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Retro Friday Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here @ Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!
Like most everyone else, my mother read The Secret Garden to me as a kid. I remember lying on my back on my bed at night staring up at the ceiling and out the open window to the fireflies outside as she read about Mary Lennox and Dickon and a sick little boy named Colin no one wanted to remember. Beyond that, however, my memories had faded quite a bit in the intervening years. I've seen a couple of film adaptations. In fact, the Hallmark one was a fixture in our home growing up and I still start humming Chopin's Nocturne in E Minor whenever I run across a Secret Garden reference or think of one of the characters. And I made the acquaintance of the musical in college and fell in love with that adaptation and the beautiful, beautiful score. However, that's sort of summed it up for me for a long time. I'd forgotten the particular words, you know? I'd forgotten the way Frances Hodgson Burnett employed them to create the magic and sense of wonderment unique to this classic story. But a few months ago, the light dawned on me that it might just be the perfect book to read to my two oldest children, that maybe it was the book we ought to be sharing just then. So I pulled out the gorgeous oversize copy my mom had given me for Christmas and opened it up to the first haunting illustration of Misselthwaite Manor. 

Mary Lennox is being sent away. Not a new sensation for her, as she has consistently been sent away from every party, every room, every home she's ever know, this time does change things in that she is being sent away from the only land she's ever known. This time she is an orphan and going to live in a remote part of England with an uncle she did not know existed. Upon arriving at the lonely Misselthwaite Manor, young Mary sees she is to be by and large left alone, as her Uncle Archie rarely visits his home. Rumors of a hunched back and a tragic death haunt Mary's steps as she explores the grounds and gardens of her new home. And at night, she swears she can hear someone crying. Befriended by the young maid Martha, her younger brother Dickon, and a cheeky little robin, Mary grows to love her new home and finds the courage to push past the years of neglect and silence to find the secret behind the cries and the locked door. The reward, if she can hold onto it, promises to be far beyond the depth and breadth of her imagination.

First published in 1911, I was amazed at how well The Secret Garden translated to today's children and their own concerns and experiences of the world around them. That's not to say that I didn't cringe several times at some of the blithely expressed social mores of the time, particularly the attitude toward the Indian "natives" and the color of people's skin. The same thing happened when I read Peter Pan aloud to my son a year or so ago. But you know what, we can discuss these things with our children. We can explain and talk about history and the evolution of gender and civil liberties. We don't need to be afraid of those topics. And such was the case here. But beyond that, this beautiful story fell on us like gently-falling rain upon parched ground. We drank it up. I wasn't sure what my children's reactions would be, but they were immediately enchanted. As was I. Somehow, I forgot with what insight and effortless clarity Ms. Burnett saw children. These poor, fiercely unhappy children. Mary Lennox is the predecessor of so many outwardly disagreeable, inwardly desperate young female characters that came after her. The three of us loved her unreservedly from her first uttered syllables. She's dynamic and active and in control of herself when she has been so long surrounded by incapacitated or uninterested adults who nevertheless formed the rigid borders of her life. And the way that she and the garden saved each other continues to speak something to my soul. The exquisite depiction of the need these three children and the garden had for each other is masterfully done. I'm so happy my children understood it and loved it, too. We three walked around the house singing, "Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary" for weeks afterward. It was heavenly.

Buy: Amazon B&N The Book Depository

Retro Friday Roundup 
Carla @ Makeshift Bookmark reviews The Road Home by Ellen Emerson White

Linkage
Boston Bibliophile - "She doesn't romanticize the children or childhood but presents the children with respect and realism."
Good Books and Good Wine - "It’s about the quiet sort of magic that happens when you let your barriers down and trust others."
One Librarian's Book Reviews - "I'd forgotten just how magical this book was."
That's What She Read - "It is one of those novels that loses nothing over time."
Things Mean a Lot - "I’ve been daydreaming about having my own garden ever since I finished this book."

Comments

  1. This is definitely one of the books I remember most from my childhood, though I think it was a sister who read it to me, rather than my mom. In fact, I think Dickon may have been my first literary crush. I was actually flipping through my copy just the other day and thinking that I need to read it again soon.

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    1. Lol! A totally worthy first literary crush.

      I love it when childhood classics hold up so well as adults.

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  3. I have read this one so many times since my first go round at age 6 or so that I have it practically memorized, and fortunatly married someone who appreciates it when I look at something in the garden and ask, "Is it wick, Patrick? Is it wick?" (since his name isn't Dickon, I have to misquote a bit. Can't be helped.)

    I love the garden, of course, but I also love the bit where she's wandering the halls...

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    1. Good for him! You obviously married well.

      The wandering of the halls is so lovely. I had forgotten all the rooms and descriptions.

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  4. I love love love A LITTLE PRINCESS and can quote vast swaths of it, however, I was never able to get into Secret Garden as a child. I didn't like Mary. (Mandy, IMO, was a preferable variation on the theme). Having said that, though, I read it a few years ago and I really liked it, though nothing will ever replace Princess Sara in my heart.

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    1. I almost said that A LITTLE PRINCESS should be up next on my revisiting of childhood classics. Because it has seriously been a long time for that one, too. I must have watched the Shirley Temple film a million times as a little girl, though.

      I'm not sure why Mary resonated more with me than Sara did as a girl. Probably some deep-rooted peevishness. ;)

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    2. Have you two read Wishing for Tomorrow, Hilary McKay's recent continuation of the story? It is utterly excellent.

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  5. Wow....it's been a couple decades since I've read this book -- but i remember it being very special to me. I even had a "secret garden" created in my yard when we redid our landscape a few years ago. I may have to go pull it off the shelf and start reading it to my boys tonight.

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    1. I was surprised at how long it had been for me, too. And I am currently sitting here utterly envious over your very own secret garden! That is unbelievably awesome.

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  6. Yay! I'm so glad that you decided to read this with your kiddos, I absolutely adore this one and it's probably my favorite childhood classic. In fact, it's probably what made me fall in love with Gothic novels--The Secret Garden is totally a Gothic tale for kids (at least I was totally creeped out by it). I really loved reading The Humming Room by Ellen Potter earlier this year which was a lovely modern retelling, and I just rewatched the Maggie Smith version of the movie a couple of months ago! Also that middle copy with the green cover is the one I've always owned. =)

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    1. I can understand why. It's hard to beat for sure. And I was so delighted it held up well for my kiddos. It is totally a Gothic children's novel. Holy crap, those wandering passages are creepy! I've never read THE HUMMING ROOM, though I've heard of it. Thanks for reminding me of it.

      The middle green one was mine as well. *love*

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  7. I'm glad you could share Secret Garden with your kids. I have always loved this book. I reread it last year and enjoyed it!

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    1. So nice to hear of people returning to it years later and still loving it. Give you hope, doesn't it?

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  8. Anonymous10:11 PM

    I had never heard there was a musical of it!
    And what version of the movie did you watch?
    The one with Maggie Smith? I LOVE THAT MOVIE. I own it and everything. I also got a pretty edition of the book in Spanish that I bought when I was in college. I really love the kids. and Dickon, I love Dickon!

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    1. Oh my. Alex, you must check out the soundtrack to the musical. It's simply lovely.

      The movie version I grew up with was the Hallmark one with Derek Jacobi and Colin Firth. I think I've only seen the Maggie Smith one once. Ages ago. I really should give it another viewing.

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    2. Anonymous9:53 PM

      I didn't know there was a movie with Colin Firth! I need to look into that :D

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  9. I rarely--if ever--comment on Retro Fridays because I was raised in a different country and speaking a different language, so my childhood and young adult books are very, very different from yours. This one, however, holds a very special place in my heart.

    I read for the first time myself as I read it aloud to my then seven year old daughter--and to her 11.5 year old brother, who crept from his bedroom and lay on the floor by the crack of the door, to listen unseen.

    Thank you for reminding me of those precious moments with my children, now both adults and living away.

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    1. That's such a good point, ALady. And one of the reasons I love reading other readers' contributions to RF since their childhood books are often different from mine.

      This one, however, seems to have crossed oceans and ages. And that makes me happy. Thanks SO much for sharing yours. I adore the image of your son listening from the floor through the crack in the door. What a sweet memory.

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  10. This is one of those books from my childhood that I can pick up and be immediately transported back to that time. I read it to my girls and they loved it too. What a great book!

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    1. Did you? How lovely. What would we do without these magical classics?

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  11. Loved this one as a child... and I still love it, I think. I read The Humming Room earlier this year, a retelling by Ellen Potter, and was really impressed by it (and over again by Burnett's original). Unhappy characters who change have something to teach children and adults - I think that story is timeless. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Another recommendation for THE HUMMING ROOM! I really have to look into this one.

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