The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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Frances Hodgson Burnett | Biography


Early Life

Frances Hodgson was born on November 24, 1849, in Manchester, England. The third of five children born to Edwin and Eliza Hodgson, she was known as "Fanny" during her childhood. Her father was a prosperous seller of household metalwork, such as doorknobs, and the family lived comfortably. When she was three, her father died suddenly. Although her mother took over Edwin's business, she struggled to keep it afloat. The family moved several times, each time to a shabbier neighborhood. In 1855 they relocated to Salford, an industrial town with a textile mill on the River Irwell. There Fanny was surrounded by poverty and squalid conditions, such as pigs foraging through garbage on the street. Although the family was poor, her mother retained many of her genteel customs and instilled them in her children, such as insisting they speak properly and without accents.

The family's economic security became unstable after the Civil War broke out in the United States in 1861. With the U.S. cotton supply in jeopardy, textile production declined as did people's abilities to buy items from the Hodgson business. In 1865 Mrs. Hodgson gave up the business and moved from England to Tennessee to live with her brother. In their new home, their financial situation was no better. They lived in a log cabin outside Knoxville, Tennessee, and often relied on the kindness of neighbors for food to survive. Fanny Hodgson attempted to earn income for the family by starting a school, but it was unsuccessful. Her next endeavor was answering ads for writers in the back of magazines. She sent out several stories, and her first story, "Hearts and Diamonds," about American classism, was published in a magazine in 1868 when she was near the age of 19.

Early Career

Hodgson's writing career quickly took off, and she frequently sold stories to magazines. Within a year the family was able to move to a larger house, as Hodgson helped support them. In 1873 she married Swan Burnett, a medical student. They had two sons: Lionel, born in 1874, and Vivian, born in 1876. Six months after her first son was born, the family moved to Paris, where Burnett wrote night and day while her husband attended medical school. They returned to the United States in 1876 and settled in Washington, D.C. That same year, Burnett's first novel, That Lass o' Lowrie's, was published. It appeared as a magazine serial before being published as a book.

During the next eight years, Burnett published more than a dozen novels for adults, including Louisiana (1880) and A Fair Barbarian (1881), two volumes of short stories, and the play Esmeralda (1877). Burnett's reputation as an author grew as did her popularity in Washington's social circles. Capitalizing on the political intrigue and issues of her new hometown, Burnett wrote Through One Administration, which appeared as a magazine serial in 1881 and as a book in 1883. In 1882 the story of Sara Crewe appeared in the children's magazine St. Nicholas. It was later turned into the book A Little Princess (1905), which, along with The Secret Garden, would eventually become one of her most famous novels.

In 1883 Burnett stopped writing for about three years. She was suffering from either nervous exhaustion or depression and spent her time in the North Carolina mountains and along the Atlantic coast in an effort to recuperate. After she resumed writing, she published her first children's novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), about an American boy who learns he is the heir to an English earl. The book was hugely successful and made Burnett one of the most popular and highest-paid women writers in the United States.

Burnett's marriage was unhappy. The couple stayed married for many years but increasingly spent time apart. Burnett often traveled alone throughout the United States, meeting other authors such as Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women (1868), and Mary Mapes Dodge, who wrote the novel Hans Brinker (1865). For 25 years Burnett divided her time between the United States and England. Her son Lionel became ill with tuberculosis in 1890, and died at age 16, despite Burnett's wide-ranging search for treatment.

Burnett was grief-stricken and buried herself in writing while continuing to alternate between the United States and England. She published several children's stories in the years immediately after her son's death, including Giovanni and the Other: Children Who Have Made Stories (1892), The One I Know Best of All (1893), and Two Little Pilgrims' Progress (1895). She returned to the United States in 1894 when her son Vivian became ill with typhoid fever and stayed with him until he recovered.

Later Career

In 1896 Burnett separated from her husband, Swan, and two years later they divorced. She then leased a country house, Maytham Hall, in Kent, England, and from 1896 to 1908, spent several months a year there. The house was surrounded by land and had many gardens. Burnett became an avid gardener and grew roses in a walled garden similar to the one in The Secret Garden. She spent many hours writing in the garden, accompanied by a tame robin.

In 1900 Burnett married a physician, Stephen Townsend. The marriage was unhappy, and they soon lived apart. Burnett resumed her transatlantic travels. She continued to be a sought-after guest in social circles in London, New York, and Washington, D.C., while also writing novels such as The Making of a Marchioness (1901), about a poor woman who marries an earl, and The Shuttle (1907), a fictionalized version of her marriage to Swan.

Around this time Burnett began writing about her spiritual beliefs and personal philosophy. She expressed them in detail in her 1906 book, The Dawn of a To-morrow before further developing them in The Secret Garden, which was published in serial form in The American Magazine before being published in book form in 1911. The Secret Garden is a treatise on her belief in the power of positive thinking to heal both physical and mental ills.

After her country house in Kent was sold, she returned to the United States and settled in Long Island, New York. She lived next door to her son Vivian and his family, and together mother and son created many elaborate gardens around her house. She remained a highly popular author, until her books began to go out of fashion.

On October 29, 1924, Burnett died of cancer. During her lifetime Burnett wrote 54 books, 13 plays, and numerous stories. Her most popular books during her lifetime were That Lass o' Lowrie's, Through One Administration, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and The Shuttle. Her last book, published posthumously in 1925, was In the Garden, a book about the pleasure of gardens.

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