CBR11bingo: Listicle (Goodread’s Books That Everyone Should Read At Least Once)
The introductory blurb to The Secret Garden on Amazon reads, “Opening the door into the innermost places of the heart, The Secret Garden is a timeless classic that has left generations of readers with warm, lifelong memories of its magical charms.”
I must be a much more cold-hearted bastard than anyone ever suspected and am likely to be doomed to the same circle of Hell as people who didn’t cry at the opening sequence of Up, because this book did nothing for me.
Mary Lennox is a severely neglected English girl living in India whose parents and nanny (her “Ayah”) all die of cholera. Don’t worry, it’s not sad, because they never paid attention to her anyway and her Ayah is an Indian servant, so that’s okay. Mary is sent to live with her uncle at a manor in Yorkshire where she continues to be a spoiled brat. At this point you can’t blame her for being annoying, because she has been so sheltered she doesn’t even know how to dress herself and has to rely on a Yorkshire servant named Martha to teach her how to do the most basic tasks. Uncle Archibald gives her all the necessities of life that money can buy, but he’s not any more nurturing than her parents were so she starts to wander around the house and grounds looking for something to do. She meets Dickon, a Yorkshire lad and Martha’s brother, who seems to have an uncanny ability to talk to animals. Is he magical, or does he just have basic decency and sensitivity toward living creatures? It’s hard to say, but Dickon is a bright spot in an otherwise dreary story. Mary discovers a garden that has been walled up for 10 years. It turns out this was Archibald’s late wife’s garden; when she died, he had it locked up and left untended. Mary and Dickon start to work on the garden with the goal of bringing it back to its former glory. So far it’s been a little dull, but I’m going with it.
Then, Mary hears crying coming from one of the closed off rooms in the manor and discovers a boy named Colin, Archibald’s invalid son. Colin’s mother died giving birth to the sickly child, and Archibald feared Colin would be a “hunchback” like himself. So he and the doctor (Archibald’s brother) let the child stay hidden in near sensory deprivation to deteriorate even further. Have you ever seen such a case of bad parenting in a children’s story?
Yes. Yes, I have.
Mary and Colin vie to see who can be the most unpleasant, but she eventually wears him down and talks him into coming outside in his wheelchair to see her secret garden. Through the power of the garden and the fresh Yorkshire air, he eventually gets well.
To put the most positive spin I can on this story, the act of nurturing the garden, of taking action, is what changes the children and makes them strong. That’s an admirable message. But this novel. . .it’s just not very good. First of all, it’s badly constructed. There is a chapter where Mary lives with a clergyman and his family before going on to Yorkshire that doesn’t add anything to the novel except ten more pages of Mary being annoying. Colin doesn’t make his first appearance until a third of the way into the novel, even though he is one of the main characters. Colin’s existence is kept secret for no real reason except to add a touch of the gothic to the story, as if he’s a demented first wife being locked away in the attic by her rich husband.
Second, the character development is terrible. The children are unpleasant without experiencing any truly convincing transformation. They become slightly more agreeable by the time the book ends, but Colin is still imperious and bossy, and in Mary’s case it’s really described more as her becoming healthier or “fatter.”
Fat being a relative term
Third, where is the tension in this novel? There’s never any danger of the secret garden being taken away. At one point, the old groundskeeper Ben Weatherstaff catches the children in the garden and there’s maybe a minute of wondering what he might do, but then Colin stands up (again, through the power of fresh Yorkshire air) and reminds him who butters his bread, and Weatherstaff agrees to stay quiet.
Finally, I normally don’t call out racism in a book that’s over 100 years old, but when a book bores me I start picking on things I’d let go if I were more engaged. I fully expect some English superiority to shine through in a novel like this. Mary’s sickly health (that is, lack of fatness) is often blamed on the fact that India was so hot and stifling she couldn’t run around and be a child: It took the bracing Yorkshire air to evoke health and happiness! As racism goes, that’s not so bad. When Mary talks about how she used to slap her Ayah in the face, I raised an eyebrow, but thought, well, the author is demonstrating how disagreeable and spoiled she is. But when Martha, one of the kindest, most admirable people in the novel, talks about India, hoo boy, watch out:
“It is different in India,” said Mistress Mary disdainfully.
But Martha was not at all crushed.
“Eh! I can see it’s different,” she answered almost sympathetically. “I dare say it’s because there’s such a lot o’ blacks there instead o’ respectable white people.”
“Not at all ironic. What-what!”
Look, I didn’t hate this novel. I just didn’t like it much. I’m glad it’s brought joy to so many people but I’m perplexed about the appeal. I was hoping for magic, but all I got was a lesson in the power of positive thinking.
And I can get that on YouTube