“The Secret Garden” and the way children’s literature can shape our hearts and minds.

The Secret Garden” and the way children’s literature can shape our hearts and minds.

When I reach a low point I find concentrating extremely hard, so the kind of reading I normally do is beyond me. I recently bought Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, finally accepting that the promised copy from a former friend was never coming my way, and the book sits reproachfully in the to-be-read pile, glaring at me. I have a mountain of books, both real and digital waiting to be read, and in some cases reviewed, and yet, I can’t read.

I’ve downloaded a number of classics to my Kindle recently, books I have loved in the past and wish to have digital copies of for when I am travelling. The other night, flicking through the list of books I know I need to read, I found myself opening children’s classic “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett and read almost halfway in a short time. I read it first when I was about 8 or 9, and many times later. I read it to my daughter when she was little.

It sounds a total cliché but it was like meeting an old friend I’ve not seen for years. For those of you who have not read it, the book tells the tale of Mary Lennox, orphaned when a cholera epidemic kills her parents in India and she is shipped home to live in the home of her reclusive uncle on the edge of the North York moors. Mary is an angry, independent and unhappy child, used to being waited on by native servants and getting her own way in everything, and arriving in the cold, blunt North of England is a massive culture shock. Turned out to “play” outside in the extensive gardens Mary slowly comes alive and is enthralled by the idea of one of the walled gardens being shut up and locked for ten years. The huge manor house is full of secrets and mysteries, and Mary sets out to solve several of them, most importantly to find her way into the “secret” garden her uncle had locked when his beloved wife died. The lonely, somewhat unattractive child finds herself fascinated by the idea of growing things, as the spring starts working its magic on the land and she asks her uncle whether she may have a “bit of earth”:

““Might I,” quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth?”

In her eagerness she did not realise how queer the words would sound and that they were not the ones she had meant to say. Mr Craven looked quite startled.

Earth!” he repeated. “What do you mean?”

To plant seeds in- to make things grow- to see them come alive,” Mary faltered.”

I think this book may be responsible for my love of gardens and of nature and of that feeling of nature holding wonderful mysteries, a kind of magic. Rereading the story woke me up to something, the power of words. The whole book is written in lovely evocative lyrical language, such that both a child of nine can relish and an adult too.

It inspired me to ask my father for my own patch of garden and to learn as much as I could about the natural world. I spend my pocket money on books of trees and flowers and wild animals, and I went shopping with my father to choose seeds each year, to plant in our walled garden. I spoke to robins (I still do), and would spend hours sitting watching the hares boxing in the spring.

I still crave a truly secret garden of my own. One where I am not overlooked by others, and where I can tend the earth in my own way, without reference to what others think a garden should look like. Honeysuckle trailing up trees, roses filling the air with sweetness, daisies starry-white in shaggy grass, all slightly dishevelled and un-manicured but rioting with colour and vibrant life. Where bird and animals can come and feel safe and at ease with humans.

I guess I want my own Eden.    

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12 thoughts on ““The Secret Garden” and the way children’s literature can shape our hearts and minds.

  1. Everyone should dream of their own Secret Garden but so few do. Mine would have wildflowers and poppies and sunflowers…

  2. I love this post, Viv, and the book. The idea of a secret garden for me, as a child, captured my imagination – though never whetted my appetite for gardening! There is something about a walled garden that is very soothing. In a way, my garden now, though not walled and not secret, has some of that character. You have made me want to go search out my own bedraggeled copy which has beautiful illustrations and a ragged light green dust jacket.

  3. This was one of my favorite books as a child. It’s lovely to see others who have similar memories…the way “secrets” were handled in the book was so interesting: the secret crying in thenight; the hidden-away, secret boy; the way both he and Mary needed a secret place to recover their humanity. The happy secret at the end, when they pretended he still couldn’t walk…Thank you for reminding me of all that.

  4. My daughter loved this book when she was small, believing a gate in the stone wall around our dentist’s house led to that secret garden, (so she never minded going for check-ups!) Thank you for reminding me! 🙂 Inow have a ‘secret courtyard’, filled with plants in pots, a mirror, a fountain wind chimes and quirky ornaments.

  5. Maybe the secret garden is a place of joy that we keep hidden out of some mistaken belief that some “adult” (Authority) will discover and destroy it. (And God ,-another Authority-knows, we have enough proof of that!!) Maybe, the secret garden fosters our innocence until we grow up, become big enough and strong enough,to hide it no longer. But, at some point, we have to grow up, and share our “secret garden”, if ever we are willling to take the risk of just being alive. To remain a selfish, unshared child inevitably leads to depression. To be unshared is to die while we still have the chance to live.

    We all have secret gardens, where our innocence lives, and when we give up the need to be victims, we return to that invaluable and powerful innocence!

    This timeless classic points to the truth as all timeless classics do!

  6. A truly beautiful book (the 1993 film version wasn’t bad, either) – one I got to revisit recently, reading to my six year old nephew. I didn’t think a boy would take to it, but I think he related to Colin and wanted to be Dickon. Felt like a triumph.

    My only quarrel with the book is the ending, where Mary is more or less forgotten as Colin’s story takes over. The film corrects this – a rare example in cinema.

    Lovely article.

    • It is a beautiful book but you are right, Colin actually reverts to Rajah status but has learned much charm so no one realises.
      Thanks you for visiting and commenting.

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