Friday, August 19, 2011

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

One of the ways that I keep busy is by tutoring.  I’ve had a student for the last year whose parents that have asked me to expose him to more literature than can be found in the single English class that high-school students get each year.  In order to recommend books for him, I’ve got to read them first myself (we learnt that the hard way with A Farewell to Arms – neither of us liked it, nor finished it).  So, this week, I read The Secret Garden in hopes of giving him a good book recommendation.

I’ve known the story of The Secret Garden since I was a kid.  There was a Hollywood movie that I loved to watch, but now have enough distance from to not be able to remember all the details.  The story follows Mary Lennox whose parents are killed in India during the Raj administration.  Mary is sent back to England to live with an uncle since he’s her only surviving relative.  While there, Mary hears about a garden on the property that has been locked up for a decade and sets out to find it.  Finally getting into the garden, Mary get the help of a local boy, Dickon, to help bring it back to life.  As the garden gets healthier, so does Mary.  The other secret that Mary discovers is that she has a 10-year old cousin, Colin, who has been thought of as an invalid so long that he’s expected to die.  Finally in the company of children, Mary and Colin, both support each other and their health improves. 

I knew going into the book that it was for kids.  As such, it was an expected disappointment.  Like Little Women, the author (Frances Hodgson Burnett) hides morality lessons in the work designed to show children how to be polite, how to act appropriately, and how to appreciate what they have.  Unlike Louisa May Alcott’s attempts, Burnett’s work is readable for adults: the morality lessons aren’t oppressive, and are more subtle.

As a historian of the British Empire, I was able to appreciate this book from a historical perspective.  The tale begins in India where Mary’s father is an officer and is never around, and her mother is such a social butterfly that she has instructed her household staff to keep her daughter away from her so she can better enjoy the social scene.  There’s not much detail of Mary’s life in Indian (as it is a catalyst for the rest of the book), but the subtle way in which the characters back in England comment on Mary’s health and comportment (and even the author’s own observations that can only be described as stemming from ‘common knowledge’) provides the reader with information on the lives of Raj children.  Mary’s yellow skin tone, her limp hair, her resistance to eating British foods, and her general lack of energy are all commented on multiple times.  It is not until Mary is forced into going outside and experiencing the bracing air and sunshine of a Yorkshire moor that her health begins to improve.  The health of children was often a concern of Raj families, and those who could afford it would send their children to schools or relatives in England to avoid what was thought to be the inherent health-risks of raising European children in an exotic climate.  (For those interested, Empire Families: Britons in Late Imperial India by Elizabeth Buettner is a wonderful study of the family dynamic for Brits in the Empire.)

All in all, the book was alright.  If I were asked to take an editor’s knife to it, I believe I could safely cut out 1/3 of the work without loosing the threads of the story.  I won’t be recommending this book to my tutoring student – it’s not interesting enough.  I think this is one of those books that ‘simply must be read’ because it’s part of western literary heritage, but it’s nothing to get fussed over.

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