I have joined the Insecure Writers Support Group Bookclub on Goodreads and for June/July, we are reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s book The Secret Garden. The Club says, “This book was chosen to demonstrate characterization, which was voted #1 for what you would like to learn to do better. Even if you’ve read this book in the past, reread it with fresh eyes, keeping a look out for characterization examples.” So, this is my review.
The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.
The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?
I never read ‘The Secret Garden’ as a child, nor any of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books. Now in my second childhood, this was, therefore, my first encounter and I enjoyed the read even if there are failings from a writer’s perspective in the 21st century.
However, as I started reading I found the descriptions and characterisations were pulling me into a secret world. The author had a way of using short phrases to capture a sense of the characters and settings. Maybe the technique would be hard to replicate today, but it worked in the context of the novel and the period in which it is set. This was a time before the First World War for both characters and author. This may explain a certain innocence that two world wars dispelled.
Locked into the words and images, I was drawn deeper into Mary’s world and her explorations. Robin was a cute character that felt almost human in his mannerisms. Some might say anthropomorphic – Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities – but for me, the characteristics fitted the bird I knew from growing up in England. He becomes the character that ‘unlocks’ the secret garden and the healing that Mary and others need.
When she was in the garden, I could see it and sense it. Some might feel that Dickon is unreal and yet he came alive for me, first in what his sister Martha said about him and then when Mary met him. I’ve been lucky that I have known a few special people like him and the character echoed memories of those that have a rapport with wild animals.
When Mary found the source of the crying, the book added another character and another level. Damaged characters and healing is a theme from the start of the novel, but it’s the secret garden that’s the catalyst. I liked all the interactions between the characters, and the use of mirror images that Mary and others must face to grow.
When Spring arrived, there was magic is in the air. That is what makes this book work for me and why I suspect that it still survives alongside other children’s classics. Frances Hodgson Burnett captures that feeling of magic that in many ways exist in the natural world around us. There are elements that felt wrong to me reading in 2017, but omniscient POV, idealised social situations, and outdated attitudes were, unfortunately, the norm when the novel was written so they didn’t spoil my enjoyment – just deducted one star as a writer with a conscience. But that star magically re-appeared.