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 Hobbit … Half Magic … The 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!