The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Context

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Critical Reception of The Secret Garden

It took decades for The Secret Garden to gain recognition as a classic. It was not considered one of Burnett's best books, and it was not even mentioned in her obituary. Although it was well received by the public during Burnett's lifetime, librarians and critics considered it rather simple and did not recommend it as a best book for children. Despite this lack of official acknowledgement of the book, children continued to read it.

In 1949 Nora Unwin illustrated the text, and this illustrated edition became hugely popular among children. Other illustrators followed suit, and soon there were numerous illustrated editions available to the public. In the 1960s an edition illustrated by American artist Tasha Tudor was so popular that the critics took another look at the text and began to include it in lists of best children's books.

Industrial versus Pastoral Ways of Living

When Burnett was growing up in Manchester, England, in the 1850s, the city was just starting to address the consequences of rapid urban development brought about by the Industrial Revolution that plagued other areas of the nation. Buildings were close together, and residential areas often lacked sanitary water and sewers. Illnesses spread rapidly, and deaths were common. The dead often were not buried properly, creating further health hazards. Child mortality was high, with almost half the children dying before they were five. Children who did survive were just as likely to lose one or both parents, and many were orphaned. Attempts to address these issues were a dominant concern of the city's government and residents.

The disdain for urban life and its problems led to the resurgence of pastoral literature during the Romantic period in the early 19th century. Pastoral literature emphasizes the positive values of nature and country living. The Secret Garden was written in a late pastoral tradition. Burnett extolled the benefits of living in the country and showed how its characteristics, such as fresh air, promoted physical and mental well-being. She also portrayed country folks as wiser and more attuned to things that mattered than the wealthier classes and urban travelers.

Although The Secret Garden was written more than a decade after the Victorian era ended, the book reflects many Victorian attitudes, particularly those pertaining to the relationship between the lower classes and aristocracy. Aristocrats were wealthier and powerful and therefore considered superior to members of the lower classes. Servants, for example, were expected to defer to the higher classes and to keep their thoughts to themselves. They generally were less educated and were not allowed a great deal of decision-making on the job. Instead, they followed orders and stayed under the radar.

In The Secret Garden, Burnett incorporates these social attitudes in the way the traditional servants behave. But she also challenges these attitudes by portraying some of the country folk as superior to the aristocracy in many ways. For example, Martha, a housemaid, does not fit the stereotype of a submissive servant who knows her place. She speaks her mind more openly to Mary than other servants do. Martha's mother, Mrs. Sowerby, a poor woman struggling to feed her 12 children, is considered an ideal mother, a fount of wisdom regarding children and child raising. And her son, Dickon, a country lad, is an animal charmer who has the trust of everyone who knows him, poor and rich alike.

Burnett also challenges some of the conventional wisdom of her time. During the late Victorian age and Edwardian age, girls seldom attended school. Instead, they were taught by governesses and usually learned domestic skills such as sewing. Mary avoids a governess and learns through experiential activities with nature and builds her confidence by gaining a sense of her own independence. This is more akin to child-centered educational approaches, such as the Montessori method, that began in the early 1900s.

Autobiographical Influences

Much of Burnett's own adult life was filled with unhappiness and grief. Burnett was born into a prosperous middle-class family. The family then fell on hardship, and she was forced to help support them. She experienced a nervous breakdown, the tragic death of her son when he was 16, and two unhappy marriages. In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox, Colin Craven, and his father, Archibald, all must recover from the deaths of their closest family members.

After her son Lionel died in 1890, Burnett spent many years overcome with grief. Eight years later she divorced her first husband, Swan, and rented Maytham Hall, a country house in England. There she threw herself into gardening, in a walled space very similar to the one in The Secret Garden, and grew roses. Like the children in The Secret Garden, she also had a tame robin. Maytham Hall became her sanctuary and a place of great comfort to her. During this time, she began to develop a personal philosophy. She was determined to be an optimist, to overlook—or ignore—anything that made her unhappy. She became a firm believer in mind over matter, positive thinking, and the healing benefits of nature. She combined these thoughts with her religious beliefs and wrote two books about life after death.

After she left Maytham Hall and returned to the United States in 1908, Burnett again threw herself into gardening. In her new home, Plandome Manor, on Long Island, New York, surrounded by gardens, she wrote The Secret Garden. Like the novel's young protagonists, Burnett used gardening as a way to nurture herself and to find meaning following the death of a family member. She also practiced self-healing, adopted positive thinking, and immersed herself in nature to deal with her personal tragedies, grow as a person, and maintain her mental and physical health.

Philosophical and Religious Influences

Burnett lived and wrote during a time that spanned the Victorian, Edwardian, and Progressive ages. This was a period of great social and intellectual change. Psychology had its origins as a science, new philosophies were introduced, metaphysical thinking was popular, and scientific thought was replacing or complementing many long-held religious beliefs. At the heart of all these changes was the belief that humans have the ability to control and influence their lives and are not subject to a preordained destiny. The concept that free will plays an active role in determining the course of individuals' lives encouraged the popularity of philosophical movements emphasizing positive thinking and mind over matter. Two such movements were New Thought and Christian Science.

New Thought was a movement that developed in the mid-1800s. One of its earliest practitioners was American philosopher Phineas P. Quimby. He believed in mind over matter: people could cure physical and mental ailments through hypnosis and sheer will. One of New Thought's core tenets was also the belief that the divine exists within all living things. New Thought, with a variety of paths to spiritual and physical healing and wellness, is more liberal than Christian Science, which offers more strictures in its practice.

Christian Science is a religious denomination founded by American religious leader Mary Baker Eddy in the late 1800s. It combines principles from science, theology, and medicine. Christian Science posits that people can be healed of physical ailments through prayer and their relationship with God. It encourages spiritual healing over traditional medicine, and postulates that negative thoughts can create physical ailments.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Victorian customs about children and child-raising also changed. New educational philosophies developed, such as the Montessori method, which emphasizes less structured learning environments and more open-ended exploratory activities that foster children's natural learning.

These new beliefs and philosophies were not universally accepted. Some people considered them no more than fringe movements. Others continued more traditional practices and customs, such as those that encouraged rigid academic training or that expected children to act like miniature adults and be kept out of sight. Burnett did not consider herself a Christian Scientist or a follower of New Thought, although her personal philosophy resembled their beliefs in many ways. In Chapter 27 of The Secret Garden, she pays tribute to the New Thought movement by comparing its focus on mind over matter to scientific advancements:

To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live.

She developed her own spiritual and religious philosophy, one that considered all denominations equally valid and did not require adherence to any specific religious faith. She believed in many Christian concepts, such as a supreme God and eternal life, but also accepted non-Christian concepts. She believed a force, similar to what many people conceive of as God, resided within all people and that using that force for personal growth and the good of humanity was what mattered most in life; the best way to use that force was through self-healing, positive thinking, and a connection to nature.

British Colonialism in India

India appears as a setting only in the opening chapter of The Secret Garden, but its influence on the novel's protagonist, Mary Lennox, continues after she moves to England. Burnett's perspective on India is ambivalent. On the one hand, Mary's negative treatment of her Indian servants is presented as an appalling example of her sour and selfish character. On the other hand, the novel contrasts India with England in an uncomplimentary way. India represents sickly, idle Mary. England represents healthy, reinvigorated Mary. Burnett implies that if Mary had remained in India, she would never have improved her character or her physical health.

Burnett's ambivalent view of the relationship between India and Britain likely has its origins in Britain's history with India, which it colonized during the 19th century. During the 1800s, stronger countries gained control of weaker countries and made them their colonies in what is known as "imperialism." In 1858 India fell under British rule. The British government then sought to expand its influence and power within India by spreading its own culture, education, and religion there. It installed many British civil servants to oversee the administration of government-run facilities. Mary Lennox's father was one such British civil servant. Britain's colonization of India helps explain in part Mary's negative attitude to her Indian servants, whom she treats with contempt and cruelty in the novel. British rule of India was based on segregation of "superior" Brits and "inferior" natives and bred an often divided culture. India achieved independence from Britain in 1948.

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