Study Guide

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden Introduction

When Frances Hodgson Burnett came out with The Secret Garden in 1911, she was already really popular in both England and the States—the One Direction of Victorian lady authors, if you will.

Thanks to the publications of Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1885 and A Little Princess in 1905, Burnett had already established her reputation as the writer to turn to if you want to read stories about optimistic, adorable orphan children experiencing Victorian England.

But The Secret Garden is a little different from her earlier, more sentimental works: It features two kids, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, who are complete jerks. Unlike Sara Crewe, these kids aren't sweet little tykes looking on the bright side every time something bad happens to them. This definitely isn't Annie, and no one is singing "Hard-Knock Life."

Don't get us wrong: The Secret Garden is a great book for kids to read. In fact, it ranks fifteenth of the School Library Journal's list of Top 100 Children's Novels. But, perhaps because of its complex, sometimes unlikeable main characters, Burnett published The Secret Garden as a magazine series for adults before releasing it to a more general audience as a novel in 1911. Like the young adult bestsellers of today, The Secret Garden has always appealed to a range of readers across the generations.

What is The Secret Garden About and Why Should I Care?

Ever felt like your parents just don't understand? Like they can't even bother to get to really know you? The Secret Garden is all about the damage that neglect can do to kids—emotionally and even physically—if their parents don't pay any attention to them. And here's the thing: Frances Hodgson Burnett knew what she was talking about from both sides of the parent-child equation.

Burnett had a rough childhood. She was born in 1849 and her dad died in 1853, leaving her mother and siblings in deep poverty in Manchester, England. You'd think this rough start would leave Burnett pretty attentive when her turn came to try her hand at mothering—but you'd be wrong. A saintly mother Burnett was not.

A prime example of this is her experience with her elder son, Lionel. The two of them were super-close emotionally, but that didn't stop Burnett from traveling all the time to escape her failing marriage to her children's father. When Lionel was sixteen, he got really sick during one of Burnett's long trips to England. And while Burnett did finally rush back across the ocean to her home in Atlantic City to be with him when he died, it wasn't before Lionel wrote her stacks of heartbreaking letters, pleading with her to come home.

So, yeah… While Burnett is really interested in the importance of parents in The Secret Garden, she didn't exactly practice what she preached. Some people—including her most recent major biographer, Gretchen Gerzina—have even suggested that Colin's amazing recovery and his reunion with his dad at the end of The Secret Garden were a way for Burnett to work through her real-life guilt at abandoning Lionel for so much of his all-too-short life.

The next time you feel like your parents are blowing you off, then, hand them The Secret Garden. It's about as cautionary a tale to cherish your children as they come.

The Secret Garden Resources

WEBSITES

A Link to Central Park's Burnett Fountain, Still Flowing in New York
Not only did Frances Hodgson Burnett have a lot of American fans, but remember: She spent the last seventeen years of her life in Long Island. No doubt she left an impression on the Big Apple, as well.

"Darkness and Light" in the Secret Garden: NPR
Tired of reading? We sympathize. Here's a link to an NPR broadcast on The Secret Garden, so that you can listen and rest your tired eyes.

"Hark! A Vagrant: The Secret Garden"
A fabulous cartoon strip presenting one possibility to account for the amazing healing powers of the Secret Garden.

A.S. Byatt on Frances Hodgson Burnett
Famous author A.S. Byatt offers her views on Gretchen Gerzina's recent biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett. It's not only interesting because of who wrote the review; Byatt also has a lot of insight on Burnett's life and process.

"The Secret Garden's Hidden Depths"
The Guardian isn't afraid to call The Secret Garden what it is: a deeply weird and creepy tale that is worth reading in part for its oddly dark undercurrents.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

The Secret Garden: 1949
Too early; haven't seen it—but we're sure it's good, if you can manage to track it down.

The Secret Garden: 1987
This television miniseries is amazing, except for one tiny detail: It tacks on a final scene that doesn't appear in the novel and that comes across in the film a bit like the epilogue to Book 7 of Harry Potter—by which we mean totally ridiculous and weird.

The Secret Garden: 1993
Agnieszka Holland's adaptation of this novel is not only the most recent; it's also by far the best. A total classic and must-see.

HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

Vivian Burnett Collection of Frances Hodgson Burnett at Princeton University
If you want to do more research, pay a visit to Princeton and check out Frances Hodgson Burnett's original manuscripts and papers.

VIDEO

The 1987 Film on Youtube
The Victorian era gets the 1980s treatment.

The 1993 Film Available for Rent on Youtube
Available for your viewing pleasure if you're willing to shell out $2.99 to rent it.

AUDIO

LibriVox Reading of The Secret Garden
Check out this dramatic reading of The Secret Garden. It's free, yo.

IMAGES

Frances Hodgson Burnett
In her younger days.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Bit Older
Lookin' good, Frances.