So, I recently read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett for the first time.
This was a deeply weird experience, mostly because I watched the 1994 animated version of The Secret Garden approximately 8,000+ times as a child between the ages of four and eight. Now that I’ve read the book, I kind of want to rewatch the film, because my memory of it is shady, yet intriguing. I’m pretty sure the movie (this version, anyway, and I have nothing to say about any other version) decided to dial up the drama on this heartwarming tale of families and the gardens that kill/heal them. For example, I think in the 1994 movie, Mrs. Medlock was straight up poisoning Colin with his medicine? (What a great lesson to teach children: your medicine is literally poison. Your non-parental caretakers are literally out to get you, and your doctor is conspiring with them. I mean, I think all of this happened. I don’t know what it says about me if my memory is making this up, but probably something even more concerning than the filmmakers thinking this was a valuable lesson for children.) But I have not yet rewatched it to find out, because I have a sneaking suspicion that in order to do so, I will have to get drunk enough to not feel any sort of sympathetic embarrassment for the animators, scriptwriters, or voice actors, and who has the time for that?
The idea at the heart of The Secret Garden is that gardens– and by extension, green spaces and good English countryside– have the ability to heal people and put broken families back together. The good English countryside, by the way, is Yorkshire, and specifically the Yorkshire moors, which you might recall is where I lived for six months of my life. The moors of Britain, in general, seem to have an uncanny way of turning up as the setting in English literature; think The Hound of the Baskervilles and Wuthering Heights.
Previously, in all my reading, the moors are basically never a good place to be; they are more commonly depicted as a god-forsaken, inhospitable, unforgiving land where the devil in human form thrives, ingenues die, and black dogs haunt. That is, until The Secret Garden, where the Yorkshire moors are explicitly credited with Mary’s and Colin’s newly found good health. Based on my own experience of living in Yorkshire, and even that ill-advised overnight trip into the darkness of the Yorkshire Dales, the only way that I could ever see myself returning is if I need someplace to hide after committing murder, so I don’t know that I quite agree with Burnett. The sheep seemed to be pretty happy, though, so there’s that. On the other hand, do I really know what an unhappy sheep looks like?
Probably not like this?
I want to return to this idea of the garden as a healing space for people and families. There’s a bit of a play on this in The Secret Garden, because the garden in question is also the agent of destruction for the immediate family, the Cravens. Lady Craven fell when a tree branch broke, while pregnant; turns out, that’s not very good for the health of anyone involved. As interesting as it is to have a garden-healing story wherein the garden murdered the mom (my words), there isn’t very much discussion of this, or what it might mean, or what we should think. The lord taketh with one hand? Is it that? Moving on, I suppose.
Artichoke, I don’t know how familiar you are with the premise of The Secret Garden, so let me give you a quick rundown, at least of the bits that I want to talk about. After the aforementioned fall from the tree, she then died in childbirth. Her husband took one look at the scrawny little excuse for a baby (Colin), which was expected to die by basically everyone, decided that he didn’t really want it if his wife wasn’t going to take care of it, and peaced out.
Ten years later, enter Mary, the cousin. Mary’s parents didn’t love her either (I’m seeing a theme) and even if they did, it doesn’t matter now, because when the cholera comes to India, everybody dies. She finds the garden, abandoned these ten years (kind of), and then she and Dickon (the Yorkshire lad about whom I have nothing to say except that maybe you could dial back the perfection a little there, Burnett) work to restore it. They introduce Colin (the baby, see above) to said garden, and to the idea that there may be slightly more to life than temper tantrums and dying, and he is healed! He even learns to walk, and be less of a terrible, terrible person (Mary is also a rather lackluster human being, character wise: another theme). He also delivers several lectures on what he thinks of the nature of Magic, and if I was the editor: big, big red slashes across the page.
I suppose the Biblical allegory is right there for anyone who cares to see it; no wonder my mom let me watch the movie so many times. In our origin, we have a young couple in a beatific garden who simply could not be happier. And then, she Falls from the Tree, and suffers the pain of childbirth (which Eve cursed us all with — goddamnit, Eve), which ultimately kills her. The family (minus Eve, I suppose) is redeemed through the act of restoring the garden to liveliness and beauty, and reclaiming it from its wild state; in other words, by humans assuming their God-appointed place as caretakers of the Earth. In the end, the return to Eden comes complete with a reunited family. It’s not a strict parallel; I can’t find the snake in The Secret Garden’s allegory, and quite unlike Eve, no one ever has anything bad to say about Lady Craven.
Speaking of that reunited family, here’s the interesting thing about the book; Colin has to earn his father’s love. Now, that’s a little questionable to start with. I should mention that in personality, Colin is basically a walking (well, not walking) argument against the English aristocracy, so my sympathies towards him were limited. Nonetheless, he’s a ten year old, and he has to earn his father’s love not just by restoring the garden, but by improving his physical health. Which he does: through the restorative powers of visiting the garden and improving his moral character (an improvement brought about by his equally terrible cousin Mary), he becomes healthier, is no longer predicted to kick the bucket at any moment, and he can even walk!
It’s not so much implied as it is explicitly stated that much of Colin’s poor health was the result of his own malcontent and misery (not at first, when he was a baby, but, you know, somewhere along the way, it became his fault), which is problematic in and of itself. Hell, when we get a chapter from Craven’s point of view, he refers to Colin as “it”– which is all well and fine when Colin was a baby, I suppose, but is a little strange when referring to a ten-year-old. The utter rejection of his child is attributed first to Craven’s grief at his wife’s death (he’s mad at the kid for surviving when she’s dead) and then to Colin being just terrible, and also liable to die at any time, and therefore, apparently, unworthy of love. There are implications that dad’s character isn’t exactly up to snuff, all things considered (I mean, he is named Craven), but the idea that he was perfectly within his rights to simply not parent his half-orphaned, cripple child is never really challenged. It was a different time.
I can’t help but point out that while this broken family may have been initially broken by an act of God (see, tree branch, breaking), perhaps the actions of the father (aka, the adult) should get a little bit more credit for keeping it broken? And if Colin is a terrible, wretched little rugrat, maybe that has something to do with the fact that his only parent neither liked nor wanted him– until he becomes a healthy, abled boy, that is. Perhaps we did not really need a return to Eden and the prelapsarian state of being, as can only be offered by a Yorkshire garden. Perhaps we could have averted all of this if Craven could have just tried to be less of a completely terrible human being and an utter failure of a father. Perhaps, furthermore, it is the responsibility of adults to not be terrible parents, and not the responsibility of children to convince them that they do want to parent after all.
Heaven help the kids who took the lessons of this book to heart: you are responsible for healing your broken family. You are responsible for earning your father’s love with your good behavior. He has no reason to love you if you are recalcitrant or, God forbid, sickly or crippled. Speaking of which, you are to blame for your pervasive illness, you malingerer.
But, you know, Eden cures all ills, so I guess it all worked out okay in the end.
All my love,