The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Chapter 9 : The Strangest House Anyone Ever Lived In | Summary



Mary finds the garden mysterious looking and very still. She wonders if the plants are dead and hopes some are alive. She is very happy to be in the garden because she feels "as if she had found a world all her own." Despite the garden's quietness and the feeling she is "hundreds of miles away from anyone," Mary does not feel lonely. She walks around the garden and discovers young shoots sprouting through the dirt. She clears weeds and grass from the shoots so they can breathe and decides to come back every day to do more.

Mary immerses herself in gardening for a few hours and realizes she is happy. During her midday meal, she eats a great deal, causing Martha to comment on how skipping rope has given her an appetite. Without disclosing that she has found a way in to the locked garden, Mary asks Martha about the white roots she had seen on the grounds. Martha explains they are bulbs for spring flowers like crocuses and daffydowndillys. Martha answers Mary's worried question about whether bulbs can live a long time by explaining "they're things as helps themselves," which is why poor people can afford them for their own homes.

Mary mentions she wants a spade, and Martha asks why. Mary continues to keep the garden a secret, telling Martha she wants to make a little garden. Martha shares that her mother, Mrs. Sowerby, has recommended Mary be given a bit of space for her own garden and that it would make Mary "right down happy over it." Mary is pleased and comments that Martha's mother seems to know many things. Martha concurs, saying a woman who brings up 12 children "learns something besides her A B C."

After Martha tells Mary she saw a spade for sale in Thwaite, Mary says she wants it and can pay for it, using some of the weekly allowance Mr. Craven gives her. Martha suggests that Dickon can pick it up for Mary and bring it to the manor. Martha dictates a letter to her brother and Mary writes it. Then Martha says her mother is going to ask Mrs. Medlock if Mary can visit the cottage soon. Mary is thrilled with all the good things that have happened to her that day and looks forward to meeting Martha's mother, who "doesn't seem to be like the mothers in India."

At her afternoon tea, Mary asks Martha if the scullery maid still has a toothache because she heard the sound of crying again. Martha tells her not to go "walkin' about the corridors an' listening" as it would make Mr. Craven very angry. Mary ends the day pondering the strange house she lives in, but feeling "comfortably tired."


Mary, the house, and the garden parallel one another. The garden is like the manor, a desolate setting devoid of human contact. No one has visited it for 10 years. When Mary first came to Misselthwaite Manor, she was isolated, neglected, and lacked human contact. Like the garden, she had a deadness inside that was preventing her from growing and blossoming. Fresh air and exercise are now clearing the cobwebs in her mind and encouraging her mental and physical activity and growth. In a similar manner, Mary, who has lost her parents so recently, now removes the weeds and grass smothering the young shoots in the secret garden so they can feel the fresh air and sunshine. Mary's healing is progressing so well she can now nurture something in addition to herself. Her interests are also expanding. She wants to bring the garden back to life. She wants to know about its plants. She is less self-contained and connects with people as a source of information for things she is interested in.

She is especially interested in Mrs. Sowerby, Martha's mother, who seems to be a fount of wisdom about children and life in general. As her knowledge of the world expands, Mary becomes aware that all mothers are not the same, and her prior knowledge of mothers, based on her experience in India, is limited, not absolute. Mary's own mother didn't want much to do with her at all. Mrs. Sowerby, a lower-class woman with plenty of children of her own, acts as an idealized mother figure, providing a considerably different model of maternal affection.

Like Dickon, who has a way with animals, Mrs. Sowerby has a special way with children. She is a kind of garden too, a force of nature overflowing with love, generosity, and wisdom. The mother of a large brood of her own, she helps everyone around her grow and flourish. Her name, Sowerby, indicates her status as an earth mother. To sow means "to plant." Mrs. Sowerby plants the seeds of love and care necessary to nurture children so they can become healthy, independent individuals.

The fact that Mrs. Sowerby is from a different social class is also significant. She is wise about children despite her lack of formal education, illustrating Burnett's belief that experience can be a better teacher than the classroom, and recognizing the Romantic ideal that the more closely to nature people live, the stronger their innate ability to nurture growth. Martha's description of the bulbs also points out a distinction between the upper and lower classes. The multitude of gardens and orchards at Misselthwaite Manor contrasts with how people in lower social classes overcome barriers of poverty by planting bulbs that come up each year and require little care. The bulbs reinforce the concept of nature as a life force as the plants will grow for a lifetime.

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