There's nothing quite like settling down with one of your favourite books, is there? The Secret Garden has been a favourite of mine since childhood and I've lost count of the number of times I have read it. It's the story of Mary Lennox, a spolit and sullen ten year old girl who lives in India until her parents die of cholera. Sent to England to live in a large, neglected house under the care of her grieving uncle, Mary learns to look after herself for the first time and discovers a beautiful secret garden that is key to her development.
I just love this book, and I think the reason I love it so much is Mary herself. She is introduced to us on page two as "as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived." To say Mary is spoiled is an understatement; she can't even dress herself as she is so used to servants tending to her. She doesn't hesitate to slap her servants round the face when they displease her. She is stubborn, selfish, sullen, headstrong, outspoken and downright rude. And I like that, I like that Burnett has created a character who isn't perfect and yet somehow still makes you root for her and cheer her on when she starts to change. Mary is refreshingly flawed, a product of her upbringing.
And I think one of the other reasons I liked this book so much as a child was the same as the reason I liked Roald Dahl; Burnett doesn't talk down to or patronise her readers. From a modern perspective, Mary is neglected both by her parents and her uncle. There's some passages that deal quite frankly with grief and the prospect of dying young (Mary's cousin, Colin, another delightfully spoiled character). And Burnett offers no easy solution to any of the problems of the novel and we see that only time and small changes really change or heal any of the characters.
"Thoughts - mere thoughts - are as powerful as electric batteries - as good for one as sunlight is, as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live." p321
Rereading The Secret Garden as an adult, I couldn't help but analyse the story a lot more and identify the key themes; the idealisation of the working poor, theories on how to bring up children, attitudes towards other races, the sneering at the medical profession, a bit of anti-intelligence, the role of servants. One thing that bothered me this read was how much Martha and her family are held up as a shining light of happiness. Mrs Sowerby has twelve children living in a three bedroom cottage and there's not enough food for everyone, but yet the whole family (especially Martha and Dickon) are constantly shown as happy and carefree. I know money doesn't buy happiness, but Burnett seems to gloss over the hardships of being poor at that time in order to prevent some kind of rural idyll.
But even as I was anaylsing the book and it's messages, I was kicking myself for doing it, as I never did this as a child - I just got lost in the story. What is it about being adults that makes us lose the ability to do this? Anyway, The Secret Garden is a magical story that I would recommend to everyone, even if you haven't read it as a child. At it's core, it's about simple pleasures and finding happiness.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1911
Score: 5 out of 5