Misselthwaite magic

Enclosed garden, Charleston, East Sussex

Frances Hodgson Burnett:
The Secret Garden
Parragon 1993 (1911)

“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic… ”
— Colin, in Chapter 23

Acknowledged as one of the best children’s classics of all time and frequently filmed (the latest due in 2020), The Secret Garden is not a book I would have immediately taken to as a child. In fact, it was originally serialised in 1909-10 for a US magazine aimed at adults, and it’s as an adult that I appreciate not just the happy-ever-after narrative but also the nature writing, the period and geographical setting and the characterisation, aspects that would have mostly gone over my head as a pre-teen.

Sometime in the early 1900s Mary Lomax — nine going on ten years old — finds herself not just unloved but suddenly orphaned in India, a place she has lived in since she was born. Spoilt, and unbearably haughty, she is slow to adapt to the cold English climate, particularly when she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, on the cusp of spring. The novel tells of her gradual warming — both figurative and literal — to Yorkshire and its people, and of her thawing from a cold Missie Sahib to a thoughtful, generous friend.

The catalyst for this change is of course the garden of the title. Prefigured early on in the novel when, still in India, she makes “heaps of earth and paths” for a pretend garden at the home of a clergyman and is taunted as Mistress Mary, quite contrary because she is “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived”. When she discovers and then tends the hidden Yorkshire garden she learns not just to lose that tyranny and selfishness but also to appreciate and love the natural magic that permeates life itself, thus living up to the more positive aspects of her nickname.

The delight in nature, its smells, plants and wildlife, is central to the book and reflects many of the author’s experiences and beliefs. We know that Lancashire-born Frances Hodgson spent long periods back in England after emigrating to America as a child. During her early childhood in Manchester she had developed a love both of reading and of gardens, and when at the end of the 19th century she lived in Kent she grew roses in a ‘secret garden’ she’d found through a curtain of ivy, just as in this story; when later writing up the story in Salford, Manchester she was also inspired by nearby municipal parkland and its mansion for details of the estate surrounding Misselthwaite Manor.

Then there is the relationship between Mary and her invalid cousin Colin Craven, reflected in the author’s Christian Science beliefs which held that prayer was effective in combatting illness: in the novel prayer is replaced by the healing power of nature (“Magic”) and the power of positive thinking. Colin, who first appears as a sickly bedridden boy, is persuaded by the newly enlivened Mary that his hypochondria, exacerbated by the false expectations of adults, can only be ameliorated by fresh air off the moors and surreptitious visits to the secret garden, scene of a terrible tragedy a little over ten years previously.

It’s not hard to see why this story reaches down into our psyches while tugging at our heartstrings. Along with the human interest aspect — I have to admit to a little watering of the eyes towards the end — there are so many archetypes that speak to us. First and foremost is the idea of the Paradise Garden, the walled enclosure which requires a certain key for entry and a purifying of the spirit. There is the Sleeping Beauty trope, this time in the person of Colin, at first unseen but heard due to plaintive weeping. Mary herself is a kind of Persephone, whose presence dispels winter from the rose garden even as winter is dispelled from her heart. There are New Testament echoes too, from the Martha and Mary roles that the chambermaid Martha Phoebe Sowerby and Mary Lomax play.

Can we ignore the Beauty and the Beast theme? Archibald Craven, Colin’s grieving, reclusive father and Mary’s uncle, is the owner of Misselthwaite Manor, but is often abroad trying to forget the death of his wife and the burden of a son suffering from what seems to be both a wasting disease and a form of scoliosis. Can the jaundiced Mary, already healing herself with gardening, be the saving of her uncle?

The supporting cast also have their roles to play. There is Martha’s brother Dickon Sowerby, a faun-like lad of twelve who communes with wild animals. He reminds me of Peter Pan (Barrie’s classic was also published in 1911 though Peter had previously appeared in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1906); and the character of Dickon even looks forward to Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, whom Lucy meets the other side of the wardrobe door.

Then there is Mrs Susan Sowerby, who despite remaining unseen through most of the story, is instrumental in bringing about the final resolution; she is the Earth Mother of the novel, a classical Sophia figure reminiscent of the fairies in Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (another great children’s classic initially set in Yorkshire, at Hartover House). Let’s also not forget Mrs Sarah Ann Medlock, the housekeeper who shepherds the difficult Mary to Misselthwaite, nor Ben Weatherstaff, the under gardener who discovers the children’s hideaway but who, fortunately, is no Wildean Selfish Giant.

But, even above the emotional affect of the final redemption that rounds everything off, what infuses The Secret Garden is Magic itself, principally Natural Magic. The three children — Mary, Dickon and Colin — hold to it; Mary, who persuaded Colin to believe in himself, is told “Tha’ must have bewitched him” when his health and temper change for the better; and the fey magic that allows Dickon a comfortable familiarity with animals, while occasionally cloying, is a hint of the primordial Garden of Eden that for many remains an ideal.

The novel still has relevance now just as, a century ago, it hinted at a postcolonial existence when Britain no longer ruled a large proportion of the inhabited world. Thus natural justice is invoked when the world is compared to an orange by Susan Sowerby:

‘When I was at school my jography told as th’ world was shaped like a 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 an’ there’s times it seems like there’s not enow quarters to go round. But don’t you — none o’ you — think as you own th’ whole orange or you’ll find out you’re mistaken, an’ you won’t find it out without hard knocks.’

The Secret Garden contain a kernel of truth because it was based on the author’s own experiences. Like Mary she left one life (in Manchester) for another (in Tennessee); she was to see one son predecease her and another be extremely ill, though not in the same way as Colin; and though she was from Lancashire she brought an authenticity to her story set on the other side of the Pennines when evoking the moors and the speech of its natives.

Buile Hill Park Mansion (image: Saltford Star)

In the 1890s she lived in Great Maytham Hall, in Kent, and later returned there in 1904. In its rose garden (one of a series of walled gardens) she wrote; and reportedly she had the idea for this novel there, though it was mostly written in Buile Hill Park on a visit to Manchester. Neither of the two buildings — Maytham or Buile Hill Park Mansion — significantly measures up to Misselthwaite (Maytham was to be substantially altered by Lutyens a few years after the author left) but she was clearly not unacquainted with stately homes, for all her straitened circumstances as a child. But it is the garden that epitomises the novel and which lingers in the memory.

I don’t want to give the impression that this was a novel written by numbers, introducing tropes and themes to progress the plot and throwing in what could be seen as stock characters, far from it. If The Secret Garden appears in fairytale form it is because fairytales embody certain human truths, fears and wishes: neither genre can fail to appeal if we truly value our humanity.

Great Maytham Hall, Rolvenden, after FHB left. Photo © Stephen Nunney (cc-by-sa/2.0)

8/20, No 5 in my 20 Books of Summer
Also the third of a trio of ‘secret’ titles, after Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13 and Nina Bawden’s The Secret Passage

* * * * *

A word about this inexpensive Parragon edition: it is full of typos which, though not making the text unreadable, create obstacles in the smooth flow of the narrative. The novel was just about to come out of copyright and it’s evident that the publishers scanned another text without adequate proofreading: there are missing quotation marks, or a ‘u’ may appear instead of an ‘n’ (or vice versa). No doubt scanning technology has improved but having used one in the early years of this century for editing a compendium I know that it wouldn’t have been foolproof in the early 1990s.

18 thoughts on “Misselthwaite magic

    1. Thanks, Cathy, I wish I’d read it before now — I only knew the outline from the Ladybird Book retelling which essentially rips the spirit out of the story, leaving only the husk. And do practise your Yorkshire accent for reading to your twins, it adds immeasurably to the impact!

      Glad you liked the photos. The first one is from our visit to Vanessa Bell’s Charleston last year, the second from our garden wall. (Charleston is not too far from where Hodgson Burnett stayed in Kent so I thought it appropriate 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cap! Yes, secret gardens — whether old monastery cloisters, the kitchen gardens of great houses or our own little patch of greenery enclosed by wall, fencing and hedging — are so … enticing!

      No, I haven’t seen the musical — as a musician I’d be too anxious about the song compositions and arrangements not doing the story proper justice or respecting its sensitivity; I think I’d rather let the words weave their magic on the page!


  1. Pingback: Misselthwaite magic — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. Yes, I’ve seen that cover, it’s quite attractive and immediately draws you in! Hope you continue to enjoy this: I’ve scheduled a post for tomorrow comparing themes in a handful of novels set in a Yorkshire mansion, including this and of course Jane Eyre.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this for the first time a few years ago. It left visual impressions on me that I think about from time to time like the robin being such an interesting character; thinking of the daffydowndillys when the daffodils bloom in my neighborhood and Dickon, who is probably my favorite character; as well as how much the moors factored into the story.

    Nice background on Burnett and symbolism in the story, Chris.


    1. Yes, Laurie, there is so much to delight with which I could have driven bloggers to distraction — the details you rightly mention of course, and have you noticed how much colours matter here? The reds of the robin (the European one, not the North American) and the squirrel and the fox , the orange of the fruit (mentioned twice), all the spring blooms and the roses, for example. It really is a story that gives and keeps on giving.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read it as a kid several times – and really enjoyed it! Wished for my own secret garden then 😉 Hopefully it retained its charm for the new generations of readers 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Christine

    How clever! I would never have thought of beauty and the beast, but you make a rather convincing case, they really are similar, at least with regards to love and natural beauty drawing the hero (or several characters) out of isolation.
    I read this for the first time only two years ago, never as a child. I had an unjustified distaste for books like Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden as a young girl, preferring Nesbit’s adventurous sibling books instead.
    Does it puzzle anyone that Mary, who has a wonderful character arc, seems to fade into the background halfway through? Fairly odd for a main character.


    1. I see what you mean, Christine, Mary does somewhat take a step back, but is that because her cousin now enters the scene and tries to take centre stage? Granted that he’s spoilt we’ve nevertheless seen Mary progress from objectionable to open-hearted, so we perhaps can forgive him his time in the sun — provided he can eventually curb his autocratic tendencies!

      And apropos your noting of Beauty and the Beast, there’s rather a subtle working of this theme here, I think. Mary has to grow into her role as Beauty, as the author makes quite clear (maybe too obviously?) while the Beast is a mix of Archibald and Colin, the former taking the landed gentry role, a vague if benevolent despot, with the latter representing the inner beast until Beauty manages to charm him round.

      I have a copy of A Little Princess but am now a little anxious it’ll prove a great disappointment after this!


  5. piotrek

    A masterpiece of a post 🙂 You take us into an emotional and historical journey, and I think I will at least revisit Holland’s 1993 movie, my favourite (and great soundtrack!).


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