When I bought my house, just over a year ago, there were many things that I knew I would enjoy. I knew I would like finally having colors on the walls, rather than apartment white and/or beige. I knew I would like decorating. I knew I would like having a decent sized kitchen. Here’s what I didn’t know: I had no idea I would enjoy gardening so much.
Right after I moved in, a neighbor stopped by while I was working in the yard and said “Miss Helen had the best yard on the street.” Hmmm. No pressure for this new homeowner. And there was one other slight problem: Miss Helen had been sick for a long time. The house had been on the market for a long time. So though the yard was landscaped, shrubs and vines and other things were really overgrown. And there were some plants that even my parents didn’t recognize.
Last spring and summer was all about pruning, figuring out what the heck I had, and trying to keep it alive. (Alas, Miss Helen did not invest in a sprinkler system.) And I missed much of the good spring time gardening because I was too busy working on the inside of the house.
But this year, though it’s not quite like The Secret Garden, I’m feeling a new kinship with Mary Lennox. Though my yard wasn’t in a walled up garden for 10 years, it had been neglected and it’s taking some effort to bring it back. The good news is we’ve had such a wet winter and mild spring that things are blooming in a way they didn’t before. There’s new growth on the holly in the front. The monkey grass is looking amazing. The pinks from last fall are huge. And the irises have spread! Things are starting to look halfway decent.
A friend suggested I reread The Secret Garden, since I’m getting such a kick out of spring this year. And who am I to say no? I picked it up a few days ago, for the first time in at least 15 years. Like A Little Princess, there’s the terrifying moments. Can you imagine waking up one day and realizing that everyone is gone? Can you imagine essentially staying in bed for your entire life? At times, it almost got a bit preachy–Dickon is almost too perfect. And the way everyone acts around Colin just seems a little ridiculous–and really annoyed me. But the descriptions of the garden coming to life? The bulbs pushing through the earth? Heaven.
This book was published in 1909, the tail end of the Victorian era. The Victorians loved their gardens–they were all about trying to conquer nature and bring it indoors. As we shifted from a rural to urban society, we became less connected with the earth. But gardens full of flowers, things that weren’t necessary for survival, but necessary in other ways, became more and more common. Burnett seems to be picking up on this trend, but aiming it at kids who by 1909 were probably spending a lot less time playing with dirt than their parents did.
With my recent Burnett kick, I picked up at the library Marghanita Laski’s Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Moleworth and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett, published in 1950. I’ve read some of Laski’s novels through the miracle of Persephone Books, so I was very intrigued that she wrote such a book. I will admit that I did not care about (or read) the parts about Ewing and Molesworth. But the analysis of Burnett’s work, as well as the intro and conclusion were pretty interesting. Laski believed that Secret Garden was Burnett’s best book. Check this out:
“Most children’s books are written both about and for children who are uncomplicated extroverts. This is really most unfair. In character children are not really different from adults, and many of them are moody, imaginative, fearful, emotional, conscious of maladjustments with the external world. I suppose that most writers avoid such children for heroes and heroines in the belief that glimpses of the well-adjusted norm are likely to produce a correspondingly healthy frame of mind in the reader. They are wrong. This literary procession of good cheerful toughs only increases the sense of isolation in the mind of the child who is not such a one. I do not know of any children’s book other than The Secret Garden that franky poses the problem of the introspective unlikeable child in terms that children can understand and then offers an acceptable solution.”
I will admit than when I first closed Garden last night, my thoughts were that A Little Princess was the better book. Even with the garden Magic, I just like Princess better. And yet, after reading Laski’s essay, I’m having second thoughts. There are an awful lot more good kids in kidlit than bad ones. And even though Colin and Mary become good kids, they spend an awful big chunk of the book being pretty horrible. Sara Crewe is definitely in the practically perfect camp. But I’m not quite sure I completely agree with Laski that Garden is the only book from the “golden age” of children’s literature that features such a heroine. But it is certainly a special book.
The copy that I read is part of my vintage collection. The inside front cover is inscribed: “Nov. 28, 1936 11th Birthday. Molly Clark.” The inside back cover is inscribed: “From Aunt Molly. Marjorie Clark. 11/3/61” Can’t you just imagine Aunt Molly giving her copy to her neice? Doesn’t it make you smile, one generation sharing a beloved book with the next?
Last winter, I found this statue for my garden. She’s reading The Secret Garden. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I had to have it, but after revisiting Misselthwaite, I think I love it a little bit more.