Books, children

Sharing the Secrets of the Garden

I recently started reading The Secret Garden aloud to Joy (and Grace, when she sits still long enough to hear). We finished up with Betsy-Tacy and were wondering what chapter book to start on next when I saw my beautiful green-and-pink copy on my shelves, and knew that was the one.

The Secret Garden is one of those books that shaped my childhood. Books in general shaped my childhood, really. But some stand out more than others. The Narnia books … The HobbitHalf MagicThe Four-Story Mistake and Thimble Summer and the Gone-Away books … The Wizard of Oz … the Betsy-Tacy books … the Anne and Emily and Story Girl books … Dad’s old Lone Ranger books (don’t judge!) … and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tales about two very different girls, Sara Crewe and Mary Lennox.
I was a little torn, in fact, between reading The Secret Garden or A Little Princess, but Sara’s tale of cold, gloomy, fog-ridden London always seems more fit for winter, to me, while Mary and Dickon and Colin all coming to life with the garden is so very much a spring tale. And seeing as how we started our first garden this spring, I thought the littles would enjoy it best right now. We’ll tackle A Little Princess this winter.
It’s not an easy tale to read aloud – the Yorkshire accents are tricky to pull off without sounding ridiculous – and much of the vocabulary is far beyond my four-year-old, but she is still riveted every time we read. We’re only four chapters in (I can’t get through more than two chapters at a time before my voice gives out), but I honestly think she would sit through the entire thing at once if I could do it. Right now she is as eagerly anticipating Dickon’s first appearance as Mary is, and I am loving seeing this world again through her eyes – the magic of the moor, and the manor with a hundred locked doors, and a pert maid who speaks broad Yorkshire when surprised, and a hunchback, and a robin, and of course, the locked-up garden with rose trees inside. It’s captured her imagination just like it did mine when I was a kid, and I suspect she is already imagining herself friends with Mary – just as I did.
Burnett bears much of the responsibility for my love affair with England. CS Lewis shares that responsibility, as do E Nesbit, Susan Cooper, Tolkien, … oh okay, there are a LOT of authors responsible for turning me into the anglophile I am today. But Burnett is right up there. When I think of Yorkshire I do not first think of Downton Abbey and the misadventures of the Crawley sisters; I think of Mary Lennox and Dickon and a walled-in garden (as a young woman, by the way, Mary would wallop some sense into those sisters – she wouldn’t stand for Lady Mary’s dramatics for one second, and Colin and Lady Edith would probably fall in love only to have both Lord Grantham and Mr Craven disapprove, and Sybil would try to fall in love with Dickon, but of course everyone KNOWS he and Mary are meant to be together, and no I haven’t been tempted to write a crossover fanfic about this, why do you ask? Ahem). I know, in my head, that England is not at all like Burnett wrote it, but when I close my eyes and conjure up images of it in my head, I see a moor covered in heather, and children playing with wild animals in brilliantly-colored gardens, and a foggy London with hansom cabs. The England of my heart is peopled with Dickons and Marys and Colins, secret gardens and gloomy mansions, a wide-spread moor and wise country mothers; with Saras and Beckys and Large Families and even Miss Minchins and Miss Amelias, boarding schools and attic bedrooms.
(When I close my eyes and think of Wales I see Will Stanton and Bran and Merriman, seven riders and a grey mountain and an afanc – but that’s a different post.)
I’m not sure much in life brings me more joy than being able to introduce my children to the books that I have loved so well my entire life, to think that they will be making friends with the same timeless characters that have been my friends since I was small, to see their eyes light up with the same joy I feel every time they see the familiar dust-jacket of certain books. I can think of no better childhood than one spent roaming the moor with Mary and Dickon (yes, and Colin too, even though I never liked him – I would have been much happier if the book had just been about Mary and Dickon the whole time, although I did love it when Mary so magnificently put him in his place during that one tantrum) and Dickon’s creatures.

Just a few more years, and we can start reading about Narnia and Middle-Earth. I really can’t wait for that. Every child should be able to go adventuring with Lucy and Bilbo!

4 thoughts on “Sharing the Secrets of the Garden”

  1. We have the same edition! Back when I actually got a lot of reading done in my life, I reread this EVERY spring. EVERY SINGLE SPRING. It IS spring. And I am CRAZY about overgrown gardens and I KNOW it's all this book's fault. Probably it's all this book's fault that I ever took up gardening to begin with.And I am pleased that I'm not the only Mary/Dickon shipper out there. Why does Dickon never get enough credit from people? I mean real-life people, not the people in the story. Because everyone in the story thinks he's wonderful, but I guess everyone OUT of the story thinks he's TOO wonderful. BUT I LIKE THE WONDERFUL. Have you seen the new book by Ellen Potter that's out, The Humming Room? It's supposed to be a modern-day retelling of The Secret Garden (but alas, not in Yorkshire anymore) and is also supposed to be good. I haven't read it yet, though, though I put it up in my Earth Day library display last week.

  2. I just added The Humming Room to my library list, to pick up today, in fact. I am usually leery of modern re-tellings of classic stories, but seeing that this one is set on the St Lawrence made me interested. My dad's family is all from the Thousand Islands, and I grew up only a few miles from the St Lawrence.I know Mary and Dickon would have had impossible class differences to overcome, and that it was sort of halfway implied in the book that she would grow up to be the new lady of Misselthwaite Manor – but oh, I loathe Colin and how demanding and selfish and ME ME ME he is, and it would be a terribly unhealthy marriage between he and Mary. Whereas she and Dickon are a perfect team.And yes, he is overly wonderful, but that's just fine by me. Because he's Dickon. And that's enough.

  3. Oh, you have to read the book (well, obviously you don't HAVE to, but I strongly recommend it). None of the movies have come close to doing it justice. Charming, yes, but nowhere near the quality of the book itself.

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