songs," says Simon.

Now their new director, Schulman, confirmed Norman's desire for ghosts and showed how to use them on stage. In addition to providing the nonlinear, non-literal richness that the team wanted (McGee 70), the ghosts solved a number of musical and theatrical problems. They provided a singing chorus, the lack of which Simon identified as a chief problem in turning Burnett's novel into a musical. (The Misselthwaite house servants provide the chorus in the British musical, adapted by Alfred Shaughnessy of the British Broadcasting Company's "Upstairs, Downstairs" series.) The ghosts also solved some dramatic problems, such as the cholera epidemic, which had earlier been abandoned as unstageable. ("We were very adamant that we didn't want a lot of dead bodies on stage," says Schulman; "the only play that does that successfully is Hamlet and then you have blocking problems" [Barbour].) Perhaps above all, the ghosts allowed the musical to be faithful to what Norman has called a crucial "promise" that Burnett's book offers. "That promise is the reason parents read The Secret Garden to their children," Norman says, the promise that "no matter where I am, no matter what happens to me, I will always be with you, and you will be all right. You will find a place where you can be happy: There are good people in the world." The birth of her son helped her understand that promise, Norman adds. "I didn't know … anything that I would come back from the grave to do until Angus was born" (McGee 70).

Accordingly, as the musical progresses, the ghosts increasingly interact with the living. The ghosts of Mary's ayah and the fakir are often onstage with her, forming a bridge from the Indian to the Yorkshire folk who care for her. The fakir lights the lamp in Mary's room her first night in Misselthwaite Manor (according to my New York notes), for example, and the next morning the ayah's gestures mimic Mary's dismay that Martha expects her to dress herself; the ayah and fakir are also often onstage when Ben Weatherstaff and Dickon Sowerby explain nature's magic to Mary. The ghost of Mary's father also tries to assure continuity in Mary's care. (Schulman notes that the exceptionally "nurturing" Michael De Vries, who played Albert on Broadway, helped enlarge this role.) As if to pass his fatherly role to Archibald, Albert several times stands just behind or next to him, as when Mary asks for "a bit of earth" to make a garden; here, in addition, Archibald's absentminded responses are interrupted by Albert's loving "Happy birthday, darling" (1.4). Also, in the prologue, Albert had gestured an appeal to the ghost of Colin's mother, Lily, asking her to become the protective spirit that Mary's own mother apparently cannot or will not be—the musical is faithful to Burnett's portrayal of Mary's mother as a superficial woman who lacked interest in her child.

Among the ghosts, it is Lily who takes the lead in caring for the living. Making her first appearance suspended from the heavens in a portrait frame, Lily is the dea ex machina who intervenes to bring about the happy conclusion. She does so primarily by bringing first Mary, then Colin, and finally Archibald to her garden. During a stormy night at Misselthwaite, Lily is prominent among the ghosts who help Mary thread her way through the corridors to Colin's room, and act 1 concludes with Lily leading Mary to the garden door. In act 2, after Mary has told Colin about the garden, Lily appears in his room to sing "Come to my garden." Though often onstage, Lily is typically unobserved by the living; exceptions can be interpreted as occurring in a memory or dream, as when Archibald waltzes with Lily in a ball recreated from their courtship (1.2)—from a front seat I noticed that their dance movements were coordinated, but they never touched. Later in Colin's room, however, Lily sits on his bed and embraces him as they sing a duet (2.5). She likewise embraces Archibald in the penultimate scene (2.9). He is in Paris, having just received a letter from Mary asking him to come home. At the end of their duet, Lily takes Archibald's hand and leads him back to the stage space by now identified as the door to her garden. In this same space, in the final scene, Lily bids farewell to Mary, Colin, and Archibald; having brought them to her garden, where they have become a healthy family, where they have learned to embrace the present, Lily and the other ghosts make a last exit from the garden and from Mary's, Colin's, and Archibald's lives.

As this description suggests, Lily is a centerpiece of the musical's misreading of Burnett's novel. Unlike the other ghosts, she appeared early in the team's creative process, and in the final production she is the only ghost to have a starring role. Simon has said that Lily's was the "easiest voice" "to find," that she "knew her voice exactly," that most of the songs written for Lily remained in the show, the first she wrote for her being "Come to my garden," strains of which accompany the opening and final closing of the curtain.

Lily's prominence provided my own most profound connection with the creators of the musical as misreaders of Burnett's novel when I saw my first production. Some time ago, I noted that The Secret Garden, like many of Burnett's stories, contains Cinderella motifs ("Tradition" 203). In the most well-known, Perrault version, Cinderella is assisted by a fairy godmother, but other variants suggest that Cinderella's dead mother is the source of the magic. In the Grimms' version, Cinderella obtains her beautiful gowns from birds who perch on a tree planted on her mother's grave; a similar connection between the secret garden and Colin's dead mother is made in the novel, Mrs. Sowerby at one point telling Colin, "Thy own mother's in this 'ere very garden" (237). Norman used this statement as textual justification for the ghosts in the musical: "Once we had Frances' word for it that there was at least one spirit in this garden, then it was very easy to say, well, there are also more" (Nance). That Colin's dead mother is at work in the house as well as the garden I argued in my last article on The Secret Garden ("Gardens" 220-23), citing lines and images also emphasized in the musical. Near the end of the novel, for example, Mary notices that the usually closed curtain over the portrait of his mother is now open; Colin tells her that one night a "patch of moonlight" made him want to pull the curtain cord; he now likes to see her laughing face and observes that she "must have been a sort of Magic person" (228). The obvious image used in the musical is the portrait: Lily's first stage appearance is in a portrait frame, a series of portraits suggest the corridors through which Lily helps Mary find her way to Colin, and a small portrait of Lily is apparently the only possession that Mary is allowed to take from her house in India. The association of the dead mother's power with moonlight is also maintained in the musical when Colin tells Mary about uncovering his mother's portrait (2.6). The image of moonlight was evoked earlier, when Colin, in a song, described for Mary his dreams about nocturnal visits by his father, a "round-shouldered man" who enters Colin's room "on a beam of moonlight" and takes him on a ride "through the moors by moonlight" (1.7). This is one of many times that a word or image—or melodic line or stage blocking—links characters or scenes. Because in one "moonlight" dream the round-shouldered man takes Colin to a secret garden (1.7), we can imagine that Lily is providing magical, moonlight direction in Colin's dreams just as she does in Colin's, Mary's, and Archibald's waking lives.

If the portrayal of Lily in the musical made me think of my own critical writing about Burnett's novel, the portrayal of Mary and Colin made me think of Elizabeth Keyser's article noting that the focus in the book eventually shifts from Mary to "Master Colin" (253), reflecting Burnett's ambivalence about Mary's self-assertiveness. Objections to Mary's being pushed to the background have been repeated in other articles (see, for example, the ones by Marquis and by Paul) and voiced by a considerable number of female readers; and so, not surprisingly, when I asked the creators of the musical to compare their childhood and adult readings of the book, the shift of focus was mentioned most frequently as an adult reaction. Norman, who read the book only as an adult, was particularly resentful, and on this point she consciously made her adaptation a misreading. The first scene that Norman wrote, according to Landesman, was the last in the show. Mary essentially disappears in the concluding pages of the book, but Norman emphasizes her role in the reunion with Archibald; then, Norman wrote up to this final scene to make it emphatically "Mary's story." There were dramatic reasons for this misreading of Burnett's novel—"in a musical you can't shift your central character," observes Schulman (Wolf 10)—but by making Mary central, the creators thought that they were making a statement. When asked how the musical bears their stamp as female creators, how it would have been different if written and produced by men, three of the four answered that women are not afraid to tell a story about a little girl; that men would doubt that a girl could hold an audience for an entire evening, although a boy could, as in Big River; that men thus probably would not have undertaken the project. Landesman, however, was undeterred by the many who told her that "only women and children will come to this show." Her response was, "Women buy 70% of the tickets on Broadway. So if that's the audience I get, fine. I will take it" (Simpson 17). (In July 1992, Landesman estimated that the New York audience was 80 percent women and children.)

The decision to make Mary central to the musical means that, compared to the book, Colin's role is considerably diminished and there is more focus on Mary's interaction with adults, especially in that Dickon, like Martha, is played as a young adult. Accordingly, some of the adult characters are developed more than in the book, especially Lily and Archibald. Though apparently incapable, Archibald would like to be a loving father; in the bedtime story that he sings to Colin, he expresses his desire to slay the "dragons" of physical and psychological illness that haunt them both and to someday "race" Colin "to the top of the morning" and tell him directly that he loves him (2.3). For the present, at the direction of Colin's doctor, he tries not to waken and overexcite the boy. The expanded role for Archibald may have been partly inspired by Mandy Patinkin, who opened in the part, but it also came from the creators' reactions to the earlier film adaptations of The Secret Garden. Asked for her opinion about these movies, Landesman said that it was essential "to keep Archie on stage" to dramatize the "theme of loss," for if he had been in Paris all the time, he would have been "too removed from the action, so Mary and the audience wouldn't care about him." The emphasis on the parents', as well as the children's, point of view was also no doubt due to the creators' desire to make the musical appealing to ticket-buying adults. "The desire was not to do a children's musical," according to Simon (Barbour); Schulman called The Secret Garden "a real family musical," not a "kiddie show" (Wolf 8). Similarly, the creators wanted the musical to appeal to men, not just women. With more developed roles for Mary's father and uncle, the musical "allows men to feel their connection to their children and to the girls in the world and the loved ones they lose," according to Norman (Watts 25). Schulman made a similar point about the emphasis on males as nurturers. After I commented on how often she blocked parallel events, such as Mary's embracing her father and then Archibald on the same stage space, Schulman added, "There are lots of men down on their knees" with children in this musical. Nurturing as a male quality is certainly not absent from Burnett's fiction. Cedric Errol nurtures a haughty earl into a nurturant grandfather in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886); Sara Crewe's father and his male business partner parent Sara in A Little Princess (1905); and Dickon and Ben Weatherstaff are among those responsible for Mary's and Colin's alteration in The Secret Garden.

Pointedly nonnurturant, however, is one male adult whose role is greatly expanded—and significantly changed—in the musical, Colin's doctor. In the novel Colin accuses Dr. Craven of wanting him to die "because he would get Misselthwaite and be rich instead of poor" (127); although there may be some truth to the charge, the doctor's later appearances show him to be essentially well meaning if provincially incompetent and overly protective. He is primarily just one of the adults whom the children enjoy fooling with their secrets and a foil for Burnett's theories about natural medicine. The creators of the musical, however, individualize him and give more credence to Colin's accusation. Here the doctor is Archibald's younger brother, Neville, who had been in love with Lily himself; having lost her to Archibald before losing her to death, he is doubly embittered.

The expanded role of the doctor as Archibald's brother serves the musical in several ways. Neville provides an adult interlocutor for Archibald, and, because he also loved Lily, he reinforces the theme of loss. In one scene, for example, Neville notices Mary's resemblance to Lily and attributes Archibald's increasingly vivid dreams to Mary's presence in the house; then he and Archibald sing a duet about Mary having Lily's eyes, one of the most haunting songs in the show (1.5). Making Colin's doctor be Archibald's brother also affords one of many examples of effective doubling; the two brothers parallel the two sisters, Lily and Mary's mother, Rose—in Burnett's novel, Colin's mother is the sister of Mary's father. In one scene, a quarrel within each sibling pair results in a musical quartet: Neville argues with Archibald about what to do with Mary at Misselthwaite while, in a re-created conversation from the past, Rose quarrels with Lily about her intention to marry the reclusive Archibald (2.2). Finally, and not inconsequentially, Neville provides an antagonist for the main character, Mary. After Archibald has gone to Paris, Neville has a decidedly unsympathetic schoolmistress come to get Mary; and, in the most broadly melodramatic and comic scene, Mary, with the assistance of the ayah and the fakir, chants a curse and stages a tantrum, which frightens the schoolmistress away. After she leaves, Neville tells Mary that he will send her away immediately to another school. The appearance of an unsympathetic schoolmistress, like the battle of wills between Neville and Mary, is reminiscent of Sara Crewe's battles with the schoolmistress, Miss Minchin—asked what Burnett fiction she read while preparing to write the musical, Norman recalled only one title, A Little Princess, which Landesman, who reread most of Burnett, had given her. Neville is a more sympathetic character than Miss Minchin, for his songs allow us to see his own pain, a personal glimpse largely absent in Burnett's portrayal of Miss Minchin; like Miss Minchin, however, Neville has the aura of a melodramatic villain, eliciting, during performances that I saw, an occasional boo and, at the end, relieved laughter when he is effectively banished from the estate to travel and take up his former medical practice in town.

Some might object that because the musical expands its adult characters and deemphasizes Colin, an important essence of Burnett's novel has been lost, the portrayal of children's delight in having a life secret from adults, and that with this loss a children's novel has been turned into an adult musical. The creative team did in fact struggle, as Norman put it, "to find the balance between the adult characters and the children's story"; the team went "off the track" in the Virginia production, observed Landesman. That production was "much more about Archie and Lily," added Simon (Barbour), who later reflected that this step in the evolution of the piece showed them what the adult part of the story should be. "The big victory came," according to Norman, "when Heidi said, 'We must see this from Mary's point of view'" (Barbour).

Largely because of the focus on Mary, as well as the portrayal of Lily, I myself was not especially upset about the development of several adult characters—a musical or movie can rarely dramatize every aspect of a book. Nor was I much bothered by the charge that a children's novel had been turned into an adult musical, for my observation of four audiences told me that children were enjoying it; indeed, an eight-year-old girl attending with me was much engaged in Mary's plight in the first act, while an adult next to me at another performance declared to his spouse that act 1 was "too psychological" to follow. (In July 1992, Schulman described the audiences as aged five to adult, adding that although many attending were around eleven, the number of younger children had prompted the theater to procure booster seats; moreover, according to Schulman, children from all social backgrounds rooted for initially powerless, "maverick" Mary.)

Finally, I found the changes from novel to musical more provocative than lamentable because, as I suggested in my introduction, I believe, as Roderick McGillis has pointed out, that narratives contain many secrets for a reader to discover—or buried seeds of many other stories, which a reader's imagination can coax into bloom. At a conference I once heard a woman say that as a child, unsatisfied by Burnett's ending, she had invented her own stories about what eventually happened to Mary; similarly, an adult misreader writing a "family musical" may want to fill gaps in the story of Archibald's marriage. Noting that "adults at the turn of the century read eagerly many books which would now be considered for children," Juliet Dusinberre has argued that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf often rewrote children's classics, however unconsciously (30, passim). Taking her cue from Dusinberre, Judith Plotz has argued that "just as a palimpsest reveals an earlier script beneath a later one, so the image" of The Secret Garden can be seen beneath D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, published seventeen years later (1). Like Kathleen Verduin in an earlier article, Plotz points out that each novel features a landless female (Mary Lennox, Connie Chatterley), a disabled aristocratic male (Colin Craven, Clifford Chatterley), and a working-class male (Dickon Sowerby, Oliver Mellors) able to revive others through his special intimacy with nature. Unlike Lawrence, however, Burnett was largely uncritical of the class system, allowing "Master Colin" to take charge of the magical experiments in the garden before marching across the final pages with his father, "the Master of Misselth-waite" (253).

The musical shows the class system in Burnett's story at work in colonial India, as well as in Great Britain. In the game metaphorically portraying the cholera epidemic, it is the fakir who drops the first red handkerchief, dramatizing the foolishness of a British colonial's claim to class insularity: "[The cholera's] exactly what they deserve. Letting their sewage run in the streets" (1.7). As Mary moves to England, it is her proximity to the Yorkshire servant class that pulls her out of her grief; just as in India her ayah had apparently cared more for her than had her mother, so here Martha, Dickon, and Ben tease her out of her pouts and engage her interest in the secret garden, while her self-absorbed guardian ignores her. In giving prominence to the Indian as well as Yorkshire folk, the musical suggests, more than Burnett's novel does, that human wisdom and charity are most likely to be found near the bottom rung of the social ladder. Ben, for example, mixes his garden lore with homespun wisdom, and Dickon, unlike in the novel, helps Mary find the secret garden. After a song in which Dickon helps Mary speak to the bird (represented by piccolo trills) in Yorkshire dialect, Dickon hangs Mary's skipping rope on a plant so that when she later retrieves it, the garden key falls to the ground (1.3).

While Ben and Dickon facilitate Mary's activities outdoors, Martha encourages her battles in the manor and proves subversive of its existing social order. In her first scene, she enters Mary's bedroom singing a bawdy song; learning that in India Mary's ayah dressed her, Martha wonders that "grand folks' children don't turn out fair fools, bein' washed and took out to walk like they was puppies"; as she dresses a sullen Mary, she sings a song listing the household chores that keep her indoors, hinting, perhaps, that Mary should be grateful for her leisure (1.1). Soon, however, Martha becomes Mary's strongest advocate. Near the end, when Mary's self-confidence in her battle with Neville flags, Martha offers some feminist sisterhood and support. Neville, having traded on his authority as a physician, has convinced Mary that Colin's improvement is only apparent. Having taken advantage of the female socialization that encourages her to put others' welfare above her own, Neville has made her feel that she would be responsible should Colin die. Finally, having asserted his authority as her adult guardian in Archibald's absence, Neville has declared that she will go away to school. As Martha helps Mary pack, she also helps her see through Neville's twisted view of the situation; singing "Hold On" (a "power song" inspired by Alison Fraser, who opened the part on Broadway, according to Simon), Martha encourages Mary to circumvent Neville's authority by writing Archibald a letter. It is this letter, coupled with Lily's visitation to his Paris apartment, that brings him home for the final reunion. In the final scene, Martha continues to assert Mary's rights. When, in his excitement about Colin's recovery, Archibald overlooks Mary, Martha interrupts to ask, "Sir. What is to become of our Mary?" (2.10). In Burnett's portrayal of this scene, Martha and Dickon, like Mary, fade into the background, and Ben appears only to share with Mrs. Medlock a servant's distant, adoring view of Master Colin walking with the Master of Misselthwaite. In the musical Ben, Dickon, Martha, and Mary are all on stage to be thanked by a man who, instead of parading his patriarchal power, accepts a housemaid's correction of his behavior, embraces Mary, and then kneels between his new daughter and his son.

One member of the Yorkshire folk prominent in the novel but absent from the musical (and the 1993 movie) is the archetypal earth mother, Mrs. Sowerby. Asked if she had considered including Mrs. Sowerby, Norman said no, that she had realized early on that she was a "duplication," that she could "get that element in Martha and Dickon." Being more active on Mary's behalf in the musical than in the book, Dickon and Martha do in some ways stand in for their mother, who in the novel acts behind the scenes on the children's behalf before appearing in the garden to bless their efforts. Because in the novel Mrs. Sowerby sometimes speaks and acts on behalf of Colin's dead mother, much of her role is assumed by the ghost of Lily in the musical. And some of her role is, in the musical, taken by Mary; Norman said that she "wanted it to be Mary's story," so she "wanted Mary, not Mother Sowerby [as in the novel], to bring Archie back with a letter."

Norman also wanted the audience to like Mary—Norman and Landesman said that they disliked the children in the movie versions. Once again, Norman was willing to deliberately misread Burnett's novel. "At the beginning," Norman has said, "Burnett depicts Mary as a little brat, but I didn't want to write a 'Taming of the Little Shrew.' So I imply that it's OK for Mary to be a bit nasty since everybody she knows has just died in the cholera epidemic" (Mootz). Burnett's narrator sometimes takes a moralistic attitude toward Mary's behavior, as has been pointed out by the psychiatrist Barbara R. Almond, who cites a passage from the novel implying that "Mary is neglected because she is disagreeable, not the other way around!" (482). Having once worked with emotionally disturbed children at a state hospital, Norman was perhaps especially prone to use a psychological model to understand Mary's behavior; also fitting this model is the far greater emphasis on the past to explain Mary's present behavior—asked why the Indian part of the story was increased in the musical, for example, Landesman said that it "informs us about Mary's behavior; it's an important part of her past." Asked this same question, Norman reiterated that she wanted this to be Mary's story. By helping Mary cast the magic spell in the garden to make Colin well, the Indians help provide a "snapshot of Mary's power," which is needed on stage to replace how, in the novel, Mary "casts a spell over Colin dramatically, through daily interaction"; in the novel, moreover, it is Colin, not Mary, who is in charge of the magic experiments in the garden. The scene in which the Indians help Mary put a curse on the schoolmistress is another instance of the focus on Mary's power. As I saw it acted, Mary's tantrum was playacting and acknowledged to be such by delighted laughter from the audience, particularly its younger part. Rather than having lost control of her emotions, Mary was consciously trying to control her own fate, using a tantrum to control adults, as children may consciously or unconsciously do.

If Norman's work with emotionally disturbed children prepared her to understand Mary, a play that she had recently written and produced with Landesman's help prepared both of them to appreciate the symbolism of the garden in Burnett's classic. Produced in 1984, before Norman had ever read The Secret Garden, Traveler in the Dark bears an uncanny resemblance to Burnett's book. Sam, whose mother died when he was twelve, has become a world-famous surgeon; now his nurse has died under his knife, recalling his earlier inability to save his ailing mother. The entire play takes place in the "overgrown garden" beloved by Sam's mother but resented by his father. Here Sam acknowledges how he has kept an emotional distance not only from the nurse—a friend since childhood—but also from his wife and twelve-year-old son. Like Burnett's novel, Norman's play stresses female nurturance—Sam's mother, wife, and nurse have all been self-sacrificingly devoted to him; as in Burnett's novel, renewal of a man and his relationship with his son occur in a "Mother's garden" (act 1).

Deciding how to stage that central healing metaphor, a Mother's garden, proved to be the most difficult challenge in turning Burnett's book into a musical, according to Landesman, Norman, and Schulman. The movie versions had spent too much time showing the children gardening, an activity that is neither "dramatic," according to Landesman, nor, according to Norman, "translatable into movies, the stage, or even magazines, for gardening appeals to all the senses, including smell." Taking the literal approach, using wagons of dirt, did not work, according to Schulman and Landesman; nor could one manage a real bird on stage. "Communing with nature," Landesman concluded, is "best done in song"—as in Dickon's solo conjuring away the winter storms and invoking spring (1.3) or in his duet with Mary explaining how to tell if plants are still "wick" (2.4).

Music is used to create the illusion of not just gardening but the garden itself, especially by evoking the characters' feelings for it. To those who have found too little of the garden in the musical (Rich; Richards), I have wanted to reply, "Did you listen as well as look?" During the first act the music (and much of the dialogue) is saturated with references to and descriptions of gardens. As the curtain rises, the orchestra plays the melody of "Come to my garden" (one of many leitmotifs in the musical, which in this and other ways is operatic), and Lily sings about "clusters of roses"; music takes us from Lily's to "Mistress Mary's" garden, and later, during their nocturnal wanderings, Archibald and Mary sing of a garden in their dreams (prologue). During Archibald's ballroom dream, he and Lily sing of their courtship in her garden (1.2); Ben sings his gardening lore (1.3); and in the library, after Mary has asked for "a bit of earth," Archibald uses garden imagery in a song to contrast Mary's hopeful attitude toward life with his own despairing one (1.4). The melody for "a bit of earth" like that for "Come to my garden" occurs later in musical links between scenes (2.6). Introducing the garden first through words and music, I would argue, invites audiences to imagine their own gardens, much as do the descriptions in Burnett's book. "Every reader sees a different garden," observed Norman; the secret garden is "so much a garden of the mind."

In congruence with this interpretation, the first garden we see is Mary's dream garden, at the opening of act 2. Mary's earlier scenes with Ben and Dickon had been in a greenhouse and a maze (suggested in the New York production by plants shaped like birds and animals). Act 1 ended with Mary at the center back of a darkened stage opening a door into the garden, which is suggested by bright light. When act 2 opens, we are on the other side of that door at a brightly lit garden party. This is the garden as Mary imagines it, the garden of her dreams. Except for Mary's song about the garden, the entire scene is done in pantomime. Mary has her picture taken sitting on the ground between her mother and Lily and also standing in front of her father and a kneeling Archibald; Ben brings her a birthday cake. Everyone is dressed in white, the only color being the red of a handkerchief that Neville drops into Colin's lap, recalling the dramatization of the cholera epidemic. This intrusion of reality ends Mary's dream; and as the characters move offstage, the white sheet on which the party took place is pulled up like an ominous sail or shroud, leaving us in a dark scene in which Archibald and Neville discuss Mary's fate. The second of the three garden scenes in act 2 shows us the secret garden at night. Here Mary works her Indian charm on Colin, and Colin swears the garden community—Dickon, Martha, and Ben are also on-stage—to secrecy until he is fully well. Although the stage is dark, scrim and flats suggest foliage with images tucked in it—an Indian child, an Indian on a horse, a snake, an elephant, a rhinoceros. The combination is appropriate for a scene in which Mary's Hindu spell to make Colin well is combined with Martha and Dickon's invocation of spring. (Simon discovered that the modalities of Indian ragas and Yorkshire music are similar, allowing her to juxtapose them in this scene.) Our first full vision of the garden comes in the final scene. According to Landesman, attempts to reveal it before the end did not work, no doubt because subsequent views seemed anticlimactic. Coming after a dream garden and a night garden, this day garden suggests perhaps that we have all just awakened from an unpleasant dream. Like Mary's dream garden, the day garden is well lit; as in the night garden, the foliage on scrim and flats is filled with many images. Here, however, the dominant colors are golds and greens, and the images—many faces of babies and children, birds, butterflies—suggest fecundity. The whole set is flanked left and right by strong female figures, and the several layers of foliage narrowing to the back seemed to me vaginal, perhaps because Burnett's description of Colin bursting from the secret garden into his father's arms (249) has always reminded me of childbirth, underscoring the archetypal theme of rebirth ("Gardens" 222-23).

Norman said that she had not seen this sexual imagery in the final garden set but indicated that the creative team was very much aware of the sexual overtones of Burnett's story. The subliminal sexual appeal of Burnett's book, especially for prepubertal girls—the garden as a metaphor for the female body and place where female roles can be learned and rehearsed—is discussed by Almond (492-94). Interestingly, only Almond's article was mentioned when I asked the four women if they had read any criticism of the novel. Schulman deliberately read none; the other three read Thwaite's biography of Burnett; Landesman read some criticism but recalled only the article by Almond; Norman read only that article and insisted that it was read after the musical was completed, during the Broadway previews. The creators of the musical were nevertheless thoroughly conscious of the gender implications of Burnett's story. Asked what the book meant to them as children, Schulman and Simon, like so many other women, recalled not the characters or the plot but the "mystery" and "magic" of the garden setting, of the garden's being "a secret place to go alone and be safe"; and Schulman gave the recollection a feminist filter. "As a child, I wanted the garden to be mine but as an adult I was crushed that it is Colin's garden." Noting that Burnett's book anticipated Virginia Woolf's Room of One's Own (1929) by almost two decades, Schulman added that it is "important that Mary control the garden, which is her body, as we now understand it. It is important that she knows the door, has the key, and can lock it."

All of these sexual and gender implications are somehow found in the portrayal of the garden in the second act. The concept of the garden as a room of one's own is poignantly expressed in Mary's song in her dream garden—the first song Simon wrote for Mary, to find her voice. Mary dreams of a garden where she can be herself without feigning for others: "I need a place where I can go, / Where I can whisper what I know," "a place where I can hide, / Where no one sees my life inside." Here, in a "place where I can bid my heart / Be still, and it will mind me," she can control her own feelings; here, in a "place where I can go when I am lost—/ And there I'll find me," she can nurture herself. The garden has to be a place that she herself owns, controls, a place "where no one says to go or stay." She can create her own identity here, perhaps even by becoming a writer or an artist: "I can make my plans, and write them down / So I can read them"; "I can take my pen and draw / The girl I mean to be" (2.1). Schulman has said, "We gave Mary the garden," and the final spoken words and accompanying stage gestures underscore this major misreading of Burnett's novel. By the end Mary does in fact own the garden with all that it has come to mean, including her own healthy female body. Mary offers to return the garden key, whereupon Archibald lifts her pinafore, places the key in her pocket, and says: "Mary Lennox, for as long as you will have us,… we are yours, Colin and I,… and this is your home, and this, my lovely child … is your garden" (2.10).

Burnett's great-granddaughter said of the musical, according to Norman, that "Frances would love it. Those are exactly the parts that she liked, and that's what she would have done" (Nance). I agree. The Burnett who borrowed from the Brontës and wrote stories about ghosts would have appreciated the use of melodramatic and Gothic elements for psychological analysis of the characters; Burnett the late nineteenth-century feminist would have approved Lily's supernatural mothering, which helps a father to become nurturant; had Burnett been reared during the late twentieth century, she might have focused her entire story on Mary. In addition, Burnett often regarded herself as a "channel" rather than a "creator" (V. Burnett 337) and thus knew that stories are flexible, that they can be told in more than one way. She herself turned a short tale, "Sara Crewe" (1887–88), into a play (1902–3) and eventually into a fulllength book (1905), both entitled A Little Princess ; and she saw some of her stories adapted to film—her last public appearance was at the opening of Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy (Thwaite 245-46). The Burnett who from childhood enjoyed pleasing audiences (One 208-27)—though she did not always please critics—would have liked to know that one of her books would have so many resurrections. She would have liked to know that a line she wrote during her last illness would prove prophetic: "As long as one has a garden one has a future; and as long as one has a future one is alive" (In the Garden 10, 30).


1. In 1992 I saw matinee and evening performances 9 May at the Muny Theatre in St. Louis and 31 July evening and 1 August afternoon performances at the St. James Theatre in New York. These four viewings have been augmented by the original Broadway cast album and the published musical book and lyrics, from which quotations in this article are taken. Additional insights were gained during my 30 July 1992 telephone interviews with Heidi Landesman, Marsha Norman, Susan Schulman, and Lucy Simon.

2. Unless indicated otherwise, statements by and about Landesman, Norman, Schulman, and Simon in this article come from my interviews with them.

Works Cited

Almond, Barbara. "The Secret Garden: A Therapeutic Metaphor." Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 45 (1990): 477-94.

Barbour, David. "Women of the House." Bergen County Record (Hackensack, N.J.), 21 April 1991.

Bixler, Phyllis. Frances Hodgson Burnett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

―――――――. "Gardens, Houses, and Nurturant Power in The Secret Garden." In Romanticism and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, ed. James Holt McGavran, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Bixler Koppes, Phyllis. "Tradition and the Individual Talent of Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Generic Analysis of Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden." Children's Literature 7 (1978): 191-207.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. In the Garden. Boston: Medici Society, 1925.

―――――――. Little Lord Fauntleroy. New York: Scribner's, 1886.

―――――――. A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Told for the First Time. New York: Scribner's, 1905.

―――――――. The Little Princess: A Play for Children and Grown-Up Children in Three Acts. New York: Samuel French, 1911.

―――――――. The One I Knew the Best of All: A Memory of the Mind of a Child. New York: Scribner's, 1893.

―――――――. The Secret Garden. 1911. Reprint. New York: Viking Penguin, 1951.

―――――――. Sara Crewe and Editha's Burglar. London: Warne, 1888.

Burnett, Vivian. The Romantick Lady (Frances Hodgson Burnett): The Life Story of an Imagination. New York: Scribner's, 1927.

Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. 1871. Reprint, ed. Donald J. Gray. New York: Norton, 1971.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Grabel, Naomi. "Composer Lucy Simon Shares Her Secrets." Show Music (Spring 1992): 12-14.

Jones, Welton. "Heidi Landesman's Callings Are Many." San Diego Union, 4 November 1991.

Kermode, Frank. The Classic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. "'Quite Contrary': Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 191-207.

Landesman, Heidi. Telephone interview. 30 July 1992.

McGee, Celia. "Gambling on a 'Garden': Can a Children's Classic Become a Broadway Hit?" New York, 22 April 1991: 65-66, 70-71.

McGillis, Roderick. "'Secrets' and 'Sequence' in Children's Stories." In "Narrative Theory and Children's Literature," ed. Hugh T. Keenan. Studies in the Literary Imagination 18:2 (Fall 1985): 35-46.

Marquis, Claudia. "The Power of Speech: Life in The Secret Garden." AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 68 (1987): 163-87.

Mootz, William. "Marsha Norman Is Back on Broadway." Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal, 21 April 1991.

Nance, Kevin. "Creating a 'Garden' of Delights." Lexington Herald-Leader, 23 June 1991.

Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children's Literature. New York: Longman, 1992.

Norman, Marsha. The Fortune Teller. New York: Random House, 1987.

―――――――. Getting Out. In Norman, Four Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

―――――――. The Holdup. In Norman, Four Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

―――――――. 'night, Mother. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

―――――――. Telephone interview. 30 July 1992.

―――――――. Third and Oak. In Norman, Four Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

―――――――. Traveler in the Dark. In Norman, Four Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Norman, Marsha, and Lucy Simon. The Secret Garden. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992.

Paul, Lissa. "Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children's Literature." Signal (September 1987): 186-201.

Plotz, Judith. "Secret Garden II; or Lady Chatterley's Lover as Palimpsest." Paper presented at the Children's Literature Association annual meeting, Hattiesburg, Miss., May 1991. Forthcoming in Children's Literature Association Quarterly.

Rich, Frank. "'Garden': The Secret of Death and Birth." Review of the 1991 musical The Secret Garden. New York Times, 26 April 1991.

Richards, David. "Only the Wind Should Sigh in This 'Garden.'" Review of the 1991 musical The Secret Garden. New York Times, 5 May 1991.

Schulman, Susan H. Telephone interview. 30 July 1992.

Shaughnessy, Alfred, Sharon Burgett, Sue Beckwith-Smith, and Diana Matterson. The Secret Garden: A New Musical. CBS Special Products, P-19920, 1987.

Simon, Lucy. Telephone interview. 30 July 1992.

Simon, Lucy, and Marsha Norman. The Secret Garden: The Original Broadway Cast Album. Columbia, CK 48817, 1991.

Simpson, Janice C. "The Women of the Secret Garden." Theater Week, 6-12 May 1991, pp. 16-21.

Thwaite, Ann. Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1849–1924. New York: Scribner's, 1974.

Verduin, Kathleen. "Lady Chatterley and The Secret Garden: Lawrence's Homage to Mrs. Hodgson Burnett." D. H. Lawrence Review 17 (Spring 1984): 61-66.

Watts, Patti. "Staged for Success: Four Award-Winning Women Come Together to Turn a Classic Book into a Broadway Musical." Executive Female (March-April 1991): 24-25, 40, 70.

Wolf, William. "Tending Her Garden." Playbill (May 1991): 6, 8, 10.

Shirley Foster and Judy Simons (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Foster, Shirley, and Judy Simons. "Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden." In What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of "Classic" Stories for Girls, pp. 172-91. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Foster and Simons explore how Burnett's The Secret Garden defies most genre conventions of stories for young female readers.]

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911) takes up the subjects of orphanhood, illness and the autonomous world of childhood, which characterize a number of fictions for girls in the late Victorian period. The fantasies of female power which the novel projects so powerfully remain, however, tantalizingly unresolved as the tensions in the text between authority, gender and social class gradually become more pronounced, and the achievements of the heroine correspondingly marginalized. Like The Wide, Wide World and Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden focuses on the experience of juvenile isolation and alienation and follows the adaptation of a young girl to a new and initially disturbing environment. Unlike earlier texts, however, the moral emphases are subordinated to a more searching psychological dimension. In its focus on processes of socialization the story of The Secret Garden follows a regenerative path, with pervasive images of death and debility transformed to those of life and energy. From the opening chapters when sickly Mary Lennox is found abandoned and forgotten in a desolate house of death, her parents victims of a cholera epidemic, to the final pages which show Colin Craven, bouncing with health, racing headlong into his father's arms, the narrative pattern reinforces this polarization of death and life. In addition, through the dramatic spatial imagery, the dual focus on the enclosed interiors of Misselthwaite Manor and the open natural exteriors of the gardens and the moors beyond, the novel produces a paradigm of psychological growth, a movement from inward-looking self-absorption towards integration and relational activity.

Burnett wrote The Secret Garden towards the end of her long and highly successful career as a novelist and dramatist. An English-woman who had emigrated with her family to the United States at the age of sixteen, she spent much of her time travelling between Europe and America, and her own experience of cultural tension is realized in the sense of displacement which permeates much of her writing. The Secret Garden, written shortly after her naturalization as an American citizen, recreates both the foreignness and the attractions of the English country life which she had enjoyed for almost ten years at Maytham Hall, a large manor house she had rented in Kent and where her own passion for gardening had flourished. After the break-up of her second marriage in 1902 and the death of her first husband in 1906, Burnett had returned to America where she tried to recreate the harmonious idyll of rural England in her new home, Plandome, on Long Island, but the repressed unhappiness of recent experiences continued to surface in her writing. The repeated images of family trauma and boyhood illness in The Secret Garden, for instance, recall the death of her adolescent son, Lionel, from tuberculosis. The portrait of Colin Craven, lying pathetically on a sickbed, suggests consumptive symptoms, while his ultimate recovery can be read as a projection of her wish fulfilment, and even as an attempt to assuage her guilt at having spent so much time away from her children during their formative years. Such a reading could also help to explain the shift in interest from Mary to Colin in the final third of the novel, the emphasis on his accomplishments, and the triumphant reconciliation between parent and child in the closing scenes.

Structurally The Secret Garden is relatively simple, following the fortunes of the ten-year-old Mary after her parents' death when she is taken from India to live in the Yorkshire mansion of her uncle and guardian, Archibald Craven. From the time Mary arrives in the bleak Yorkshire dwelling which is to be her future home, the story concentrates almost exclusively on this one environment, Misselthwaite Manor and its surroundings. With her uncle absent abroad, mourning the premature death of his young wife ten years earlier, Mary is left alone at the manor without responsible adult guidance, servants her only companions. Her story becomes one of discovery, firstly of a garden, locked for ten years in memory of the dead Mrs Craven, and secondly of her cousin, Colin, a bedridden child, shut away in the house from which he never ventures out. The parallel movements of the restoration of the garden to a flower-filled paradise and the recovery of Colin to full health form the main narrative thrust of the book, informing Mary's process of self-discovery as she becomes the agent of this dual regeneration. She is aided in these acts of transformation by a young local boy, Dickon, whose close affiliation with the countryside helps Mary to understand the processes of the animal world and the 'natural' laws which also govern human behaviour.

This uncomplicated narrative organization belies the text's complex psychological dimension in its analysis of the nature and the requirements of childhood. The treatment of this subject itself reflects the popular contemporary interest in educational theory, heavily influenced by studies in child psychology and in particular by the pioneering work of Froebel, whose System of Infant Gardens had been published in England in 1855. Froebel's conviction that education is a 'leading out of nature under the skill of an intelligent gardener' and the view that a correlation between mind and body was necessary for healthy child development clearly inform Burnett's novel.1 The text further uses the image of the garden to emblematize the idea of a private space as a prerequisite for the development of individual creativity, and identifies this as a crucial factor in the formation of identity. Secrecy, as announced by the novel's title, is also highlighted as fundamental to the concept of personal growth: the knowledge to which children only are privy empowers them to create an enchanted elite circle protected from adult interference. As with Katy's bower and Anne Shirley's imagined world in the forest, Mary's Edenic garden with its associations of enclosure and privacy becomes, albeit temporarily, a domain of female authority. It is, however, important to note how in all three of these works this fantasy retreat becomes integrated into the adult regime, and the girls who have ruled return to a more conventional role. At the end of Burnett's novel when the secrets of the garden and of Colin's renewed vigour are made available to a wider audience and become common currency, the children lose their power and return to a family and community environment which supports the prevailing hegemonic structure.

The appeal of The Secret Garden has always been primarily to a female readership. Its emphasis on nurturing, on the importance of a mother figure and on the empowering role of the imagination in personal development repeats a series of narrative norms that have evolved, as this study has shown, as characteristics of literature for girls. The novel directs attention towards personal and family rather than wider community values, and the representation of the male figures, both children and adults, tends to subvert gendered norms; the boys are nonaggressive, non-confrontational and non-competitive; they are gentle in manner and prepared to absorb themselves in home-loving activities, such as gardening and storytelling. Similarly Archibald Craven, the absent father/uncle is not the forbidding or authoritative patriarch of much children's fiction, but conforms to the prototype of a sensitive romantic, a recluse who wanders the world heartbroken after his wife's death, a tamed version of Charlotte Brontë's Edward Rochester. And although the book might seem to foreground the attractions of anarchy in its celebration of secrecy and subterfuge, this is only a temporary strategy, and the narrative ultimately retreats into a reassuring conformity.

Furthermore the equality of opportunity which is given to girls and boys in The Secret Garden does not initially appear to privilege male experience as do certain other texts of the same period which have a superficially androgynous appeal. In James Barrie's highly successful Peter Pan and Wendy (1904), for example, a work whose title immediately announces the equal billing of its hero and heroine, children merely emulate adult behavioural codes. The fantasy of permanent childhood which Barrie's text enacts takes place in a world which recreates the strict gendered division of Edwardian England; the boys go hunting and fight pirates while Wendy becomes a surrogate mother figure who stays at home and cares for her 'children'. The Secret Garden 's focus on collective play obviates the need for such a gendered split. It is only in the final chapter of the novel, when the story is nearing completion and the return to a full societal dimension is anticipated that competitive activity is introduced. The race between Mary, Colin and Dickon, when Colin emerges as the clear winner, carries obvious symbolic implications, but the bulk of the novel focuses not on the achievement of external goals, nor on the acquisition of skills, but on personal values of sharing, of selflessness and on the healing properties of love: the same principles which govern earlier sentimental writing for girls such as Little Women and What Katy Did.

Jacqueline Rose has pointed out how both principles of literary representation and genres in children's writing at the turn of the century were 'busily differentiating themselves from each other' according to a sexual division. As she suggests,

The distinction between the domestic and fairy story on the one hand and the adventure story on the other, was also a division between literature for girls and literature for boys.2

In its mixing of domestic realism and magic fantasy, and in its recapitulation of familiar narrative motifs and patterns of characterization, The Secret Garden approximates to the model of a girls' text as described by Rose. Whilst the garden itself creates a magical new world (which liberates children from class and gender restrictions), the fantasy is given validity by the textual reliance on the scrupulously imitative method of classic realist fiction. The details of house and garden, the food that Mary eats, the bulbs that she plants, the visual and tactile recreation of the landscape: all serve to reinforce the solidity of the world that she inhabits. This surface realism (together with the often deliberately deflationary narrative voice which undercuts any sentimentalization of childhood) fails, however, to diminish the power of the fantasy which remains the core of the story. It is the social realism, the legacy of Victorian fiction, that carries the weight of moral conviction of the text, but it is the fairytale plot and romance motifs which establish its mythic dimension and which contribute to its continued popular appeal. Agnieszka Holland's recent film version of The Secret Garden (1993), with its move across generic conventions, graphically illustrates the different psychological levels at which the story functions while retaining a superficial rational cohesion. Cinematically, the interior of the house, the servants' quarters and the repressive atmosphere of the sickroom are meticulously rendered: the garden, where animals communicate with humans, summer flowers bloom at an astonishingly rapid rate and evanescent images of a romanticized, ever youthful mother figure melt into the landscape, belongs, however, to a quite different cinematic mode.

Despite its solidity of structure then, and the care with which the domestic and familial setting is assembled, The Secret Garden claims its strongest generic affiliations with the fairy-tale and the romance. Feminist critics have argued that the identification of women and romance writing is both powerful and subtle, liberating women writers to act out fantasies of the erotic and the psychic imagination that realistic fiction denies them.3 The fairy-tale is a narrative with especial relevance for women, focusing as it does upon archetypal female dilemmas and socially acceptable resolutions. As one critic has noted:

Traditional patterns, no less than fantasy characterization and actions contribute to the fairy tale's potency as a purveyor of romantic archetypes, and, thereby of cultural precepts for young women,… By dramatizing adolescence as an enchanted interlude between childhood and maturity, romantic tales can, however, aggravate the female's psychic helplessness.4

In The Secret Garden, Mary's imagination is first stimulated by tales of her uncle and his isolated mansion, told her by other children who try to frighten her with a narrative of Gothic intensity in their description of 'a great big desolate old house in the country and no one goes near him … He's a hunchback and he's horrid.'5 To Mary the account sounds 'like something in a book', encouraging her identification with the threatened but resilient heroine of archetypal narrative. The 'house with a hundred rooms, nearly all shut up and with their doors locked—a house on the edge of a moor' reminds her of the Perrault story, 'Ricquet à la Houppe', with 'no knowing what might happen' (16-19). Significantly, as Roderick McGillis has pointed out, that tale which is ostensibly about the transforming power of love is also a story about 'males who dominate females,'6 and indeed Mary's encounter with a supposed hunchback does ultimately undermine her central narrative position.

The large house, the winding corridors, the locked rooms and the forbidden chambers which comprise Misselthwaite Manor, are also staple features of Gothic fiction, and they endorse the sense of uncertainty and loss of identity that Mary experiences in the early stages of the novel. As a number of critics have noted, several elements in The Secret Garden are reminiscent of Bronte's Jane Eyre:7 the desolate location on Yorkshire moorland, the great house from which the master is absent for long periods, the mysterious behaviour of the servants who are guarding a secret which is withheld from the heroine, the strange cry in the night, and the hysterical figure confined to a locked room to which only privileged servants have access. The landscape across which Mary travels on her way to Misselthwaite is dark and menacing, 'the wide, black moor … a wide expanse of black ocean through which she was passing on a strip of dry land' (21) and reflects the precariousness of her psychic condition. So too does Jane Eyre initially find the Thornfield surroundings threatening to her own tenuous sense of security.

The hostile settings of Gothic narratives, which also reappear in Jane Eyre, carry symbolic resonance, frequently projecting a subliminal landscape of forbidding intensity which echoes the protagonist's alienated condition. Mary, lost and uncertain at the beginning of The Secret Garden, finds herself surrounded by mysteries which reflect her personal dilemma, and her search for the origin of the strange cry she hears in the night takes her through winding corridors, past closed doors and portraits of men and women from the past, whose history seems distant from hers and whose significance is withheld. The appearance of Colin as Mary's psychic twin, a personification of her own repressed rage and frustration, is similar to the use of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, a wild expressive complement to the passionate self that lurks behind Jane's taciturn exterior. And the ultimate return of the manor's master from abroad signals Mary's return to a rightful social position, albeit one of subservience, and as in Jane Eyre, is anticipated by an inexplicable telepathic experience.

In The Secret Garden then Burnett uses the romance as a main narrative vehicle for exploring hidden areas of the psyche, and the book reinvents fairy-tale and myth in order to apply archetypal plots to Mary's personal experience. The intertextuality which is a self-conscious feature of the novel also places the text firmly within a tradition of female story-telling, with the girl heroine negotiating between the roles of protagonist and narrator. The importance of fiction as a transformational activity is thus endorsed by Mary's role as female author prototype. A story-teller of consummate ability, she can be seen to subsume the role of the woman writer, her creative imagination enabling her to construct a private world that is unconfined by the claustrophobic conditions of the male-dominated Misselthwaite Manor. Narrative in this text is a form of female artistry, demonstrated through Mary's skill at creating enthralling word pictures of India for the Sowerby children, and at visualizing the garden as refuge for Colin, so positive in her effects that Martha can only assume, '"tha must have bewitched him!"' (142). Mary is an enchantress whose control over language captivates her audience and endows her with status. Her articulacy in comparison with Colin's hysterical screams is an empowering device which energizes both self and others, and releases them from a lethargy that is potentially destructive.

Like her literary counterparts, Jo March and Anne Shirley, as well as Burnett's own earlier creation, Sara Crewe of A Little Princess, Mary uses fictional paradigms as analogies for her own situation. In A Little Princess, a modified version of the Cinderella story, Sara combats the desolation and despair which threaten to engulf her through the transcendent power of narrative. Telling stories to herself and to the poor servant girl, Becky, her faithful companion, she recreates herself as a romantic heroine, taking her inspiration from archetypal heroic models, and overcomes the chilly conditions of her bare attic room by visualizing it as a setting from an adventure story. In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox's fantasies are realized in tangible form: her imaginative revivification of the dead, colourless garden as a living, glowing bower materializes, bringing with it spiritual and psychological fulfilment.

While, however, the central action of the narrative might appear to celebrate female achievement, the novel does contain contradictory messages which warn against too simple a reading. Indeed the equivocal representation of gender in The Secret Garden fluctuates between an endorsement of transgressive strategies and a return to conventional norms: like the transference between potentially conflicting narrative genres, this functions as a destabilizing device. The introduction to Mary Lennox as an unfeminine little girl emphasizes the transgressive aspects of her role, and the opening words of the novel—'When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child every seen'—are deliberately deflationary, deconstructing past fictional models of idealized childhood and of conventional heroinism. Unlike the pretty, charming and adored Sara Crewe, the little princess of Burnett's earlier novel, Mary is plain, sallow, graceless and badly dressed. Nor does she have the dynamism of the tomboy which so attracts readers' sympathies in Little Women and What Katy Did. Yet Mary's rejection of the feminine is for the most part unconscious rather than wilful. Marginalized, forgotten, refusing to confirm to the romantic archetypes of either femininity or childishness, she forms a complex study of a problem child. While at one level her moral deficiencies are reminiscent of the naughty children of Victorian tract literature, they are presented here more as a natural consequence of her abandonment and illtreatment. The victim of systematic neglect by her parents, Mary is depicted as withdrawn, sulky and bad-tempered. She exhibits what have come to be regarded as classic symptoms of abuse which inevitably result in aberrant behaviour, so that at the beginning of the book she is 'as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived' (2).

This moral encomium is, however, moderated by the psychological realism with which juvenile perceptions are transmitted. The early scenes of the book project a powerful image of disorientation as filtered through Mary's consciousness. Her situation in the plague—ridden house appears as a fragmentary, almost dream-like sequence of isolated images and overheard scraps of conversation, only half-comprehensible to the child's imperfect grasp of events:

She only knew that people were ill and that she heard mysterious and frightening sounds. Once she crept into the dining room and found it empty, though a partly finished meal was on the table and chairs and plates looked as if they had been hastily pushed back when the diners rose suddenly for some reason … she went back to the nursery and shut herself in again, frightened by cries she heard in the huts and by the hurrying sounds of feet.


The enclosure of the nursery, both refuge and prison, anticipates the unhealthy interior of Misselthwaite Manor where too illness generates fear and a sense of entrapment.

As mentioned in the Introduction to this study, the imagery of confinement is pervasive in nineteenth and early twentieth century texts by women writers, where in its political and psycho-sexual implications, it carries a particularly feminine resonance. The impact of alienation in the first chapter of The Secret Garden is intensified by the unfamiliar oriental setting, the exotic location and the sense of cultural displacement which are used to endorse the experience of non-belonging. As this gives way to a more reassuring, if depressing, English landscape with the description of London, Yorkshire and the rain, the potential for change that becomes the thematic focus of the novel is suggested both in environmental and personality terms. Thrown on her own resources when she arrives in England, Mary's tendency for introspection turns to thoughtful questioning. As the narrator comments, 'Since she had been living in other people's houses and had had no Ayah, she had begun to feel lonely and to think queer thoughts which were new to her' (12), and, her imaginative potential established, the seeds of moral and psychic growth can take root. It could be argued that Mary's socialization is itself reliant on a gendered definition of normality and of Englishness. As she becomes acclimatized to English life, so her process of development is one of increasing feminization: she gains weight, becomes 'almost pretty' and acts as a civilizing influence on her intractable boy cousin.

On the other hand, as Elizabeth Lennox Keyser has argued, it is Mary's aberrance from the conventionally feminine that generates the reader's sympathy.8 Mary has initiative and qualities of leadership, and it is precisely because of her unorthodox upbringing that she is able to take decisions and follow them through. She seeks and discovers the forbidden garden after her interest has been awakened by stories of its secret location and it is her very 'contrariness' that stimulates her curiosity. 'As she was not at all a timid child and always did what she wanted to do' (35), Mary follows her impulses and is rewarded for her determination. Four years before the publication of The Secret Garden, in her novel, The Shuttle (1907), Burnett wrote that a girl's duty was to be 'trained to fetch slippers as retrievers to go into the water after sticks,'9 a training that The Secret Garden emphatically refutes. As Peter Keating has observed, during the Edwardian period, 'children were suddenly allowed to be themselves in literature', and Mary in her avoidance of meek obedience follows the evolving trend for the fictional child who was no longer 'pious, industrious and well-mannered: instead the admired child was likely to be seen as imaginative, inventive, self-reliant and constantly in trouble.'10

More importantly, the trouble which Mary courts through her disobedience, as she disregards orders to forget the garden and to ignore the source of the mysterious cry in the night, proves to be her salvation and the stimulus for the restoration of order in the disturbed household. The bluntness and obstinacy which make her charmless to the adults who surround her are in fact the real key to Mary's empowerment. Significantly, if the social implications of the text are interpreted as potentially subversive, it is from servants that Mary learns how to exploit her independence to practical effect: Martha teaches her to dress herself on her first morning at Misselthwaite Manor and from this beginning she becomes increasingly adventurous. Her self-reliance leads her to the discovery of the hidden door so that when she eventually steps inside the secret garden, 'she felt as if she had found a world all her own' (79). The garden confers ownership, and the autonomy it grants allows the girl a psychic space in which to realize a personal identity. Her authority and stubbornness also have powerful effects in her relationship with Colin Craven, who responds to her headstrong management tactics when Mrs Medlock's protective coddling has failed.

It is in the representation of the relationship between Mary and Colin that the text engages most interestingly with the debate about gendered ideology and childhood. In drawing attention to the similarities between the two children rather than emphasizing their gendered differences, the novel continues the subversion of gender stereotyping seen in the conceptualization of Mary's character. In its focus on the effects of isolation, the loss of parenting, the emphasis on physiological frailty, and the connection between bodily and psychic health, Colin's plot initially repeats almost precisely the formula of Mary's narrative, that of growth from weakness to strength, from exclusion to acceptance, from egotism to altruism and from ignorance to understanding. Colin acts as Mary's alter ego, enabling her to confront in reality those aspects of the self that she is at first unwilling to acknowledge. On first meeting both children are sickly, spoiled, bad-tempered, and ugly in appearance, disliked by all around them. They are also arrogant and unable to speak politely to the servants who look after them.

In a significant rejection of the policies of colonialist appropriation, the novel challenges the prevailing assumptions about both gender and class in its representation, however temporary, of a new democracy which the children create in their alliance against adults. The social privilege that Colin enjoys as a member of the English squirearchy is made analogous to Mary's position as a child of the ruling class in imperialist India. This privilege is also disabling (literally in Colin's case), and it is a mark of both children's progress that as their relationship flourishes with a concomitant expansion of vision, they reject their establishment positions. This is best illustrated by their attempts to adopt the language of the servant class, the Yorkshire dialect which is, as Mary points out, 'like a native dialect in India', a language that significantly she was never required to learn (197). This division neatly encodes the relegation of servants and women to the realm of the linguistic other, with its own discrete discourse that eludes the rigidities of the symbolic order. When for example Mary hears Martha use the term 'wuthering', her comprehension of it transcends the boundaries of rational explanation:

Mary did not know what "wutherin" meant until she listened and then she understood. It must mean that hollow shuddering sort of roar which rushed round and round the house as if the giant no one could see were buffeting it and beating at the walls and windows to try to break in. But one knew he could not get in, and somehow it made one feel very safe and warm inside a room with a red coal fire.


The womb-like interior of the nursery, protected from the unseen (male) threat, also anticipates the symbolic cocoon of the walled garden which Mary creates as a female space, away from adult invasion.

Analysis of gender in The Secret Garden cannot be isolated from analysis of social class, as the central section of the novel reaffirms the breakdown of established hierarchies in the idealized world of childhood play, an illusion that does not persist into the adult regime. Just as Mary learns to speak politely to Martha and to treat Ben Weatherstaff with respect, so her friendship with Dickon carries no overtones of either sexual or social impropriety but is depicted as a healthy, invigorating relationship between two young people, which thrives on mutual interests and a sense of common purpose. Although the overriding social vision of the text can be interpreted as carrying worrying implications for the feminist critic, with the gradual elimination of both Mary and Dickon from the action and the final reduction of Mary's central role to that of secondary agent, the perspective on childhood as unconditioned by adult social ideologies affirms the tenuous nature of class division as an artificial construct. Similarly the breakdown of gendered distinctiveness as a precondition of preadolescent developmental experience is part of the text's iconoclasm which utilises childhood to provide a critique of contemporary ideology.

To complement this the text produces images of gendered displacement which deconstruct conventional models of girlhood and boyhood. The characterization of young boys in The Secret Garden if anything conforms more to a stereotypic female than to a male model of development and it could be argued that Dickon and Colin are used to illustrate respectively positive and negative aspects of femininity, which function implicitly as suitable educative models for juvenile readers. Whereas one is a model of how to be, the other represents how not to be. The negative aspects of Colin's imperiousness and fits of temper are moderated by the influence of Dickon and Mary who normalize his behaviour so as to approximate it to a version of the adult male role he will be required to adopt. This reinforces the ambiguity of the text: the atypical boy teaches precisely those masculine codes to which his own feminized value system is antithetical.

Initially Colin's illness, largely imaginary, is reminiscent of classic nineteenth-century versions of female frailty which results in a tendency to exploit his debility so as to attract attention to himself and to manipulate the household. As Elaine Showalter has commented:

the portrait of the anorexic painted by Darwinian psychiatry is paradoxically that of the self-sacrificing Victorian heroine. Refusing to eat, she acted out the most extreme manifestation of the feminine role, flaunting her martyrdom, literally turning herself into a "little" woman.11

Colin's pallor, his 'sharp, delicate face the colour of ivory' (126), his thin body on which 'every rib could be counted' (181) and his rejection of food are all features which confirm to this type, and in his recourse to tantrums he reenacts the classic behaviour syndrome of late nineteenth-century theories of the female psyche. No longer, however, is debility seen as a desirable image of the feminine as was the case with Margaret May, Beth March or Cousin Helen. Rather Colin's condition is reminiscent of that of the Victorian woman whose chronic invalidism operated as a form of cultural protest or as a weapon of self-assertion.

Claudia Marquis, in a sustained psychoanalytic reading of The Secret Garden, has suggested that the portrait of Colin provides a study of yet another classic female malady, hysteria, and that the text propounds an argument for the necessary reintegration of the hysteric to a full emotional life.12 At a turning point in the novel, Mary, pushed to the limits of her patience by Colin's frenzied outbursts, shouts at him, '"Half that ails you is hysterics and temper—just hysterics—hysterics—hysterics!"' (180). The narrative voice confirms that the boy's condition finds its source in psychological deprivation and enforced introspection:

If he had ever had any one to talk to about his secret terrors—if he had ever dared to let himself ask questions—if he had had childish companions and had not lain on his back in the huge closed house, breathing an atmosphere heavy with the fears of people who were most of them ignorant and tired of him, he would have found out that most of his fright and illness were created by himself.


As Marquis suggests, 'his is the case history of a hysteric'13 and as such illustrates the psychic deficiencies of one aspect of a traditional female strategy, the retreat into illness. In this sense The Secret Garden forms a significant development from earlier Victorian texts for girls which presented invalidism as an inspirational force for women, with spiritual connotations.

As suggested earlier, Colin also functions as a mirror image of Mary's own disturbance, articulating the anger and frustration that she has internalized. At their first encounter, in the dead of night in Colin's room, each child believes that the other is a ghost or a figure from a dream, and the patterned dialogue and the revelation of their familial ties ('"Mr Craven is my uncle"'. '"He is my father"' [127]) reinforce their mutual interdependence. As Phyllis Bixler has observed, in this respect The Secret Garden is in line with the traditional narrative practices of other nineteenth-century women writers as identified by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, with the use of 'maddened doubles', 'asocial surrogates' and 'obsessive depiction of diseases like anorexia' as 'symbolic expressions of the disintegration of the psyche, negation of the body, and psychological and physical imprisonment caused by narrow socially approved roles for women.'14

Whereas at the time of their first meeting Mary has already begun to act to prevent her own destruction, Colin's behaviour serves as a reminder of the unacceptable face of femininity whose rage and gestures of protest are literally life-threatening. He thus embodies the need for a return to a civilized norm, where extreme feeling must be repressed, so potentially damaging is its expression. Just as Jo March must learn the hard lesson of repression of anger and the need for self-control, so Mary and Colin must acquire socially acceptable attributes of gendered behaviour, resisting the impulse to succumb to the dark rage which is symptomatic of psychic disturbance. Significantly, however, the retreat from a position of rage and self-imposed illness is also a retreat from power.

At the same time the episode of Colin's illness functions as a critique of current medical practice, with its emphasis on medication and rest cures, in favour of alternative holistic approaches. In 1884, Burnett had become interested in the work of Mary Baker Eddy, whose Christian Science principles had helped her to recover from a debilitating attack of nervous exhaustion. Suffering from the effects of strain and overwork, she had responded positively to a course of treatments from a Boston mind-healer, a neighbour of Eddy's and a Christian Science follower.15 Although Burnett never formally converted to the Christian Science Church, the impact of its teachings remained a powerful influence on her thinking, clearly inspiring The Secret Garden 's message of the interdependence of physical and psychic well-being. In the novel, the children's apparent freakishness at the beginning of the story, and their ultimate psychological and cultural destination signal a return to normalcy and a status quo which incorporates a conventional model of male/female relations.

Whilst Colin must be socialized out of his negative femininity, Dickon on the other hand exemplifies a series of positive female traits associated with the strong, but too frequently absent, mother figure. Dickon's personal strength emanates from his own security and bonding with an all-embracing mother in contrast to the troubled children of The Secret Garden, Mary and Colin, who can trace the source of many of their anxieties to motherlessness. Their search for an integrated self is closely linked to their growing appreciation of maternal succour in the earth-mother figure of Mrs Sowerby, together with their own developing ability to reproduce nurturing qualities. For, although perhaps insistently motherhood operates as a positive model in this text, primarily through the inspirational spirit of the dead Mrs Craven and the more practical virtues of Susan Sowerby, it is also propounded through male as well as through female characters. Not only does Dickon perpetuate his mother's values in repeating her words of advice and bringing the children food that she has prepared, but he becomes the embodiment of maternal qualities in his protective and stabilizing role. His talent for mothering, for rescuing and sheltering helpless baby creatures and acting as a surrogate parent forms the dominant ethos of his life. The rescue and care of the motherless baby lamb for instance is analogous to his salvation of the two children. Offering the animal a feeding bottle of milk, he addresses it tenderly:

"Come on, little 'un," and he pushed the rubber tip of the bottle into the nuzzling mouth and the lamb began to suck it with ravenous ecstasy.


In much the same way does he provide both literal and spiritual nourishment for Mary and Colin, bringing them fresh milk and newly baked bread as well as emotional support. Their affirmative response to his influence is a crucial factor in their emotional realignment, and the messages of serenity and reliability that Dickon transmits become prerequisites for their acquisition of selfhood.

In these respects, Colin and Dickon together form a recasting of the elements which figure prominently in Burnett's earlier, much maligned but hugely popular child hero, Cedric Erroll in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885). In looks Cedric resembles the healthy Colin, with his long curls, huge eyes and delicate features, while in personality he is reminiscent of Dickon with his universal ability to charm and his penchant for loving. It is significant that in the early twentieth-century stage versions of the novel his role was almost invariably undertaken by a series of child actresses rather than boy actors. Whereas a number of contemporary works for children, whether adventure narratives or family histories, stressed the fact that boys will be boys, in Frances Hodgson Burnett's fictions boys, sensitive, caring and imaginative, are in fact more frequently girls.

The uncertainty which manifests itself in the crossing of gender boundaries in The Secret Garden is developed most potently in the ambivalent symbolism of the garden itself. This enclosed, walled space, accessible only through a hidden door, invites entry into a world of licence and release from external constraints: both class and gender hierarchies are abandoned in its revisionary environment. The female value system that operates within the womb-like seclusion of the garden can be seen as analogous to the power of the mother—the spirit of the dead Mrs Craven haunts the place—and which in feminist psychoanalytic theory is all too easily replaced by the law of the father. In Lacanian terms it is the world of the female Imaginary, a world where the symbolic order is temporarily suspended and male authority consequently marginalized. The affiliation of the garden with the romantic figuration of the lost mother (whose portrait insistently recalls girlhood rather than maturity), perpetuates the cultural referents of woman, flowers, nature and paradisal innocence that are traditionally associated with female iconography. As a version of the Edenic world of innocence, the garden is also the site of Mary's transfiguration from moral ugliness to spiritual beauty. Set apart from the power centres of Edwardian patriarchy, it thus has the double function of liberating female potential and reawakening the heroine to new life.

While on one level the garden reformulates Eden, its pre-lapsarian state incorporates a pagan mythology and eulogizes a Nature spirit that responds to mystic rites and incantations. The children believe fervently in the curative powers of Nature and their ritualistic daily invocations result in the 'magic' of Colin's recovery. Dickon's Panlike status endorses this Pagan element; first observed playing on his 'rough wooden pipe' (97), he is a magnetic centre of attraction for his audience of woodland creatures. The Paganism that Dickon represents forms a complement to Mary's innate 'otherness', visualized through the non-male, non-hierarchical world of Nature which provides a rhythmic process of experience and which counteracts the authoritarian establishment from which she takes her original behavioural impetus. Although Dickon, the main agent of pagan ideology, is a male child, the qualities he embodies are those with strong female connotations: mothering, protective nurturance, tenderness and nature. Blending in to the landscape of the garden he inspires the spirit of motherhood with which the garden is endowed to work its 'magic' so that its identification with the lost mother figure of the beautiful, girlish Mrs Craven becomes complete. Mary's immediate empathy with Dickon, even before the two have met, activates her latent femininity, which merely requires an appropriate channel for expression. Dickon, the substitute mother, thus acts as the agent of Mary's feminization just as she in turn functions as the civilizing force for Colin's return to the norm. In its defence of paganism as a healing force effectively replacing conventional Christian theology, and by associating the pagan with Nature and by extension with the female principle, the text constructs a significant opposition between the male establishment and the ability of women to deconstruct that order and to invest it with new meaning.

The garden, however remains a highly ambivalent image. Significantly, the swing, which in Susan Coolidge's version of the Fall served a didactic purpose, here functions as a reminder of the vulnerability of woman even within the charmed sanctuary of the garden. The young, beautiful Mrs Craven dies when the swing on which she is seated collapses and forces her into premature labour, giving birth to Colin. The episode is significant in terms of the double-edged meaning attributable to the symbolism of the garden. For at the same time as it provides opportunities for its heroine to establish her authority and dictate her own terms of reference, the secret garden also represents a world characterized by transience, as the effects of seasonal change demonstrate. The associative imagery of flowers and the 'magic' ascribed to the garden where animals appear to talk and Dickon is 'a sort of wood fairy' emphasize the provisional nature of its enchantment. In accordance with the conventions of the pastoral romance, democratic allegiances which flourish in the protected enclosure also dissolve when confronted with the return of the master of Misselthwaite to the reins of control, and the garden itself becomes marginalized as a temporary place of shelter.

So although the secret garden is the site of Mary's growth to self-assurance and provides her with the opportunity to exercise initiative and application, it simultaneously becomes the locus of her cultural imprisonment. Even within the safety of the garden differences between male and female begin to emerge as Colin's return to normal health results in renewed interests. His passion for science and for isometric exercises is balanced against Mary's more sedate love of story-telling and her patient absorption in watching plants bloom, the essentialist division between male rationalism and female imagination becoming apparent as the novel approaches closure. Having then created the conditions for the exercise of female power in Mary's autonomy over the garden, Burnett causes her heroine to relinquish that power by exposing its limits: Colin, in the final episode of the novel, leaves the garden behind and returns to the real power centre, the house, which he is to inherit as master. Mary, the prime mover of his recovery, is significantly absent from the closing tableau where Colin and Archibald Craven, heads held high, stride across the lawn in a demonstration of male bonding that excludes female participation. The preservation of this patriarchal order reinforces the division between male and female spheres of experience which the bulk of the novel has up to this point effectively blurred.

The Secret Garden thus stands in the direct line of literature for girls that offers its readers provocative possibilities of excitement and adventure, only to withdraw the promise in the terms of their ultimate resolution. Like Alcott's Little Women, which relies on Jo March's resistance to convention for its narrative dynamic merely to have her sink into being a 'little woman' for the approving gaze of her father, The Secret Garden concludes by foregrounding the conservatism which has also been implicit in its portrayal of class relations. Just as Mary is removed from the focus of attention at the end of the novel, so Dickon, the working-class child who has been central in the regenerative process, is completely forgotten in the finale's emphasis on reconciliation between father and son. The novel's main narrative experience of childhood freedom is thus framed by the removal and the return of parents. Similarly the social hierarchy of prevailing English class and gender divisions is perpetuated by the unashamed return to the status quo and the exclusion of Mary and Dickon from the centre of love as well as from power.

In its realization of dual, often conflicting modes of gendered behaviour and their determining contexts, the novel exhibits tensions such as are common to other fictions in this study without being necessarily feminist in its orientation. The eventual narrative progression of The Secret Garden reverts to the conventional model of the feminine, offering a model of woman as an apotheosis of motherhood, and showing girls as feminizing and civilizing influences on a sterile male culture. Yet the main action of the novel gains its magnetism from a diametrically opposed position as it glorifies female intransigence and freedom and establishes a psychic personal space for the talented, creative girl who is its heroine. This textual instability thus provides scope for readings of the novel's covert 'message', contained in its very incoherence.

Anthea Trodd has argued that the confines of the genre of children's literature allowed women writers during this period to explore their situation without drawing hostile attention to themselves, and that despite the conservatism of its conclusion, the appeal of The Secret Garden 'lies in its exploration of the heroine's discovery of a space of her own.'16 Commentators are generally agreed that the image of the garden and the potency it confers on those who succumb to its magic generates the narrative dynamic of the text, even if, like Humphrey Carpenter, they assume that Burnett did not fully understand the significance of what she was about.17 The preceding discussion shows how confusions regarding gender and models of female behaviour which had affected women writers of earlier periods remained problematic for twentieth-century authors for children, despite a shift in emphasis from a moral to a psychological agenda. In its explicit alignment of gender with power relations, The Secret Garden, a text by a hybrid English/American woman writer, forms a fascinating coda to the tradition of evangelical and sentimental literature for girls which has provided a benchmark in this study's analysis of fictional ideologies of girlhood.


1. Froebel, System of Infant Gardens (1855), quoted in Juliet Dusinberre, Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art (London: Macmillan, 1987).

2. Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Literature (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 84.

3. See, for example, Laurie Langbauer, Women and Romance: The Consolations of Gender in the English Novel (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990); Rosalind Miles, The Female Form: Women Writers and the Conquest of the Novel (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987); Jean Radford, The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction (London: Routledge, 1986).

4. Karen E. Rowe, 'Feminism and Fairy Tales', Women's Studies, 1979, vol. 6, p. 248.

5. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 10. All subsequent references are to this edition and are included in the text.

6. Roderick McGillis, '"Secrets" and "Sequence" in Children's Stories"', Studies in the Literary Imagination, 1985, Fall, vol. 18 (2) p. 37.

7. See particularly Fred Inglis, The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Ann Thwaite, Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1849–1924 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974).

8. Elizabeth Lennox Keyser, 'Quite Contrary: Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden', Children's Literature: An International Journal, The Modern Language Association Division of Children's Literature, 1983, vol. 11, pp. 1-13.

9. Quoted in Thwaite, op.cit. p. 52.

10. Peter Keating, The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel, 1875–1914 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1987), p. 220.

11. Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830–1980 (London: Virago Press, 1987), p. 128.

12. Claudia Marquis, 'The Power of Speech: Life in The Secret Garden', Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association, 1987, Nov., vol. 68, pp. 163-187.

13. Marquis, p. 166.

14. Phyllis Bixler Koppes, Frances Hodgson Burnett (Boston: Twayne, 1984), p. 100.

15. For a fuller description of Mary Baker Eddy's philosophy and influence on Burnett see Thwaite, op.cit., pp. 88-9.

16. Anthea Trodd: A Reader's Guide to Edwardian Literature (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), p. 72.

17. Humphrey Carpenter, Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children's Literature (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985), p. 189.

Margaret Mackey (essay date March 1996)

SOURCE: Mackey, Margaret. "Strip Mines in the Garden: Old Stories, New Formats, and the Challenge of Change." Children's Literature in Education 27, no. 1 (March 1996): 3-22.

[In the following essay, Mackey utilizes The Secret Garden to study textual multiplication in children's literature—i.e., the myriad forms that a text can take in the contemporary era, from CD-ROMs to movies and musicals, and the effects that these adaptations have on the integrity of the original text.]

The image of the garden has a long and powerful literary and social history. It offers connotations of security, enclosure, beauty, and fruitfulness. It implies a convergence of the powers of nature and the powers of human intervention. It remains a primal image of paradise, lost but maybe regainable. It can stand for safety but also for restriction.

Not surprisingly, given the ease of connecting such metaphors to our ideas about childhood, there are many gardens in children's literature, and they testify to the suppleness of the image. Tom's midnight garden1 is a place of learning and excitement; Mr. McGregor's garden2 is the locus of challenge and danger; Terabithia3 is a center for love and grief; Janua Caeli in The Changeover4 is the source of growth and change. Perhaps the most famous, most loved, most potent garden of all is the secret garden: the closed-up garden at Misselthwaite Manor, which is recovered by three children in an act of mutual restoration which brings both neglected flowers and unloved children back to life and health.

Generations of children have read and loved The Secret Garden 5 by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The power of its central healing image has triumphed even though there are elements in the book which make many contemporary readers uneasy. The memorable theme of the garden and its influence on the children has dominated the many adaptations and re-creations of this book, which have tampered with almost every other aspect of the story.

This book and its many versions provide a specific example of a development in how our society today creates, explores, alters, and exploits fictions. Having acknowledged all too briefly the power of the original story, I want to turn to another very striking aspect of this particular fiction: its plurality. With only a modest amount of enterprise, I have encountered this story in the following incarnations: two movies, a television dramatization, an animated cartoon, three different audiocassette readings of abridged or retold versions, the recordings of two different musicals, a CD-ROM "moviebook," one text essentially abridged from the original, four texts which are essentially retold versions of the original, two texts which are not much more than picture-book souvenirs of a movie version, and a coloring book. Without counting the original text, that makes a total of eighteen different versions, all with some claim to be called The Secret Garden. And I have left out the extracts and summary which form a part of the children's computer game Alien Tales, a "galactic game show where kids discover the joy of reading great literature."

It is very easy to develop an automatic twang of disapproval when discussing this level of multiplication, and that is a tone of voice which I want to avoid. The issue of plurality is not entirely new, nor is it simply an effect of the communications revolution which has freed us from dependence on print for our fictions. There are also variety and reinterpretation in the many print editions of the original text, which are all different insofar as they are filtered through the perspectives of numerous illustrators.

Nevertheless, there is a difference of scale in today's scene, and I do not think our critical language has developed adequately to deal with it. Very often, we put filters on our own critical terms of discussion. When we discuss The Secret Garden, we often talk about Burnett's text as if it were the only significant version available. This account of the situation may essentially ring true for those adults who read the critical articles, but it is hardly true for children surrounded by a market which presses numerous, sometimes conflicting, versions on them.

I want to look at The Secret Garden from a different, less literary, perspective, to explore it as a case study of some of the developments in the area of children's literature today. It is a relatively simple case study, for a number of reasons. One is that the book is now out of copyright, so its many renderings do not cause complicated legal and commercial problems. Another is that the multiplying effect is still largely expressed in terms of textual variants; the kind of commodification which has attended other literary figures, such as Peter Rabbit,6 Winnie the Pooh,7 and Thomas the Tank Engine,8 is largely confined to a few trivial examples of lockets and diaries in the case of this story.

Nevertheless, there is enough complexity in the ramifications of what has happened to The Secret Garden to raise a number of questions which need to be considered by those of us who, as professionals of one kind or another, deal with children's literature. Many of these questions do not come with easy answers; we know too little about the responses of children who meet the same fiction over and over again in different formats. However, it will surely help to clarify what we can, and to establish what we need to know more about.

The range of possible approaches to converting a text from one medium to another is suggested by two metaphors from two very different thinkers. Jill Paton Walsh has reviewed a book which retells the stories of eight operas. She is concerned about the perils of recycling stories and describes the essential element in such a process in distinctly lyrical terms:

In the end, the anthology illuminates the importance of the reason why something is retold. That it is the story of an opera seems not to be reason enough. That something about it sings to the reteller in the silence of the heart might be an essential reason.9

In a postmodern and heavily commercial world, such an approach may seem old-fashioned and sentimental. However, surprisingly similar remarks—clothed in a different metaphor—come from Barry Diller, the former head of Fox Television in the United States. He discussed some potential dangers of cross-media conversions in a speech given to the American Magazine Conference and recorded in Wired, the magazine for computer cognoscenti. None of this pedigree sounds either old-fashioned or sentimental, but Diller is equally uncompromising about the making of new versions:

Taking a movie like Jurassic Park and turning it into a videogame—that's repackaging. Taking a bestseller and putting it on tape—that's repackaging. Taking magazine articles and slapping them online, word for word—that's repackaging. And if you think this is the work of the "New World," you're kidding yourselves. It's more like strip mining. After you've extracted the riches from the surface, there's nothing left—and you're probably too tired to do any real development.10

The temptation to make a conglomerate metaphor is overwhelming: at one end of the garden, as it were, we have the solitary artist with a retelling singing in the heart, while at the other end, the strip miners plunder away. Is this an adequate description of the range of material which our culture currently presses on our children? What kinds of issues are involved when a single text is transformed, recast, and remarketed, even wrung dry, in the cause of commercial enterprise? How can we find ways to discuss the processes at work on stories old and new? The Secret Garden provides a vehicle for raising some of the key questions involved in this operation.

Let us be clear at the outset that, in this case, we are talking about retellings, not about new creations which simply use the first text as the springboard for an entirely new story, as The Jolly Postman makes new use of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Although children's literature offers many examples of stories being incorporated in essentially new texts, The Secret Garden texts are simply new accounts of a story which has already been told, with possibilities and constraints already in place.


One obvious issue which comes up when we begin to consider versions of a story is the question of how much a retelling is or ought to be faithful to the original, and at what level. My stack of eighteen versions of The Secret Garden raises many questions about that topic and hints at some kinds of possible answers to some of those questions.

There are issues of fidelity of plot, of detail, of tone, and of manner of telling. Some ways of retelling operate on quite simple terms of abridgment and sacrifice only detail, preserving to a large extent the original plot, tone, and manner of telling (except, of course, for the necessary speeding up of pace which results from the sacrifice of detail). In my pile of texts, the coloring book, at least one print version, and two of the tape recordings operate on principles of abridgment in a reasonably straightforward way.

There are, of course, many decisions to be made in the simplest of abridgments, but they are relatively straightforward compared to the complexities represented by the other fourteen texts. I propose to leave these four versions aside and look at the remainder. I will look at some general issues of adaptation in the case of The Secret Garden before going on to consider issues which relate to specific media.

Major Plot Ingredients

We are used to folk tales and fairy tales being reshaped and retold, with only their major elements preserved from one version to another. However, these stories are short and simple compared to a novel, even a novel for children.

What plot ingredients are essential to retain the identity of The Secret Garden ? A consensus answer would probably include some mix of the following: the orphaned and disagreeable Mary arriving at Misselthwaite Manor, with its locked up rooms, its mysterious secret garden, and its reclusive widowed owner, Archibald Craven; Mary's improving health and spirits as she explores the gardens and gains an appetite from the fresh air; the link between Ben Weatherstaff, the robin, and the finding of the key and the door to the secret garden; the link between Martha, Dickon, their mother Susan Sowerby, and the wild animals who trust Dickon and follow him; the strange crying in the night, leading to the discovery of sickly Colin, and his gradual recovery of health through the same mixture of fresh air and interest in life that has saved Mary; and Archibald Craven's belated return from a decade of grief and absence to find a healthy son waiting for him.

It is a complex enough set of plot ingredients, but many of the new versions add extra elements, mostly with the consequence of making the story more melodramatic. One change is the introduction of a conspiracy between Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, and Dr. Craven, Colin's cousin and the heir to Misselthwaite if Colin should not survive. This is not the kind of development which can be described as filling in the blanks left unspecified by the author; Burnett was actually quite explicit on the subject of Dr. Craven:

Dr. Craven felt rather alarmed. If this tiresome, hysterical boy should chance to get well, he himself would lose all chance of inheriting Misselthwaite, but he was not an unscrupulous man, though he was a weak one, and he did not intend to let him run into actual danger.11

Such a clear-cut repudiation of any possibility of conspiracy has not deterred some interpreters. The animated cartoon and the musical by Shaughnessy and Burgett both make great play of the evil machinations of Dr. Craven and Mrs. Medlock. The Broadway musical of Simon and Norman also features Dr. Craven as a villain.

A different addition to the story is incorporated in the Hallmark television movie: a frame narrative involving a romance between Mary and Colin, who return to the garden at the end of World War I. Dickon has been killed in the war, but Ben Weatherstaff is on hand to welcome them. Colin has already proposed to Mary, but she has failed to answer him, wanting him to propose again in the garden. The main story of the children in the garden is told in flashback form between the two framing segments of the adult Mary and Colin.

A lesser but still startling change occurs in the Warner Brothers movie, where Mary's parents die in an earthquake instead of a cholera epidemic. This alteration is in some ways the most inexplicable, a picturesque but irritatingly meaningless change. The Warner Brothers movie also hints at a romantic triangular relationship between Mary, Colin, and Dickon, beyond the childish jealousy mentioned in the book.

Presumably, when a text goes out of copyright, there is little to prevent such meddling with the essential ingredients of the story. And there are, of course, occasions when some alterations in a story are important to the successful telling of that story in a different medium. What could justify a complete change of genre to melodramatic conspiracy story or insipid romance, to cite two of my examples, is a different question and possibly one to which there is no legitimate answer other than the profit motive. The more urgent question is how we deal with young readers who encounter the text first in a version which includes one of these major plot changes and who are surprised, not to mention put out, by the original. Questions of provenance and legitimacy are easy to answer in terms of which text has primacy. The facts of reception are more complex. If I first meet the story as part of a romance, for example, my response to the original may well be colored irrevocably. Does this matter? To whom? It presumably matters to the person encountering the text in a revised form. Does it also matter to the general community of Secret Garden readers? Is there a public interest at stake in changes in public texts such as long-cherished fictions?

Details and Emphases

The different versions of The Secret Garden play even faster and looser with the smaller details of the story. There is, for example, the question of Mary's relationship to the Craven family. Again, Burnett was explicit: Mary's father, Captain Lennox, was the brother of Mrs. Craven (p. 17) There is no question of a pair of sisters involved as in the Lucy Simon musical, let alone twin sisters, the scenario developed in the Warner Brothers movie.

There are other variations: The Hallmark television movie (presumably with an eye to the potential for romance between Mary and Colin, which it uses as its frame story) has made Mary no relation at all to the Craven family. Her grandfather was simply a friend of Archibald Craven's father.

A detail so small, yet so specific that it makes one wonder why anyone would bother to change it, is the question of which child has the eyes of the dead Lilias Craven. Burnett was very clear that Colin's gray eyes resemble his mother's; indeed, this is supposed to be one reason why his father is reluctant to see him. Yet, in their Broadway musical, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon devote a whole song to Mary's hazel eyes and the fact that they are identical to Lily's. The same resemblance is stressed in the Warner Brothers movie.

Changing the two dead mothers to a pair of sisters allows for much romantic dwelling on the loss of Mary's mother, a topic which does not dominate Burnett's original book in anything like the same way. In the book, Mary's mother is quite simply a bad mother who does not share any of the nurturing qualities ascribed to that arch-mother, Susan Sowerby, whose children, Martha and Dickon, are crucial to Mary's recovery. It is Susan who is the true maternal spirit in the original text, with her blue cloak and fresh smiling face, "rather like a softly coloured illustration in one of Colin's books" (p. 232). It is she who gives such life to Lilias as the book allows her to possess: "'Eh! dear lad!' she said. 'Thy own mother's in this 'ere very garden, I do believe. She couldna' keep out of it!'" (p. 238).

In the Warner Brothers movie, much of this maternal magic is ascribed instead to Colin's mother, who moves through the film as a set of flurrying leaves, a restless spirit who wants to see her child happy. Mrs. Sowerby never appears and is mentioned only once. This shift is a detail in a way, but it marks a distinct change of ethos; the very high significance placed on the role played by all the members of the Sowerby family in the cure of Mary and Colin is lost. Since the Sowerby family members clearly represent the values and virtues of a simple country life, and since the glamorous twin sisters clearly represent a very different set of priorities, the whole focus of the story is shifted.

Another even smaller detail is the status of the Craven family, aristocratic or otherwise. In several versions, Archibald is promoted to being Lord Craven. Apart from a transparent appeal to snob value, there is no gain to plot or character from this alteration, yet it marks a significant shift in the placing of the story.

There are cases of small alterations which are more innocuous and whose function in the adaptation can be more clearly seen. The BBC television dramatization, for example, creates a larger role for the footman, John, than he has in the book. John's expanded part allows him to stand in for the other servants and to provide commentary on Mary's strange ways, observations made by the narrator in the book.

Do these small changes matter? A lot? A little? Not at all? They certainly can affect the overall emotional charge of the story and may provide one answer to the question of why it may be so disturbing to move from one version of a story to another.

Changes of Tone

The various print versions of The Secret Garden do not offer as many variations in plot and detail as the film, animation, and musical incarnations. They tend to truncate rather than alter the story. When it comes to the question of tone, however, there is scope for a wide variety of approaches, in print as well as in other media.

Burnett offers a serviceable and lively storytelling voice. In the early stages of the story, she briskly recounts the events which befall Mary. It is not until she is well into the story that she pauses in her straightforward narration for more lyrical stretches of description. Overall, the voice is rather more consistent than the plot; the story focuses less and less on Mary as it proceeds, but the steady, reliable pace of the storytelling does not falter.

Some print variants probably change the tone of voice more radically than they change any other single element about the book. Here, for example, is a Mary who sounds remarkably like Nancy Drew, from The Young Collector's Illustrated Classics version, an adaptation by Devra Newberger Speregen:

Mary lay awake in her bed for nearly half the night. Every once in a while, she would reach under her pillow and touch the key. She wondered if it was indeed the key that opened the door to the secret garden. If it was, all she had to do now was find the door.

When Mary finally fell asleep, she dreamed of finding the door and unlocking it with her key. She dreamed of playing in the garden with Martha and Dickon. She had heard so many wonderful stories about Dickon, she felt as if she'd known him forever.

                                   (pp. 53-54)

There are many ways of affecting the tone of how a story is told. A decision can be a simple one, like the idea of providing the animated Mary with an American accent. A more subtle change can be made by altering the points of emphasis. The Hallmark television movie, for example, underlines the cholera scene with very lurid music and scenes of chaos and fire. Even Mary's doll is thrown on the fire. The effect is far more obviously dramatic than anything in the original book, yet the effect is somehow dissipated. The slow buildup of Mary's confusion, fears, and defensive arrogance is lost; my dominant reaction was a feeling of watching just another movie catastrophe.

There are some changes in tone which are simply crude and unsatisfactory. The novelization of the Warner Brothers screenplay, written by M. J. Carr, offers an example of such an error of judgement.

"He said his mother died when he was born," said Mary.

"From falling off the swing," Dickon explained. "She fell off the swing and went into labor. He was born early."

                                          (p. 34)

Not only is there no such remark in the original text, either from any character or from the narrator, but it is also highly unlikely that children of this era would use such terms.

A smaller but still niggling change of tone is the shift in some versions to a more American use of language. The examples may be relatively subtle: "Martha also noted that Mary had become a whole lot friendlier. 'My, have you changed!' Martha exclaimed." (Speregen version, p. 65). Some are simply egregious, as in a picture book developed from the Warner Brothers movie: "Later that afternoon, Mary snuck into Colin's bedroom" (Cristaldi version, p. 20).

Such liberties, anachronisms, and shifts of accent are probably more damaging than they might seem at first sight. They contribute to an overall effect of homogeneity in fiction which is the opposite of what literature really should offer to young readers. We should not read novels to discover that children of different times and different countries all talk to each other in exactly the same way; yet such a merging of voice is occurring in text after text as the remaker becomes the leveler.

On the other hand, there are, in the original text, scenes whose historical and national accuracy cannot be doubted, yet which may cause problems for contemporary consciousnesses. Take, for example, Mary's rage at discovering that Martha has thought she might be Indian, or take this remark from Martha later in the story: "'Does tha' mean that they've not got skippin'-ropes in India, for all they've got elephants and tigers and camels? No wonder most of 'em's black" (p. 64). It is not at all surprising that this last sentence has sunk without trace in the versions I investigated. An undeniable gain in sensitivity to all possible readers is balanced by a loss of historical insight.

It seems clear that some of the adaptors are also uneasy about the shift in attention from the heroine to the hero. The Warner Brothers movie and its textual spinoffs send Mary hiding from her uncle after he has reunited with Colin. "Lord" Craven pursues her and assures her that he loves her as well—a small point, but it alters the balance of the ending. Maybe it is even an improvement. Who gets to make the judgments? On what criteria?

The Manner of Telling

Translations into new media offer different ways of providing the gist of the story, of outlining the main items which allow the identity of the title to be maintained. We often see this effect at work in folk material. There are also interesting ways in which versions in different media preserve or alter specific aspects of the ways in which the story is told.

One small detail of this kind of attention occurs in the BBC dramatization. This is how Burnett described Mary's first sight of Colin:

It was a big room with ancient, handsome furniture in it. There was a low fire glowing faintly on the hearth and a night-light burning by the side of a carved, four-poster bed hung with brocade, and on the bed was lying a boy, crying pitifully.

                                             (p. 111)

The BBC camera hesitates at the foot of the bed so that the sight of Colin appears at the end of the shot as it comes at the end of the sentence; the detail of inversion is preserved and, of course, carries a similar dramatic weight.

On a larger scale, the Simon and Norman musical makes use of a more substantial element in Burnett's composition, the structural role of the Yorkshire dialect. The use of this dialect marks the characters who will participate in Mary's redemption; of her new friends, only Colin speaks standard English, and his relationship to her is on a different footing. Many of the retellings eliminate or modify this dialect; Simon and Norman, instead, made use of its linguistic and musical potential in a duet sung by Dickon and Mary entitled "Show Me the Key." Dickon is helping Mary to talk Yorkshire to the robin by offering a translation.






I'm a girl


She's a lass as took a graidly fancy to thee Dost tha fear


Tha mun not fear


She's took thee on for like to vex thee Nowt o' the soart


Nowt o' the soart

The counterpoint of the duet is quick and musically interesting; Mary's learning of Yorkshire as a gesture toward her new friend is combined with a discussion about the key. The terms of the print telling are reimagined in the terms of the musical production.

Two film versions provide examples of what can happen when the texture of the telling is lost in the translation. In the Warner Brothers production, Mary finds the key to the garden in a drawer in her aunt's dressing table; then, when she asks the robin to show her the garden, it takes her straight to the door. There is no build up of frustration and suspense. The pace of events is changed, and as a consequence, the atmosphere created in the story is also substantially altered. The Hallmark movie adopts a Gothic style involving sinister shadows, frightening statues inside the manor, and crashing thunderstorms to place a new but already clichéd emphasis on horror which is entirely absent from the book.

How important is it that a retelling make some effort to re-create some of the texture and felt quality of the original? Do we care if the imaginative experience of living "inside" a secondary, re-created fiction resembles the imaginative experience of the primary text more-or-less closely? What are the consequences in the way we think, talk, and feel about a named fiction if the translations are cavalier about the way in which the story is told?

These questions can be taken as showing a bias toward those who meet the text first in its primary, original version and move on later to other reincarnations. But of course, many children either reverse that trail or, indeed, only ever know The Secret Garden in one or several of its secondary manifestations. They will never make comparisons or be aware of any gain or loss in their experience compared to what they might have had in reading the original version. Does this undeniable fact mean that the questions are not important?


In many of these versions of The Secret Garden, there seems to be a powerful force at work which often conflicts with and sometimes defeats the need to be true to the original story. This is the power of the conventions of the medium in question. I am not referring to the actual strengths and constraints in the format, though of course these are important elements as well. The BBC dramatization, for example, was originally created in program-length segments; the Hallmark made-for-television movie is shaped around the need for commercial breaks. I am not talking about such structural considerations, however; I refer to the expected, conventional, even stereotyped cultural ingredients which we often associate with a particular form.

I want to discuss two examples of reworking which strike me as particularly bad, where the conventions of the medium seem to have triumphed over questions of fidelity, taste, and good storymaking. One of these examples is the animated cartoon version of The Secret Garden which was produced for ABC in 1994 and which is now available for sale and for rent as a home video, at least in North America. The second example is the CD-ROM based on the Warner Brothers film of the book. It is startling to realize how quickly a new format can develop its own conventions and clichés.

The Animated Cartoon

The cartoon version of The Secret Garden appeared on the ABC television network in the autumn of 1994 and has since been released as a home video. It violates the terms of the book under all four of the headings I have listed above. In terms of major plot changes, it introduces the conspiracy between Dr. Craven and Mrs. Medlock and also equips Misselth-waite Manor with a collection of secret tunnels. In terms of detail, it makes the animals cuter and more actively involved in the plot and takes the truly outrageous step of adding a talking cat named Darjeeling to the story. Darjeeling shows Mary the hidden tunnels so she can escape when Mrs. Medlock locks her in her room. In terms of tone, the cartoon gives Mary an American accent and cheapens almost every element of the story to the level of cliché. The manner of telling is that of an animated cartoon, with an emphasis on action totally alien to the slow development of Mary's regeneration, which is such a feature of the original story.

I want to concentrate here on one aspect of the awfulness of this cartoon: the helpful animals. The talking cat is the most appalling addition, but the robin (which also speaks) features in a newly heroic role in this version as well. Mary, imprisoned by the terrible Mrs. Medlock, sends a message to her uncle by writing it on a hair ribbon which the robin heroically carries through wind and storm to Archibald Craven.

Disney carries the can for many cartoon clichés which are not necessarily creations of his company. In the case of the cute and chatty animal assistants, however, I think we may safely point the finger in the direction of Disney. Why would the animators feel the need to drag such stereotypes into the distinct universe created by Frances Hodgson Burnett? Can it really be that the convention of the animal sidekick has taken such a hold on animated stories that you can't make a cartoon without one?

A second and more important question is this one: What of the children whose first or only exposure to The Secret Garden is through this animation? If they do go on to make the acquaintance of any other version of this story, they may well be affronted by the absence of the cat, Darjeeling. In any case, they may assimilate or reinforce the idea that a cute talking animal makes a story palatable. We can call this process a kind of leveling off, where one story begins to resemble another more than it stands distinct from it; another name for the process, of course, is dumbing down.


Warner Brothers has authorized a CD-ROM based on its film version of The Secret Garden. It is called an "interactive movie book," a label which Warner Brothers has trademarked.

This CD-ROM is so terrible that it almost beggars description, though the ideas which inform it are not necessarily wrongheaded in themselves. A highly abridged version of the story is told in words on the screen which can be highlighted as they are read aloud. The mouse can click on illustrations which are then animated and given sound effects. At particular points, the user can activate extremely short film clips from the movie.

The animated effects are basic rather than witty or clever. The film clips are so short that the buildup while the curtains pull back from the little screen often takes longer than the clips themselves. The problem with the whole idea is that the technical possibilities of the medium, with all their limitations and potential, seem to be in control of the process which creates the final effect. Anything with a possible sound effect is more likely to be accentuated, and the sound effects are already clichés, even in these early days of the medium. You can be certain that anything permitting a scream or a stamping of feet will be given an icon for the mouse to click on. The story, already abbreviated, is skewed toward the elements which make good noises, much as the early "talkies" developed a predilection for fast-approaching trains, falling trees, and jazz bands. I found the whole effect very unsatisfactory, but I would, wouldn't I? The more interesting question is how children will respond. How much of a difference will it make to users of the CD-ROM if they have seen the movie on which it is based? How much of the power of the CD-ROM relies on how well it draws on this larger source? What is the artistic potential of this medium beyond its present role as an unusually lively photograph album for a story told in another medium?

Jonathan Miller has made a provocative suggestion:

I think that what happens is that when people have seen the film and go back to the book, the author becomes nothing more than a projectionist's assistant, who simply enables people to re-run the film in their head.12

This CD-ROM, like some of the books based on the Warner Brothers movie (such as the versions by Carr and Cristaldi) seems almost to set out to train children in exactly this kind of response.

A Larger Faithfulness

The eighteen versions of The Secret Garden vary in scope, detail, emphasis, and tone. It is possible to analyze the variations in greater or lesser detail, but there is also a question of how the story works at another level, in a larger, less particular way. What are the major themes of The Secret Garden, and how do they survive in the adaptations?

The garden itself provides a major thematic element. Taken literally, the garden provides a source of fresh air, exercise, and a new interest in life for two very needy children. Metaphorically, it works in a number of ways. It acts as a kind of womb in which the children can be renurtured; it is surely no coincidence that the scene in which Colin meets his father is so redolent of a birth scene, with the pain removed:

And then the moment came, the uncontrollable moment when the sounds forgot to hush themselves. The feet ran faster and faster—they were nearing the garden door—there was a quick, strong, young breathing and a wild outbreak of laughing shouts which could not be contained—and the door in the wall was flung wide open, the sheet of ivy swinging back, and a boy burst through it at full speed and, without seeing the outsider, dashed almost into his arms.

                                           (p. 251)

The garden also calls up images of the Garden of Eden, a chance to return to innocence and pleasure. Burnett is lyrical in her descriptions of the garden, and many of the retellings recreate that lyricism in their own terms. The Warner Brothers movie has a segment of accelerated film of flowers blossoming. The Norman and Simon song "Come to My Garden" is powerfully emotional, a duet between Colin and his dead mother.

These images tie in with another major element in the book, the catastrophe of being unmothered. Mary and Colin are thoroughly unpleasant children as a direct consequence of being without proper mothers. The role played by the only real mother in the book, Susan Sowerby, is quite remarkable. With twelve children of her own, struggling to survive on sixteen shillings a week, she still has enough energy and compassion to supply Mary with a skipping rope and both children with new milk and freshly baked buns. She offers advice to Mrs. Medlock, Dr. Craven, Martha, and Dickon about what is the best thing to do for Colin or Mary. On two notable occasions, she intercedes with Archibald Craven. Once she stops him on the moor and says that Mary needs "fresh air and freedom and running about" (p. 104). It is this encounter which causes Mr. Craven to call for Mary, the meeting at which he grants her permission to make her garden anywhere that is not wanted. On the second occasion, Susan Sowerby writes the letter that brings Archibald Craven home to that memorable meeting with a healthy son.

Yet even this description does not adequately encompass the importance of Susan Sowerby in this story, in both direct and symbolic terms. A strong case can be made that, in many ways, the climax of the book comes in the second-to-last, rather than the last, chapter. Entitled "It's Mother!" it describes the first meeting between Mary and Colin and Mrs. Sowerby. Although there has been much talk of Mary going to visit the cottage on the moor, it has not happened, and Dickon must identify his mother when she appears in the garden.

This whole scene is fascinating. The children and Ben Weatherstaff are so full of gratitude and joy that they must find some way to express it, so they all sing the Doxology, "Praise God from Whom all blessings flow." Mrs. Sowerby appears on the last line:

The door in the ivied wall had been pushed gently open and a woman had entered. She had come in with the last line of their song and she had stood still listening and looking at them. With the ivy behind her, the sunlight drifting through the trees and dappling her long blue cloak, and her nice fresh face smiling across the greenery, she was rather like a softly coloured illustration in one of Colin's books. She had wonderful affectionate eyes which seemed to take everything in—all of them, even Ben Weatherstaff and the "creatures" and every flower that was in bloom. Unexpectedly as she had appeared, not one of them felt that she was an intruder at all. Dickon's eyes lighted like lamps.

"It's Mother—that's who it is!" he cried, and he went across the grass at a run.

                                           (p. 232)

There is not space to explore the potency of this image to its fullest extent. I am inclined to take the blue cloak, the quality of almost unreal benevolence, the intercessionary role with the father figure, and the archetypal, all-seeing, and all-knowing maternity of Susan Sowerby as links with another mother, Mary the Mother of God. This may be stretching things, though there is undeniably some kind of Earth Mother-Wise Woman motif at work. In any case, there is certainly some very powerful imagery here. The idea of being Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with a mother to look after you, even if you do not push the idea of that mother being the Mother of God, is perhaps the ultimate restorative for the condition of motherlessness. The image can be restated in more secular terms: The idea of being able to return to the security of the womb, but with the added pleasure of being aware of your mother's care, is also immensely reassuring.

But Susan Sowerby operates at a more specific level in this book as well. Before the chapter is over, she has, in a manner of speaking, given both children their mothers back. She tells Colin how he resembles his mother and says she is surely present in this garden she loved so much. And to Mary, she returns some sense of connection to her own mother:

She put both hands on Mistress Mary's shoulders and looked her little face over in a motherly fashion.

"An' thee, too!" she said. "Tha'rt grown near as hearty as our 'Lizabeth Ellen. I'll warrant tha'rt like thy mother too. Our Martha told me as Mrs Medlock heard she was a pretty woman. Tha'lt be like a blush-rose when tha' grows up, my little lass, bless thee."…

Mary had not had time to pay much attention to her changing face. She had only known that she looked "different" and seemed to have a great deal more hair and that it was growing very fast. But remembering her pleasure in looking at Memsahib in the past, she was glad to hear that she might some day look like her.

                                      (pp. 234-235)

It would be possible to make a strong case that the real climax of The Secret Garden actually occurs in this second-to-last chapter, and that the return of Colin's father is the denouement. The profoundly female emphasis of such a conclusion might allay the dismay of some readers over the way that the focus of the story shifts from Mary to Colin in the last pages. However, that is a discussion for another occasion. At this point, I simply want to take the idea of Susan Sowerby as thematically powerful and explore what happens to the rendering of the story when she is reduced in importance. In a large number of the versions of The Secret Garden, Susan Sowerby ranges from negligible to invisible. The return to the womb of the garden remains an important theme, but the children heal themselves to a much greater extent than they do in the book. Even the BBC version, which is by far the most meticulously faithful and the one which does most justice to Susan Sowerby's role, deletes the recognition scene in the garden. The Hallmark movie retains it but reduces its power and impact.

Is this a question of changing times and mores? Do we take what we understand in our own terms from a text as powerful as The Secret Garden ? Do these reinterpretations simply represent our best contemporary understanding of how healing may work? Do some of the clichés which attend these reinterpretations just reflect the fact that healing is an idea which has got into some dubious company these days? Does the loss of this scene represent our contemporary discomfort with religious imagery or a devaluing of the importance of mothering? Or is it more of an aesthetic question? Does the loss of Susan Sowerby reflect a set of misinterpretations of the text?

Such questions are fascinating and would make another paper in themselves. Instead of pursuing them, however, I want to ask one final question about the narrative voice in this book. Burnett's commentary on the events is lost in the translations even more thoroughly than Susan Sowerby. That loss can be felt from the initial sentence onward. If the garden is the most memorable image of this book, the opening sentences almost certainly contain the most memorable set of words: "When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too" (p. 7). Over the generations, many readers have viewed this sentence as a release from the normal conventions (or even fetters) of stories for children. This is a heroine who is not just a little bit outspoken (in a charming way, of course) or a little bit red-haired (but we all know it will be auburn in the end) or a little bit sharp (but lovable anyway). This girl is an out-and-out loser. We know because we are told. And we are told in a way which would not be so believable in the words of another character; nobody but the omniscient author could reliably inform us what "everybody" says or assure us of its truth.

I do not want to dwell on this opening sentence, but it provides a useful example of the kinds of problems facing adaptors, especially but not exclusively those who deal with Victorian and Edwardian texts where the commentary is built into the very fabric of the story. There are ways, more or less clever, of substituting inference for authorial assertion. We are certainly given the opportunity in the various versions of this story to infer that Mary is disagreeable in both looks and manner. The inference route to information is interesting in its own right, but it is not an exact substitute, especially in this kind of very spacious novel where authorial commentary is substantial and an essential part of the way of telling. The very size of the book rules out even judicious voice-over as an option, and all other methods rule out the major security of being told how to think about what is going on. Inference has its own powerful impact on how we think, but it is a different way into the story and irrevocably makes it a different kind of story. The title and the proper nouns remain the same, but the experience of The Secret Garden in film form, on television, or as a musical or a CD-ROM is necessarily different.

Conclusions and More Questions

We need to find ways of refining our vocabulary for talking about such differences. We must address the issue of plurality disguised by a singular heading. Plurality is a development in children's literature in particular which does have its own pedigree of past practices but which is now affecting more and more titles in more and more varied ways. What are the consequences for children learning about story and how it works? What vocabulary do we need to talk about versions of a story? If we cannot render our own discussions as clear and free from ambiguity as possible, how can we begin to deal with the levels of misunderstanding and confusion which attend contradictory versions of what is nominally the same story? Is there any way of detailing what is gained and what is lost when a story is retold in many different ways? Are there general principles which are likely to apply to all or even most texts, or must we work specifically, one title at a time, in order to explore the kinds of changes taking place in narrative today? There is a substantial trend in children's books toward more retellings and a heavier-duty marketing impetus. Where is this trend leading us, in intellectual, emotional, and cultural terms—and in aesthetic terms also?

How can we find coherent ways of talking about a single title when there are many different versions of that title readily available in the contemporary marketplace? Must every reference to the title carry a bibliographic or "medio"-graphic tag? What should we be teaching children about stories and about story conventions within and across media?

Much adult and specialist conversation about children's literature still revolves around only the "pure" version of the texts. But the strip miners are hard at work. Children are meeting well-known titles in all kinds of inadequate and corrupted versions as well as in more principled translations which nevertheless relate differently to the original and to each other. Furthermore, all of these different versions are available at the same time. The four videos I have discussed all sit side by side in my video rental outlet; two of them are also for sale there. Children may well think of The Secret Garden as a collection of different images, or as a kind of palimpsest, an overlay of images common to several separate versions. A discussion which overlooks the possibility of response involving a kind of mental collective of stories gathered under one title, which ignores the impoverished, the reduced, the altered, and the cheapened editions of stories, which pretends that we can deal only with the best of what has been thought and said on the subject of a secret garden or any other topic, is a discussion which ignores the realities of the current state of children's literature. In its way, such a blinkered approach leads to a more attractive kind of conversation; I would much rather expand on the fascinating implications of equating Burnett's Susan Sowerby with the Virgin Mary than explore ABC's horrible animated version of this story. Both discussions are important, but I believe the debate over contemporary contingencies of adaptation, plurality, and the hard sell is the more urgently necessary.

The other urgent necessity is to get children themselves looking at and talking about the ways different interpreters of a text make decisions about priorities and emphases. It is a discussion to which contemporary children bring considerable expertise; multiple texts surround them. They may indeed have their own ideas about what is canonical; those texts which appear in a number of formats may seem to be the most important, the most worth attending to. We should be exploring what insights they can bring to the debate, and we should be offering them ways to think and talk about what is happening to texts today.

Not all of the versions of The Secret Garden are necessarily inferior or degraded; some are genuine efforts at re-imagining the story, with its particular powers and constraints of plot and imagery. Nevertheless, as people concerned about the role of children's literature in education, we must confront a very important question: Does widespread access to less subtle, more uniform versions of a story render some or many children less open to or less interested in the subtleties of more complex accounts of the same story? To answer that question, we must acknowledge and consider the full range of texts which congregate under specific titles and pay heed to how children are responding to them. The Secret Garden is one example of a wider trend; the questions it raises demand our most thoughtful attention.


1. Philippa Pearce, Tom's Midnight Garden.

2. Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

3. Katherine Paterson, The Bridge to Terabithia.

4. Margaret Mahy, The Changeover: A Supernatural Romance.

5. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.

6. Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

7. A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh.

8. The Rev. W. Awdry, Thomas the Tank Engine.

9. Jill Paton Walsh, "Modified Rapture," p. vi.

10. Barry Diller, "Don't Repackage—Redefine!" p. 83.

11. Burnett, The Secret Garden, pp. 165-166. (All page references are to the 1988 Gollancz edition.)

12. Bennett, "Hype and Heritage," p. 3.

Versions of The Secret Garden


Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden, illus. Shirley Hughes. London: Victor Gollancz, 1988. (Originally published 1911.)

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden. London: Puffin, 1951. (Originally published 1911.)

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden, adapted by John Escott, illus. Gavin Rowe. Newmarket: Brimax Books, Classics for Young Readers, 1994.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden, adapted by James Howe, illus. Nancy Sippel Carpenter. New York: Random House, Bullseye Step into Classics, 1987, 1993.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden, adapted by Devra Newberger Speregen, illus. Richard Lauter. Chicago: Masterwork Books-Kidsbooks, The Young Collector's Illustrated Classics, 1994.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden. Retold by Joyce Faraday. Illus. Gilly Marklew. Woodcuts Jonathan Mercer. Loughborough, Leicestershire: Ladybird Books, Ladybird Classics, 1994.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden Coloring Book, adapted by Brian Doherty, illus. Thea Kliros. New York: Dover, 1993.

The Secret Garden, adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden by Deborah Hautzig, illus. Natalie Carabetta. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, All Aboard Reading, Level 3, Grades 2-3. 1995.

The Secret Garden, novelization by M. J. Carr, based on the screenplay by Caroline Thompson. New York: Scholastic, 1993.

The Secret Garden, adapted by Kathryn Cristaldi, from the screenplay by Caroline Thompson. New York: Scholastic, 1993.

Audio Versions

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. Abridged. Read by Gwen Watford. Music for Pleasure, 1981.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden. Abridged. Performed by Claire Bloom. Dir. Ward Botsford. New York: Caedmon-HarperCollins, 1976.

The Secret Garden, retold by Joyce Faraday. Read by Honor Blackman. Loughborough, Leicestershire: Ladybird Books, Ladybird Classics, 1994.

The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Books and Lyrics by Marsha Norman. Music by Lucy Simon. Compact disc. New York: Columbia Records-Sony Music Entertainment, 1991.

The Secret Garden, adapted for the stage by Alfred Shaughnessy, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Music by Sharon Burgett. Lyrics by Sharon Burgett, Sue Beckwith-Smith, and Diana Matterson. Compact disc. Studio City CA: Varese Sarabande, Spotlight Series. 1994.

Video Versions

The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Dramatized and produced by Dorothea Brooking. BBC Video, 1975.

The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Screenplay by Caroline Thompson. Dir. Agnieszka Holland. Videocassette. Warner Bros., 1993.

The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Teleplay by Libby Hinson. Dir. Dave Edwards. Animation. ABC, 1994. Videocassette. Paramount, 1994.

The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Written for television by Blanche Hanalis. Dir. Alan Grint. Hallmark-Rosemont Productions, 1987.

Multimedia Versions

The Secret Garden, based on the Warner Bros. Film. Interactive Movie Book. CD-ROM. Sound Source Interactive, 1994.

Other References

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan, The Jolly Postman. London: William Heinemann, 1986.

Alien Tales. CD-ROM. Navato, CA: Broderbund, 1994.

Awdry, The Rev. W. Thomas the Tank Engine. London: Little Mammoth, 1990. (Originally published 1946).

Bennett, Catherine, "Hype and Heritage," The Guardian, September 22, 1995, 2-4.

Diller, Barry, "Don't Repackage—Redefine!" Wired, February 1995, 82-84.

Mahy, Margaret, The Changeover: A Supernatural Romance. London: Dent, 1984.

Milne, A. A., Winnie the Pooh. London: Methuen, 1926.

Paterson, Katherine, The Bridge to Terabithia. New York: Crowell, 1977.

Pearce, Philippa, Tom's Midnight Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Potter, Beatrix, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. London: Frederick Warne, 1902.

Walsh, Jill Paton, "Modified Rapture," The Times Educational Supplement, February 19, 1991, vi.

Phyllis Bixler (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Bixler, Phyllis. "Class and Gender." In The Secret Garden, pp. 75-86. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

[In the following essay, Bixler provides an examination of the nature of gender and class identifications in The Secret Garden.]

As described in chapter 3, within the past decade or so there has been considerable critical discussion of the portrayal of gender and class in The Secret Garden. The purpose of this chapter is not to retrace that critical discussion or to repeat relevant interpretations found in chapters 4 through 8. Instead, this chapter highlights aspects of the text that class and gender criticism has often overlooked and places interpretations articulated in earlier chapters within this critical context.

A class analysis of The Secret Garden should include an acknowledgment that with the exception of Mary, Colin, Mr. Craven, Mrs. Craven, and Dr. Craven, all of the characters individualized or developed in the novel belong to the working class—Martha, Dickon, and Susan Sowerby; Mrs. Medlock and Colin's nurse; the head gardener Mr. Roach and Ben Weatherstaff. Moreover, it is with these members of the working class that Mary and Colin are most often shown interacting, and, with the exception of Martha, they remain significant through the entire book. For example, a significant part of chapter 24 is devoted to a conversation in which Dickon tells his mother about the children's attempts to make the manor adults think Colin is still sick, and Mrs. Sowerby says she will send milk and bread to help them with their "play actin'" (24:255).

The Sowerbys' Hardships

The folk wisdom of the Sowerbys and their special concern for the manor children can evoke the complacent stereotype of the rural working class as happy naturals chiefly concerned with the welfare of their betters. This stereotype is encouraged by some of Martha Sowerby's descriptions. For example, she says that her siblings "tumble about on th' moor an' play there all day, an' mother says th' air of the moor fattens 'em. She says she believes they eat the grass same as th' wild ponies do" (4:30). Such statements are more than balanced, however, by Martha's frequent references to the Sowerbys' hardships, especially when compared with conditions in the manor. The Sowerby children stay much out of doors undoubtedly because the family of 14 is crowded into a cottage with only "four little rooms," a stark contrast to the manor with its near "a hundred rooms," most of which are "shut up and locked" (4:52-53). When rain keeps the Sowerby children inside, Martha says, even her "good-tempered" mother "gets fair moith-ered" (2:14).

Unlike the secret garden at Misselthwaite, Dickon's cottage garden is devoted primarily to the vegetables that his family needs, and Martha rarely misses an opportunity to point out the Sowerbys' limited diet. When Mary does not want to eat her breakfast, for example, Martha says that her own her siblings "scarce ever had their stomachs full in their lives" (4:31). Martha also gives Mary a lesson in comparative economics. When the child cannot think of how to spend her weekly allowance of a shilling, Martha points out that this is only a little less than the Sowerbys' weekly cottage rent, adding that "it's like pulling eye-teeth to get it" (9:85). Similarly dramatic comparisons are available to a mathematically inclined reader. Stopping at the Sowerby cottage on his way back to Misselthwaite, Mr. Craven, on impulse, gives the Sowerby children a golden sovereign, this pocket change being three times their father's weekly wages of 16 shillings (27:298, 4:30).

Although the lonely Mary and Colin are understandably infatuated by the idea of a family with 12 children, the economic discrepancy between cottage and manor is not entirely lost on them. Mary seems to recognize that the Sowerbys' buying Mary a skipping rope represents a sacrifice, noting that the "tuppence" came from Martha's wages and uttering an unprecedented "Thank you" (8:73). When Mrs. Sowerby sends food, Mary and Colin realize "that as Mrs. Sowerby had 14 people to provide food for she might not have enough to satisfy two extra appetites every day. So they asked her to let them send some of their shillings to buy things" (24:261). The novel also points out that being a Sowerby means having a limited formal education. Martha and Dickon can print but not write or read script, and Martha's comments about "blacks" indicate that she has derived her vision of the larger world primarily from religious tracts (9:85-86, 4:27).

The Life of a Servant

The Secret Garden avoids glamorizing working-class life also by indicating the personal sacrifices of being a wage earner. Martha gets only one day off each month, when she typically walks the five miles to and from the Sowerby cottage to help her mother (8:69-70). Mrs. Medlock appreciates her "comfortable well paid place as housekeeper," but she knows that "the only way in which she could keep it was to do at once what Mr. Archibald Craven told her to do. She never dared even to ask a question." Thus, she has to miss her niece's wedding because her master told her to go to London to get Mary (2:13).

With such a master, it is not surprising that his servants sometimes take advantage of his absence, living "a luxurious life below stairs, where there was a huge kitchen hung about with shining brass and pewter, and a large servants' hall where there were four or five abundant meals eaten every day, and where a great deal of lively romping went on when Mrs. Medlock was out of the way." This latter event is apparently frequent, for, after her uncle leaves, Mary notices that Mrs. Medlock seems "always to be in her comfortable housekeeper's sitting room down-stairs" (6:54). Thus, although protective of their positions, as when they cater to Colin to avoid being blamed for his relapse, the manor servants are not unduly self-sacrificing or subservient. This relaxation of the manor's class system, moreover, has the important result that Mary is exposed to the first person to set her in the right direction, Martha Sowerby. "If there was a grand missus at Misselthwaite" or a master paying attention to its affairs, Martha says, her dialect and "common" ways would have prevented her from working anywhere but the kitchen. "Mrs. Medlock gave me th' place out o' kindness," she tells Mary (4:26).

Mrs. Medlock

Mrs. Medlock herself provides an interesting case for class analysis. It is likely that her finding a place for Martha was a genuine act "o' kindness," for we learn that Mrs. Medlock and Susan Sowerby went to school together and have a continuing friendship—Dickon says that Mrs. Medlock always stops to visit his mother when she goes to Thwaite (19:198, 15:164). That she has the same "common" origin as the Sowerbys is punctuated by her occasional use of Yorkshire dialect, as when she is thinking, is caught off guard, or thinks no one can hear her. During her first encounter with Mary, for example, Mrs. Medlock thinks to herself, "a more marred-looking young one I never saw in my life," and Burnett emphasizes the dialectal nature of Mrs. Medlock's "thought" by adding, parenthetically, that "marred is a Yorkshire word and means spoiled and pettish" (2:14). Later, standing outside Colin's room and overhearing Mary's attempts to imitate Dickon's speech, Mrs. Medlock expresses her surprise in "rather broad Yorkshire herself because there was no one to hear her" (18:190).

Mrs. Medlock also sometimes uses dialect as a mark of class solidarity. During a good-natured interchange with the stationmaster near the beginning of the novel, she answers his "broad" pronunciation "with a Yorkshire accent herself" (3:19). Moreover, a comment she later makes to Dr. Craven can be interpreted as expressing a certain pride in her class origin. Mrs. Medlock quotes in dialect one of Mrs. Sowerby's wise sayings about child rearing. When Dr. Craven observes that Mrs. Sowerby is "a shrewd woman," Mrs. Medlock, "much pleased," acknowledges that "she's got a way of saying things." Then she adds, "Sometimes I've said to her, 'Eh! Susan, if you was a different woman an' didn't talk such broad Yorkshire I've seen the times when I should have said you was clever'" (19:199).

This last statement admits several interpretations. Taken at face value, it suggests that Mrs. Medlock has internalized the prejudice that class dialect and intelligence are related, that she is being condescending to Mrs. Sowerby and reminding the doctor of her own superiority. Taken ironically, however, Mrs. Medlock is paying Mrs. Sowerby a genuine complement as well as using her as an example to expose the folly of that class prejudice. This latter interpretation is supported by the fact that Mrs. Medlock has just let the doctor know that she shares Mrs. Sower-by's social origin—she had prefaced her quotation of Mrs. Sowerby by volunteering that she had gone to school with her. In addition, her statement about Mrs. Sowerby's broad Yorkshire and cleverness is itself in that dialect, and she gives every evidence of being proud as well as "fond" of Mrs. Sowerby (19:198).

The Garden as Classless Eden

That Mrs. Sowerby as well as Martha and Dickon are "clever" the reader, along with Mary and Colin, has no doubt. And while Martha suffers because of the albeit relaxed social hierarchy within the manor—the footman and upper-housemaids make fun of her dialect (5:48)—class is worn lightly by Dickon and Susan Sowerby. Dickon would "be at home in Buckingham Palace or at the bottom of a coal mine," according to the head gardener, Mr. Roach (20:209). And when Mrs. Sowerby meets Colin for the first time in the garden, Burnett's narrator pointedly observes that she does "not say, 'Mester Colin,' but just 'dear lad'" (26:282). Moreover, Mary and Colin honor the Sowerbys by using their Yorkshire dialect when they work in the garden. Details such as this as well as the children's great admiration for Dickon and Susan Sowerby are probably what led Fred Inglis to see the secret garden community as a classless Eden.1

The secret garden does not erase the class distinctions of those who enter it, however, as can be seen in Mary's and Colin's contrasting initial responses to it. Although reared with ruling-class expectations in colonial India, Mary is now apparently entirely dependent on the charity of her wealthy relatives. Accordingly, when she shares her secret find with Dickon, she says, "I've stolen a garden…. It isn't mine," and despite asserting that she has a right to enjoy it because she is "the only one in the world who wants it to be alive," she feels a need to get Mr. Craven's permission to tend it (10:102-103, 12:121). When he first enters the garden, however, Colin establishes his role as the Misselthwaite heir by declaring "This is my garden" and planting a bush like a king. Colin gives orders to Dickon, Mary, and Ben Weatherstaff and later becomes the organizer of garden activities.

In so doing, according to critics such as Claudia Marquis, Heather Murray, and Jerry Phillips, Colin simply exchanges the tyranny of an invalid for the imperious ego of an estate master—all with the apparent approval of the author.2 Clearly, this is a supportable reading, especially given the adulation of aristocracy and royalty found in some of Burnett's subsequent works, such as The Lost Prince (1915), The Head of the House of Coombe (1922), and Robin (1922). Nevertheless, the implicit attitude toward Colin's egocentric behavior in the last part of The Secret Garden is more complex than it might at first appear.

Playing Rajah

Early in their relationship, after observing Colin's insistence that he can make the servants do what he wants, Mary says that he reminds her of an Indian rajah. And Colin continues to give orders like a rajah, a word used more than 10 times in chapters 19 and 20 depicting Dickon's visit to his room and the children's plans for Colin's first trip to the garden. "In his most Rajah-like manner," for example, Colin gives orders to his nurse about Dickon's impending visit: "You are not to begin playing with the animals in the servants' hall and keep them there. I want them here" (19:202). "Rather like a Rajah," Colin tells his doctor that he will go outside without his nurse (19:195-96). And because the children want to keep their garden visits a secret, Colin orders the head gardener to keep everyone out of the way when Mary and Dickon wheel him outside. During the gardener's command appearance, "the young Rajah" looks "his servitor over," gives his orders, and then waves his hand while pronouncing, "You have my permission to go, Roach" (20:210-11).

The indulgent view of Colin's rajah-like behavior adopted by Burnett's narrator can be interpreted as a sign of the book's tilt toward an upper-class perspective. It is also a child's play-acting, however, that elicits the narrator's smile, a game participated in by Mary, who coaches Colin on what "you say in India when you have finished talking and want people to go" (20:211). In addition, some light humor is apparently intended in this reversal of usual child and adult roles. Just as Mary earlier succeeded with Colin where adults had failed, Colin now orders the adults to let him go outside as they earlier could not convince him to do, a point noted later by the doctor (24:259). Various kinds of role reversal, such as children keeping secrets from adults who typically keep secrets from them, as well as children caring for each other better than they have been cared for by adults, have been cited by critics such as Alison Lurie and Rosemary Threadgold as contributing in a major way to the book's continuing appeal.3

Moreover, while Burnett's narrator finds mild humor in Colin's lordly behavior, a more critical point of view comes from the servants, whose role in Colin's play-acting, of course, is more than just a game. From the beginning, we have been informed that they take a dim view of him. Mary's early voiced opinion that Colin is "a very spoiled boy," for example, had elicited Martha's frank observation that he's "th' worst young nowt [good-for-nothing] as ever was!" (14:143). Later, within the servants' hall, there had been "a great deal of joking about the unpopular young recluse who, as the cook said, 'had found his master [in Mary], and good for him.'" "And the butler, who was a man with a family, had more than once expressed his opinion that the invalid would be all the better 'for a good hiding'" (19:202).

Even after "savage little Mary" has quelled Colin's tantrums (17:179), however, his upstairs behavior does not escape downstairs criticism if the opinions of the head gardener, Mr. Roach, and the head housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, are any indication. Mr. Roach treats with some sarcasm the royal airs of his young master, saying to himself as he answers Colin's summons, "Well, well … what's to do now? His Royal Highness that wasn't to be looked at calling up a man he's never set eyes on." As he leaves Colin's room, Mr. Roach observes to Mrs. Medlock that the boy has "got a fine lordly way with him, hasn't he? You'd think he was a whole Royal Family rolled into one—Prince Consort and all." The disdain in Mrs. Medlock's response is more direct. "Eh!… we've had to let him trample all over every one of us since he had feet and he thinks that's what folks was born for." Because she says "he thinks" rather than "he thought" and because she had earlier acknowledged to Mr. Roach that Colin has already changed for the better, her caustic criticism can be interpreted as referring to Colin's current rajah-like behavior, as just displayed to Mr. Roach (20:208-209, 211).

Ben Weatherstaff

Being so ready to repeat "Yes, sir!" and to obey the boy's orders, Ben Weatherstaff would seem to be an exception to the irreverent attitude most of Misselth-waite's servants adopt toward Colin. This difference results in large part because Ben has a more personal interest in the boy, who resembles his mother, someone the gardener had much loved. Wanting to be sure that the recovering invalid does not hurt himself, Ben shows his "shrewd understanding" by finding a way to remain in the garden (22:232). Perceiving the children's dismay that an adult has discovered their secret, he assures a continuing welcome by joining their games. As Sara Crewe had imagined herself a princess, Colin finds that being wheeled around the garden is like "being taken in state round the country of a magic king and queen [which could be interpreted as Dickon and Mary] and shown all the mysterious riches it contained" (21:219). Later Ben Weatherstaff, who had been watching over the wall, suggests that Colin plant a rose bush "same as th' king does when he goes to a new place" (22:235). In the following scenes Ben pretends to be a saluting sailor and a parishioner in Colin's "church" (23:242-44, 247-48).

In these scenes Weatherstaff may seem a rustic buffoon, offering Jem Fettleworth and her "drunken brute" of a husband as a case for Colin's "sinetifik 'speriment" in the magic power of language and falling asleep during Colin's chanting after what Ben calls the boy's "sermon" (23:244-45, 248). Ben's comments and behavior, however, can also be interpreted as a commentary on Colin's pomposity, perhaps deliberate on Ben's part. For example, when Colin says how much he likes to lecture, Ben responds, "Th' best thing about lecturin'… is that a chap can get up an' say aught he pleases an' no other chap can answer him back. I wouldn't be agin' lecturin' a bit mysel' sometimes" (26:276).

Colin Unmasked

This comment comes at the beginning of the book's penultimate chapter, in which Colin finally realizes he is well and Mrs. Sowerby enters the garden. In this chapter the closest Colin gets to his earlier rajah game is to hold out his hand to Mrs. Sowerby with a "flushed royal shyness" (26:282). Moreover, while he acknowledges his own role in his recovery by saying that the "Magic works best when you work yourself," he mainly wants to be thankful to that power, which he acknowledges to be greater than himself (26:277). In this chapter Colin is well enough to give up his mask of self-importance and allow others to see him as he really is, a still insecure and needy child. He asks Mrs. Sowerby's assurance that his resemblance to his mother will make his father like him, and he expresses the wish that she could be his mother "as well as Dickon's" (26:282, 286). In short, it is possible to interpret this penultimate chapter as a suggestion that, like Mary before him, Colin is becoming less egocentric and learning to have his vision less distorted by class.

Mary's Change

The apparently unqualified assent given Colin's egocentrism in the last part of the book is often noted also by gender critics of The Secret Garden, such as Elizabeth Lennox Keyser and Lissa Paul as well as Marquis and Murray.4 Such critics typically lament also that during the last third of the book a less assertive Mary gradually recedes into the background. It is certainly true that her last action is losing a race to Colin as the children exit the garden and that she is almost forgotten in the subsequent pages portraying the reunion between "Master Colin" and "the Master of Misselthwaite" (27:302-306). Mary does not, however, lose all of her spirit in the last third of the book. For example, she "obstinately" protests Ben Weatherstaff's "outraged" "harangue" in which he blames her for bringing Colin into the garden and thus endangering his health (21:224-25). Although she has become Colin's staunch advocate and admirer, she is still willing to chide him; she shares with him her opinion that he is "a rude little brute," telling him that she would never have been polite to him for 10 years as his doctor has been (23:237-38). She also continues to be an initiator of action, suggesting and leading Colin's first exploration of the many-roomed manor.

Moreover, Mary's own change is not ignored in the chapters focusing primarily on Colin's. After he notices the portrait of "the plain little girl" in the family gallery, Colin tells Mary, "She looks rather like you, Mary—not as you look now but as you looked when you came here. Now you are a great deal fatter and better looking" (25:272-73). Archibald Craven's absorption with his son apparently allows him to take no notice of Mary, but in the previous chapter Susan Sowerby had not been so negligent. After Ben Weatherstaff asks her to give close examination to Colin's strong legs, Mrs. Sowerby volunteers a compliment about Mary's healthy beauty just as had Mrs. Medlock somewhat earlier after Dr. Craven had declared Colin "a new creature" (26:283, 24:265).

The fact that Mrs. Sowerby and Mrs. Medlock focus primarily on Mary's beauty might bother some readers who object that The Secret Garden ultimately reinforces conventional gender roles, an objection supported by a comparison of Colin's and Mary's activities in the secret garden. Colin is soon setting up experiments and organizing activities he expects the others to join; he makes the garden his training ground for future careers as athlete, scientist, and lecturer. Mary is more nurturant and cooperative. Weeding, planting, and watching the garden grow are sufficiently rewarding activities; she invites Dickon to join her the first time she meets him and later plans and enjoys bringing Colin in. We hear nothing of Mary's future plans, the garden apparently serving as a laboratory for homemaking and parenting skills.

Female Nurturance

The Secret Garden does not argue that the ability to be nurturant is an inborn female trait. Mary learns from Dickon how to care for sprouting plants and baby animals; Ben Weatherstaff often behaves like a good parent while Mrs. Medlock has little interest in children; and Archibald Craven's willingness to become nurturant is suggested to be the source of his own salvation. Nevertheless, the cooperative chain of nurturance that brings about the healing of Colin and his father—Martha, Ben, the robin, Mary, Mrs. Sowerby, and Colin's dead mother—is primarily female. At the heart of the book lies the secret garden itself as a symbol of female generativity.

Readers' responses to Burnett's portrayal of gender are thus likely to depend in large part on their attitude toward the claim that cooperation and nurturance are salutary features of female identity, a claim about which feminists are often divided. According to Marquis, for example, The Secret Garden "clearly promotes a conception of motherhood as power of a sort: the power of fecundity, of giving; ostensibly it honors the mother, but never observes that this is actually a cultural procedure by which women are subordinated and consumed"; "Burnett was no more able to construct a literary system that does other than grant privileged status to the male then Freud was in his theorising of psychoanalysis."5 Other critics have found in its portrayal of female generativity and nurturance a source of the book's continuing appeal. For Elizabeth Francis, Burnett's portrayal of the secret garden as "maternal space" breaks through the "surface of her plot [where] male authority appears to replace female."6 Adrian Gunther develops this argument and asserts that the book recasts the Edenic myth—"it is Adam/Archibald who commits the sin that causes the expulsion from the garden," while "Lilias or Eve is the real power behind the garden."7 After a discussion of how the garden and manor come to represent the still-nurturant Lilias herself, I have elsewhere argued that "at some level, the reader, along with Mary, Colin, and finally even Archibald Craven, reenacts the usually repressed desire to explore the secret mysteries of the mother's body as well as her soul."8

Jerry Phillips has called The Secret Garden "a richly confused text" characterized by "ideological dissonance."9 Critics who excavate and describe this dissonance often explain the book's continuing status as a classic by observing that what they recall from their childhood reading is primarily the first part of the book, Mary's discovery of the garden and exploration of the manor. Often added is a version of the following conjecture, here articulated by U. C. Knoepflmacher: "By successfully screening out discordancies that an adult reader cannot as easily dismiss, the child reader can always be more selective."10 Clearly there is much to be said for this conjecture, but anyone who reads widely in the criticism of a text as complex as The Secret Garden is likely to discover that, having their own ideologies and personal interests, adult readers can be selective, too.


1. Inglis, The Promise of Happiness, 112.

2. Marquis, "The Power of Speech"; Murray, "The Organ(ic)ized World"; Phillips, "The Mem Sahib, the Worthy, the Rajah and His Minions."

3. Lurie, "Happy Endings; Threadgold, "An Appreciation of Frances Hodgson Burnett as a Novelist for Children."

4. Keyser, "'Quite Contrary'"; Paul, "Enigma Variations."

5. Marquis, "The Power of Speech," 184.

6. Francis, "Feminist Versions of Pastoral," 9.

7. Gunther, "The Secret Garden Revisited," 166-67.

8. Bixler, "Gardens, Houses, and Nurturant Power," 223.

9. Phillips, "The Mem Sahib, the Worthy, the Rajah and His Minions," 187.

10. Knoepflmacher, "Little Girls without Their Curls," 31.

Christine Wilkie (essay date June 1997)

SOURCE: Wilkie, Christine. "Digging Up The Secret Garden: Noble Innocents or Little Savages?" Children's Literature in Education 28, no. 2 (June 1997): 73-83.

[In the following essay, Wilkie offers a reading of The Secret Garden that highlights alternative, lesser-studied aspects of the story, including elements of primitivism and paganism.]

Written just after the turn of the century, The Secret Garden 1 is a pivotal work that has always attracted a great deal of critical attention, not least recently because of a serialized TV adaptation, a prestigious film in 1993, and also in 1993 a video reissue of the 1949 film. It is the site of competing and varied legacies of Romanticism relating to issues of sexuality and liberation. The work has been read as a paean to nature in which a child is brought into healing and restorative relationships, and we have only to scan the titles of essays about it to see how this has been a dominant reading: "Secrets and Healing Magic in The Secret Garden ";2 "Gardens, Houses and Nurturant Power in The Secret Garden ";3 "Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden : The Organ(-ic)ized World."4 Such readings might be summed up in the words of Gwyneth Evans when she describes The Secret Garden as one among many children's fictions about "gardens in which children work with nature, creating beauty through growing things and at the same time experiencing spiritual and emotional growth,"5 or in the words of Judith Plotz, when she quotes the popular cliches used to describe the work as "a charming, escapist and safely canonical book for girls and nostalgic women."6 Margaret Mackey's comprehensive essay on the incidence of secret garden adaptations (which is symptomatic of its fascination) is predicated on the assumption that it belongs to this tradition.7

These kinds of critical readings have played up the nurturing, pastoral qualities of Romanticism, emphasizing Bildungsroman characteristics of growth and change much favored by children's literature criticism, to establish The Secret Garden as a paradigmatic text in the canon of children's literature's unceasing evocation of the Romantic child. This spectre now stalks a baffling range of literary landscapes in, for example, the "gardens" of New York's Central Park in Felice Holman's Slake's Limbo,8 the streets of wartorn London in Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mr. Tom,9 and the Wongadilla farmstead of Patricia Wrightson's Australian outback in The Nargun and the Stars.10

Judith Plotz has come closest to aligning The Secret Garden with Romanticism's less talked-about darker nature (though she does not make the connection explicit). She identifies it as a forerunner of Lady Chatterley's Lover in its configuration of characters, in individual characters themselves, and in the dominant themes.11 She finds parallels in the triadic relationships central to the two texts, by tracing the associations between Mary Lennox and Connie Chatterley, between Colin Craven and Clifford Chatterley, and between Dickon Sowerby and Oliver Mellors. She cites them as examples of the platonic hierarchy of mind/spirit/passion, embedded in themes of rebirth: what she calls the movement out of death as a given, into a vision of life's being coaxed out of the body of death.

However, I shall propose that The Secret Garden has potential for more radical readings than those cited above, which have situated it in narrowly conceived ideas of Romanticism appropriated from the early works of Wordsworth. This was a beneficent, asexual, innocent interpretation of nature bedded in Rousseauism and the nineteenth-century cult of the child as the noble savage. Radical readings of the kind I have in mind would reposition the work in Darwinism, in the philosophies of Christian Science, the Occult, and in the turn-of-the-century Neo-Paganism with which Grahame struggled so ineffectually to come to terms. They will address the pagan in nature that was the root of high Romanticism in the works of Coleridge and Shelley. Nineteenth-century philosophies such as these are deeply at odds with Christianized versions of "mother" nature because they celebrate the lascivious, amoral appetites of pre-Christianism, archaic ritualism, and the pagan culture of the female in the cult of the "Great Mother."

I shall argue that The Secret Garden embodies a transition from the Dionysian to the Apollonian by demonstrating that the garden's wild state, as well as the state of unreconstructed Colin and Mary, embodies this cluster of nineteenth-century ideas that extend the Wordsworthian, Rousseauist terms of previous commentators. Western classic style has seen the triumph of Apollonian male rationalism over the Dionysian female cult of nature. I shall hope to demonstrate that the story of The Secret Garden recapitulates these same historical movements: "from nature to society, from chaos to order, from emotion to reason, from female to male."12The Secret Garden is the story of transition from the world of Dionysus to the world of Apollo. Dionysus is the orgiastic God of fruitfulness and vegetation. His is the world of nature unbounded, of insatiable appetites, of feasting and drinking. It is, in other words, an aspect of the world of primitivism (which I shall discuss in more detail below) that we find represented in the secret garden's wild state and tempestuous children. On the other hand, Apollo's world is one of rationalism, politics, science, and psychology: it is everything to which Colin will aspire and, in this connection, I shall offer an alternative reading for the book's concluding chapters that have been negatively dismissed by recent feminist readings.

In this paper I shall also examine the series of structural oppositions in the novel that exemplify these polarities in primitive thought. And I shall set the child characters, Mary Lennox, Dickon and Colin Graven, in one strain of Western thought that connects directly with the cult of the child in primitivism, popularized in the nineteenth century, of a sentimentalized, innocent child, in the strain of the early Romantics,13 but with traces as far back as Juvenal. In it the child is perceived as an image of prelapsarian Adam and thus an exemplar of primitivist thought.14

In discussing the roots and origins of primitivism, Hayden White tells us that, "Primitivism sets the savage, both past and present, over and against civilised man as the model of the ideal."15 In The Secret Garden both Mary and Colin are described as "savage" (pp. 155-156). Between them, in this early part of the story, they combine the manifestations of archaic (High Romantic) concepts of wildness situated in untamed desire, impetuousness, and animality. But, according to Bernheimer, there are two images of wildness: a benign imagery of wildness that has been traced back to classical archetypes, and a malignant imagery that goes back to biblical times.16 The two sets of images apparently became fused (and confused) during the High Middle Ages, thereby creating the anomalous conception of the state of wildness of a Wild Man that is both good and evil. If therefore we include Dickon, as the archetypal "Noble Savage," we have in the combination of these three characters, Mary, Colin, and Dickon, an archetypal motif that represents both aspects of the "Wild Man": the benign and the savage.17

The benign image of wildness is captured in Book One of "The Prelude," where Wordsworth describes his boyhood self as a "naked savage" playing in the sunshine and indulging in pastoral pleasures. But, as Paglia says, because Wordsworth refused to acknowledge the sex or cruelty in nature, his child of nature is an innocent, "noble savage" borrowed from Rousseau (Paglia, p. 300). He lacks the evil quality of savagery associated with pre-Christian, pagan times to which White and Bernheimer refer. I have already suggested that these pre-Christian conceptions of wildness are fused in the early characters of Mary and Colin: Colin's so-called inherited, so-called deformity can be read as a manifestation of spiritual impoverishment. To realize his own innate ambitions, and his historical destiny, he must transcend his state of Dionysian wildness and become an Apollonian beautiful boy. To this end he must achieve intellectual as well as physical beauty to take his place in the Apollonian line of civilization and science by transforming his supposedly crippled body.

Here, it is interesting to note that an equally coherent subtextual reading can be derived from the founding principles of Christian Science (to which sect Burnett belonged), which promotes the triumph of Spirit (Mind) over material laws. The seminal text of its founder member, Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health, proposes "Disease is mental not material…. Mortals think sickly thoughts and become sick. The so-called laws of matter, and of medical science, have never made mortals whole…. Truth casts out evil and heals the sick."18 So, Burnett sets Mary Lennox against Colin's doctor as an inept purveyor of medical science, to recognize, and eventually to cure, Colin's mind-induced sickness: "Half that ails you is hysterics and temper" [shouted Mary]…. You didn't feel a lump!… If you did it was only a hysterical lump. Hysterics makes lumps. There's nothing the matter with your horrid back—nothing but hysterics!" (p. 156). Elsewhere in the Eddy text we read that the "mythology of pagan Rome has yielded to the mere spiritual idea of deity, so will our material theories yield to spiritual ideas" (p. 339). This is Burnett's celebration of the theosophy of spirit: Mind (which, in her creed, is synonymous with spirit) will triumph over body through unity with material laws of science.

When we first meet Mary she is wild, passionate, bewildered, and hostile; and in primitivist thought, her physical attributes of sallowness, thinness, and plainness are themselves evidence of her interiorized state of wildness. Hayden White tells us that another component of the Wild Man Myth is linked to language and linguistic confusion: "Cursedness or wildness is identified with the wandering life and linguistic confusion … to be wild is to be incoherent or mute; deceptive, oppressive and destructive; sinful and accursed; and, finally a monster, one whose physical attributes are in themselves evidence of one's evil nature" (White, p. 162). Mary is rootless: She comes from an unknown, far-off land, the unknown Other of India (the wilderness, the desert). Initially she is oppressive and destructive: In the opening pages she has been described as something akin to a monster ("the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen" [p. 7]), and she is linguistically confused when confronted with the Babel of Yorkshire dialect.

The garden, too, is an ambiguous symbol: The tensions it encompasses give The Secret Garden much of its fascination. It is both alfresco and enclosed. It is private, but it is also a place to meet strangers. The open air, the natural and vegetative, the wild: These are recurrently symbolic in many cultures. By the end of the nineteenth century in British bourgeois culture, nature was still seen as largely beneficent, recuperative, Edenic, and pleasurable. The early Romantic movement, superficially, at least, had rescued nature and landscape from its fearsome and aversive barbarian connotations of the Enlightenment. The wild moors and mountains had been given positive connotations in the wake of the Romantics' investing recuperative, regenerative qualities in Lake District mountains and the Swiss Alps. So, although the Brontës continued to invest the moors with menacing Enlightenment connotations, these came to be less written about than pastures and gardens.19 Catherine Earnshaw ran off to the moors, but Tennyson's Maud was invited into the garden. Alice had her adventures in a surrealized Oxford College Garden, Mole found his sybaritic meaning of life on the well-managed banks of the upper Thames, and Peter Rabbit was traumatized in a well-managed cottage garden. The Wild could be tamed and reproduced in gardens that were fashionably natural.

In the United States, where Frances Hodgson Burnett spent most of her adult life, the wilderness was still an imaginative magnet and physically available to initiate Children on the Oregon Trail, or children in The Little House on the Prairie. One element of the pastoral syndrome more prominent in white North American culture than in English is the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, of Isaiah's idyllic prophecy that, "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11,6) (my emphasis), memorably represented in a series of images by the American artist Edward Hicks.20

The vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, a powerful instance of a lighter side of Romantic and post-Romantic conviction of the beneficence of nature, has a double function. It is a vision of Eden before human beings' relationship with nature was spoiled by the Fall, which drove them from the idle pleasures of gathering to the painful industry of hunting and agriculture. It is also a prophecy of a redeemed world in which pleasure, leisure, innocence, and peace between species would be restored. Being the Peaceable Kingdom is one aspect of the secret garden and it depicts a branch of primitivism that first appeared in the fourteenth century and was later adopted by Rousseau in his image of the Noble Savage. The Peaceable Kingdom is "Arcadian, a peaceful place where the lion lies down with the lamb … innocently and frivolously; it is the world of the enclosed garden, the world of the picnic … this is the gentle savage of Spenser's Faerie Queen" (White, p. 172). Dickon brings wild creatures into the garden and they lose their savage natures. This is just one of many instances throughout the book where Frances Hodgson Burnett blends images of the popular Christian, primitivist, and pagan traditions to carry multiple meanings. She does it again in her use of mother images, two dead and one living. These multifaceted images exist most especially in the character of "mother" Susan Sowerby, whose eventual meeting with Mary in the garden at a climactic moment in the narrative suggests at once the great Nature Goddess of paganism and the Virgin Mother of Christianity.

The secret garden is unquestionably a therapeutic and regenerative site. But, more than this, it is a site of oppositional paradoxes. Within it Rousseauist pleasures flourish alongside the menacing presence of the pagan, while Arcadian pressures reinforce religious beliefs in the innocence and virtue of what is natural and Edenic; so, there is nostalgic longing for Christian innocence and goodness with an emphasis on the seasons, regeneration, and good health that sits side by side with ancient fertility rite, incantation, and the occult. And newer hybrids of older weeds grow there too as late Victorian culture begins to fertilize scientific invention, and the cult of antinature in industrialism overtakes nature.21

In their very secret garden, at the orgiastic high point of their ménage à trois, Mary and Colin, with Dickon as the resident figure of Pan ("animal charmer, and boy charmer" [p. 206]), sit down with the creatures—lamb, fox, raven, and rabbit—in a mystic "white magic" circle that carries all the characteristics of pagan ritual. And they make ritualistic chant. Here, in this fertile womb of enclosure, they feast off the fruits of Dickon's moorside kitchen-garden and "mother's" kitchen, and grow fat into good health.

In his essay The Cult of Childhood, George Boas describes two strands of primitivism: the chronological and the cultural which, respectively, distinguish the idea of primitivism as an ontological condition from the idea of primitivism as a historical stage of cultural development.22 In chronological primitivism, the history of the race is contained in the life cycle of the individual and in this context the child is regarded as the obvious first stage of any individual's biography. In Greek and Roman traditions the degeneration of Creation was confronted by the call for a return to the primitive condition of the race; a return to the childhood of the race (Boas, p. 11). This longing for a lost innocence, which developed almost simultaneously with growth in the natural sciences and the fear of reason, gave new impetus to the cult of childhood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Boas, p. 21). The other strand of primitivism, cultural primitivism, was invested in the exemplars of the woman, the child, and the rural folk, as the repositories of intuitive wisdom (Boas, p. 12). And in The Secret Garden, the women (both dead and alive); the children (both "wick" [a Yorkshire dialect word used by Dickon, meaning alive] and dying) and the folksy, rural Dickon, comprise a significant triad of characters in the frame of primitive thought.

Mary Lennox is the archetypal child of the race insofar as she manifests both the pagan and benign traits of primitivism. When we first meet her, she is the unarrested savage, but in the course of the novel she achieves a degree of nobility. To this extent, she aligns herself, narrotologically, with Dickon, the archetypally benign primitive child who, in the garden, now presents himself as exemplar of that most famous of Noble Savages, Rousseau's Émile. Dickon is the child of prelapsarian primitivism; he represents a return to the Golden Age, the Age of Kronos, the replica of Adam before the Fall. Like Émile and Dickon, Mary Lennox is innocent of the arts and sciences, unspoiled by the artifices of civilization; but she is unlike them because, in her transformed state, she retains a residual Dionysianism and is in the strain of High Romanticism by her being libidinal, erotic, and impulsive. She will not be hidebound by book learning during her period of latency at Misslethwaite Manor because the Garden and Nature will be her teacher. The garden is the spatial agency for her psychic and bodily transformation, the site where she moves from deforming secularism and the "civilizing" influences of Misslethwaite Manor, which have kept her savage, to the libidinal and erotic freedom the garden offers in its wild state.

The narrative events take place between the house and garden, which respectively carry all the negative and positive connotations embedded in primitive thought: the artifice of Civilization versus the Wild. The house is deformingly constricting, deathinducing, and cavernous, and it embodies a superfluity of laws, orderliness, and government. It is hierarchical and class-ridden and its dark corridors harbor dark thoughts and corruption and decay. Inside the house the memory of Colin's dead mother is petrified in an artist's picture behind a rose-colored silk curtain (p. 120). But by contrast, outside the house, she has a garden memorial of overgrown but tenaciously live roses.

The garden is enclosed, but in contrast to the house it is liberating, wild, and health-inducing and egalitarian. It is also anarchic, Dionysian, and is the scene of Mary's sexual awakening. The garden is first announced to her by an unknown boy of strange speech from the wild moors, and recalls the Christian icon of the closed garden (hortus conclusus) familiarly depicted in paintings of The Annunciation. In it, another Mary, another virgin, had a sort of sexual initiation by the Angel—another annunciating male of alien background and strange speech. The hortus conclusus is often featured with a closed door whose unlocking with a key signifies the loss of virginity; also with a trellis of roses and, significantly, roses are the most abundant flora inside the secret garden.

We might be forgiven for overlooking indicators of erotic Dionysianism in The Secret Garden because they have been shrouded in Christian mysticism. Paglia talks about Christianity's inability to tolerate the pagan integration of sex, cruelty, and divinity: "It thrust chthonian nature into the nether realm, to be infested by medieval witches. Daemonism became demonism, a conspiracy against God. Love, tenderness, pity became the new virtues" (Paglia, p. 138). In this connection, it is neither farfetched nor prurient to find sexual connotations in the imagery and language of The Secret Garden, nor in its chapter headings and, indeed, in its title; the text is littered with references to incidences of nesting and with images and the language of penetration. The red-breasted robin, which is an icon and symbol of fertility and regeneration in pagan ritual, precedes every textual mention or experience of the garden and positively "courts" Mary in explicitly sexual gestures: We learn of "stirred blood" and "newly awakened appetite." Dickon's eyes are likened to the wolf's eyes from the most erotic scene of the great seduction tale, Red Riding Hood (p. 185). But most especially there is eroticism in the language that describes Mary's excited entry into the garden. When she first encounters the garden, and following her first meetings with Dickon and with Colin, we are told that, "Mary's heart began to thump and her hands to shake" (p. 72 passim). In a very telling passage, when Mary and Colin are alone in Colin's bedroom, she recounts to him Dickon's version of fecund proliferations in the wild moors; speaking of eggs and nests, "making holes and burrowing," "bees and butterflies"; and we read that Colin "lay back on his cushion and was still, as if he were thinking. And there was quite a long silence. Perhaps [the narrative voice intrudes] they were both of them thinking strange things children do not usually think of" (p. 131). In this parallel scene, in the 1993 film, the children sleep together on the bed until dawn.

But if Mary Lennox is the type of the primitive child of the race, Colin becomes a figure of the progress of the race and the march of science. Unlike Mary, whose teacher has been nature, Colin has acquired all his experience and scientific knowledge from book learning. "When I grow up (he announces after the magic of the garden has made him stand) I am going to make great scientific discoveries…. 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" (p. 206). Colin, in his Apollonian triumph, will control the magic, control nature, tame it, use it, explain it. But this is not the white rabbit magic symbolized in Dickon's selection of garden creatures because the tradition of Christian Science would replace the "magic" with spirit, in which case Colin's science will be explained as the triumph of mind over matter. "'What is it? What is it?' It's something. It can't be nothing! I don't know its name, so I call it Magic … Magic in this garden has made me stand up and I know I am going to live to be a man" (p. 207). The Spirit (Magic) of the garden will cure even the skeptical Ben Weatherstaff of what the doctors have called his "rheumatics." "'That was the wrong Magic,' he [Colin] said. 'You will get better'" (p. 211).

The work has been criticized for what appears to be an explicitly antifeminist narrative shift from an early focus on Mary to a concluding and exclusive focus on Colin,23 and there have been some awkward late twentieth-century attempts to redress the balance in media adaptations. But in the reading I offer it could not have been otherwise, because the shift from Mary to Colin represents a nineteenth-century belief in the logical outcome and inevitable progress of the race: survival of the fittest, and the supercession of nature by science, that also might carry an ambivalent reading as the Principles of Christian Science. Colin, now healed and beautiful, is a figure of Apollo but, equally, he might be the High Priest ("Colin really looked quite beautiful, Mary thought. He held his head high as if he felt like a sort of priest," p. 210). Colin presents himself in the concluding chapter as everything that is antithetical to nature and as the antitype to the Noble Savage. He is the figure of Western science and logic; everything institutional ("the Athlete, the Lecturer, the Scientific Discoverer," p. 255); he is hailed in the concluding paragraph as "the Master of Misslethwaite." He stands in opposition to everything Dickon has represented. Dickon, as the child of nature, has been the only site of constancy in this book acting as a narrative agent, almost, for the transition of Mary and Colin. Dickon and the garden, which has been their alma mater, have served their purpose and, with no further narrative function, they disappear from view. When we last view the garden, through the eyes of Archibald Craven, it is described as "a wilderness" with moribund connotations contained in its late autumn state of "violet," "purple," and "sheaves of late lilies" (p. 255). Mary has gone native by aligning herself with Dickon and Ben Weatherstaff in their distinctively noble brand of nature and the alien tongue; she speaks their language: "Aye it is a graidly one" (p. 186) and "Aye that we mun" (p. 189). She drops her consonants and utters "thees" and "thous" of the Yorkshire dialect. There is no place for Dickon's and the garden's noble nature in Colin's Apollonian world of artifice and experimentation; and no place, either, for Mary, much tamed, but who has drunk the perennially potent cup of Dionysian savagery. They must be suppressed in the name of progress.


1. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.

2. Gillian Adams, "Secrets and Healing Magic in The Secret Garden."

3. Phyllis Bixler, "Gardens, Houses and Nurturant Power in The Secret Garden."

4. Heather Murray, "Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden: The Organ(ic)ized World."

5. Gwyneth Evans, "The Girl in the Garden: Variations on a Feminine Pastoral" p. 20.

6. Judith Plotz, "Secret Garden II: or Lady Chatterley's Lover as Palimpsest," p. 15.

7. Margaret Mackey, "Strip Mines in the Garden: Old Stories, New Formats, and the Challenge of Change."

8. Felice Holman, Slake's Limbo.

9. Michelle Magorian, Goodnight Mr. Tom.

10. Patricia Wrightson, The Nargun and the Stars.

11. Judith Plotz, "Secret Garden II: or Lady Chatterley's Lover as Palimpsest."

12. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Neferti to Emily Dickinson, p. 100.

13. Robert Pattison, The Child Figure in English Literature, pp. 47-75.

14. George Boas, The Cult of Childhood, p. 8.

15. Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, p. 170.

16. Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages, p. 120.

17. Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse, p. 176.

18. Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, pp. 270-5.

19. The Secret Garden's similarities to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre are well documented in Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1847–1924. Ann Thwaite, p. 220.

20. John Silkin, "Edward Hicks (1780–1894) The Peaceable Kingdom," pp. 36-40.

21. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, pp. 182-96, and passim.

22. George Boas, The Cult of Childhood, p. 11.

23. See, for example, Elizabeth Lennox Keyser's "'Quite Contrary'; Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden"; Lissa Paul's "Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children's Literature"; and Phyllis Bixler, "Gardens, Houses and Nurturant Power in The Secret Garden."


Adams, Gillian, "Secrets and Healing Magic in The Secret Garden." In Triumphs of the Spirit in Children's Literature. Francelia Butler and Richard Rortert, eds. Hamdon: CT Library Professional Publications, 1986, pp. 42-54.

Bernheimer, R., Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment, land Demonology. New York: Octagon Books, 1970.

Bixler, Phyllis, Frances Hodgson Burnett. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Bixler, Phyllis, "Gardens, Houses and Nurturant Power in The Secret Garden." In Romanticism and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, James Holt McGavran, ed. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Boas, George, The Cult of Childhood. London: The Warburg Institute, University of London, 1966.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden. London: Puffin, 1992 (originally published, 1911).

Eddy, Mary Baker, Science and Health. Boston, MA: First Church of Christ Scientists, 1971 (originally published, 1875).

Evans, Gwyneth, "The Girl in the Garden: Variations on a Feminine Pastoral," Children's Literature Association Quarterly 1984, 19.1 (Spring), 20-4.

Holman, Felice, Slake's Limbo. London: Nelson, 1992.

Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox, "'Quite Contrary': Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden," Children's Literature 1983, 11, 1-15.

Mackey, Margaret, "Strip Mines in the Garden: Old Stories, New Formats, and the Challenge of Change," Children's Literature in Education 1996, 27.1, 3-21.

Magorian, Michelle, Goodnight Mr. Tom. London: Longman, 1988.

Murray, Heather, "Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden: The Organ(ic)ized World." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best of Children's Literature, Perry Nodelman et al., eds., vol 1. West Lafayette: Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 1985.

Paglia, Camille, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Pattison, Robert, The Child Figure in English Literature. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Paul, Lissa, "Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children's Literature." In Children's Literature: The Development of Criticism. Peter Hunt ed. London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 148-57.

Plotz, Judith, "Secret Garden II: or Lady Chatterley's Lover as Palimpsest." Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 1994, Spring 19.1, 15-19.

Silkin, John, "Edward Hicks (1780–1894) The Peaceable Kingdom" Stand, March, 1978, 19.2, 36-40.

Thwaite, Ann, Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974.

White, Hayden, Tropics of Disclosure: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City. London: The Hogarth Press, 1993.

Wrightson, Patricia, The Nargun and the Stars. London: Viking Penguin, 1975 (originally published 1973).

Erica Bauermeister and Holly Smith (review date 1997)

SOURCE: Bauermeister, Erica, and Holly Smith. Review of The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14, pp. 173-74. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1997.

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Additional coverage of Burnett's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 24; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 108, 136; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 42, 141; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vols. 13, 14; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vol. 100; Twayne's English Authors; Writers for Children; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.



Bixler, Phyllis. "Fairy Stories for Children and Adults: The Secret Garden and Related Essays." In Frances Hodgson Burnett, pp. 94-102. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

A bio-critical overview of Burnett's writing career which offers an introduction to The Secret Garden.

Davies, Máire Messenger. "'A Bit of Earth': Sexuality and the Representation of Childhood in Text and Screen Versions of The Secret Garden." Velvet Light Trap 48 (fall 2001): 48-58.

Compares the divergences between the screen and literary versions of The Secret Garden, particularly with regards to their treatment of sexuality.

Gunther, Adrian. "The Secret Garden Revisited." Children's Literature in Education 25, no. 3 (September 1994): 159-68.

Asserts that Burnett's narrative in The Secret Garden does not ultimately betray Mary in favor of Colin.

Lundin, Anne. "Secret Gardens: The Literature of Childhood." Childhood Education 67, no. 4 (summer 1991): 215-17.

Offers a personal assessment of The Secret Garden and the influence of childhood stories on writers.

Moran, Mary Jeannette. "Nancy's Ancestors: The Mystery of Imaginative Female Power in The Secret Garden and A Little Princess." In Mystery in Children's Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural, edited by Adrienne E. Gavin and Christopher Routledge, pp. 32-45. London, England: Palgrave, 2001.

Spotlights the subtle uses of feminine power in two of Burnett's best-known novels for children, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess.

Nikolajeva, Maria. "From Collective Character to Inter-subjectivity: A More Complex Case of Intersubjectivity: The Secret Garden." In The Rhetoric of Character in Children's Literature, pp. 100-04. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.

Studies whether The Secret Garden truly favors Colin as its central protagonist towards the end of the novel.

Parsons, Linda T. "'Otherways' into the Garden: Re-Visioning the Feminine in The Secret Garden." Children's Literature in Education 33, no. 4 (December 2002): 247-68.

Envisions The Secret Garden as a quest tale that subtly highlights female strength in a patriarchal society.

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