Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Adventure classics -- A garden of healing for a lost boy

The Secret Garden

by Frances Hodgson Burnett


How much did Frances Hodgson Burnett want a daughter? So much she only made a slight spelling change in the name she had chosen (from Vivien to Vivian) when her second child turned out to be a boy. Poor Vivian Burnett got dolled up with long golden curls and lace and velvet suits to become the inspiration for the sentimental book that made his mom famous. At least he lived through it.

image: wikimedia commons
This post isn’t about that boy -- or that book.

It was for her older son, Lionel, that Burnett wrote what many people consider her best book, 1911’s The Secret Garden. It’s the book in which Lionel’s stand-in, Colin Craven, is transformed from invalidism to exuberant, boyish life. And by the way, don’t be fooled into thinking The Secret Garden is just a girl’s book (although girls like it, too). Burnett’s putative heroine, Colin’s tomboyish cousin Mary Lennox, who practically bullies him back to health, is the rowdy, bossy brat Lionel’s little brother Vivian probably longed to be.

Unfortunately, Lionel didn’t live to see the book that should have made him famous. Born in 1874, he died of tuberculosis in 1892. His death plunged Burnett, already struggling with a failing marriage, into depression. She would see the breakup of marriage to her sons’ father and a second (and short-lived) marriage before finding a real life secret garden at Great Maytham Hall in Kent and coming to terms with her personal losses.

In The Secret Garden, ten-year-old Mary Lennox is sent from India, where her parents have died in a cholera epidemic, to Misselthwaite Manor, Yorkshire estate of her reclusive uncle, Archibald Craven. Bored nearly out of her mind at being the only child in the huge old house with its hundred rooms, she begins to explore the estate’s gardens. Hearing stories about a mysterious, walled, locked garden, Mary sets out to find it. With the help of a friendly robin, a crusty old garden, and the eerily charming neighbor boy Dickon, the garden returns to life.

But Mary is not, in fact, the only child living in Misselthwaite. Convinced that she hears someone crying late at night, Mary goes exploring and finds a secret even more hidden than the garden -- Craven’s son, Colin. When Colin’s mother died at his birth after a fall in the walled garden, his father shunned him, leaving the child to be brought up by servants who catered to his every wish for fear of bringing on his ever more terrifying temper tantrums. This unhealthy regimen has reduced Colin to life as a chronic invalid, fearing even to leave his room.

Aided by Mary, whose temper is as formidable as his own, the flock of animals Dickon tames, and plenty of fresh air and exercise, Colin gains strength and life, and even reconciliation with his estranged father -- everything Burnett could have wished for her lost Lionel. Burnett knew a saleable story when she wrote it. So the tale that began bleakly ends in the garden’s “flurry of autumn gold and purple and violet blue and flaming scarlet,” as Colin emerges from its gate, the winner of a race, straight into his father’s arms.

Burnett hadn’t been able to save Lionel, but she gave him a second, literary life through her writing.

Of course, The Secret Garden is widely available at Amazon and other sources. And give yourself a smile by trolling clips of the 1993 movie on YouTube.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics plunges into an October of Halloween horror with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”)

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