Book Review: The Secret Garden and a Discussion of Magic in Children’s Books

Secret Garden I have mixed emotions about The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I’ll explain why in a moment.

The story opens with nine-year-old Mary Lennox in India with her family. Her father “had held a position under the English government and had always been busy and ill himself, and her mother had been a great beauty who cared only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people. She had not wanted a little girl at all,” so Mary was left to the care of her Ayah. So as not to bother Mary’s mother and get in trouble, the Ayah and other servants gave Mary her way in everything, leading to her becoming “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.”

A cholera outbreak took her Ayah, both parents, and several others, and everyone else fled the compound, leaving Mary alone and forgotten until some officers discovered her. She was sent to Yorkshire, England, to stay with her mother’s brother, her only relative, Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor. Mr. Craven had a crooked back and had been in deep mourning for the ten years since his wife died. Mary did not meet him for a long time, as he traveled frequently, so she was taken care of primarily by a housemaid named Martha.

No one had thought to provide Mary with books or anything to do. She was strongly instructed not to poke around in the house, rumored to have 100 rooms. Martha encouraged her to go outside, pointing the way to the gardens and mentioning that there was one that had been locked up for ten years. It had been Mrs. Craven’s personal garden, but her husband had it locked up after she died.

That piqued Mary’s curiosity, and, as the title indicates, she does eventually find the garden. And what’s more, she discovers an unexpected person living in another part of the house.

My thoughts:

The story itself is a sweet, cozy, Victorian English tale. It’s not hard to see the symbolism between Mary and the friends she discovers bringing this garden back to life, weeding it, and tending it, and Mary and another orphan’s need for weeding and tending themselves. The story unfolds in a nice way and some of the characters are treasures: Ben Weatherstaff, the gruff gardener who helps Mary make friends with a robin; kindly Dickon, Martha’s brother, who has a way with animals; Mrs. Sowerby, Dickon’s warm and practical mother. I loved Mary’s transformation. The ending is perfect, just the way you’d want a book like this to end.

My mixed emotions are due to the book’s use of magic. Now, magic can mean different things in different books. I wrote some years ago about wrestling with this and concluding that fairy tale magic is not the same thing as the occult (real witches are not warty little old ladies who turn people into frogs). C. S. Lewis uses “magic” as a symbol for God’s ways. When my kids were little, one library haul yielded two books about magic carpets. In one, the “magic carpet” was a rug that the mom and child sat on to read books together – harmless and sweet. The other was a dreadful New Age tale complete with a message from a spirit guide in the back! So when magic comes up in a book, first I have to discern what the author meant by it and how the concept is portrayed.

The gust of wind that revealed the garden door was “a Magic moment.” I didn’t think much about that at first, but more and more as the story went on, Magic was given the credit for many things, until at last the children actually perform an incantation asking Magic (always capitalized) to come and do what they want. Mention is make of tales of Magic Mary heard about in India and the work of fakirs there. As the children themselves ponder what Magic is, one suggests it’s the dead mother of one of them, “lookin’ after Mester Colin, same as all mothers do when they’re took out o’ th’ world.” Other conversations attribute it to some kind of life force, the same thing that makes the flowers grow.

 I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us—like electricity and horses and steam. When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead…Then something began pushing things up out of the soil, and making things out of nothing. One day things weren’t there and another they were. I had never watched things before and it made me feel very curious. Scientific people are always curious and I am going to be scientific. I keep saying to myself, ‘What is it? What is it?’ It’s something. It can’t be nothing! I don’t know its name so I call it Magic…Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden–in all the places. The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man. I am going to make the scientific experiment of trying to get some and put it in myself and make it push and draw me and make me strong. I don’t know how to do it but I think that if you keep thinking about it and calling it perhaps it will come. Perhaps that is the first baby way to get it. When I was going to try to stand that first time Mary kept saying to herself as fast as she could, ‘You can do it! You can do it!’ and I did. I had to try myself at the same time, of course, but her Magic helped me—and so did Dickon’s. Every morning and evening and as often in the daytime as I can remember I am going to say, ‘Magic is in me! Magic is making me well! I am going to be as strong as Dickon, as strong as Dickon!’ And you must all do it, too.

When Ben Weatherstaff suggests they sing the Doxology, one of them says, “’It is a very nice song…I like it. Perhaps it means just what I mean when I want to shout out that I am thankful to the Magic.’ He stopped and thought in a puzzled way. ‘Perhaps they are both the same thing. How can we know the exact names of everything?’”

Then when Dickon’s mother is asked whether she believes in Magic, she says:

I never knowed it by that name but what does th’ name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i’ France an’ a different one i’ Germany. Th’ same things as set th’ seeds swellin’ an’ th’ sun shinin’ made a well lad an’ it’s th’ Good Thing. It isn’t like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th’ Big Good Thing doesn’t stop to worry, bless thee. It goes on makin’ worlds by th’ million–worlds like us. Never thee stop believin’ in th’ Big Good Thing an’ knowin’ th’ world’s full of it–an’ call it what tha’ likes. Tha’ wert singin’ to it when I come into th’ garden…Th’ Magic listened when tha’ sung th’ Doxology. It would ha’ listened to anything tha’d sung. It was th’ joy that mattered. Eh! Lad, lad, what’s names to th’ Joy Maker.

As I read and was trying to discern how to take the Magic in this book, I figured it would be best first to see if I could find out what the author meant by Magic. Wikipedia says, “In the early 1880s [Burnett] became interested in Christian Science as well as Spiritualism and Theosophy.” Sparknotes says “throughout the novel, the idea of magic is heavily inflected by the tenets of both Christian Science and New Thought.” Part of the latter is the idea of “mind over matter,” the thought that repeating something over and over, as the children do in their chanting, can make it become real. Also, near the end of the book, the author writes:

One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live.

So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored and wretched child. Circumstances, however, were very kind to her, though she was not at all aware of it. They began to push her about for her own good. When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his “creatures,” there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.

There’s a sense in which it’s true that both positive and negative thoughts can affect one’s outlook and even one’s health. But it’s possible to take that philosophy too far. SparkNotes goes on to say:

One of the book’s underlying themes is the way in which happiness begets happiness, and misery begets only more of itself….The source of this notion can again be found in Burnett’s fascination with the New Thought and Christian Science movements, which held that one must think only positive thoughts if one wants good things to happen. The fact that this idea is patently false miraculously did nothing to deter its adherents. Dickon’s remark that “the springtime would be better [for Colin] than doctor’s stuff” provides another instance of Christian Scientist tenets in the novel. Christian Science, as a philosophy, disapproves of medical intervention: no disease is truly corporeal (caused by the body), but is in fact the result of morbid and negative thinking. Colin must have contact with the life of the world if he is to go on living, because this contact will dispel his thoughts of death: Dickon (guided by Burnett’s Christian Scientist beliefs) says that Colin “oughtn’t to lie there thinking [of death and illness]… No lad could get well as thought them sorts of things.” The fact that Colin’s fury at Ben Weatherstaff provides him with sufficient strength to stand reinforces the notion that his previous inability to do so was entirely a product of his negative thinking. It also underlines the idea that if one only wishes to overcome one’s illness, one can. Negative thoughts are the human error to be found at the root of all disease; one must therefore force out ugly thoughts with agreeable ones, for “two things cannot be in one place.” This notion is responsible for both Colin and Mary’s wondrous metamorphoses. Once they are thinking of the garden and nature, of Dickon and of their own blossoming friendship, they can no longer concern themselves with their own contrariness or with the fear of becoming a hunchback and dying an early death. Instead, they become normal, healthy children, full of dreams of the future. This questionable (and inarguably syrupy) goal is given inane epigraphic expression in the phrase “Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”

So there is a sense in which you could think of the Magic in the book as “positive thinking” or the same force that makes the plants grow. Or, as this writer did, you could see it as pluralism, wanting to lump all of these philosophies in with Christianity as if they are the same thing, when they’re not. Knowing more of Burnett’s background and philosophy makes me wary. I don’t know if I would read this to my children, if they were still young enough to read to: we’d at least have to discuss some of these issues as we read.

There is also a bit of colonialism, I guess you’d call it, in the book, with Mary being disdainful of the Indian servants and seeing them always as only servants, and Martha’s ignorance in calling them “blacks.”

A brief biography of the author, unusual in audiobooks, mentions that “Later in life, reporters criticized her lifestyle, and turned public sentiment against her.” But it doesn’t say what exactly they criticized, so I don’t know if it was her philosophies or the fact that she was divorced or something else.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Josephine Bailey and also looked up some passages in a library copy and on Project Gutenberg.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carol’s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secret Garden and a Discussion of Magic in Children’s Books

  1. Pingback: Reading Plans for 2018 | Stray Thoughts

  2. Thanks for your review. I have had the same misgivings about this novel. If you have watched the movie version, you will also see the children doing an odd casting of spells around a bonfire. It’s very odd (compared to the rest of the movie) and overtly occultic. This really surprised us the first time we saw the film. It’s a beautiful movie if you can overlook that part. Thanks for the research on the author’s life that provides some explanation.

  3. Barbara, I have to say thank you for sharing this review…and especially for sharing the author’s background. It has been quite some time since I’ve read this book and apparently at the time I did read it I overlooked many things. I appreciate you giving this insightful review. I need to check and see if I still have the book in the bookcase.

  4. Awesome review Barbara. I read this book and had not thought about the magic portion of it as anything other than children playing but I see what you mean… Thank you for the background on the author too.

  5. Interesting. I read this book at some point in my childhood or teenager years, but don’t remember much about it. I was always much more interested in Burnett’s A Little Princess . Based on your comments, I think I’d definitely want to at least read it with my children if they wanted to read it, rather than handing it over to them and letting them read it on their own.

    • I, too, much preferred A Little Princess to The Secret Garden. I believe it has references to the “magic” also (when Sara and the little housemaid wake up to discover they are warm and have food), but it has a very logical explanation. Barbara, have you read A Little Princess?

  6. Good analysis of your thoughts on magic. I read this out loud to my kids ages ago and was not astute enough to wonder or question the use of that term. I love the story and the hope of transformation it offers.
    Thanks for your good thoughts here.

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