Most kids have a book (or series of books) that opens up such a world of wonder it becomes a near obsession. For some it might be Little Women, or Harry Potter, but for me that book was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Maybe it’s because growing up in an apartment gardens were foreign and fascinating, or maybe it’s because I’m a Capricorn, but whatever the reason, I found the story pure magic, and I still do.
The Secret Garden is the story of Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly), a 10-year-old girl, born and raised in colonial India by neglectful parents. As a result, Mary has never had friends and grows up incredibly spoiled and bitter. When her parents die suddenly in an earthquake (in the book it’s a cholera outbreak), Mary finds herself shipped back to England to live with a tortured and often absent uncle (John Lynch) whom she has never met on his sprawling country estate, Misselthwaite Manor.
Not only is the house mysterious, it has an air of melancholy, as though “a spell has been cast upon it”. The housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Maggie Smith) keeps Mary locked in her room and refuses to coddle her. The sole kindness Mary encounters is from Martha (Laura Crossley), one of Medlock’s servants who is able to calm her violent temper. It’s only when Mary discovers a secret passage in her room, that she begins to unlock the secrets of the house.
Mary stumbles on a key in the room of her deceased aunt, and learns that it opens the door to a beloved garden left neglected after her aunt’s death. As Mary, and Martha’s animal-charmer brother Dickon (Andrew Knott), set about restoring the garden to its former beauty, Mary finds there are more mysteries to be discovered at Misselthwaite.
Early spring always makes me think of The Secret Garden, the world slowly thawing and coming back to life after a harsh winter. There’s magic in the budding of trees and the blooming of the first daffodils—it’s hope, it’s renewal, not just for the earth, but for ourselves as well. The Secret Garden is a metaphorical story with a heavy dose of magical realism. As the garden blossoms so does Mary, and the effect it has on her is contagious, setting off an awakening throughout Misselthwaite.
Not to sound like an old biddy, but I worry that with all the technology available to kids today they’re missing out on the freedom and enchantment of the outdoors. The Secret Garden highlights such an important part of childhood, not just bonding with friends, but the liberation of being outside and making your own discoveries, even if it’s in your own backyard.
While there are a few small deviations from the original novel in this adaptation by Polish director Agnieszka Holland, it’s by far the most visually beautiful and emotionally effective of the many attempts to bring this story to the screen.
The Secret Garden is a gothic tale, almost Jane Eyre-like with the desolate moors and the ghostly wailing in the night. Holland really captures the darkness in the story and pushes the symbolism as well, Mary’s Aunt’s room is not only vacant, but overgrown in vines like a scene out of Sleeping Beauty.
Frances Hodgson Burnett never saw the success of The Secret Garden during her life, her other novels enjoyed much greater popularity in their time. Over the years the novel began to emerge as her most beloved story, it has a deep resonance, it doesn’t feel like a story for children, but for everyone.
Burnett suffered the loss of her 18 year old son and never really recovered from it, The Secret Garden in many ways was a very personal story for her. It’s about the triumph of hope, of life after loss. It reminds us that even when all the world seems dead, if you’re willing to love, just beneath the surface there is new life waiting to grow.