“So long as I know what’s expected of me, I can manage.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett
This review contains spoilers.
You know, sometimes it astonishes me, the kind of thing we give to children to read.
Actually: no, it doesn’t, because there is no site of ideological warfare more violent than the education of the next generation. As a product of its time, it’s quite easy to see why The Secret Garden would have been thought an ideal children’s story. And that’s the problem.
Mary Lennox, brought up in colonial India and orphaned by a cholera epidemic which kills her entire household, is shipped back to England, to live with her sole remaining relative, Archibald Craven, in the rambling Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. Initially grumpy, bad-tempered and generally spoiled, her discovery of a secret rose garden locked up by Mr Craven after the death of his wife ten years ago begins to bring her out of herself, the good old Yorkshire air making her a healthier and happier child.
The first thing to notice about this narrative is that it’s a heavily, overtly colonialist one. Growing up in India has made Mary spoiled and unhealthy; exposure to the bracing airs of England, to Nature and a Yorkshire accent, is pretty much literally all that is needed to break those habits. Notice how England is coded as better, objectively better, than India for bringing up children. Notice how the narrative subtly suggests that India does not, in fact, have any Nature to speak of and only English Nature works to make children grow up healthily and productively. And, of course, if you have better children you have better people. So The Secret Garden codes England and Englishness as objectively, automatically superior to India and Indianness.
The second thing, which is sort of related to the first thing, is that, despite its female protagonist, The Secret Garden is functionally only interested in The Patriarchy, in the continuation of the patriarchal order.
Two things are hidden in Misselthwaite Manor, the archetypal English house, seat of hereditary patriarchy: the garden, clearly coded as feminine through its associations with the deceased Mrs Craven (never named), with Mary and with roses; and Colin Craven, Mr Craven’s sickly and only heir, symbolically feminised through his inability to walk or do anything for himself. Mary’s discovery of Colin is, oddly, reminiscent of Jane Eyre’s discovery of the madwoman in Rochester’s attic: like Jane, Mary hears cries in the night, is thrown off the scent by terrified servants, wanders through a maze of strangely distorted architecture to find the secret room where patriarchy’s dark secret lies. Colin is no heir at all, unlikely as he is to live beyond childhood: he has to be hidden away as a reminder of patriarchy’s failure to transcend death. Similarly, Mrs Craven’s rose garden is locked up as a reminder of death and of patriarchy’s reliance on the transient and unstable: she died falling from a branch in the garden.
So Mary uncovers both of these secrets, brings them out into the light. But it’s impossible, to me, to read this as triumphant, subversive, healing, because of the way she is supplanted at the end of the story. You see, Mary shares the secret of the garden with Colin, and the blessed healing powers of English Nature and good green earth, hallelujah, make him whole and strong and able to stand again. The end of the text focuses not on Mary, our protagonist, but on Colin, who we’ve only really known for half of the book, and his father:
Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite [Mr Craven] and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his side with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in Yorkshire – Master Colin!
Look at that reference to “the Master of Misselthwaite”: bringing up the issue of ownership and inheritance, which the text has been muttering about in relation to Colin (if Colin, as had seemed likely, had died before his father, Misselthwaite was expected to pass outside the Craven family, to his doctor, a cousin of Mr Craven’s). This is a story that’s fundamentally invested in the restoration of the patriarchal order: ensuring that the male line remains secure. Mary exists to restore fertility to this frozen patriarchal order: she arrives in the winter, brings spring and rebirth to the neglected garden, breathes metaphorical life into the dying Colin. Both Cravens have hitherto been locked in what’s presented as a sterile and even self-indulgent state of illness – in Colin’s case, general sickliness; in Mr Craven’s case something that looks very much like severe depression. Mary’s restoration of femininity to Misselthwaite, to patriarchy, gives them a future, and both shake their illnesses off with a quick burst of Positive Thinking. (As an aside, I cannot begin to express how sickening Hodgson Burnett’s positioning of Postive Thinking as a cure for all ills is.) Femininity is a support in this book, a way of allowing the male line to continue. Mary is valuable in the text only as she facilitates the regeneration of the Craven family.
And yet, Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge informs me that The Secret Garden was rated the fifteenth-best children’s book ever in 2012.
Sometimes you have to wonder what the point of anything is.