Classic children’s book about a lonely child and a hidden garden
I think I was recently down a Wikipedia rabbit hole looking up the filmography of Colin Firth when I found that he had been in a 2020 film adaptation of this book. I recall watching the 1993 version several times and I think I may have read this book as well as a kid, but I wasn’t completely sure. I remember the story was very wholesome, which I was definitely in the mood for, and I have a very pretty edition with lemon-coloured tinted edges that was just the thing.
“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Bernett is a classic children’s novel about a young British girl called Mary who is left orphaned following an epidemic in British India. She is shipped back to England to live at the manor of an uncle she has never met. Spoiled and sullen from being neglected by her parents, Mary is largely left to her own devices in her new home. However, after a bit of kindness from one of the maids, Martha, and her brother Dickon, the encouragement of a little robin redbreast and some exploring, Mary uncovers two secrets of the manor.
This is an uplifting story about a young girl who, despite her privileged upbringing, doesn’t have any emotional connection with anyone. Bernett proposes that friendship, time outdoors and the beauty of nature can improve the happiness and wellbeing of any one. The book is a celebration of life the North York Moors and gardening; not just as a means of food production, but as a healthy and enjoyable hobby. Dickon brings a pagan earthiness to the story, encouraging and bringing the best out of prickly Mary in the same way he does the English wildlife.
However, unlike the inimitable “Black Beauty” (which I have in the same set of children’s classics), there are some a few elements to this book that don’t hold up today. Mary starts her life in India, and unfortunately the book has a lot of racist, colonial views about Indian people. There is a moment in the book where Bernett is a family violence apologist, suggesting that perhaps if a woman spoke more nicely to her husband, he wouldn’t get drunk and beat her. Then, there is a bit of an argument that book espouses toxic positivity.
Nevertheless, it is a cheerful book with some beautiful nature writing, and I’m keen to watch Colin Firth as Lord Craven.