The Secret Garden - first published in 1911 - is one of those books I remember from childhood only vaguely. For some reason it was the main characters' names which stayed with me - all I could recall 30 years on was that there was someone called Dickon, as well as someone called Colin Craven who never got out of bed; a Mary Lennox and, yes, that's right, a Mrs Medlock and a Martha.
It's one of those books you can't remember if you actually read in full or as an abridged version; or just listened to it being read aloud; or saw a film or play of it. At any rate, I couldn't recall what made the garden a secret one and why that would change Mary's life completely.
Having re-read it, everything came back. And as an adult, you see that this really is a serious and special book; you could even say a spiritual one. There are three lost souls here. The orphan heroine, Mary Lennox, an unlikeable, spoilt little rich girl who expects to be waited on hand and foot - but who has never been loved and is alone in the world. Her depressed uncle, Mr Craven, who has never recovered from the tragic loss of his wife in her much-loved garden, and who has shut the garden up and buried the key. And Mary's mysterious cousin Colin, a nervous hysterical invalid (at least he believes so), hidden away in Misselthwaite manor (a bit like Bertha in Jane Eyre).
As the lifeless, shut-away garden is brought back to life, all three undergo tranformations and find mutual happiness. The key to it all is not just nature; there's an important social message too. Servant girl Martha, a cheerful, down-to-earth and unspoilt local lass from a poverty-stricken but loving family, is Mary's salvation (surely the biblical names cannot be coincidental). Martha's family - her gentle brother Dickon and her wise mother Mrs Sowerby - tend Mary's soul just as Mary learns to tend her garden.
This is an earthy yet sophisticated Edwardian tale whose wisdom still resonates today: the message is that wealth and privilege do not make you happy; far from it. Love, which the poor folk have plenty of, makes you happy, and makes you grow as a person.
In the novel's climax, Mr Craven has a moment of awakening and hears the voice of his long-lost wife calling him, which happens just as Colin has his own epiphany, realising: 'I shall live forever!' The potential for rebirth and regrowth after loss is the allegory here - it's wonderful that Burnett judged child readers capable of appreciating this profound spiritual idea.
During her lifetime (1849 - 1924) she was just as famous for her many novels for adults - yet today only her children's works remain known. You can tell Frances Hodgeson Burnett loved the Brontës - the plot of A Little Princess (my own childhood favourite of her novels) bears close resemblance to Charlotte Bronte's last, unfinished novel; and The Secret Garden is a love-letter to the Yorkshire Moors, complete with many 'wuthering' winds.
Her books are a good stepping-stone for older children towards grown-up classics like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights - if a girl enjoys The Secret Garden, she'll be sure to appreciate either.
The Secret Garden (unabridged) by Frances Hodgson Burnett is published by Oxford University Press (£6.99).
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