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By Drew Lichtenberg
When The Secret Garden first appeared in 1910, it did not resemble the story that millions of children and their parents have come to know and love. At first titled “Mistress Mary,” individual chapters of the story, 27 in all, appeared each week in The American Magazine, a magazine for adults. (It would be published in its entirety, under its current title, the following year.) This was the golden age of the written word as a form of popular storytelling, before the rise of radio and talking pictures commenced our shift from a literary culture to an aural and visual one.
Much like modern television episodes, each chapter was designed to function as its own self-contained story within a larger narrative, complete with a beginning, middle and end. Children and adults alike read these stories as a form of entertainment, much like modern forms of all-ages amusement such as comic book movies or animated films. Though stories for children had existed ever since Aesop, the idea of “children’s literature” as a self-conscious genre is largely an invention of the post-war academy. Stories were just stories.
From the beginning, however, The Secret Garden was uniquely capable of appealing to the young and old alike. “You do realize,” Burnett wrote to her English publisher, “that it is not a novel, but a child’s story […] It is an innocent thriller of a story to which grownups listen spellbound, to my keen delight.” She continued, sounding spell-bound herself: “I love it myself. There is a long deserted garden in it whose locked door is hidden by ivy and whose key has been buried for 10 years. It contains also a sort of faun who charms wild creatures and tame ones and there is a moorland cottage woman who is a sort of Madonna with twelve children—a warm bosomed, wise, simple Mother thing.”
Madonnas and fauns. Doors covered in ivy. A world equal parts modernity and eternity, science and magic, death and life. In Burnett’s imagination, and in those of countless readers since, the secret garden serves as a landscape of oxymoron, of opposites colliding and coexisting in a sublime harmony. In other words, it is a world of the aesthetic experience, irreducible to simple meanings or explanations. Nature doesn’t judge.
The plot of The Secret Garden reflects the dominant literary influences of Burnett’s post-Victorian era. The story begins with Mary Lennox, age 10, orphaned by a fatal outbreak of cholera in the Kiplingesque Indian Raj. Chapter two whisks her off to her reclusive uncle’s mansion in the Yorkshire moors, combining Jules Verne’s round-the-world-in-a-day narrative economy with the Gothic landscapes of the Brontë sisters. (Mary even learns the Yorkshire dialect, and what “wuthering” means.) Once there, she discovers her uncle’s titular secret garden, kept locked for the last 10 years. The story—and the girl herself—begins to blossom with her apprehension of the world of nature, much like a certain Alice.
Upon closer inspection, however, The Secret Garden is built on even more foundational elements of storytelling structure than post-Victorian trends. Like Plato’s cave, most fairy tales and nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays, the work charts a pilgrim’s progress from the ordinary, indoor world of “civilization” to the outdoor world of nature, one where social bonds become suspended and all creatures can live in a state of suspended grace. Put another way, The Secret Garden is a winter’s tale, one that moves from things dying to things newborn, leaving behind the plague-ridden realm of things dead, dormant or hibernating to a landscape of sun, blue skies and blossoming life. In each chapter, oscillating between bright scenes in her sunny garden and rainy days spent exploring the gloomy house, this pattern is repeated, deepening in meaning each time.
But neither of these are the reasons for The Secret Garden’s lasting fascination, its ability to enrapture child and adult alike. Burnett had built a career on tough, adult themes. Her breakthrough success was 1877’s That Lass o’ Lowrie’s, a working-class Lancashire tale with a strong female protagonist—and her young characters are similarly spirited and unsentimentalized. No angelic little orphan Annies here. In the book’s second sentence, Mary is described as “the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen,” and she remains for much of the action a spoiled, homely and mean child, used to bossing others around. Halfway through, she meets her cousin, Colin, an invalid boy who is even more unpleasant—given to violent, hysterical tantrums and suffering from hypochondriacal delusions of death and dying.
In The Secret Garden, Burnett depicts the interactions of these two not-very-nice children with the ironic poise of a real parent, while also imbuing their experience of nature with the tactile detail of children curiously discovering a new world. Like all great children’s authors, Burnett understood how much children love the “thinginess” of things. Part of the magic of The Secret Garden lies in precisely this collision of opposites: seeing robin redbreasts nesting or planting flower bulbs is just as magical as the stirrings of grown-up consciousness, taking ownership of one’s mind and body in the world. In fact, in Burnett’s construction, they are one and the same.
In Burnett’s book these details add up slowly, chapter by serialized chapter, slowly gaining the weight of something approaching epiphany. By the end, it is a powerful enough recognition to enclose the similarly gloomy, disagreeable adults within its redemptive glow—and ultimately, to bathe audience members young and old in its warmth, beckoning them to return again and again.