In this series, writers present the books getting them through these strange times.
I can’t be the only one who’s been having trouble focusing on books lately. Everything feels either depressingly dark or depressingly light; I don’t want to be reminded of the news, but how can I care about anything else? I’ve tossed aside several novels in the last week. Only The Secret Garden has held my attention. Only The Secret Garden takes place in a universe I recognize.
When I was a teenager and my little cousin Anya was a toddler, I indoctrinated her into loving Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 film adaptation. I dusted off my beloved videotape (it came with a free locket necklace) and played it for her. Then I played it again, and again and again and again, until the two of us could act it out from memory. Anya was always the heroine, Mary Lennox; I played all the other characters, Peter Sellers–style. One perk of having a cousin twelve years younger than you: it gives you an extra window of time—long after you’re supposedly too old—to play make-believe.
My little cousin Anya is not little anymore; she was about to graduate from college before, you know, all this. Now she’s staying with family in Connecticut. She’s just a half hour drive from my New Haven apartment, but of course we can’t visit each other. We’ve been texting a lot. Yesterday I awoke to this text from her:
Going to get through this by going back to doing Secret Garden re-enactments. Honestly, it’s a parallel situation—I have to leave home because of a contagious illness and live out in the country, finding hope and new life as spring blooms—only issue is I wouldn’t be able to hang out w Dickon because of social distancing [plant emoji]
As a substitute for the hug I wish I could give her, I’ve decided to reread The Secret Garden. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel is available for free on Project Gutenberg, so you can read it, too.
I should warn you that it may not take your mind off things. As Anya correctly recalled, the plot is set in motion by an epidemic. The 1993 film changes it to an earthquake, which is more cinematic but (I now think) less harrowing than the novel’s opening chapter, titled “There Is No One Left”:
The cholera had broken out in its most fatal form and people were dying like flies…. There was panic on every side, and dying people in all the bungalows.
During the confusion and bewilderment of the second day Mary hid herself in the nursery and was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her, and strange things happened of which she knew nothing. Mary alternately cried and slept through the hours.
…When she awakened she lay and stared at the wall. The house was perfectly still. She had never known it to be so silent before.
With brutal swiftness, nine-year-old Mary is orphaned, removed from colonial India—the only home she’s ever known—and taken to stay with a distant relative in England. But the pathos of her plight is complicated by the novel’s constant, peculiar insistence on her personal unpleasantness. We’re informed in the opening passage that Mary is “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived,” and hardly a paragraph goes by without a reminder that she is “disagreeable,” “a self-absorbed child,” “spoiled and pettish.” Back in India, “Mary had always slapped her Ayah in the face when she was angry”; in England, she demands to be dressed by servants “as if she had neither hands nor feet of her own.” Upon learning that a servant girl expected her to be ethnically Indian, Mary throws a fit and screams, “You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people—they’re servants who must salaam to you.”
(I’ve occasionally seen The Secret Garden criticized for colonial attitudes, a complaint that has always puzzled me. The novel has aged poorly in several ways, but I don’t know how you could miss the message that colonialism is a soul-eroding abomination, even for those who benefit from it.)
Mary is terribly alone at Misselthwaite Manor. The house has a hundred rooms, most of them “shut up and locked”; outside is nothing but windswept Yorkshire moor, and Mary feels “so horribly lonely and far away from everything she understood.” Sometimes she hears a voice in the walls—it sounds, she thinks, like “someone crying.” The servants tell her it’s only the wind, and indeed Mary can “scarcely distinguish it from the wind itself.” But late at night, the sobs are unmistakable. She finally goes investigating and finds a little boy, Colin, hidden away in a secret room. They mistake each other, at first, for “a ghost or a dream.” Neither is sure the other is real. They can hardly believe they’re not alone.
(My downstairs neighbor is sick. All day and all night, through the floor, I can hear her coughing. I never knew the floor was so thin.)
Colin has been hidden away, it turns out, because he’s chronically ill; his father doesn’t want to be reminded of him. “No one believes I shall live to grow up,” Colin tells Mary (“as if he was so accustomed to the idea that it had ceased to matter to him at all”). Like Mary, Colin is both a victim of tragedy and a monster of privilege, and Mary is reminded uncomfortably of herself as she watches him abuse his servants. “When she had had a headache in India,” she reflects, “she had done her best to see that everybody else also had a headache or something quite as bad. And she felt she was quite right; but of course now she felt that Colin was quite wrong.”
What could have been a saccharine story—a little girl discovers a secret garden, makes friends, and helps a disabled boy learn to walk—has uneasy psychological stakes. You might even call them spiritual stakes. Tending a secret garden is meaningful work that teaches Mary about human connection, but her character growth goes deeper than that. She comes to understand, I think, that her former life was steeped in evil.
(Evil is a heavy word to hang on anything, let alone a little girl, and just a few weeks ago it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use it. But some things—violence, exploitation, dehumanization—are evil. We shouldn’t be afraid to say so.)
I used to consider the second half of The Secret Garden inferior to the first. As I recalled it, Mary was increasingly sidelined from the narrative until she disappeared altogether, replaced by Colin as protagonist. This unexpected point-of-view shift always frustrated me. Why should Colin’s story take priority over Mary’s? Was it just because he was a boy?
On this reread, however, I realized it’s not so simple. Mary does recede into the background, but the shift isn’t a neat swap from Mary’s perspective to Colin’s perspective. It’s a shift from Mary’s perspective to multiple perspectives. The first half of the novel is omniscient but locked into Mary’s mind, almost claustrophobically so. There are times, in fact, when the narrator doesn’t sound omniscient at all, but more like the dissociated interior monologue of a depressed person:
She had begun to wonder why she had never seemed to belong to anyone even when her father and mother had been alive. Other children seemed to belong to their fathers and mothers, but she had never seemed to really be anyone’s little girl. She had had servants, and food and clothes, but no one had taken any notice of her. She did not know that this was because she was a disagreeable child; but then, of course, she did not know she was disagreeable.
But as the novel goes on, the narrator’s consciousness expands. It begins to inhabit other points of view. We get to see through the eyes of Colin; his doctor, Dr. Craven; the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock; the groundskeeper, Ben Weatherstaff; everyone’s first literary crush, local boy Dickon; Dickon’s mother, Mrs. Sowerby; and, in the end, Colin’s reclusive father. There’s even an entire chapter, whimsical and wonderful, that takes the perspective of a wild robin:
One day the robin remembered that when he himself had been made to learn to fly by his parents … he had taken short flights of a few yards and then had been obliged to rest. So it occurred to him that this boy was learning to fly—or rather to walk. He mentioned this to his mate and when he told her that the Eggs would probably conduct themselves in the same way after they were fledged she was quite comforted and even became eagerly interested and derived great pleasure from watching the boy over the edge of her nest—though she always thought that the Eggs would be much cleverer and learn more quickly. But then she said indulgently that humans were always more clumsy and slow than Eggs and most of them never seemed really to learn to fly at all. You never met them in the air or on tree-tops.
The world seems to be getting bigger and fuller, and Mary doesn’t vanish but merely takes her place in it, among all the others. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the shift in perspective occurs right after this monologue from Dickon’s mother:
“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.”
No one owns the whole orange. Everyone has a right to their own bit of a quarter. There’s enough orange to go around—or there can be, if we share.
There’s real beauty in the universe of this book. The garden scenes are ecstatic, charged with a childlike, polymorphous-perverse eroticism:
“See here!” said Dickon. “See how these has pushed up, an’ these an’ these! An’ Eh! Look at these here!”
He threw himself upon his knees and Mary went down beside him. They had come upon a whole clump of crocuses burst into purple and orange and gold. Mary bent her face down and kissed and kissed them.
…They ran from one part of the garden to another and found so many wonders that they were obliged to remind themselves that they must whisper or speak low. He showed her swelling leafbuds on rose branches which had seemed dead. He showed her ten thousand new green points pushing through the mould. They put their eager young noses close to the earth and sniffed its warmed springtime breathing; they dug and pulled and laughed low with rapture until Mistress Mary’s hair was as tumbled as Dickon’s and her cheeks were almost as poppy red as his.
Years ago I read an article that referred to the garden as the “central symbol” of this novel, which is an uncontroversial statement, but the phrasing galled me. The garden is a garden is a garden. As symbols go, springtime is surely the most hackneyed of them all—but springtime, like so many other clichés, is also a stark reality. It’s happening for real outside my window as I write this. The sun is really shining, a real live robin is singing somewhere, and actual daffodils are blooming in the grass beside my stoop. (My downstairs neighbor planted them.)
And over walls and earth and trees and swinging sprays and tendrils the fair green veil of tender little leaves had crept, and in the grass under the trees and the gray urns in the alcoves and here and there everywhere were touches or splashes of gold and purple and white and the trees were showing pink and snow above [Colin’s] head and there were fluttering of wings and faint sweet pipes and humming and scents and scents. And the sun fell warm upon his face like a hand with a lovely touch…
“I shall get well! I shall get well!” he cried out. “Mary! Dickon! I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever and ever!”
There was a time, once, when I would have scoffed at this passage. Of course Colin isn’t going to live forever—no one does! As if Frances Hodgson Burnett didn’t know that. She had a son who died of tuberculosis when he was sixteen. He’d been dead for twenty years when she wrote The Secret Garden. It’s easy to forget—or it used to be easy to forget—the nearness of death in those days.
Her narrator continues:
One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun—which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so.
It’s easy, too, to overlook the point of this passage: that this feeling comes “only now and then,” and only “for a moment or so.” Then it’s gone again.
I have one very distinct memory of playing The Secret Garden with Anya. We were acting out the final scene of the movie: the three children are playing blind man’s bluff, and Colin, blindfolded, runs into his father, who doesn’t yet know that Colin can walk. Colin runs his hands across his father’s face, puzzled, before removing his blindfold. Since I was playing all the non-Mary characters, this scene was my time to shine; I was a high school theater kid, so I really hammed it up. As Colin, I closed my eyes and ran my fingers breathlessly through the air, tracing the shape of an invisible person, my mouth open in amazement. I dragged it out so long, toddler Anya lost her patience. “Hurry up!” she yelled from the sidelines, and I laughed—I’m laughing now, remembering it—because I’d been so wrapped up in myself that I forgot (how could I forget?) that she was in the room.
Frankie Thomas is the author of “The Showrunner,” which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.