BOOK REVIEW: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison

That quote from Harlan Ellison begins all of my reviews because I agree with him so passionately on that point.

Few authors are more appropriate to supersede such a quote than Frances Hodgson Burnett of Manchester. This woman wrote her books over 100 years ago and they are just as wonderful and poignant today as they were back then. Too often, language and slang can change so drastically books become difficult to understand. Read a book that was written in English 100 years ago and it’s pretty easy to follow. But when you go back 200 years. 300 years. 400 years. As language evolves, it starts to get a little harder to decipher. Frances Hodgson Burnett is so eloquent, all of her stories sound like they were written yesterday. As an novelist myself, I can only hope that a century from now, someone is talking about me and how much they continue to love my books as well.

The Secret Garden is probably the second-most famous of all the books Frances Hodgson Burnett has written. Originally published in 1910, as of 2013, there have been no less than 3 film adaptations of it – one in 1919 starring Lila Lee (sadly, this version is apparently lost), one in 1949 starring Margaret O’Brien, and one in 1993 starring Kate Maberly (who, incidentally, grew up to be one of the most radiant women on earth – Kate, feel free to stalk me anytime you’re in Los Angeles). There have also been 3 television serializations starting in the 1950′s, an anime version, and multiple stageplays including a musical in 1991 and an opera commissioned in 2013. More than 103 years after it was created, The Secret Garden continues to inspire audiences and screenwriters and musicians and readers alike.

The word “timeless” is often overused to laud stories that are too new to warrant such a compliment. In the case of The Secret Garden, the longevity of the story has proven itself and “timeless” is quite an appropriate and well-earned description.

The book takes place during the birth of the 20th century and follows the story of a young English girl named Mary Lennox who has just been orphaned in India and is sent to live with her widowered uncle on a vast and lonely estate in the moors of England.

That sounds awful, but rest assured, it’s a wonderful story!

I once watched a 1974 James Day interview with Ray Bradbury where Mr. Bradbury said that the reason people love to read is for the asides. Fictional stories are all about the asides. The most uplifting and insightful and vivid and descriptive moments in books, the parts that resonate the best are the moments when we get into the characters thoughts. When we see how they are perceiving the world around them. That kind of observational philosophy about life, shared in the narrators descriptions. Frances Hodgson Burnett is masterful at this craft. She says such beautiful things of such insight and wisdom, and yet, she says them very plainly. Very simply. In ways that even a child can understand. Hence the reason a book like The Secret Garden is considered such a classic of children’s literature. The Secret Garden has single sentences that are so beautifully written, they bring me near to tears, because the words alone feel more real and alive than any person has ever made me feel.

“There was every joy on earth in the secret garden that morning, and in the midst of them came a delight more delightful than all, because it was more wonderful.”

Intellectually, that sentence doesn’t make any sense. But emotionally, the poetry of it shines with crystalline brilliance. Those are the kind of words that make the heart glow and sing. So simple. So brief. Yet they somehow feel as if they were written in gold in your very veins and when they are spoken, something comes to life inside you. Something that has never taken a breath before and was only waiting for your soul to read those words.

This passage is far longer, but a prime example of the kind of heartwarming sagacity that belongs in children’s literature and should be reiterated to adults as well.

“In each century since the beginning of the world wonderful things have been discovered. In the last century more amazing things were found out than in any century before. In this new century hundreds of things still more astounding will be brought to light. At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done – then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago. One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts – just mere thoughts – are as powerful as electric batteries – as good for one as sunlight is, or 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.

“So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored and wretched child. Circumstances, however, were very kind to her, though she was not at all aware of it. They began to push her about for her own good. When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his ‘creatures,’ there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.

“So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness and his detestation of people who looked at him and reflected hourly on humps and early death, he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing of the sunshine and the spring and also did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it. When new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones, life began to come back to him, his blood ran healthily through his veins and strength poured into him like a flood. His scientific experiment was quite practical and simple and there was nothing weird about it at all. Much more surprising things can happen to any one who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.

“‘Where, you tend a rose, my lad, A thistle cannot grow.’”

You see? You must read this book. Plain and simple. Because those are only small examples of many wonderful gems of insight. You need to read this book. Because you need to remember these things.

All of us have died a little bit. All of us. I know you like to pretend you haven’t. I know you always smile and tell the world you’re happy. You cover the shadows. You put the darkness in a box and lock it away so no one can ever see it. You lie about it so much that you’ve almost convinced yourself. You need to remember that those little deaths do not define you. They do not encompass the totality of who you are. There is still light in the world and as hard as it may be to believe, there is still light in the essence of who you are. Go and read The Secret Garden and remember that you are still alive. And if there be no grand purpose to that, if there be no fate or destiny behind it, if the universe does not even know you are here, you still possess the power to conjure your own meaning and your own worth. You can still imbue yourself with all the value you desire. All you need to rekindle your dormant garden is a bit of earth, and bit of time, and to tend it with a bit of gentleness.