“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.