The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett has never been my favourite fable. I could never understand why two children living in one house were kept apart. Possibly, they might have exerted undue influence upon one another. Or why said children were forbidden to enter the walled-about, cultivated patch outside of the house. Somebody, it seems, took ill and died there. Yes, but surely….etc.? Half a century on from my first reading of the book, I can see clearly what Ms Hodgson Burnett has done, that is, taken a number of standard storytelling elements and jigged them into a heady, Gothic-lite parable on the healing power of nature.
Take one, orphaned young heroine – tick – remove her to remote big house – tick – headed by distant, choleric Uncle – tick – and run by Mrs Medlock, a taciturn Mrs Fairfax cum Mrs Grose-type housekeeper – tick – and add mysterious voice crying in the night – tick, tick, tick – and seal off a patch of nearby real estate from humanity – tick – and the author could not fail to create a bestseller. But maybe I am being cruel? Ms Hodgson Burnett’s master stroke is no doubt the creation of Dickon, relative of housemaid Martha and gardener’s boy, a curious cross between a nature spirit and a horticultural wizard. Dickon becomes Mary’s best friend and the author hints, her lover.
That Mary’s inamorato is Dickon and not her finely-bred cousin Colin could be the result of Ms Hodgson Burnett’s early 20th-century burgeoning social awareness? Or maybe the Victorian mania for marrying first cousins had grown thin? Or maybe, by 1911, no one could imagine the level-headed Mary falling for a spoilt upper-class twit, no matter how much he heals, in the course of the narrative. Getting the kid from his bath chair to the begonia borders is one matter, but holy matrimony – nah! The action of the latest film version of The Secret Garden (Marc Munden, 2020) has been pitched forward to 1947. Fine. But the garden has been transformed from a clutch of honest vegetable patches and sweet-pea canes to a CGI-generated, fantasy forest – not so good for a fable grounded in realism. Whatever, it’s half-term, so enjoy.