The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden is a charming work of children's literature, filled with beautiful depictions of the innocence of childhood, as well as the titular garden itself. It was first serialized in American Magazine in 1910 and published in book form the following year. The novel tells the story of Mary Lennox, whose childhood was disrupted when she was orphaned and forced to move from British India to a decrepit, decaying manor in England. Although upset and cranky at first, Mary and her friend Colin slowly realize the wonderland they've stumbled upon in the form of a "secret garden" on the property.

The Secret Garden remains a beloved work of children's literature, although contemporary critics often take issue with Burnett's antiquated portrayal of race and class systems. Despite this weakness, The Secret Garden has had an impact on many generations of young readers, and it has spawned theatrical, television, and film adaptations.

1. The Secret Garden was inspired by a real manor with a secret garden.

Burnett's inspiration for her meticulous descriptions of the beautiful, magical garden that Mary explores came from a real manor she called home. Great Maytham Hall in Kent, England, served as the foundation for Burnett's fictional landscape. She rented the property in 1898, only to find it overgrown and in extreme disrepair. Great Maytham's garden even had an old, rusty gate, which Burnett allegedly discovered with the assistance of a robin. Burnett spent the next year replanting the garden's roses and turning the property into a beautiful location once again. When the property finally went up for sale, Burnett realized that, while she had enough money to rent the manor, she did not have enough to buy it.

2. The Secret Garden has been criticized for its racist undertones.

The Secret Garden was considered, at the time of publication, a kid-friendly story of magic and wonder. However, modern critics have pointed out several troubling undertones in the novel. Mary's upbringing in India has a "traumatic" effect on her, causing in her the inability to relate to working class people in Britain without viewing them as servants. Mary also claims other races are inferior to whites, and she seems to suffer no consequences or corrections for this statement in the story. This omission is notable, since a great deal of The Secret Garden concerns correcting Mary's bad behavior and changing her shallow views.

3. A character in The Secret Garden may have been modeled on Burnett's deceased son.

Burnett may have modeled the character Colin on her deceased son, Lionel. Lionel died of tuberculosis, a bacterial lung disease, when he was only 16, and Burnett was stricken with depression and guilt, particularly since she had been abroad for a great deal of Lionel's childhood. After her son's death, Burnett reportedly "wandered Europe like a ghost" before settling down at Great Maytham Manor. Critics speculate whether the sickly Colin, who is restored to health in The Secret Garden, may have been a way for Burnett to live out a literary fantasy of her child coming back to her. Burnett wrote messages to Lionel in her journal long after his death:

I tried to carry you in my arms to the gates of Heaven, past Pain and Death so that you would wake up to a beautiful, strange surprise at your new, strong, happy body and the day that has no night, and the city whose gates are never closed.

4. Before moving to the United States, Burnett's mother made her burn her writing.

Burnett's family was not supportive of her childhood dream to write. Her parents moved from Britain to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1865, forcing young Frances to transition to an entirely different way of life: a smaller home and an end to her formal education. To make matters worse, her mother sold most of the family's belongings, and Burnett to burn the stories she'd written as a child.

5. The novel's original title was an allusion to a popular nursery rhyme.

Burnett originally intended to entitle her novel "Mistress Mary" instead of The Secret Garden. "Mistress Mary" was an allusion to a popular nursery rhyme from Britain:

Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And marigolds all in a row.

Since the rhyme mentions both the protagonist's name and the cultivation of a garden, Burnett thought it was a coincidental choice for a title.

6. The Secret Garden can be read to advocate Christian Science.

Some critics claim that The Secret Garden promotes Christian Science—the idea that diseases can be cured through prayer and thought, rather than modern medicine. This movement developed in the late 19th century, around the time Burnett wrote her novel. The author herself was an advocate of Christian Science, and The Secret Garden has been called her "clearest expression of faith" in the movement. In the novel, Colin is healed from his illness by time spent in the garden, as well as his own positive thoughts. The Secret Garden even posits that "just mere thoughts are as good for one as sunlight."

7. Hodgson Burnett was blackmailed into her second marriage.

Hodgson Burnett's own life story was filled with romantic strife, as she traveled back and forth between the United States and Britain and found herself in two unhappy marriages. During her first marriage, Burnett had a lengthy affair with Stephen Townsend, a doctor more than 10 years her junior. Townsend begged for her hand in marriage and finally threatened to publicize the fact that she'd let him kiss her after two weeks—a scandalous revelation at the time. Burnett eventually gave in to this blackmail, divorcing her husband in 1898 and marrying Townsend two years later.

8. Although The Secret Garden is a children's book, it first appeared in an adult literary magazine.

Oddly, The Secret Garden wasn't initially marketed to children, despite its now clear designation as children's literature. The novel was first serialized in American Magazine in 1910, a year before it would appear as a book. American Magazine was a publication targeted toward adults, with an exclusively adult readership. Readers of the magazine assumed The Secret Garden was meant to be adult fiction, unaware of the lasting impact it would have as a children's book in subsequent years.

9. The Secret Garden's copyright expiration led to a resurgence in its popularity.

The Secret Garden was well received upon its publication, but it was somewhat forgotten later in the 20th century. However, the novel's copyright expired in the United States in 1987 and in Europe in 1995. These expirations allowed for a great number of abridged and adapted editions to be released from publishing houses around the world. Many new editions were produced with beautiful illustrations, leading to a rebirth and revival of the novel's popularity for a new generation.

10. A 1987 film adaptation was shot at the same location as Downton Abbey.

The Secret Garden shared a location with the incredibly popular television series Downton Abbey. The 1987 film adaptation of The Secret Garden was filmed at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England. Fans of Downton Abbey will immediately recognize the now-famous castle as the setting of the show. The castle itself has had a long history, being passed through several noble families. The landowner in the early 21st century was Lord Carnarvon, who has stated, "I am the last link of the feudal system. I've done everything I possibly can to keep the ancestral home."

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