The Secret Garden (1910)
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
edited by Alison Lurie
Let’s begin with a question, as all good articles (supposedly) do: when was the last time you felt really, really energetic? Hong Kong, where I live, is all about compactness, and this always taxes the brain. We have very compact living environments, very compact appliances, and very compact schedules. (Which makes it all the more wrong for me to be writing this when I should be writing up my Translation assignments — plural.)
Maybe it’s because of the stress resulting from this compactness that we feel tired easily, and tend to reach out at the first possible chance to unwind. In that respect, The Secret Garden provides the perfect atmosphere for unwinding — simple language and content, coupled with soothing settings and pleasant subject matter. Even the moral itself seems vastly and deliberately sugarcoated (which isn’t a bad thing).
Now of course, this being a children’s book, one can hardly expect to come up against graphic body horror or forced acts of intercourse. But the aspects of the book that centre on children don’t stop at child-friendly material. There’s a sense of childlike enthusiasm that bleeds through the pages, from the speech of the twin protagonists to the general way Burnett presents different events in the book. Let’s have a look at Mary’s almost infectious eagerness, as she runs into Colin’s room to announce the arrival of springtime:
The next minute she was in the room and had run across to his bed, bringing with her a waft of fresh air full of the scent of the morning… “It’s so beautiful!” she said, a little breathless with her speed. “You never saw anything so beautiful!… It has come, the spring!”
“Has it?” cried Colin, and though he really knew nothing about it he felt his heart beat. He actually sat up in bed. “Open the window!” he added, laughing half with joyful excitement and half at his own fancy.
Now if I was Colin, I would have been very annoyed (and more than a little suspicious — but let’s not go there) if a girl suddenly barged into my room while I was still groggy and screamed about the joys of spring. And yet Colin — who just a few pages ago was the most temperamental little bastard on Earth — is (or, I would think, decides) not to be irritated by this unwelcome intrusion (note to self: stop being grumpy). Instead, he joins Mary in welcoming the season, basking in the promise of fresh air and vitality.
And, weirdly, so do we. When the author gives us these little episodes of the children interacting and helping each other in the garden, you can’t help but root for them. I remember reading the book and ardently hoping that Mary would soon discover the secret garden. (Okay, so part of this was because I wanted to finish the “childish” book and move on to Oliver Twist, but I did egg Mary on a little.)
And why is this? I suppose it’s because of how naïve and exuberant all these children sound. They genuinely believe that the garden holds the key to all their hopes and fears, and they place so much belief in the powers of nature. And that exuberance is infectious: Dickon (the outsider) spreads it to Mary (the outside circle), Mary to Colin (the inner circle), and finally (as the novel seems to imply) Colin to his father (the [spiritual] centre of the house — apologies to feminists, but that’s the story in this case). Just as the children’s love of nature reaches further into the heart of the household, so are we drawn further into the story — we also feel an impetus to discover more about what happens to them. For some reason, their childish innocence — which we as adults are supposed to scoff at — is the thing that drives the adults (and us readers) on.
However, it might be tempting to attribute all this to the powers of nature, like: “yay, nature gives us energy! Let’s plant strawberries whenever we’re depressed!” But look closer: is it really nature who’s singlehandedly responsible for the two protagonists turn from spreading figurative fertilizer to joyfully spreading literal fertilizer? I used to think that, but now I’m not so sure. Case in point: Mary and Colin have both been in close proximity with nature for quite a long time — Colin has a Yorkshire moor, Mary an Indian garden — but without somebody to guide them through it, it remained utterly meaningless to them. The keys (pun intended) are supplied in a line just upstairs from the quote above:
… [Colin’s] mind was full of the plans that he and Mary had made yesterday, of pictures of the garden and of Dickon and his wild creatures.
Now, I am not the biggest fan of children, but I will, however grudgingly, recognize and appreciate this in them: they have an inexhaustible supply of hope. And we see that in full swing here: Colin himself doesn’t even know what the garden and the animals are like, he has just heard descriptions of them from Mary. But that little promise is more than enough. His enthusiasm, coupled with the gallons of hope he poured upon it, is enough to send his heart racing, and from there on he only gets better and better until he becomes a strapping, radiant young man (and from there on, Mary is somewhat cast aside — score one for male chauvinism).
And that’s the driving force behind it all, really. Human passion. Although cool nature did kickstart the process, it was actually human warmth that kept it going. Colin and Mary’s transformations wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t had somebody to cheer them on. It’s when Colin meets the positive influence of Mary (and particularly her love for the secret garden) that he begins to really discover his potential. They happen to change the secret garden, and also each other, thanks to their common passion for nature. This book is, in effect, made possible by this fervour. Remove it, and the entire story collapses.
So here’s my (pretty obvious) thought for this week: human passion is always powerful in ways we can never really realize. We might think that our ecstasies are only useful to ourselves, but NO IT IS NOT. Just as Colin learnt from Mary, and Mary learnt from Dickon, it has a marvellous effect on people that watch you. Enthusiasm is an infectious thing, and they might be prompted to cheer you on, or change their own attitude towards what they’ve been doing. They might even join you in your cause (within reason, of course — I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t join a water balloon fight, no matter how crazy everyone is about it).
Of course, the fact that we have enthusiasm for something might not make it more likely that we’ll reach our original goal. And at times, we might be tempted to take that as the only measure of success. But in the meantime, if it can empower one single person — make him/her laugh, encourage him/her — then it will all have been worth the while. And to quote one of my favourite movies of all time (completely irrelevant, but for the sake of a grand finale):
And someday as I sing a song
A small-town kid’ll come along
And that’ll be the thing to push him on and go, go…
And when they let you down
You’ll get up off the ground
Cause morning rolls around
And it’s another day of sun!
Next time: From the serenity of a quiet English country house at the turn of the last century, we move straight to the hustle and bustle of Ancient Rome to see the rise and fall of Caesar, as well as eleven other Caesars. And one plus eleven equals: “The Twelve Caesars”. (I actually wrote that one before this one, so be prepared for a dip/rise in quality, whichever it turns out to be.)
(Quotations from the Penguin edition of “The Secret Garden”, edited by Alison Lurie and published 1999, as well as “Another Day of Sun” (2016) by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, featured photo from the cover of the aforementioned book.)