The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
One of the most beloved twentieth-century children’s books is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1910). Secluded by ivy-covered walls, the story’s abandoned English rose and bulb garden has captivated readers’ imaginations for generations. There is an air of mystery to the garden. What could be more rewarding than discovering a hidden botanical gem?
In Burnett’s telling, a spoiled little girl, recently orphaned, arrives at a gloomy ancient manor house in the countryside of Yorkshire, England. Little Mistress Mary has no friends and nothing to do. She soon sets off in search of a rumored abandoned garden, and it is on this quest that she finds her first friend: a robin.
It is the robin who shows Mary where to find the garden. He also guides her to the buried key and the hidden garden door it opens. Part natural, part magical, he is the delightful, chirping host who invites Mary into his secret garden home.
Burnett would later recall that the robin was drawn from life. In the walled rose garden at Great Maytham Hall in Kent, which inspired her fictional garden, she befriended a robin. “I did not own the robin—he owned me—or perhaps we owned each other,” she wrote.
Later in the novel, Mary befriends a Pan-like local boy named Dickon, who spends his days wandering amid the heather and gorse-covered heath of Yorkshire. He teaches her how to bring the sleeping floral beauties of the garden back to life. He also shows her how to charm the fauna of this tranquil oasis—he has an entourage of birds, squirrels and rabbits, as well as a fox, a crow and a lamb who heed his gentle call.
The primary lesson of Burnett’s novel is that frolicking outdoors and working in the garden are forms of physical and emotional therapy. Mistress Mary becomes a pleasant, healthy young lady through work and play. Another child in the book, Colin, conquers his psychosomatic ailments and temper tantrums as he ventures out of the house.
The children’s desire to earn the trust of moorland and woodland animals becomes the basis for another of the novel’s therapeutic practices. The goal is not to make pets of wild animals in the garden but rather to coax them into intimacy with mature behavior. Mary and Colin learn that they must practice patience and calm if they wish to earn the respect of the animals that come and go in the garden as they please. Asheville area fans of The Secret Garden need not travel to England to pay tribute to Burnett. The British-born author grew up in eastern Tennessee. Her novel Louisiana takes place in a fictionalized version of nearby Hot Springs, North Carolina, which Burnett had visited for her health. Her hit Broadway play Esmeralda, based on a short story she wrote in 1877, was inspired by her stay near Lake Lure. The play lent its name to Chimney Rock’s Esmeralda Inn, which was built in 1891 and still welcomes visitors today.
For further reading, see Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s excellent biography Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of The Secret Garden (2004).