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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden - Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett

There are some beloved things from childhood that don't translate at all into an adult state of mind.  And there are some things that do translate, but lose something essential in the process.  For me, The Secret Garden is one of the latter.


Prior to this year, I was about ten the last time I read this book.  Starting it this time, I remembered less about the plot than the general feeling of magic that had imbued the entire story when I read it as a child.  There was a lot I simply hadn't understood very well - cholera, moors, hunchbacks, and the Raj were all muzzy concepts to my younger self, and the phonetic transliteration of many characters' Yorkshire dialects might as well have been Greek.  But that sense of awe and mystery when Mary first finds her way into the Secret Garden - that I would never forget.


I think the very fact that I now understand the story better - that I can place it in its historical context, and picture a real moor, and hear a Yorkshire accent in my head when reading Martha and Dickon's lines - has ruined a bit of that childish sense of wonder.  The book used to be an inscrutable marvel, exotic and strange and perfect.  Now, though I still love it, it's a book about some neglected kids who rejuvenate a garden.


And sure, there's more to it than that.  The garden is, of course, a symbol for the healing process that turns crippled Colin into a running, laughing boy and sallow, sullen Mary into a caring friend.  But Burnett also meant the story to be taken at least somewhat literally - she was a Christian Scientist who believed that nature and prayer, not medicine, would cure all physical and mental ailments.  And it's just that kind of uncomfortable factoid that can contaminate a story for an adult like me.  It's best to just not know anything about the politics or religion of authors whose work I enjoy.


But thankfully, not all of the old magic has dribbled away.  To this day, whenever I come across an old skeleton key, or an ivy-covered brick wall, or an untended plot of land, I feel a bit of that old thrill.  And it's not The Secret Garden I just read at thirty.  It's The Secret Garden I read at ten.


(2014 #26)