I’m not sure I ever read this century-old classic of children’s literature when I was a kid, but I can understand why readers have loved it over the decades. It’s got everything: orphans, woodland creatures, an immense mansion on the moors of Yorkshire, and lots of secrets! And the overall message is a timeless one that really can’t be repeated enough — mental health and physical health are closely related and spending time in the natural world is good for the soul.
The main characters of the story are three kids, aged 10-12. Mary Lennox, 10, is an orphan whose parents (and many servants) died of the cholera epidemic in India. Her only living relative is an uncle, Archibald Craven, who lives at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. Mary when we meet her is a sick and sour child. She is spoiled and dislikes everyone and everything. At the manor, she is pretty much left to her own devices; her uncle stays out of sight and travels a lot, and the servants have better things to do than pay her any attention. So Mary, out of boredom, starts walking the grounds and finds gardener Ben Weatherstaff, a grump who is a lot like Mary. Despite herself, Mary begins to care about things and people other than herself: Ben, a robin who frequents the gardens, and the young servant Martha, who challenges Mary to be more independent and does not indulge her tempers.
Through Martha’s stories, Mary gets to know Martha’s very large family and eventually meets her little brother Dickon, age 12. Dickon is a fascinating character and the heart (perhaps soul) of the story. He is truly at one with nature; he knows how plants grow and how to speak to animals. He is, in Mary’s words, an animal charmer and capable of Magic. Dickon is kind and thoughtful, and when Mary discovers the “secret garden” that her uncle’s deceased wife had tended, Mary enlists Dickon’s help to bring it back to life.
The garden was meant to be off limits. When his wife died 10 years ago, Uncle Archibald locked it up and hid the key. No one was to ever go there again, but Mary was determined to get in, and that is not the only secret of the manor she uncovers. After hearing crying in the night and not being satisfied with the explanations given to her, Mary discovers her 10-year-old cousin Colin. He is a sickly boy, bedridden and given to tantrums and hysterics. His existence is meant to be a secret. Colin tells Mary how he hates to be looked at and how he is not expected to live to be an adult. When the servants discover that Mary and Colin have met, they are terrified that they will get in trouble, and then pleasantly surprised that Colin and Mary get along so well.
At this point, the storytelling shifts from focusing on Mary to Colin. Like Mary, he is spoiled and unhealthy, sort of the opposite of Dickon. Like Mary, he is fascinated by Dickon and considers him a source of great Magic. Both children grow happier and healthier for their relationship with Dickon, each other, and the garden. They learn to find joy in life, to find optimism and happiness. And as their mental health improves, so does their physical health. While the adults in this novel come off as inept if not neglectful (with the exception of Dickon’s mother), Dickon, Mary and Colin show signs of great wisdom. They are able to see beauty and joy in their immediate world, something Uncle Archibald has struggled to do for 10 years. As Colin says of “magic,”
…people don’t know what it is like or how to make it. Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen.
I’m pretty sure I’ve heard TED talks that say as much and plenty of self-help books have been written about the same thing.
As a side note, I would like to add that I am very impressed that Hodgson Burnett wrote about Colin’s feelings as a child being talked about by adults. One of the reasons he hates for people to look at him and generally avoids their company is because they talked about him in front of him as if he weren’t there or couldn’t understand what they were saying about his health issues. As a mother of a child with a disability, I can tell you that that happens more often than it should. Presume intelligence! Don’t talk about children (or anyone, for that matter) in front of them as if they won’t understand. It’s rude and harmful.
The Secret Garden is a charming story that touches on rather deep themes — the importance of being connected to the natural world and the harm that poor mental health can have on one’s physical health. I suspect many children after reading it will want to learn to “charm” squirrels and robins as Dickon does! And why not? There are worse ways to spend your day.