One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun—which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.
It is inevitable that at some point each year, I find myself with this book in my hands. Whenever I need a pick-me-up for some undefinable reason, or I find myself dulled to my surroundings, this wonderful book is sure to make me glow and feel good for weeks on end. Every time I finish it (which is always too soon), I get filled with the urging need to go outside and breathe, to play and be merry in ways that I wrote off when I “grew up”.
Frances Burnett’s The Secret Garden tells the simple story of an ugly child, both in and out, who reconnects with both her family and nature and becomes whole again. It chronicles the development of Mary, born and raised in colonial India, whose parents and servants die after a cholera outbreak. She is moved to her reclusive hunchback uncle Mr. Craven in Yorkshire, where she is left alone to learn how to dress herself and to play. She discovers a hidden rose garden, shut off after Mr. Craven’s wife passed away, and makes it her mission to make it bloom once again. On her road to health she makes friends for the first time in her life: Dickon, a peasant boy with almost magical green fingers, and her hidden cousin Colin, a hypochondriac with tyrannical streaks.
Together these three set to bringing the garden back to life, which also reignites their dulled down flames. Both Mary and Colin form their first friendships ever through the secret project of the garden, and are reunited with their family by the end.
It is an interesting one, this book.
At the first glance, not much is happening that would normally draw a reader in nowadays. The pace is quite slow, and the stakes are not very high: never is anybody in any more danger than to be reprimanded by an adult. The setting is very small: although we first see glimpses of India, very soon we are restricted to the manor and its gardens. The adventure, likewise, is limited to Mary exploring her new home and the garden, and the children playfully keeping their secret from the adults.
But still I find myself inextricably pulled into the narrative. The beautiful descriptions of nature’s changes throughout the seasons, the scenes of the children playing together and fooling the adults are so pleasant and almost hypnotising. Although this is not a high fantasy novel by any means, as the children point out there seems to be a kind of magic linked to these simpler parts of life. The nature described is as normal as it is in real life, but it is experienced more intensely, more wonderfully. Placing the “ordinary” of a rose garden in bloom into the extraordinary of childhood imagination.
And when I think about it more, I do believe I have found the magic of the novel: it is just so nice. It is a light read, with language and style fit for both a younger and a more mature reader, with stakes that are no higher than those of real life children, and with enchanting descriptions of nature that spur you to go out and smell the grass and the dirt, touch the flowers and see them grow. Seeing Mistress Mary Quite Contrary gradually loosen up and start to genuinely care about other people, who love her in return, is a nice and non-dramatic way to show that people do change and care, and that even if you have been nasty before, your chances at friendship and happiness are not gone just yet.
Another refreshing note to this novel is that the children are not Dickensian pinnacles of innocence, speaking as adults would about love and acceptance – far from it! Mary is a snooty, arrogant little brat at the start of the story, and even towards the end she is stubborn and headstrong. Colin, a whiney tyrant, takes a while to let go of his hysterical tendencies – but always takes control and speaks for others.
The ways in which these traits are represented, however, change as the characters do. Mary’s contrariness becomes less, sure, but what remains of it is endearing and admirable: she stands her ground and does not suffer fools. Colin is a natural leader, and learns that being obeyed from respect comes from a different and better place than from fear.
Overall, this is a light and refreshing story of change. Beautifully described, you can practically smell the moorlands, the freshly baked bread, the freshly turned earth, the roses coming into bloom. To match this charming little novel, I would recommend a charming light tea. To go with the slightly romantic tone, and the beautiful descriptions of spring, summer, and the rose garden, I have selected Whittard’s Oriental Fruits. This is a black, loose leaf tea, with strawberry, cranberry, bergamot and peach – it even has rose petals!
Even though this is a black tea, the colour and the flavour are very light and gentle.
Whittard’s Oriental Fruits and Burnett’s The Secret Garden will pick you up on a dreary November day, and make you remember – sooner or later, Spring is coming.