Mary is the newly orphaned daughter of absentee colonial parents. She has been used to being left quite alone. And mostly ‘brought up’, if that’s the word for such an impoverished childhood, by the very people whom her parents have been the most highly complicit in oppressing – servants. The child naturally treats her caregivers just as disrespectfully as her parents have taught her to, and in return love has been in such short supply in the small girl’s life that it’s practically a psychological emergency even before her parents go and die on her, leaving tiny Mary orphaned. As if she didn’t have troubles enough. By the time Mary winds up being shipped like a waifish parcel dressed all in black to Misslethwaite Manor and her uncle in the English countryside, she is undernourished, physically frail, emotionally brittle, aloof, mistrustful and self loathing. A tiny little dictator with absolutely no idea how to stop pushing away the love and care which she by now so desperately needs, and is almost too far gone to even miss or long for. But like a small, tough root, the hardy little girl somehow hangs on and is highly relatable throughout even her tantrums and ‘scenes’. It’s impossible not to love and root for naughty and tyrannical, and ultimately quite resourceful, Mary Lennox.
Misslethwaite Manor, upon this small waif’s arrival in a bleak midwinter, is in similarly dire emotional straits: Colin, Mary’s young cousin, languishes in bed all day, occasionally calling out or having tantrums which serve to terrify and amaze his troupe of servants. There is also a slightly sinister doctor on the periphery of the child’s life, who seems to be constantly feeding Colin the idea that he is sick, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s small hint to her readers that the boy’s frailty is mostly of a psychological origin. The boy’s emotionally absent and inept, although quite well meaning, father has let the whole thing go on for far too long and it takes the practical mindset of a local woman, Susan Sowerby (working class single parent with a large brood of her own strapping and emotionally healthy children) to shake some sense into The Lord of the Manor in the very singular matter of his responsibilities.
Mrs Sowerby, acting like a kind of nineteenth century social worker, goes on coaching the uncle/father in a basic understanding of what children need, starting with nourishing food, someone to talk to and somewhere to play. This very capable woman seems to have even found small ways to reach out to the servants who interact with the children on a daily basis. The uncle/father, who is much hampered by his own upbringing, but essentially good, starts to put things right in his slow way. In the meantime small Mary, like a wilting plant drawn to the sunlight, increasingly begins to see to her own emotional salvation, starting with exploring out of doors and her new surroundings. She slowly but surely engages with the young servant girl Martha, not very much older than Mary herself, Martha happily listens to young Mary’s troubles but refuses to do up her buttons for her; Mary similarly warms to the old countryman and stoic Ben Weatherstaff who’s been charged with looking after the Manor gardens but like any nineteenth century Yorkshireman worth his salt takes little nonsense from children, although he’s kind, in his gruff way. And quite happy to lend Mary a trowel and some seeds, so long as she can behave herself, and stay out of his flower beds.
As Mary and Colin begin to feel the benefits of their egalitarian friendship with ruddy cheeked Dickon, the nature loving and spirited younger son of Susan Sowerby, so nature itself begins to burgeon and unfold around the children, until they ‘find themselves’, and the true, deep joy of childhood play just in time for Spring.
The Secret Garden is a wonderfully enticing, magical, often infuriating book about grief, loss, spirituality, childhood, parenting, class, gardening and how to go about being a person. There are good roots creeping gently outward, leaves unfurling on every single page of Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful novel, capable of lingering in the memory, like the very best of children’s books.
NB And if you happen to have become rather tired of hearing the endless depressing carping in the media against single parents, then you will find it only an added bonus that Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911 doesn’t appear to have received that memo. Susan Sowerby’s parenting skills, and the “warm and supported feeling” which she seems to extend to all children, are as much a source of energy to the young as the changing season is life to the roots and bulbs in the secret garden. Mrs Sowerby gives her intuitive and practical advice freely and without judgement or condescension, and sends her smashing kids, Martha and Dickon, out into the world to play nicely, fairly, kindly with everyone, and so make everything right in the garden they share.