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The Secret Garden

1911 cover
Author Frances Hodgson Burnett
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Children's novel
Publisher Frederick A. Stokes (US)
Heinemann (UK)
Publication date
Pages 234

The Secret Garden is a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was initially published in serial format starting in the autumn of 1910, and was first published in its entirety in 1911. It is now one of Burnett's most popular novels, and is considered to be a classic of English children's literature. Several stage and film adaptations have been produced.


  • Plot summary 1
  • Major themes 2
  • Publication history 3
  • Public reception 4
  • Dramatic adaptations 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Plot summary

Mary Lennox is a very troubled, sickly, and unloved 10-year-old girl who was born in India to selfish, wealthy British parents who never wanted her and were too wrapped up in their own lives to love or care about her. She was taken care of primarily by servants, who pacified her as much as possible to keep her out of her parents' way. Spoiled and selfish, she is aggressive, surly, rude, and obstinate. Later, there is a cholera epidemic which hits India and kills her parents and all the servants. She is discovered alone but alive after the house is empty. She briefly lives with an English clergyman and his family and is then sent to Yorkshire, England, to live with Archibald Craven, an uncle she has never met, at his home called Misselthwaite Manor.

At first, Mary is her usual self, sour and rude, disliking her uncle's large house, the people within it and most of all the vast stretch of moor, which seems scrubby and grey after the winter. She is told that she must stay confined to her two rooms and that nobody will bother much with her and she must amuse herself. Martha Sowerby, a good-natured maid, tells Mary a story of the late Mrs. Craven and how she would spend hours in a private walled garden growing roses. Later, Mrs. Craven fell to her death when she sat on a tree branch that broke under her weight, and Mr. Craven had the garden locked and the key buried. Mary is roused by this story and starts to soften her ill manner despite herself. Soon, she begins to lose her disposition and gradually comes to enjoy the company of Martha, Ben Weatherstaff the gardener, and also that of a friendly robin redbreast, to whom she attaches human qualities. Her appetite increases and she finds herself getting stronger as she plays by herself on the moor. Martha's mother buys Mary a skipping rope to encourage this, and she takes to it immediately. Mary's time is occupied by wondering about the secret garden and a strange crying sound that can sometimes be heard around the house which the servants ignore or deny.

As Mary is exploring the gardens, she is alerted to some turned up soil by the inquisitive robin, and finds a key belonging to the locked garden, and, next day, the door into the garden. She chances to ask Martha for garden tools, which Martha has delivered by Dickon, her twelve-year-old brother. Mary and Dickon take a liking to each other, as Dickon has a soft way with animals and a good nature. Eager to absorb his gardening knowledge, Mary lets him into the secret of the garden, which he agrees to keep.

That night, Mary hears the crying again. She follows the noise and, to her surprise, finds a small boy her age, living in a hidden bedroom. His name is Colin and she discovers that they are cousins: he is the son of her uncle; his mother died when he was a baby, and he suffers from an unspecified problem with his spine. Mary visits every day that week, distracting him from his troubles with stories of the moor, of Dickon and his animals and of the garden. It is decided he needs fresh air and the secret garden, to which Mary finally admits she has access. Colin is put into his wheelchair and brought outside into the garden, the first time he has been outdoors in years.

While in the garden, the children are surprised to see Ben Weatherstaff looking over the wall on a ladder. Startled and angry to find the children there in his late mistress' (Colin's mother's) garden he admits he believed Colin to be a cripple. Colin stands up out of his chair to prove him wrong and finds that his legs are fine, though weak from not using them for a long time.

Colin spends every day in the garden, becoming stronger. The children conspire to keep Colin's health a secret so he can surprise his father, who is travelling and mourning over his late wife. As Colin's health improves, his father's mood does as well, and he has a dream of his wife calling him into the garden and a letter that Martha's wrote to him, makes him immediately pack his bags and head home. He walks the outer wall in memory but hears voices inside, finds the door unlocked and is shocked to see the garden in full bloom with children in it and his son running around. The servants watch as Mr. Craven walks back to the manor, and all are stunned that Colin runs beside him.

Major themes

Great Maytham Hall Garden, Kent, England

The Secret Garden is the book's central symbol, inspired, in part, by Burnett's interest in Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science theories.[1] The secret garden at Misselthwaite Manor is the site of both the near-destruction and the subsequent regeneration of a family.[2] Using the garden motif, Burnett explores the healing power inherent in living things. (H. G. Wells's short story "The Door in the Wall" described a similarly transforming secret garden.)

The story constitutes a struggle between common sense and the accepted wisdom of the day, in which common sense wins. Servants and father are seen to do harm by getting caught up in false ideas that come from the doctor who espouses medical practices of the day, though another doctor does take a different view. The children, by their own observations, strengthened by the common-sense of Dickon's family, break free of the imposed regime and triumph.

Mary finds that she has a great fear of the outside world and Colin helps her become more aware of the joy of life as he mends.

Another theme is what today might be called 'positive thinking', and belief in its power to bring about psychological and physical healing. Along with this goes a powerful message about the way in which life circumstances affect the formation of personality. Mary, described as 'sour faced' and 'spoilt' becomes more aware of her own personality when confronted with selfishness and tantrums in the boy Colin. Both are very affected by the simple kindness and understanding of Dickon, and his mother, who live a happy family life despite being poor, with the emphasis on fresh air, exercise and being at one with nature, as well as kind to other people.

Dickon's mother has an old-fashioned down-to-earth approach to life, and what constitutes a good upbringing for children, which comes across the better for being expressed in Yorkshire dialect. Instead of mocking Dickon's dialect, Mary comes to like it and finds it soothing and direct, to the extent that both she and Colin make an effort to talk like Dickon at times, strengthening the bond between them and their ability to express emotions.

Belief in 'magic' also features strongly, though the exact nature of this 'magic' is not made clear, and Colin talks of a career in science where he will discover the nature of magic through experiment and will lecture about it. Christian Science, with its belief in God as a life force rather than a person is clearly an influence here, the author being a follower of the movement.

Maytham Hall in Kent, England, where Burnett lived for a number of years during her marriage, is often cited as the inspiration for the book's setting.[3] Burnett kept an extensive garden, including an impressive rose garden. However, it has been noted that besides the garden, Maytham Hall and Misselthwaite Manor are physically very different.[3]

Publication history

Frontispiece, 1911

In part written on Burnett's visits to Buile Hill Park,[4] The Secret Garden was first serialised, starting in autumn 1910, in The American Magazine, a publication aimed at adults. The entire book was first published in the summer 1911 by Frederick A. Stokes in New York, and by Heinemann in London. The 1911 edition was illustrated by M.B.Kirk. Its copyright expired in the United States in 1987, and in most other parts of the world in 1995, placing the book in the public domain. As a result several abridged and unabridged editions were published during the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the full color illustrated edition from David R. Godine, Publisher in 1989.

The book's working title was Mistress Mary, in reference to the English nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.

Public reception

Marketing to both adult and juvenile audiences may have had an effect on its early reception; the book was not as celebrated as Burnett's previous works during her lifetime.[5] The Secret Garden paled in comparison to the popularity of Burnett's other works for a long period. Tracing the book's revival from almost complete eclipse at the time of Burnett's death in 1924, Anne H. Lundin noted that the author's obituary notices all remarked on Little Lord Fauntleroy and passed over The Secret Garden in silence.[6]

With the rise of scholarly work in children's literature over the past quarter-century, The Secret Garden has steadily in prominence. It is often noted as one of the best children's books of the twentieth century.[5] In 2003 it ranked number 51 in The Big Read, a survey of the British public by the BBC to identify the "Nation's Best-loved Novel" (not children's novel).[7] Based on a 2007 online poll, the U.S. National Education Association named it one of "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children".[8] In 2012 it was ranked number 15 among all-time children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal, a monthly with primarily U.S. audience.[9] (A Little Princess was ranked number 56 and Little Lord Fauntleroy did not make the Top 100.)[9] Jeffrey Masson considers The Secret Garden "one of the greatest books ever written for children".[10]

Dramatic adaptations

Video trailer from Angel Exit Theatre Company's Spring 2012 national tour of their Arts Council-funded production of The Secret Garden, timed to coincide with the centenary of Burnett's novel

The first filmed version was made in 1919 by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation with 17-year-old Lila Lee as Mary and Paul Willis as Dickon, but the film is thought lost.

In 1949, MGM filmed the second adaptation with Margaret O'Brien as Mary, Dean Stockwell as Colin and Brian Roper as Dickon. This version was mostly in black-and-white, but the sequences set in the restored garden were filmed in Technicolor.

Dorothea Brooking adapted the book into several different television serials for the BBC: an eight-part serial in 1952, an eight-part serial in 1960 (starring Colin Spaull as Dickon). The seven-part TV serial made by the BBC in 1975 has been released on DVD.[11]

Barbara Sleigh's Jessamy (1967) is reading the book on the train as the novel begins.

In 1987, Hallmark Hall of Fame filmed a TV adaptation of the novel starring Gennie James as Mary, Barret Oliver as Dickon, and Jadrien Steele as Colin. Billie Whitelaw as Mrs Medlock Derek Jacobi played the role of Archibald Craven, with Alison Doody appearing in flashbacks and visions as Lilias; Colin Firth made a brief appearance as the adult Colin Craven. It was filmed at Highclere Castle which later became known as the filming location for Downton Abbey

American Zoetrope's 1993 production was directed by Agnieszka Holland screenplay by Caroline Thompson and starred Kate Maberly as Mary, Heydon Prowse as Colin, Andrew Knott as Dickon and Dame Maggie Smith as Mrs. Medlock. Other credits include; Executive Producer Francis Ford Coppola

A 1994 animated adaptation as an ABC Weekend Special starred Honor Blackman, Sir Derek Jacobi, Glynis Johns, Victor Spinetti, Anndi McAfee as Mary Lennox, Joe Baker as Ben Weatherstaff, Felix Bell as Dickon, Naomi Bell as Martha, Richard Stuart as Colin, and Frank Welker as Robin.[12][13]

In Japan, NHK produced and broadcast an anime adaptation of the novel in 1991–1992 titled Anime Himitsu no Hanazono (アニメ ひみつの花園). Miina Tominaga was featured as the voice of Mary, while Mayumi Tanaka voiced Colin. The 39-episode TV series was directed by Tameo Kohanawa and written by Kaoru Umeno. Based on the title, this anime is sometimes mistakenly assumed to be related to the popular dorama series Himitsu no Hanazono. Surprisingly unavailable in the English language, it has been dubbed into several other languages including Spanish, Italian, Polish, and Tagalog.

Stage adaptations of the book have also been created. In 1991, a musical version opened on Broadway, with music by Lucy Simon, and book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. The production was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Daisy Eagan as Mary, then eleven years old. In 2013, an opera by the American composer Nolan Gasser which had been commissioned by the San Francisco Opera premiered at the Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.

A stage play by Jessica Swale adapted from the novel was performed at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in Chester 2014.[14]

A multimedia web series adaptation of the novel titled The Misselthwaite Archives was released on YouTube in January 2015 and is currently ongoing.[15][16]


  1. ^ Byatt, A. S. "A small person's paradise...", New Statesman, 19 April 2005.
  2. ^ Gohike,M. (1980). Re–Reading The Secret Garden. College English 41 (8), 894–902.
  3. ^ a b Thwaite, A. (2006). A Biographer Looks Back. A.S. Carpenter (ed.) Toronto: Scarecrow Press.
  4. ^ "Buile Hill Park" (PDF).  
  5. ^ a b Lundin, A. (2006). "The Critical and Commercial Reception of The Secret Garden". In the Garden: Essays in Honour of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Angelica Shirley Carpenter (ed.) Toronto: Scarecrow Press.
  6. ^ Lundin, A. Constructing the Canon of Children's Literature: Beyond Library Walls :133ff.
  7. ^ "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 18 October 2012
  8. ^ National Education Association (2007). "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". Retrieved 22 August 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Bird, Elizabeth (7 July 2012). "Top 100 Chapter Book Poll Results". A Fuse #8 Production. Blog.  
  10. ^  
  11. ^ Traxy (16 January 2011). "The Secret Garden (1975)". Retrieved 19 December 2011. 
  12. ^ (TV episode 1994)ABC Weekend Specials: The Secret Garden at the Internet Movie Database
  13. ^ Lynne Heffley (November 4, 1994). "TV Review: Animated 'Garden' Wilts on ABC".  
  14. ^
  15. ^ "The Misselthwaite Archives". 
  16. ^ The Misselthwaite Archives at the Internet Movie Database

External links

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