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The Secret Garden

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The Secret Garden
Cover of a 1911 publication of The Secret Garden
1911 edition cover
Author(s) Frances Hodgson Burnett
Illustrator Troy Howell
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Children's novel
Publisher Children's Classics
Publication date 1909
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 272

The Secret Garden is a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1909. It is one of Burnett's most popular novels, and is now considered a classic of children's literature.

Plot summary

Mary Lennox is a sickly, sour-faced little girl who was born in India to wealthy British parents. Unwanted by her parents, she is thrust into the care of a subservient Ayah from her birth and told to keep out of sight lest her unsightly sallow appearance upset her mother and father. When a cholera epidemic (in some movie versions its an earthquake) makes her an orphan, she is sent to Misselthwaite Manor, an isolated country house in Yorkshire, England. There she is again left mostly to her own devices – this time by her mother's brother-in-law, Archibald Craven, a widower still mourning his beautiful young wife, who died ten years before. In hopes of escaping his painful memories, he travels constantly, leaving the manor in the charge of his housekeeper, the stern Mrs. Medlock. The only person who has any time for the little girl is chambermaid, Martha, who tells Mary about a walled garden that was the late Mrs. Craven's favourite. No one has entered the garden since she died because her grieving husband locked its entrance and buried the key.

While exploring the grounds, Mary discovers the key, which had been turned up by a robin digging for worms. Soon after, the robin shows her the way to the door that is hidden behind some ivy. Once inside, she discovers that although the roses seem lifeless, some of the other flowers have survived. She resolves to tend the garden herself. Although she wants to keep it a secret, she recruits the assistance of Martha's brother Dickon, who has a way with plants and wild animals. Mary gives him money to buy gardening implements and he shows her that the roses, though neglected, are not dead. When Mary's uncle visits the house briefly for the first time since she arrived, Mary asks him for a bit of earth to make a flower garden, and he agrees. Thanks to the invigorating Yorkshire air and her new-found fascination with the garden, Mary herself begins to blossom, and loses her sickly look and unpleasant manner.

One night Mary hears someone weeping in another part of the house. When she asks questions, the servants become evasive and say they cannot hear anything. Shortly after her uncle's visit, she goes exploring and discovers her uncle's son, Colin, a lonely, bedridden boy as petulant and disagreeable as Mary used to be. His father shuns him because the child closely resembles his mother. Mr. Craven suffers from mild kyphosis (he is a hunchback), and is morbidly convinced that Colin will develop the same condition. This fear has communicated itself to Colin, who, for purely psychological reasons, has never learned to walk. The servants have been keeping Mary and Colin a secret from one another because Colin doesn't like strangers staring at him and is prone to terrible tantrums. Colin, however, accepts Mary and insists on her visiting him often.

As spring approaches, Colin becomes jealous because Mary is spending more time out in the garden with Dickon than indoors with him. One day he voices his resentment and, when Mary resists, he throws a tantrum. To the surprise and amusement of the servants, Mary continues to stand her ground. That evening, Colin has a hysterical fit, brought on by his fear of dying young. Mary goes to him and, again taking a firm, no-nonsense stance with him and to calm him down slaps him in the face and to the servants' surprise, when Mary starts screaming at him, he doesn't object. When he asks if he can visit the garden with her, she agrees, as she and Dickon had been planning to suggest it themselves, feeling that it would do Colin good. Colin's doctor, (Mr. Craven's brother and Colin's uncle) agrees to have Dickon and Mary take Colin outside in a wheelchair. Colin is delighted with the garden, and visits it with Mary and Dickon whenever the weather allows. As the garden revives and flourishes, so does he.

The first person to discover what the children are doing is the old gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, who was a favorite of Colin's mother. Since her death, he has been visiting the locked garden once or twice a year by secretly scaling the wall with a ladder. When he visits the garden for the first time since Mary's arrival (having had to miss several visits because of rheumatism), he is angry with the children until he sees how improved both the garden and Colin are. Colin orders him not to tell anybody, and he agrees. Colin resolves that the next time his father returns from abroad he will be able to walk and run like a normal boy. He accomplishes this through a combination of simple physical exercise and positive thinking. He refuses to think of himself as crippled, and he invents a kind of mantra to keep himself in the right, or "magic," frame of mind. He makes great progress, but keeps it hidden from everyone but Mary, Dickon, and Ben, wanting it to be a surprise.

Mr. Craven has been traveling throughout Europe but hurries home after seeing a vision of his dead wife, imploring him to come to her "in the garden!" When he receives a letter from Martha and Dickon's mother (who also knows the secret) saying "I think your lady would ask you to come if she was here", he decides to return home. He arrives while the children are outdoors. He goes out to see Colin for himself, and finds himself drawn to the secret garden, where he is astonished first to hear children's voices and then to find Colin not only racing Mary and Dickon around the garden, but winning. They take Mr. Craven into the secret garden to tell him everything. Afterward, they walk back to the house where the servants are astonished to see two miracles: Colin walking and his father looking happy again.

Major themes

The author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, was a practitioner of Christian Science due to the premature death of her son as well as personal illness. As a result, The Secret Garden espouses the benefits of New Thought and theosophy as well as ideas about the healing powers of the mind.

At the time of Frances Hodson Burnett's death in 1924, the obituary notices all remarked on Little Lord Fauntleroy and passed over The Secret Garden in silence, Anne H. Lundin noted in tracing the book's revival from almost complete eclipse.

At the time of her death a friend wrote in a letter to The New York Times that the origin of the Secret Garden was Mrs. Burnett's rose garden at Great Maytham Hall, Kent.

Film, TV, or theatrical adaptations

The Secret Garden has been adapted many times for stage and screen. The first filmed version was made in 1919 by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation with 17 year old Lila Lee as Mary, but it is considered lost. In 1949, MGM filmed the second adaptation with Margaret O'Brien. This version was mostly in black-and-white, but was colorized whenever the restored garden was shown. It was also adapted by Dorothea Brooking into a six-part BBC television serial in 1959 starring Colin Spaull as Dickon. Brooking was also responsible for adaptions in 1952 and 1975, also for the BBC. 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. A young Colin Firth also made a brief appearance as an adult version of Colin Craven.

One notable stage adaptation is a musical with music by Lucy Simon and book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, which opened on Broadway in 1991. The production was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical ( Daisy Eagan as Mary, at eleven years old the youngest person ever to win a Tony).

The most acclaimed film adaptation was American Zoetrope's 1993 production. It was directed by Agnieszka Holland and starred Kate Maberly as Mary, Heydon Prowse as Colin, Andrew Knott as Dickon and Dame Maggie Smith as Mrs. Medlock. In 2000, a sequel movie entitled Return to the Secret Garden was produced. It was directed by Scott Featherstone and won the Director's Gold Award at the 2001 Santa Clarita International Film Festival. In 2001, Back to the Secret Garden starring Camilla Belle as the American orphan, Lizzie, was directed by Michael Tuchner. It is set when Mary and Colin have married and turned the Craven Manor into a shelter for orphans.

In 1991, a Japanese animated version of The Secret Garden was made. Another anime movie, Sōkō no Strain (2006), based on another of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novels A Little Princess, draws some elements from The Secret Garden, most notably the names of Colin, Mary, Martha and Dickon.

Noel Streatfeild's novel The Painted Garden (U.S. title Movie Shoes) has as its central story the filming of The Secret Garden in Hollywood.

An unofficial sequel novel about the adult lives of Mary, Colin, and Dickon was written by Susan Moody in 1995 and published under two different titles: Misselthwaite: The Sequel to the Secret Garden and Return to the Secret Garden. The New York Times also published a brief parodic sequel in the same year.

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