The Secret Garden

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For other uses, see Secret Garden.
Houghton AC85 B9345 911s - Secret Garden, 1911 - cover.jpg
1911 cover
Author Frances Hodgson Burnett
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Children's novel
Publisher Frederick A. Stokes (US)
Heinemann (UK)
Publication date
Pages 375

The Secret Garden is a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was initially published in serial form beginning in 1910, and first published in its entirety in 1911. It is now one of Burnett's most popular novels, and considered a classic of English children's literature. Several stage and film adaptations have been made.

Plot summary[edit]

At the turn of the 20th century, Mary Lennox is a sick and unloved 10-year-old girl, born in India to wealthy British parents who never wanted her. She is cared for by servants, who allow her to become a spoiled and selfish child.

After a cholera epidemic kills her parents and the servants, Mary is discovered alive but alone in the empty house. She briefly lives with an English clergyman and his family before she is sent to Yorkshire, England to live with Archibald Craven, an uncle whom she has never met, at his isolated house, Misselthwaite Manor.

At first, Mary is as rude and sour as ever. She dislikes her new home, the people living in it, and most of all, the bleak moor on which it sits. However, a good-natured maid named Martha Sowerby tells Mary about the late Mrs Craven, who would spend hours in a private walled garden growing roses. Mrs Craven died after a tree branch fell on her in the garden, and the devastated Lord Craven locked the garden and buried the key. Mary becomes interested in finding the secret garden herself, and her ill manners begin to soften as a result. Soon she comes to enjoy the company of Martha, the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and a friendly robin redbreast. Her health and attitude improve, and she grows stronger as she explores the moor and plays with a skipping rope that Mrs Sowerby buys for her. Mary occupies her time wondering about both the secret garden and the mysterious cries that echo through the house at night.

As Mary explores the periphery of the gardens, her robin draws her attention to an area of disturbed soil. Here Mary finds the key to the locked garden and eventually the door to the garden itself. She asks Martha for garden tools, which Martha sends with Dickon, her 12-year-old brother. Mary and Dickon take a liking to each other, as Dickon has a kind way with animals and a good nature. Eager to absorb his gardening knowledge, Mary tells him about the secret garden.

One night, Mary hears the cries again and decides to follow them through the house. She finds a boy named Colin living in a hidden bedroom. She soon discovers that they are cousins, Colin being the son of Lord and Mrs Craven, and that he suffers from an unspecified spinal problem. Mary visits him every day that week, distracting him from his troubles with stories of the moor, Dickon and his animals, and the secret garden. Mary finally confides that she has access to the secret garden, and Colin asks to see it. Colin is put into his wheelchair and brought outside into the secret garden. It is the first time he has been outdoors for years.

While in the garden, the children are surprised to see Ben Weatherstaff looking over the wall on a ladder. Startled and angry to find the children in the secret garden, he admits that he believed Colin to be a cripple. Colin stands up from his chair and finds that his legs are fine, though weak from long disuse. Colin soon spends every day in the garden, sometimes with Dickon as company. The children conspire to keep Colin's recovering health a secret, so as to surprise his father, who is travelling abroad. As Colin's health improves, his father sees a coinciding increase in spirits, culminating in a dream where his late wife calls to him from inside the garden. When he receives a letter from Mrs Sowerby, he takes the opportunity finally to return home. He walks the outer garden wall in his wife's memory, but hears voices inside, finds the door unlocked, and is shocked to see the garden in full bloom, and his son healthy. The servants watch, stunned, as Lord Craven and Colin walk back to the manor together.

Major themes[edit]


The growth in the garden and Mary is the book's central symbol, inspired in part by Burnett's interest in Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science theories.[1] The secret garden at Misselthwaite Manor is the site of both the near-destruction and the subsequent regeneration of a family.[2] Using the garden motif, Burnett explores the healing power inherent in living things. (H. G. Wells's short story "The Door in the Wall" described a similarly transforming secret garden.) In a very literal sense, Mary Lennox "comes alive" as her garden does. The same goes for Colin and Mr Craven. As they tend to something outside their own sorrow, they find joy and new life. There are several direct parallels that can be drawn for the theme of rejuvenation. Mary arrives in winter, when the garden is in hibernation, and she is not sure if it is dead. In the same way, Mary as a child in India has no developed personality because no one ever took an interest in her, only her status and her parents. Mary as a girl is in hibernation, and needs tending to the way a garden does. Mary tends the garden, and Dickon – a wild animal tamer – tends to "Mistress Mary". Before his help, she had no idea how to interact with people her age, be gentle towards animals, play, or use her imagination. Dickon helped draw out her personality and gently corrected her when she was wrong, and showed her the first kindness, except from his sister Martha, that Mary had ever known. In many ways Dickon acts as the Spirit of Youth, much like Peter Pan. He is wild and wonderful, and like a "common moor angel", with only his appearance to mar his puckish nature.

The chain of rejuvenation continues, however, because while Dickon pours thought and interest and kindness into Mary, Mary is busy turning around and pouring those ideals and principles into Colin, a lonelier boy than Mary was as a girl. Colin's disability and his conviction of his own death takes the garden metaphor one step further. Colin is shut in like a plant that gets no sunlight. He is withered (his muscles have atrophied), and he is deeply unhappy. When Mary begins to talk to him every day, to bring interest and sunshine (literally) into his life, Colin awakens to his own self as well. The three play in the garden to grow into themselves, and the "magic" of caring for another thing is one of the main themes centring on their intertwined relationships.


The story constitutes a struggle between common sense and the accepted wisdom of the day, in which common sense wins. Servants and father are seen to do harm by getting caught up in false ideas that come from the doctor who espouses medical practices of the day. An excellent symbol for "common English sensibility" is Susan Sowerby, Dickon and Martha's mother. She acts as an open-arms mother figure, one that is more than welcoming of such unloved children as Mary and Colin. She realizes the importance of laughing in making the two of them stronger, but also the importance of fighting with one another in order to realize the impact their words have on others. She often makes expositional observations as a mouthpiece for the author, such as the metaphor of the world being an orange: "No child owns the whole of it, but will soon discover his or her share." She also notes that the two worst things in the world are "when a child never gets her way" (Mary) or "when he always gets it" (Colin). Her down-to-earth nature, nurturing aspects, and belief in the simplest remedies helps tear down the last of Mary and Colin's walls of class, rank, and the high-falutin (and thus wrong) ideals that stretch the bounds of sensibility.

Susan Sowerby as the symbol of sense continues with her neat solutions to the problems of Mary and Colin. When they cannot hide how hungry they are, she brings them food. When Mary explains the outrageous and overblown charade of Colin's continued illness, she encourages their laughter and scheming. Before she is let in on the secret of the garden and Colin, she allowed Dickon to keep his secrets, though he offered to share with her. She epitomizes trust, practicality, and a down-to-earth nature that directly contrast to the exaggerated wealth of Misselthwaite Manor, Mr. Craven, and Colin's healthcare. The children, by following her folk wisdom over complicated "science," are cured by the fresh summer air, exercise, laughter, and good English sense.

Overcoming trauma[edit]

Both Mary and Colin undergo a great deal of trauma in their childhood. The effects of such trauma – unlike most children's books – are not glossed over. Colin admits to screaming himself into hysterics at the dark thoughts in his head, though he feels ridiculed and worried what the adults who care for him will think and never admits them to anyone but Mary. He understands that she, also a child, will not laugh at him. Colin's worst fear is to be laughed at, because he is so sure he is already an object of ridicule. He is convinced of his imminent death, and his phantom pains and illnesses are derived mainly from his own paranoia and being too much in his own head with nothing else to do. Sensibility of above is not just a theme in direct contrast with "too interfering," but also stands as a juxtaposition for "interfering wrongly." By giving Colin his way, by endorsing his every boyish fear, the staff only fed his anxiety and madness instead of teaching him constructive ways to deal with his own deep depression and panic attacks.

For Mary, she had no tools in which to help her interact with other children. When she was placed in a temporary home with a clergyman, she could not stand his son Basil, who used to tease her mercilessly for being so stiff and withdrawn. Mary's rudeness and sourness are only covers for shyness and fear. (To use an axiom, "an animal only snarls when it is in pain.") Mary tends to copy the mannerisms of those around her when she does not know how to act, and so becomes a mirror for the very things that they despise about themselves. Relying on her parents' own treatment of her, she is standoffish and arrogant on the English boat crossing. She meets the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock who discusses Mary as if she were not there, and so Mary begins to act as if Mrs. Medlock was not there (Mary hung back at the station; "she wouldn't want anyone to think she was her little girl!") By the time Mary is at Misselthwaite she is lonely, angry, and confused. Martha is the first person to be kind to her, and although it takes Mary some weeks, Mary starts showing kindness in return when she thaws out of her culture shock at her new surroundings. It is Martha's kindness that opens the doors to Mary's hibernating mind; she tells her about the secret garden, she gives her a skipping rope, and she mentions to her mother and brother how very odd and lonely Miss Mary is, ensuring Mary a friend and a playmate. Although Martha does not interact with Mary and the garden directly, Mary begins to understand the kindness Martha shows her willingly, because it costs Mary a lot of pride and energy. A turning point for Mary is when she thanks Martha, realizing for the first time that Martha and her mother spent their own hard won wages on Mary instead of their family.

The garden and its theme of rejuvenation go hand in hand with the acknowledgement of childhood trauma. The author does not make Mary or Colin likeable or romantic figures. Instead, she teaches her audience how trauma can affect children, but also about the resiliency of children, and the learning curve when their minds are turned away from the dark, and to the endless summer of the secret garden. Colin's learning to walk equal the very first steps (both of his literally, and metaphorically) toward his wellness, and away from his crippled childhood.

Magical realism[edit]

One of the ways Mary and Colin recover from their past experiences is a type of English practicality which is something that today might be called the power of positive thinking and belief it can bring about psychological and physical healing. Mary and Colin begin to speak of the "magic" of the garden. Dickon counters that the magic is actually God living through the fields and forests. Burnett was a follower of Christian Science, with its belief in God as a life force rather than a person. The "magic" was a euphemism for positive thinking that ties into the three major themes of the book: the rejuvenation and health of the garden can influence positive thinking; positive thinking can turn the mind away from trauma and create remarkable childhood resiliency; and finally it is a sensible way to live life, to be grateful and happy for nature and the small things, quite away from the large old manor and a hundred rooms. The power of nature becomes a magic in its own right; it heals Colin from his illnesses both mentally and physically. It provides direct metaphor because the baby robins learn to fly as Colin learns to walk. They sing and chant together in rituals to make Colin well (and when Colin gets stronger, their belief in positive thinking is reinforced). In many ways it is a type of religion because the beliefs (in a more powerful force), are strengthened when the thing prayed for occurs.

Though magical realism is mostly found in Latin American literature, the character of the robin exists as a character in magical realism. The robin often acts throughout the book in ways larger and more personified than a normal bird would. Robin chirps at Mary, lands on Ben Weatherstaff's shovel handle, and beckons for her to follow him down the long walk in the ivy, where he pecks at the overturned earth in the exact place of the key. He continues watching over Mary as a guardian angel by building his nest in the garden, finding a mate (as Mary finds playmates), and beginning his new life there just as they begin theirs. Sometimes the book is told for a few paragraphs from his perspective how he watched the children grow and exercise. Though it is not mentioned explicitly, the robin, in his highly visible nest, might have built it in the tree where Mrs. Craven fell, sending her into early labor. The idea that the robin is so much a character and a person can also make him more than a "guardian" into a guardian spirit, e.g. Lilias Craven, Colin's mother, who has returned to the garden to encourage Mary to save her husband and son from their mutual destruction by their own hands. The robin, who Ben Weatherstaff says is the only one who goes in and out of the garden, might echo Lilias' own loneliness that her husband has stopped visiting.

Publication history[edit]

Frontispiece, 1911

In part written on Burnett's visits to Buile Hill Park,[3] The Secret Garden was first serialised, starting in autumn 1910, in The American Magazine, a publication aimed at adults. The entire book was first published in the summer 1911 by Frederick A. Stokes in New York, and by Heinemann in London. The 1911 edition was illustrated by M.B.Kirk. Its copyright expired in the United States in 1987, and in most other parts of the world in 1995, placing the book in the public domain. As a result, several abridged and unabridged editions were published during the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the full color illustrated edition from David R. Godine, Publisher in 1989.

Maytham Hall in Kent, England, where Burnett lived for a number of years during her marriage, is often cited as the inspiration for the book's setting.[4] Burnett kept an extensive garden, including an impressive rose garden. However, it has been noted that besides the garden, Maytham Hall and Misselthwaite Manor are physically very different.[4]

The book's working title was Mistress Mary, in reference to the English nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.

Public reception[edit]

Marketing to both adult and juvenile audiences may have had an effect on its early reception; the book was not as celebrated as Burnett's previous works during her lifetime.[5] The Secret Garden paled in comparison to the popularity of Burnett's other works for a long period. Tracing the book's revival from almost complete eclipse at the time of Burnett's death in 1924, Anne H. Lundin noted that the author's obituary notices all remarked on Little Lord Fauntleroy and passed over The Secret Garden in silence.[6]

With the rise of scholarly work in children's literature over the past quarter-century, The Secret Garden has risen steadily in prominence. It is often noted as one of the best children's books of the twentieth century.[5] In 2003 it ranked number 51 in The Big Read, a survey of the British public by the BBC to identify the "Nation's Best-loved Novel" (not children's novel).[7] Based on a 2007 online poll, the U.S. National Education Association named it one of "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children".[8] In 2012 it was ranked number 15 among all-time children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal, a monthly with primarily U.S. audience.[9] (A Little Princess was ranked number 56 and Little Lord Fauntleroy did not make the Top 100.)[9] Jeffrey Masson considers The Secret Garden "one of the greatest books ever written for children".[10] In an oblique compliment, Barbara Sleigh has her title character reading The Secret Garden on the train at the beginning of her children's novel Jessamy.[11]

Dramatic adaptations[edit]

Video trailer from Angel Exit Theatre Company's spring 2012 national tour of their Arts Council-funded production of The Secret Garden, timed to coincide with the centenary of Burnett's novel

The first filmed version was made in 1919 by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation with 17-year-old Lila Lee as Mary and Paul Willis as Dickon, but the film is thought lost.

In 1949, MGM filmed the second adaptation with Margaret O'Brien as Mary, Dean Stockwell as Colin and Brian Roper as Dickon. This version was mostly in black-and-white, but the sequences set in the restored garden were filmed in Technicolor.

Dorothea Brooking adapted the book into several different television serials for the BBC: an eight-part serial in 1952, an eight-part serial in 1960 (starring Colin Spaull as Dickon). The seven-part TV serial made by the BBC in 1975 has been released on DVD.[12]

In 1987, Hallmark Hall of Fame filmed a TV adaptation of the novel starring Gennie James as Mary, Barret Oliver as Dickon, and Jadrien Steele as Colin. Billie Whitelaw appeared as Mrs Medlock and Derek Jacobi played the role of Archibald Craven, with Alison Doody appearing in flashbacks and visions as Lilias; Colin Firth made a brief appearance as the adult Colin Craven. It was filmed at Highclere Castle which later became known as the filming location for Downton Abbey.

American Zoetrope's 1993 production was directed by Agnieszka Holland with a screenplay by Caroline Thompson and starred Kate Maberly as Mary, Heydon Prowse as Colin, Andrew Knott as Dickon, John Lynch as Lord Craven and Dame Maggie Smith as Mrs. Medlock. The executive producer was Francis Ford Coppola.

A 1994 animated adaptation as an ABC Weekend Special starred Honor Blackman, Sir Derek Jacobi, Glynis Johns, Victor Spinetti, Anndi McAfee as Mary Lennox, Joe Baker as Ben Weatherstaff, Felix Bell as Dickon, Naomi Bell as Martha, Richard Stuart as Colin, and Frank Welker as Robin. This version was released on video in 1995 by Paramount Home Video.[13][14]

In Japan, NHK produced and broadcast an anime adaptation of the novel in 1991–1992 titled Anime Himitsu no Hanazono (アニメ ひみつの花園). Miina Tominaga was featured as the voice of Mary, while Mayumi Tanaka voiced Colin. The 39-episode TV series was directed by Tameo Kohanawa and written by Kaoru Umeno. Based on the title, this anime is sometimes mistakenly assumed to be related to the popular dorama series Himitsu no Hanazono. Surprisingly unavailable in the English language, it has been dubbed into several other languages including Spanish, Italian, Polish, and Tagalog.

Stage adaptations of the book have also been created. In 1991, a musical version opened on Broadway, with music by Lucy Simon, and book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. The production was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Daisy Eagan as Mary, then eleven years old. In 2013, an opera by the American composer Nolan Gasser which had been commissioned by the San Francisco Opera premiered at the Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.

A stage play by Jessica Swale adapted from the novel was performed at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in Chester 2014.[15]

A multimedia web series adaptation of the novel titled The Misselthwaite Archives was released on YouTube in 2015. The series consisted of 40 episodes, which aired from January through October, as well as fictional letters, emails, text messages, social media accounts, and other documents about the characters.[16][17]


  1. ^ Byatt, A. S. "A small person's paradise...", New Statesman, 19 April 2005.
  2. ^ Gohike,M. (1980). Re–Reading The Secret Garden. College English 41 (8), 894–902.
  3. ^ "Buile Hill Park" (PDF). Salford Borough Council. Retrieved 16 February 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Thwaite, A. (2006). A Biographer Looks Back. A.S. Carpenter (ed.) Toronto: Scarecrow Press.
  5. ^ a b Lundin, A. (2006). "The Critical and Commercial Reception of The Secret Garden". In the Garden: Essays in Honour of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Angelica Shirley Carpenter (ed.) Toronto: Scarecrow Press.
  6. ^ Lundin, A. Constructing the Canon of Children's Literature: Beyond Library Walls :133ff.
  7. ^ "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 18 October 2012
  8. ^ National Education Association (2007). "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". Retrieved 22 August 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Bird, Elizabeth (7 July 2012). "Top 100 Chapter Book Poll Results". A Fuse #8 Production. Blog. School Library Journal ( Retrieved 22 August 2012. 
  10. ^ Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff (1980). The Oceanic Feeling: The Origins of Religious Sentiment in Ancient India. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel. ISBN 90-277-1050-3. 
  11. ^ Barbara Sleigh: Jessamy (London: Collins, 1967), p. 7.
  12. ^ Traxy (16 January 2011). "The Secret Garden (1975)". Retrieved 19 December 2011. 
  13. ^ ABC Weekend Specials: The Secret Garden (TV episode 1994) at the Internet Movie Database
  14. ^ Lynne Heffley (November 4, 1994). "TV Review: Animated 'Garden' Wilts on ABC". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2014-10-14. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "The Misselthwaite Archives". 
  17. ^ The Misselthwaite Archives at the Internet Movie Database

External links[edit]