There’s something strange about The Secret Garden. The classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published 100 years ago this summer, takes the traditional children’s literature trope of the orphan protagonist and twists it. Mary Lennox is not a good-hearted, put-upon creature, cut from the cloth of Oliver Twist or Cinderella (or Anne Shirley, Pip, Jane Eyre or Heidi). Rather she is spoiled, homely, mean and sometimes violent.
I loved this book as a child and still re-read it occasionally as an adult. I loved the idea of a heroine who had faults, who was not the sugar-coated princess that Disney is always selling.
Mary was a broken child. Ignored and pushed aside by her parents she acted out to gain their attention to no avail. It was the only way she knew how to interact with others. Thrust into a new home with absent minders again who only focus on her when she is “in the way” or acting out, she is forced to learn new ways of coping with her life. She comes slowly to herself and it is a journey I love to read again and again.
In The Secret Garden, the orphan Mary’s rightful inheritance is ultimately herself and the natural world, the ability to speak truth to others and to have it spoken back to her – to live a full life of both the body and the imagination.
- The Secret Garden’s hidden depths (guardian.co.uk)