the secret garden (part one): another peek inside

“Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight. She was standing inside the secret garden.”  ~ Frances Hodgson Burnett

Illustration by Russell Barnett

Whenever I am asked to name my all-time favorite children’s book, I always say, The Secret Garden.

It’s not like I’ve read it more than three or four times in my entire life, or that I can quote key passages from it at the drop of a hat. And as soon as I mention it, a bevy of other beloved favorites come to mind — Little Women, Little House books, Ramona Quimby, Anne of Green GablesA Little Princess. I love them all — but somehow, The Secret Garden has the tightest grip on my child’s heart.

Original 1911 edition with illustrations by Troy Howell.

When I first read it, at the age of nine or ten, I knew nothing of the Yorkshire moors, gorse, heather, or the myriad flowers mentioned in the book except for roses. Instead of crocuses, snowdrops, lilacs, peonies and forget-me-nots, I had grown up with anthuriums, plumeria, bird-of-paradise. I had never seen a robin, fox, or crow. But I knew loneliness and had a big case of “it’s not fair,” and often wished I had the power to boss grown-ups around and make them listen to me. Oh, to have an Ayah or servants at my beck and call!

Mostly, though, I was captivated by the possibility of having a secret sanctuary which totally excluded all the disappointments, hurts, and concerns of the outside adult world. I loved knowing that children my age were capable of transforming a place of willfull neglect into a thriving Eden, and that even if you were once a brat, finding the right friend and learning how to use a trowel could cure you of it. Hope for the downtrodden! Open the book, pass through the gate, cultivate your imagination as you try to survive childhood.

More of Troy Howell’s illustrations.

I suppose The Secret Garden hit me just when I needed it most. I did not grow up orphaned, rich, sickly or neglected. But like Mary Lennox, who asked for a “bit of earth,” I longed to claim something for my very own, and reading this story allowed me to do that. I claimed whatever emotions rang true, whatever truths made sense, whatever details and descriptions a nine-year-old was capable of holding on to. I had never eaten oatcakes or currant buns, but I knew the comfort a fresh glass of milk and a homebaked treat could provide. I could pretend a wild robin trusted and liked me unconditionally, and that I could depend on Martha or Susan Sowerby when my own mother was not around.

European Robin photo by Steve Greaves

Then there’s the ingenuous belief that a small nobody girl like me, all on her own, could turn the corner and discover a wondrous, astonishing, albeit forbidden place! Why not? It was after reading this book, I think, that this startling thought took hold: you are capable of creating your own reality (in fact you must) — plant the seeds early, feed, nourish, protect and tend to the ideas that matter most. There is a secret garden in every person’s soul.

North York moors in low light (photo by Alan)
North Yorkshire moors pasture land (photo by Alan).
Heather moorland, North York Moors National Park.

Recently, I read the book again, and it was, in many ways, like reading it for the first time. Because now I have the advantage of knowing what Yorkshire really looks like. I’ve wandered a little on those moors with the wind “wuthering” around me, heard the famous Yorkshire accent or Tyke, tasted some of that hearty cuisine. I’ve even been south to Kent, site of Great Maytham Hall, where Burnett lived for a time with her own rose garden and friendly robin, which is to say, now the story is sweeter, richer, deeper, more vivid and far-reaching. I wonder, sometimes, if my reading it as a child lay the groundwork for my decision later on to leave the insulated haven of O’ahu for a larger, distant garden two oceans and a continent away.

Great Maytham Hall photo by Stephen Nunney.
The enclosed garden beyond the wall on the right was Burnett’s inspiration for The Secret Garden (photo by Stephen Nunney).

One thing I do know about England — “this sceptred isle, this other Eden” — is that gardens are taken very seriously, from the immaculate grand scale formal gardens of manor houses and parks, to the private gardens proudly and lovingly tended by the average citizen. Even small, non-descript rowhouses will have a patch of green out back, a natural calling card. If you’re British, you like your lager at room temperature and your gardens tidy, and Frances Hodgson Burnett exploited the garden metaphor to its fullest. It was a place of destruction and tragedy, where Colin’s mother had her fatal accident, but more importantly, a place of restoration, redemption, and healing — for Mary, Colin, and Mr. Craven.

Cottage Garden, North Yorkshire moors
Hampton Court Palace

One of the things I noted this time around was finding the Yorkshire dialect distracting at times; I don’t remember if it hindered my reading of the story as a child, but I found myself stumbling over some of it. I also did not like Colin’s pontificating and sermonizing near the end of the book. I found his scientific lecture about Magic over the top, an authorial intrusion designed to hammer home Christian Science/New Thought tenets.

The story itself beautifully illustrates the curative powers of nature, the importance of love, companionship, and friendship, and the power of positive outlook on health and well being without these added sermons. Dickon singing the Doxology also made me cringe. Just a little too preachy for me, though I doubt I found any of this objectionable as a child reader. Then, I read for story and happy endings and the high enchantment factor. The world of that garden was foreign, idyllic, pure fantasy. Who could have dreamed I would one day travel to that eternally green land a spinster schoolteacher, and emerge a blushing bride? ☺ There’s magic there, indeed.

The references to India, i.e., partly blaming a location for Mary’s ill health and sour temperament also gave me pause: “Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.” India is presented in an unfavorable light throughout the book — a place of ugliness and disease with nothing to recommend it, whereas England is an ideal place where, with fresh air, exercise, and companionship, people can thrive (even Mr. Craven’s travel to foreign lands is a sign of sickness). My mind swirls with the evils of British colonialism; I’m once again reminded of Burnett’s Christian Science agenda, how times have changed with our current aversion to overt moralizing, and how “showing, not telling” is today’s barometer for good fiction. Still, regardless of age, we all read for moments like these:

One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun — which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone’s eyes.

The Secret Garden was first serialized in The American Magazine (1910), before book publication in 1911. Surprisingly, it was not Burnett’s most lauded work during her lifetime. She led an interesting transatlantic sort of life with her fair share of sorrow and adversity: losing her father at age 4, suffering from depression, surviving two failed marriages and the death of her older son, enduring harsh public scrutiny and condemnation of her lifestyle.

The book’s been in the public domain in the U.S. since 1987, and is available in a skerjillion different editions, some with illos by people like Tasha Tudor and Charles Robinson. A recent edition published by Candlewick in 2007 contains a treasure trove of Inga Moore’s gorgeous ink and watercolor illustrations. I love how the highly detailed pictures progress from soft and subtle to brighter and more vibrant as the children and garden flourish. In many ways, it’s the secret garden as I have long imagined it. If you love this story, you must see it.


Do kids these days still read The Secret Garden? Lois Lowry doubts they do, but would love it if they did, because:

I would like next century’s children to know the languor of loneliness, the anguish of neglect, and the sweet frisson that secrecy gives. And if only, through the leisurely pace of pages, they could learn of the patience, tenderness, and nurture that once brought flowers — and young humans — into bloom. (Horn Book Magazine, 2000)


Just for fun, take this Secret Garden Quiz to see how much you remember.

And, don’t miss Lois Lowry’s Introduction in the Bantam Classic edition — insightful and enlightening (click on the See Inside feature to read it in its entirety).

Private garden in the Cotswolds.


* Stay tuned for Part Two: Yorkshire Culinary Delights from The Secret Garden!

31 thoughts on “the secret garden (part one): another peek inside

  1. Thank you for the memories, and wonderful pictures, and complicated thoughts. I usually give Little Women as my favorite, but Secret Garden is runner up, so it was fun to see you reverse that. Did you find your sweetheart in England? I’ve got to reread this, there was so much — and look forward to appropriate snacks tomorrow!

    (I must say Maytham Hall does not look too inviting; but I suppose if you stay in the rose gardens…)


  2. THE SECRET GARDEN is one of my all-time favorites, for many of the reasons you’ve cited here (and which I include in my own book-in-progress). This book was a balm on my soul back then, in much the same way that gardening is today. Thanks so much for a lovely walk down Memory Lane. I bought another copy just now, making sure that I got the edition you mention. I’m looking forward to reading it yet again.


  3. Jama, thank you for a beautiful post. You captured just about every feeling I had/still have when I read that book–although my fantasies about gardening have gone away as an adult who hates it. 🙂 That secret place, though, that world where you could be yourself and it was a good person to be. The magic of the robin KNOWING Mary and recognizing her as someone to let in. Do you remember how good it felt when Mary came running into the warm house with the cold on her cheeks? When she first started getting strong and her clothes got too small?

    I did read this to my son when he was young. He wasn’t thrilled at first, but I knew if I could get him to hold on till Dicken, I’d have him, and I did. And if I remember right, he loved the robin and the secret place as much as I did.


  4. Yes, Len and I met in Wimbledon (I had gone there to teach high school). Since he’s from NH, we’d have probably never met if both of us hadn’t gone to the UK to work.

    Maytham Hall looked vastly different when FHB lived there (it had a Tudor frontage). She did work in her rose garden there and was friended by a nice robin. She didn’t begin writing the SG until after she moved to NY. I guess the distance gave her some good perspective. I need to read more about her to learn why she chose to set the book in Yorkshire, when Maytham Hall is far south in Kent (and she’s originally from Manchester). She was apparently good with those regional accents, though.

    Part Two will come next week! Thanks for reading, Jeannine :)!


  5. What lovely pink roses (my favorite)! Nice to hear you also found sanctuary in this book. Certain things just stay with you always. You’ll like the Inga Moore edition. It’s really a collector’s item :).


  6. Oh yes, those are great moments you mention. Lots of “cold on your cheeks” if you live up in Yorkshire! I was always quite taken with Dickon, too, and wish I had that innate talent with animals. Some have been critical of him, though, saying Burnett made him too perfect and happy, and that his was the only character who didn’t change by the end of the book. Didn’t really bother me, though, not when I had to listen to all that moral talk from Colin.

    P.S. I’m not much of a gardener, either — love to look at gardens, but no green thumb here :).


  7. What a beautiful, thought provoking post.
    I’m in love with your blog, Jama.
    Becky Ramsey


  8. What a fabulous post, even more fabulous Lois Lowry quote, and WHO KNEW it was first serialized?? I didn’t!

    I first read THE SECRET GARDEN in my mid-20s, I think it was, when I first started thinking about studying children’s lit in grad school (through a library degree). I stopped approximately a thousand times to write down excerpts from it that blew me away. I have pages and pages of SG journal entries/excerpts.



  9. Oh Jama, this is simply beautiful. Thank you for peeling away the layers of the Secret Garden and what it meant to you. We do, all, have the seeds inside of us.


  10. I’ve never read the book, but I saw the movie (HA! I rarely see movies, so I’m always saying the reverse, but in this case, the cliche applies) they made a few years ago–well, maybe it was 10-15 years ago now. It sounds like it was pretty true to the book and quite well done. At least, it made me want to read the book. Though I keep dropping it lower in my TBR pile because I know that, since it’s a classic, I’ll always be able to find a copy!


  11. I didn’t realize it was serialized until recently either. There certainly are a lot of beautiful passages — did none of the moralizing bother you (since you first read it as an adult)?


  12. Thanks, Susan — something wonderfully psychic is going on — you with your birthday garden wishes, and me, just happening to post this today. Maybe we could call it creative cross-fertilization? 🙂


  13. I think there are a couple of movie versions. The 1993 version is on YouTube in 11 or 12 parts, I think. I saw half of it, and since it was geared for children, the story was understandably condensed. Instead of Mary’s parents dying of cholera, the movie had an earthquake. I don’t care for the musical Secret Gardens very much. Guess for this particular story, I’ll always only be satisfied with the book. Read it soon!


  14. Wonderful post! I loved this book as a child and still love it today — though like you I have questions and issues with various parts of it. Still, there’s magic in it: loneliness, mystery, and wonder. It’s terribly sad to think that children today might miss it altogether. I hope Lois Lowry is mistaken there, and the book survives!


  15. Like all classics, the book changes as it’s read at different times in one’s life. I was surprised that I never noticed certain issues before, but pleased that many of the good things still resonated with me — mainly, the “magic” that was possible in a hidden place.


  16. I hadn’t yet read the wonderful Lois Lowry essay when I first posted, so came back to thank you for that link. Then I read the comments of all the happy readers. I actually am a fan of the musical, the way it draws in music from India and lets the dead speak/sing as ghosts; and like the movie from the 90s, Mary doesn’t get so swept offstage at the end as she gets rather brushed aside in the book.

    Of course some is context. We celebrated my friend Pat’s fortieth birthday by seeing that musical on Broadway. And I won’t forget my husband and I taking our daughter to that movie and the ride home with Em asking, “Mom, why were you crying at the end?” When I tried to explain, I cried more, and the two of them were laughing so I had to laugh, too.


  17. I need to watch the 90’s movie all the way through, and perhaps give the musical version another chance. I think a live stage performance would probably captivate me; I would think of it as a completely different story then :).

    What a beautiful memory of seeing the SG for Pat’s 40th. A whole other dimension/context there for sure.

    Little Women has never been made into a musical, right? I know there are many movie versions, and I like some of them. I just don’t want to see the March girls kicking up their heels in a dance number or something. Some things are sacred, after all, or should be kept so.


  18. When I was in the second or third grade, I read two books that turned me into a reader for LIFE: Welcome to Junior High, the first book in the Girl Talk series by L.E. Blair, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading The Secret Garden. :o)

    Thank you, Jama, for sharing your insights on The Secret Garden. I agree with your very excellent points on the message of creating your own reality and on the unnecessary/annoying sermonizing in the book.

    Into the Wardrobe


  19. It’s amazing that so many have the same experience of reading this book, and then becoming life-long readers. I think of my innocence upon first reading it, compared to now, how I’m analyzing parts of it, and learning about how the author’s own guilt over leaving a sick son at home while she was out gallivanting was part of her motivation for writing it. Two characters with absent/deceased parents finding each other.


  20. The movie has its goofy and slightly horrifying moments (you know they have to develop the romantic angle, which is absolutely unnecessary, though you can see the roots of it in the book) but there are some lovely visuals. Both here and in the musical Martha is given the dignity she deserves. The musical gets rid of the colonialist aspects that are disturbing, and instead elevates some mystic aspects of India as a force which are convincing through costume and music.

    And I hate to disillusion you, but not only is there a Little Women musical but I saw it and I mostly liked it. I really did not expect to. It took a very good friend to convince me to go. But somehow they kept the spirit, and played some of the musical elements just enough tongue in cheek. And, okay, I’m a sap and like musicals, which helped.


  21. A Little Women musical! Well, now I’m intrigued. I will take solace in the fact that Jo and her sisters did like to put on plays. I love musicals too so maybe I just need to get over myself about LW and SG adaptations. I like the idea of mystical elements of India being part of the SG musical.


  22. So much here to ponder, and let my eyes feast on. All those walled gardens… So lovely and cared for, yet so private.

    I never read the book as a child, but did as an adult. I liked it very much, but felt sad to have missed the child’s reading experience that wouldn’t have been as evaluative.


  23. Perfectly understandable, especially reading with today’s (and an adult’s) standards of excellence in place. But you can share the book with your own children, and “live” the experience that way. 🙂


  24. Lovely post and I so appreciated seeing the various covers. I could never choose a favorite. They all say, ‘Secret Garden” in their own way.


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