“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.    

Putting the garden to bed

I don’t like this time of year much; the gap between sun-up and sun-down being pitifully small and getting smaller; I huddle at my sunlamp or stride out on the rare days when the sun shines. I keep looking forward to the Solstice, when I know that it has become as dark as it is going to get and from then on, minute by minute it will get lighter each day.

I was reminded of this the other day, when Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton was mentioned and the line, “the still point of the turning year” was quoted. I pondered this and came out with the lines, “The year pivots, pirouetting en pointe, Dancer meets Dance: I am renewed”. But I still have four weeks to go through and because of her age and her cancer, my dog doesn’t want to walk when it’s cold and windy or wet and today when I thought she might go, she baulked, halfway down the street and decided the brisk wind was too much. We came home.

But the sun was shining and the air was mild for all the whipping wind, so I kept my coat and boots on and went out into our small garden and began a few chores. I used to love gardening but too many years of gardens too huge for me to manage alone (our last garden was about an acre) has put me off and in my mind I can no longer make the decision to potter for an hour. In the past, an hour was a mere drop in a deep, deep ocean and it was so disheartening to labour for an hour, and realise that in the grand scheme of things, you have done NOTHING, that even now, three years on, I rarely sneak out and fiddle about and do the little bits and pieces gardens seem to need.

I started by removing the dead strands of sweet pea that still twined around things, and it went from there: pruning, thinning, weeding, digging and finally sweeping all the dead leaves and bits of weed into a big pile at the end of the garden. I removed the mushy remains of the courgette plant and then reached further back in the border to pick the dead leaves off the irises. I went further and cut back the stems of the lemon balm; at several points I had to make a retreat, being warned off by one of our bees when I had clearly come too close to the entrance to the hive when she was coming in or going out. It was so mild that there was a steady stream of bees going about their business.

Now, I have scratched and nettled hands but a strange sense of satisfaction. I can look out of my bedroom window and see what I managed to accomplish in an hour and a half. I have more to do but I was starting to feel tired and the dog wanted to go in, so I put away my tools and came in for a coffee and a bagel.

Too often I put off starting a thing imagining it a task that is so huge it is better not to start unless I can finish it within a time frame that is oddly skewed. I’m doing this with house painting, but then I do know from experience this isn’t something you can stop once you start. But maybe I will wake up one morning and think, yes, today I will paint the bathroom.

There was a feeling while I was outside of being at one with my own small kingdom, of nurturing something I had been neglecting. At least tonight for once I can go to bed and feel I have done something worthwhile!