When [Mary] awakened she lay and stared at the wall. The house was perfectly still. She had never known it to be so silent before. She heard neither voices nor footsteps, and wondered if everybody had got well of the cholera and all the trouble was over. She wondered also who would take care of her now her Ayah was dead. There would be a new Ayah, and perhaps she would know some new stories. […] When people had the cholera it seemed that they remembered nothing but themselves. But if everyone had got well again, surely some one would remember and come to look for her. (1.20)
Okay, this passage is seriously creepy: Mary is totally alone and unsure if anyone's going to remember to come look for her. Yet, Mary doesn't seem that worried. In fact, Mary's Ayah—which is an Anglo-Indian word for a nanny or nurse—has just died of cholera (a horrible way to go, by the way). But Mary barely notices.
Even after Mary has learned more about feelings later on in the book, she doesn't seem to look back on her abandonment or her parents' death with any particular emotion. Why do you think Mary has so little feeling about this period in her life?
The young man whose name was Barney looked at her very sadly. Mary even thought she saw him wink his eyes as if to wink tears away.
"Poor little kid!" he said. "There is nobody left to come."
It was in that strange and sudden way that Mary found out that she had neither father nor mother left; that they had died and been carried away in the night, and that the few native servants who had not died also had left the house as quickly as they could get out of it, none of them even remembering that there was a Missie Sahib. That was why the place was so quiet. It was true that there was no one in the bungalow but herself and the little rustling snake. (1.29-31)
This young army officer Barney seems to feel sorrier for Mary than she does for herself. Even the narrator, who's none too fond of Mary at this point, invokes sympathy for the girl at this moment.
The sun shone down for nearly a week on the secret garden. The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place. (10.1)
Considering that Mary has spent so much time alone in her life, it's interesting that she likes the idea of secrecy so much—of a garden to call her very own. Perhaps so many years of neglect have made being alone feel familiar to her, especially since she was more or less rejected by her own mother. When you're alone, after all, no one rejects you.
Mary stood near the door with her candle in her hand, holding her breath. Then she crept across the room, and, as she drew nearer, the light attracted the boy's attention and he turned his head on his pillow and stared at her, his gray eyes opening so wide that they seemed immense.
"Who are you?" he said at last in a half-frightened whisper. "Are you a ghost?"
"No, I am not," Mary answered, her own whisper sounding half frightened. "Are you one?" (13.19-21)
It's a totally weird, surprising image to have these two abandoned children—Mary Lennox and Colin Craven—find one another in the middle of a pretty much empty house of a hundred rooms. The Secret Garden is filled with this sense of empty space, as though Mary and Colin basically have the freedom to do whatever they want. But maybe that sense of freedom also adds to the book's air of unreality: Both characters seem like "ghosts" here because nothing of their lives is ordinary or predictable—not even the way they meet.
"She is my mother," said Colin complainingly. "I don't see why she died. Sometimes I hate her for doing it."
"How queer!" said Mary.
"If she had lived I believe I should not have been ill always," he grumbled. "I dare say I should have lived, too. And my father would not have hated to look at me. I dare say I should have had a strong back. Draw the curtain again." (13.123-125)
This book places a lot of emphasis on the importance of a mother's love to a kid's emotional and physical health. Consider Mrs. Sowerby's positive relationship with Martha and Dickon, for example.
"Do you think [Colin] wants to die?" whispered Mary.
"No, but he wishes he'd never been born. Mother she says that's th' worst thing on earth for a child. Them as is not wanted scarce ever thrives. Mester Craven he'd buy anythin' as money could buy for th' poor lad but he'd like to forget as he's on earth." (15.69-70)
There is a sharp contrast in this book between the Sowerbys and the Cravens. Mrs. Sowerby has trouble making ends meet, but her kids are happy and contented because she showers them with love. Mr. Craven gives Colin everything that money can buy, but he can't stand the sight of him. So Colin is growing up spoiled and depressed, while Dickon and Martha seem contented and confident. Do you think love is all it takes to make a happy family? Is there an ideal balance between love, money, and happiness?
"Does tha' think," said Colin with dreamy carefulness, "as happen it was made loike this 'ere all o' purpose for me?"
"My word!" cried Mary admiringly, "that there is a bit o' good Yorkshire. Tha'rt shapin' first-rate—that tha' art." (21.6)
Colin is actually from Yorkshire—after all, he was born in Misselthwaite Manor—but he doesn't talk like he's from Yorkshire because his social class is higher than that of, say, the Sowerbys. He talks like an educated (and isolated) English kid.
So when Colin decides to talk in a Yorkshire accent, it seems to symbolize his new closeness to nature and to the land where he was born. He is literally going back to his roots: it's only when Colin first goes to the Secret Garden that he uses a Yorkshire accent to ask if the beautiful day and the lovely scenery "was made loike this 'ere all o' purpose for" him. Still, we've gotta say—it's a little self-centered of Colin to think this beautiful land has been made on purpose just for him.
When I was going to try to stand that first time Mary kept saying to herself as fast as she could, 'You can do it! You can do it!' and I did. I had to try myself at the same time, of course, but her Magic helped me—and so did Dickon's. Every morning and evening and as often in the daytime as I can remember I am going to say, 'Magic is in me! Magic is making me well! I am going to be as strong as Dickon, as strong as Dickon!' And you must all do it, too. That is my experiment Will you help, Ben Weatherstaff?" (23.41)
After his abandonment by Dr. Craven, Mrs. Medlock, and all of the servants at the Manor (partly thanks to his own over-the-top tantrums), Colin gets really sick. Now that Mary has introduced Colin to the Secret Garden, he has the chance to form new ties with Mary, Dickon, and Ben Weatherstaff. If isolation and abandonment can literally make you sick in this book, it makes sense that friendship can do just as much to make you better.
"I won't have people whispering and asking questions and I won't let my father hear about it until the experiment has quite succeeded. Then sometime when he comes back to Misselthwaite I shall just walk into his study and say 'Here I am; I am like any other boy. I am quite well and I shall live to be a man. It has been done by a scientific experiment.'"
"He will think he is in a dream," cried Mary. "He won't believe his eyes."
Colin flushed triumphantly. He had made himself believe that he was going to get well, which was really more than half the battle, if he had been aware of it. And the thought which stimulated him more than any other was this imagining what his father would look like when he saw that he had a son who was as straight and strong as other fathers' sons. (23.85-87)
We sympathize with Colin's sense of drama here. When you've been working really hard on something, it's natural to imagine exactly how you'll reveal your big surprise to the people whose opinions matter most to you.
"Well," said Dr. Craven, "so long as going without food agrees with them we need not disturb ourselves. The boy is a new creature."
"So is the girl," said Mrs. Medlock. "She's begun to be downright pretty since she's filled out and lost her ugly little sour look. Her hair's grown thick and healthy looking and she's got a bright color. The glummest, ill-natured little thing she used to be and now her and Master Colin laugh together like a pair of crazy young ones. Perhaps they're growing fat on that."
"Perhaps they are," said Dr. Craven. "Let them laugh." (24.78-80)
This outsider perspective coming from Dr. Craven and Mrs. Medlock—who are supposed to be taking care of Mary and Colin—is really striking. Both of them have distant, almost hateful views of the kids they're watching out for. Why do you think Burnett suddenly includes these flashes of outsider perspective? What do these scenes help to bring out in comparison to the rest of the novel?
"You are going to be sent home," Basil said to her, "at the end of the week. And we're glad of it."
"I am glad of it, too," answered Mary. "Where is home?"
"She doesn't know where home is!" said Basil, with seven-year-old scorn. "It's England, of course. Our grandmama lives there and our sister Mabel was sent to her last year. You are not going to your grandmama. You have none. You are going to your uncle. His name is Mr. Archibald Craven." (2.8-10)
"Home" is a strange way for bratty Basil to talk about England, a place that neither he nor Mary have ever seen. Basil has grown up in India just like Mary has, but for him, England is still the place where he imagines he belongs. And in fact, Mary does finally start growing up into a better kid when she is "back" in England. So Frances Hodgson Burnett appears to agree that, somehow, because Mary's parents were British, that Mary truly "belongs" in England.
What do you think of this idea? How do the concepts of "home" and "country" overlap in this book?
"She is such a plain child," Mrs. Crawford said pityingly, afterward. "And her mother was such a pretty creature. She had a very pretty manner, too, and Mary has the most unattractive ways I ever saw in a child. The children call her 'Mistress Mary Quite Contrary,' and though it's naughty of them, one can't help understanding it."
"Perhaps if her mother had carried her pretty face and her pretty manners oftener into the nursery Mary might have learned some pretty ways too. It is very sad, now the poor beautiful thing is gone, to remember that many people never even knew that she had a child at all." (2.15-16)
We know that Mary starts out The Secret Garden as a selfish little brat. But the book is also careful to link Mary's horrible behavior at the beginning of the novel to neglect. Mary's mother may have been pretty to look at, but she spent almost no time with her daughter at all—she was clearly prettier on the outside than on the inside. It's only once Mary finds a new, warmer, more sociable home that she starts to take an interest in the world around her.
"It's th' air of th' moor that's givin' thee stomach for tha' victuals," answered Martha. "It's lucky for thee that tha's got victuals as well as appetite. There's been twelve in our cottage as had th' stomach an' nothin' to put in it. You go on playin' you out o' doors every day an' you'll get some flesh on your bones an' you won't be so yeller." (5.5)
The Secret Garden presents a big contrast between Mary's life and Martha's. Mary never has to worry about the basics like food, water, or shelter, and when her parents die, she has a super-rich (though pretty weird) uncle to take her in. But Martha's family is poor. They do have to worry—all the time—about finding food. Yet, the fact that they all have to work together to survive actually bonds them together: Martha's family may be poor, but they are happy in a way that Mary has to learn.
What do you think Burnett is trying to say about what makes people happy? Why do you think that she includes Martha as a point of contrast with Mary? Martha's name is even a variation on Mary's.
In all [Mary's] wanderings through the long corridors and the empty rooms, she had seen nothing alive; but in this room she saw something. Just after she had closed the cabinet door she heard a tiny rustling sound. It made her jump and look around at the sofa by the fireplace, from which it seemed to come. In the corner of the sofa there was a cushion, and in the velvet which covered it there was a hole, and out of the hole peeped a tiny head with a pair of frightened eyes in it.
Mary crept softly across the room to look. The bright eyes belonged to a little gray mouse, and the mouse had eaten a hole into the cushion and made a comfortable nest there. Six baby mice were cuddled up asleep near her. If there was no one else alive in the hundred rooms there were seven mice who did not look lonely at all. (6.27-28)
At first, Mary's new home at Misselthwaite Manor seems even lonelier than her parents' house in India: It's a giant, (mostly) empty mansion in the middle of bleak Yorkshire countryside. How creepy is it that Mary can walk around for hours inside and see "nothing alive" around her? But then, there's this little mouse family—for more on them, hop on over to the "Symbols" section.
"Whatever happens, you—you never would tell?" [Mary] said.
[Dickon's] poppy-colored cheeks were distended with his first big bite of bread and bacon, but he managed to smile encouragingly.
"If tha' was a missel thrush an' showed me where thy nest was, does tha' think I'd tell any one? Not me," he said. "Tha' art as safe as a missel thrush."
And she was quite sure she was. (11.91-94)
Considering how neglected Mary was while living in India, it makes sense that she doesn't trust grown-ups to help her or support her choices. So she worries that, if an adult finds out about the Secret Garden, he might try to stop her from gardening there. Dickon agrees to keep quiet about Mary's garden because he sees that the garden is more than just a garden for her. It's like Mary's nest—her true home, which she is starting to build for herself in this unfamiliar place.
"I'll never tell about it," he answered. "But I says to mother, 'Mother,' I says, 'I got a secret to keep. It's not a bad 'un, tha' knows that. It's no worse than hidin' where a bird's nest is. Tha' doesn't mind it, does tha'?'"
Mary always wanted to hear about mother.
"What did she say?" she asked, not at all afraid to hear.
Dickon grinned sweet-temperedly.
"It was just like her, what she said," he answered. "She give my head a bit of a rub an' laughed an' she says, 'Eh, lad, tha' can have all th' secrets tha' likes. I've knowed thee twelve year'.'" (15.61-65)
First of all, this whole exchange is really sweet—Dickon wants to be honest with his mom, so he tells her that he has a secret, even though he can't tell her what it is because he promised Mary he wouldn't. And then his mom—who loves and trusts him because she's known him his whole life—says that's totally fine.
But beyond this view of Dickon and his mother's close relationship, this scene is also interesting for what it says about Mary. We know that Mary's mother let her down. But the personal failure of Mary's mother doesn't mean that Mary isn't interested in mothers, as a general category. She loves hearing about Dickon's mom perhaps because she wants to know what mothers can be like at their best.
In short, the whole idea of motherhood is still super-important to this book and to Mary personally, even though Mary's own mom didn't live up to the high standards set by Dickon's mother.
The nurse went away, concealing a smile, to give the order for two breakfasts. She found the servants' hall a more amusing place than the invalid's chamber and just now everybody wanted to hear the news from upstairs. There was a great deal of joking about the unpopular young recluse who, as the cook said, "had found his master, and good for him." The servants' hall had been very tired of the tantrums, and the butler, who was a man with a family, had more than once expressed his opinion that the invalid would be all the better "for a good hiding." (15.55)
Of course, as we've all seen on Downton Abbey, the whole idea of a home gets a little weird when you're talking about a giant English mansion at the beginning of the twentieth century. Imagine sharing your house with a bunch of people paid to serve you—or imagine living in a house where you are paid to take care of the owner—and you'll see what we mean when we say that the word home doesn't totally seem to apply to Misselthwaite Manor.
Even though Misselthwaite Manor is technically Colin Craven's home—it's where he was born, after all—the people who work there all hate him. Of course he feels isolated. It takes his friendship with Mary to make Misselthwaite Manor into a warmer, more genuine home for Colin.
"Tha'll see [the robin] often enow after a bit," answered Dickon. "When th' eggs hatches out th' little chap he'll be kep' so busy it'll make his head swim. […] Mother says as when she sees th' work a robin has to keep them gapin' beaks filled, she feels like she was a lady with nothin' to do. She says she's seen th' little chaps when it seemed like th' sweat must be droppin' off 'em, though folk can't see it." (21.12)
There's a lot in this book about just how much work it takes for parents to keep a family together and make a home. There's this robin here, who'll be so busy feeding his chicks that "it'll make his head swim," and then there is also Mrs. Sowerby, Dickon's mom, who is constantly working to keep her many kids fed and happy.
While all this family-directed housework (both bird and human) sounds like a lot of effort to us, the novel definitely emphasizes the positive, healthy side of hard work. After all, the parents who don't take the time to work hard for their kids, like Mary's mother and Mr. Craven, turn their kids (Mary and Colin) into truly terrible human beings.
"When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead," the orator [Colin] proceeded. "Then something began pushing things up out of the soil and making things out of nothing. One day things weren't there and another they were. I had never watched things before and it made me feel very curious. Scientific people are always curious and I am going to be scientific. I keep saying to myself, 'What is it? What is it?' It's something. It can't be nothing! I don't know its name so I call it Magic. […] Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden—in all the places. (23.41)
Colin sees people as closely connected with the natural world of "leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels." Nature is, in a strong sense, home for the characters of the Secret Garden.
When the boy began to walk by himself and even to move more quickly it was an immense relief. But for a long time—or it seemed a long time to the robin—he was a source of some anxiety. He did not act as the other humans did. He seemed very fond of walking but he had a way of sitting or lying down for a while and then getting up in a disconcerting manner to begin again.
One day the robin remembered that when he himself had been made to learn to fly by his parents he had done much the same sort of thing. He had taken short flights of a few yards and then had been obliged to rest. So it occurred to him that this boy was learning to fly—or rather to walk. (25.4-5)
It took us by surprise to read this sudden, literal bird's-eye view on Colin's process of learning to walk, told from the point of view of the robin who lives in the Secret Garden. However, it reminds us of that earlier comparison Dickon makes between the Secret Garden and a nest (read our thoughts on the quote for 11.91-4 above for more on this). Colin is learning to walk as clumsily as baby birds first learn to fly; however, he's learning in the homey, nest-like comfort of the Secret Garden.
Mary had liked to look at her mother from a distance and she had thought her very pretty, but as she knew very little of her she could scarcely have been expected to love her or to miss her very much when she was gone. She did not miss her at all, in fact, and as she was a self-absorbed child she gave her entire thought to herself, as she had always done. (2.1)
There's a pretty direct cause-and-effect logic here: Mary's parents neglected her, so she becomes a "self-absorbed child" who doesn't miss her own mother when she dies. Parents bad = kids bad, which seems fair a lot of the time. Still, if a kid behaves really badly (as Mary does, when she abuses her Indian nanny with her violent tantrums), when does parental responsibility end and personal responsibility start? Is Mary to blame for any of the bad things she does in this book? Is Colin? Why or why not?
All [Mary] thought about the key was that if it was the key to the closed garden, and she could find out where the door was, she could perhaps open it and see what was inside the walls, and what had happened to the old rose-trees. […] Besides that, if she liked it she could go into it every day and shut the door behind her, and she could make up some play of her own and play it quite alone, because nobody would ever know where she was, but would think the door was still locked and the key buried in the earth. The thought of that pleased her very much. (8.1)
We talk a little bit about the Secret Garden's isolation as a parallel to Mary's in the "Symbols" section, so go there to read more. Here, we want to point out this weird moment when Mary decides that she would like to have a place to go where she can play alone and "nobody would ever know where she was." Now, as it is, Mary's pretty darn isolated: She hasn't met her uncle and new guardian, Archibald Craven. The only person she has to talk to is Martha, her maid.
So why does she need a play space that's even more isolated and withdrawn than, say, her own room in Misselthwaite Manor? Why does her habit of being isolated and alone make her want even more isolation and loneliness?
"Is Colin a hunchback?" Mary asked. "He didn't look like one."
"He isn't yet," said Martha. "But he began all wrong. Mother said that there was enough trouble and raging in th' house to set any child wrong. They was afraid his back was weak an' they've always been takin' care of it—keepin' him lyin' down and not lettin' him walk. Once they made him wear a brace but he fretted so he was downright ill. Then a big doctor came to see him an' made them take it off. He talked to th' other doctor quite rough—in a polite way. He said there'd been too much medicine and too much lettin' him have his own way." (14.27-28)
The early treatment that Colin receives when everyone assumes that he is unable to take care of himself says a lot about the state of medicine in Frances Hodgson Burnett's day. Colin may not be getting the formal rest cure of the late 1800s, but he is being isolated and treated like a baby according to the totally untrue idea that lack of activity will somehow make him stronger.
It's only once Colin begins to make social ties and to take responsibility for his own physical health that he begins to get over the psychological effects of his total parental neglect.
"I always hated it," [Colin] answered, "even when I was very little. Then when they took me to the seaside and I used to lie in my carriage everybody used to stare and ladies would stop and talk to my nurse and then they would begin to whisper and I knew then they were saying I shouldn't live to grow up. Then sometimes the ladies would pat my cheeks and say 'Poor child!' Once when a lady did that I screamed out loud and bit her hand. She was so frightened she ran away." (15.9)
We eventually find out that Colin's illness is more mental than physical, but even so, he's had to deal with the public discrimination that a lot of people with physical differences struggle with to this day. For the record, while biting someone is pretty awful, we're mostly on Colin's side with this one—imagine being pinched on the cheek and treated like a doll, just because you aren't walking alongside your nanny/nurse. Blerg.
"Everyone thought I was going to die," said Colin shortly. "I'm not!"
And he said it with such decision Ben Weatherstaff looked him over, up and down, down and up.
"Tha' die!" he said with dry exultation. "Nowt o' th' sort! Tha's got too much pluck in thee. When I seed thee put tha' legs on th' ground in such a hurry I knowed tha' was all right. Sit thee down on th' rug a bit young Mester an' give me thy orders." (22.25-27)
So, we're going to call Ben out for saying something super-creepy here: He tells Colin that he knows Colin won't die because he's "got too much pluck." In other words, Ben thinks that, now that Colin has come out of his shell and out of his mansion, he has too much willpower and strength to die.
Not clear on the creep factor? This implies physical illness is somehow a sign of personal weakness. Sure, Colin's illness is mental rather than physical. But the general idea that "pluck" will save you from dying is a pretty awful one, because it places the responsibility for living and dying solely on the sick person's shoulders. As The Fault In Our Stars teaches us, you can die tragically no matter how awesome you are. We're glad Colin gets better, but we're still creeped out by the implications of Ben's link between physical and personal weakness.
Even Mary had found out that one of Colin's chief peculiarities was that he did not know in the least what a rude little brute he was with his way of ordering people about. He had lived on a sort of desert island all his life and as he had been the king of it he had made his own manners and had had no one to compare himself with. (23.6)
Colin has been so isolated growing up that he doesn't even recognize that his behavior is bad. Not only is this a sign of his neglectful father's treatment, but it's also proof of a problem of the English class system at the time. Colin isn't just a brat; he's also a super-rich brat left in the care of servants who treat him like "the king" because he's the son of their employer. So he's both a victim of child neglect and a terrible, spoiled bully. It's a doozy.
"You are so like [your mother] now," said Mary, "that sometimes I think perhaps you are her ghost made into a boy."
That idea seemed to impress Colin. He thought it over and then answered her slowly.
"If I were her ghost—my father would be fond of me."
"Do you want him to be fond of you?" inquired Mary.
"I used to hate it because he was not fond of me. If he grew fond of me I think I should tell him about the Magic. It might make him more cheerful." (25.39-43)
At first Mr. Craven rejects Colin because he worries that Colin is going to have a deformed spine like Mr. Craven's, but in this passage, Colin thinks Mr. Craven might give him another chance because Colin now looks much more like Mr. Craven's beloved deceased wife. Basically, it seems like Mr. Craven doesn't think of Colin as a separate person. He seems to consider Colin either as an outgrowth of something he hates about himself—his twisted back—or as something he misses too much to deal with—his dead wife.
"If she says that, it must be a nice song," Colin answered. "I've never been in a church myself. I was always too ill. Sing it, Dickon. I want to hear it."
Dickon was quite simple and unaffected about it. He understood what Colin felt better than Colin did himself. He understood by a sort of instinct so natural that he did not know it was understanding. He pulled off his cap and looked round still smiling.
"Tha' must take off tha' cap," he said to Colin, "an' so mun tha', Ben—an' tha' mun stand up, tha' knows." (26.29-31)
In this passage, Dickon introduces Colin to the idea that the Magic he keeps talking about is actually another word for Christian faith. As we get to the end of the book, we can see that The Secret Garden sets up a kind of equation for us, where good feelings are part of nature, and nature is part of God. Since Dickon is the character closest to nature in the book, he's also the one who feels religious faith almost by instinct.
One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live. (27.1)
Okay, what do you guys think of this philosophy? The narrator tells us two things at the beginning of The Secret Garden's last chapter: (1) Thinking positive thoughts is physically good for you, and (2) thinking negative thoughts can be as bad as a "scarlet fever germ."
While we may agree that positive thinking is a powerful thing, that part about avoiding negative thoughts puts a lot of pressure on a person's normal emotional responses. And if you refuse to acknowledge or even think about things that are paining you or hurting people around you, then how do you work to change those things?
What do you think? Are there some negative thoughts that might be helpful to your overall health? Or do you agree with Burnett that we need to "accentuate the positive [and] eliminate the negative," to borrow the words of music legend Johnny Mercer?
"What is it?" [Archibald Craven] said, almost in a whisper, and he passed his hand over his forehead. "I almost feel as if—I were alive!"
I do not know enough about the wonderfulness of undiscovered things to be able to explain how this had happened to him. Neither does any one else yet. He did not understand at all himself—but he remembered this strange hour months afterward when he was at Misselthwaite again and he found out quite by accident that on this very day Colin had cried out as he went into the secret garden:
"I am going to live forever and ever and ever!" (27.8-11)
Even though Colin and Mr. Craven are separated by thousands of miles while Colin is healing in the Secret Garden, Mr. Craven still somehow feels something of Colin's joy in his dreams. This spiritual connection between father and son implies that there is some hope for Mr. Craven to rebuild his family, even though he's been neglectful for about ninety-nine percent of the novel.
Mary gave a little involuntary jump.
"Oh! did she die!" she exclaimed, quite without meaning to. She had just remembered a French fairy story she had once read called "Riquet a la Houppe." It had been about a poor hunchback and a beautiful princess and it had made her suddenly sorry for Mr. Archibald Craven. (2.49-50)
This moment in the carriage on the way to Misselthwaite Manor—when Mary hears the tragic story of her uncle Archibald Craven from his housekeeper Mrs. Medlock—is probably the first moment in this whole novel when we really see that Mary isn't a completely insensitive little sociopath.
It was Mrs. Craven's garden that she had made when first they were married an' she just loved it, an' they used to 'tend the flowers themselves. An' none o' th' gardeners was ever let to go in. Him an' her used to go in an' shut th' door an' stay there hours an' hours, readin' and talkin'. An' she was just a bit of a girl an' there was an old tree with a branch bent like a seat on it. An' she made roses grow over it an' she used to sit there. But one day when she was sittin' there th' branch broke an' she fell on th' ground an' was hurt so bad that next day she died. Th' doctors thought he'd go out o' his mind an' die, too. That's why he hates it. No one's never gone in since, an' he won't let any one talk about it. (5.34)
Mr. Craven's storyline follows exactly the opposite pattern of Mary and Colin's. Mary and Colin spend the novel learning how to be happy for the first time, without ever having experienced happiness before in their lives. Mr. Craven was happy—really happy—but he lost all of that when his wife died. When he closes off the Secret Garden after his death, it represents his belief that he can never be happy again.
"I got up at four o'clock," [Martha] said. "Eh! it was pretty on th' moor with th' birds gettin' up an' th' rabbits scamperin' about an' th' sun risin'. I didn't walk all th' way. A man gave me a ride in his cart an' I did enjoy myself."
She was full of stories of the delights of her day out. Her mother had been glad to see her and they had got the baking and washing all out of the way. She had even made each of the children a doughcake with a bit of brown sugar in it.
"I had 'em all pipin' hot when they came in from playin' on th' moor. An' th' cottage all smelt o' nice, clean hot bakin' an' there was a good fire, an' they just shouted for joy. Our Dickon he said our cottage was good enough for a king." (8.5-7)
Martha's speech here about the joys of her day off can be a little tough to take for today's readers. That is, she's so glad that she gets to go home at 4:00AM to help her mother bake and wash for her many brothers and sisters before coming right back to work.
Would a servant really be so happy that she gets to do yet more cleaning back at home? We can believe that Martha loves spending time with her mom and her brothers and sisters, sure, but Frances Hodgson Burnett seems to be working really hard here to convince us of the wholesome, happy lives of hardworking peasants. Martha's description of her home life here is like "Whistle While You Work," but without the adorable animated animals.
Somehow [Mary] was sorry for [Colin] and did not want him to lie awake, so she leaned against the bed and began to stroke and pat his hand and sing a very low little chanting song in Hindustani.
"That is nice," he said more drowsily still, and she went on chanting and stroking, but when she looked at him again his black lashes were lying close against his cheeks, for his eyes were shut and he was fast asleep. So she got up softly, took her candle and crept away without making a sound. (13.146-147)
Here we've got Mary—who up until now has been pretty much completely selfish—singing a lullaby to Colin to help him sleep the first night that she meets him. Once Mary finds someone who is even more spoiled and coddled than she is, she starts thinking less of herself and more about how Colin might get better. So, that sound you hear in this passage isn't just Mary's Hindi lullaby; it's also the sound of Mary more or less leaving the story as a central character so that Colin's journey to maturity and happiness can take over.
"Just listen to them birds—th' world seems full of 'em—all whistlin' an' pipin'," [Dickon] said. "Look at 'em dartin' about, an' hearken at 'em callin' to each other. Come springtime seems like as if all th' world's callin'. The leaves is uncurlin' so you can see 'em—an', my word, th' nice smells there is about!" sniffing with his happy turned-up nose. "An' that poor lad lyin' shut up an' seein' so little that he gets to thinkin' o' things as sets him screamin'. Eh! my! we mun get him out here—we mun get him watchin' an listenin' an' sniffin' up th' air an' get him just soaked through wi' sunshine. An' we munnot lose no time about it." (18.14)
Dickon basically lives outside, it seems, and he loves it: the bird song, the sweet smells, all of it. For Dickon, and for this book in general, being outside in the natural world is a great way of getting you to stop thinking about your troubles and to start thinking of things other than yourself.
"Listen again. Do you hear a bleat—a tiny one?"
"Oh, yes!" cried Colin, quite flushing.
"That's the new-born lamb," said Mary. "He's coming."
Dickon's moorland boots were thick and clumsy and though he tried to walk quietly they made a clumping sound as he walked through the long corridors. Mary and Colin heard him marching—marching, until he passed through the tapestry door on to the soft carpet of Colin's own passage. (19.69-75)
We can't deny that one big reason why we flagged this passage under the theme of "Happiness" is that lambs are adorable and it gave us an excuse to look at some happy lambs online. And hey, we're not the only people who think having lambs in your life makes you a happier and (possibly) better person—Dickon brings Colin his lamb and his tamed rook to try to cheer Colin up so he'll actually go outside and experience the world for himself.
One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun—which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. (21.1)
Here's a moment where the narrator gives us her own point of view on Life, the Universe, and Everything. The narrator says that there are moments of our lives where we just feel our place in the eternity of the universe, giving the example of watching the dawn and realizing that you've seen just one of "thousands and thousands"of sunrises.
"I can stand," he said, and his head was still held up and he said it quite grandly.
"I told thee tha' could as soon as tha' stopped bein' afraid," answered Dickon. "An' tha's stopped."
"Yes, I've stopped," said Colin. (22.4-6)
Can you think of examples in your own experience where fear of something has made you actually physically sick? How much of a relationship do you see between positive thinking and physical health? What do you think of Colin's cure through happiness and outdoor work: Is it realistic according to today's understanding of medicine?
"I shall live forever and ever and ever!" he cried grandly. "I shall find out thousands and thousands of things. I shall find out about people and creatures and everything that grows—like Dickon—and I shall never stop making Magic. I'm well! I'm well! I feel—I feel as if I want to shout out something—something thankful, joyful!" (26.21)
Mary starts to feel better once she stops thinking so much about herself and starts thinking more about Colin and the Secret Garden. Once Colin starts to feel better about himself, however, his focus is a lot bigger—he wants to find out about everything and do everything. Would you say that Colin gets less selfish by the end of this book? Do you think there's a subtle gender difference in the way that Colin reacts to the natural beauties of the Secret Garden and the way that Mary reacts?
Colin put out his hand and laid it on his father's arm.
"Aren't you glad, Father?" he ended. "Aren't you glad? I'm going to live forever and ever and ever!"
Mr. Craven put his hands on both the boy's shoulders and held him still. He knew he dared not even try to speak for a moment.
"Take me into the garden, my boy," he said at last. "And tell me all about it." (27.68-72)
When Colin promises that he's going to "live forever and ever and ever," it reminds us that the author's son Lionel died young of tuberculosis. Can you think other examples of books that seem to fulfill the wishes of their authors? How might it influence your experience of this ending to know Burnett's personal biography? Do you think you would appreciate the last chapter of the book more or less without contextual information, and why?
The child stared at [the young British officer visiting], but she stared most at her mother. She always did this when she had a chance to see her, because the Mem Sahib—Mary used to call her that oftener than anything else—was such a tall, slim, pretty person and wore such lovely clothes. Her hair was like curly silk and she had a delicate little nose which seemed to be disdaining things, and she had large laughing eyes. All her clothes were thin and floating, and Mary said they were "full of lace." They looked fuller of lace than ever this morning, but her eyes were not laughing at all. They were large and scared and lifted imploringly to the fair boy officer's face. (1.7)
Mary's mother Mrs. Lennox is a beautiful woman, but there's nothing going on underneath that nice-looking shell. She's so shallow that she decides to stay at her house to attend a dinner party even though there is a cholera epidemic going on. For the record, Mem Sahib was a title used often during Britain's occupation of India to address the wives of British officers and officials. It's like calling your own mom ma'am all the time: really formal and kind of weird.
But Mrs. Medlock was not in the least disturbed by her and her thoughts. She was the kind of woman who would "stand no nonsense from young ones." At least, that is what she would have said if she had been asked. She had not wanted to go to London just when her sister Maria's daughter was going to be married, but she had a comfortable, well paid place as housekeeper at Misselthwaite Manor and the only way in which she could keep it was to do at once what Mr. Archibald Craven told her to do. She never dared even to ask a question.
"Captain Lennox and his wife died of the cholera," Mr. Craven had said in his short, cold way. "Captain Lennox was my wife's brother and I am their daughter's guardian. The child is to be brought here. You must go to London and bring her yourself."
So she packed her small trunk and made the journey. (2.25-27)
Both Mrs. Medlock and Dr. Craven carry out Mr. Craven's orders to the letter. They are decent servants, and they do their jobs, but since neither of them really care about the kids they're taking care of, they don't do their jobs well or with much sympathy.
Sometimes, it seems like Frances Hodgson Burnett gets sentimental about poor-but-happy-peasant stereotypes, at least when it comes to Dickon and the Sowerby family as a whole. But Mrs. Medlock's character seems like a much more realistic view of the ways that working for a living can influence your relationships with your employers …
"Everyone is obliged to please me. I told you that," [Colin] said. "If I were to live, this place would sometime belong to me. They all know that. I would make them tell me."
Mary had not known that she herself had been spoiled, but she could see quite plainly that this mysterious boy had been. He thought that the whole world belonged to him. How peculiar he was and how coolly he spoke of not living. (13.80-82)
Colin knows way too much about the world, in an odd way. He's about as sheltered as a kid can be physically, but he knows that (1) everyone expects him to die before he grows up, and (2) everyone will do what he wants because he's the boss around here (or at least, the son of the boss). This makes Colin think he can treat people however the heck he wants to, so even though Colin is, in some ways, really vulnerable to the choices of the people around him (since he can't take care of himself at all), he's also in a position of weird strength.
She felt as if she would like this thing to be settled one way or the other. "I believe Dickon would. He's always talking about live things. He never talks about dead things or things that are ill. He's always looking up in the sky to watch birds flying—or looking down at the earth to see something growing. He has such round blue eyes and they are so wide open with looking about. And he laughs such a big laugh with his wide mouth—and his cheeks are as red—as red as cherries."
She pulled her stool nearer to the sofa and her expression quite changed at the remembrance of the wide curving mouth and wide open eyes.
"See here," she said. "Don't let us talk about dying; I don't like it. Let us talk about living. Let us talk and talk about Dickon. And then we will look at your pictures." (14.99-101)
Colin is a morbid, death-obsessed little kid, and it obviously has a bad effect on his physical health. But here's another take on Dickon's complete focus on "live things": he's a little boring. That is, in some ways, he's a totally empty character because he is so good and so optimistic. It would be tough to write a book focused on Dickon because there is no plot arc or development possible for such a flat character.
After another week of rain the high arch of blue sky appeared again and the sun which poured down was quite hot. Though there had been no chance to see either the secret garden or Dickon, Mistress Mary had enjoyed herself very much. The week had not seemed long. She had spent hours of every day with Colin in his room, talking about Rajahs or gardens or Dickon and the cottage on the moor. They had looked at the splendid books and pictures and sometimes Mary had read things to Colin, and sometimes he had read a little to her. When he was amused and interested she thought he scarcely looked like an invalid at all, except that his face was so colorless and he was always on the sofa. (15.1)
When Mary first arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, she has a lot of trouble finding things to do. As she develops a sense of curiosity about the Secret Garden and the mysterious boy crying away in his own wing of the house, though, she loses her constant boredom. Here, now that both she and Colin are more checked into the world around them, they can amuse themselves for a whole week inside. In this book, being bored isn't the result of what is actually going on around you; it's more like a symptom of depression and alienation.
"I think [the walled garden] has been left alone so long—that it has grown all into a lovely tangle. I think the roses have climbed and climbed and climbed until they hang from the branches and walls and creep over the ground—almost like a strange gray mist. Some of them have died but many—are alive and when the summer comes there will be curtains and fountains of roses. I think the ground is full of daffodils and snowdrops and lilies and iris working their way out of the dark. Now the spring has begun—perhaps—perhaps—"
And Colin was asleep. (17.61-64)
What do you think of Mary's role change here? She starts off as a spoiled jerk, but she becomes much more human thanks to Dickon and the Secret Garden. In fact, by the middle of the novel, Mary becomes like a little surrogate mom to Colin, telling him bedtime stories about the Secret Garden and even singing him lullabies. Do you think there is a lot of character depth to Mary by the end of the novel? Do you identify with her more at the beginning or the end of the book?
"That's fresh air," she said. "Lie on your back and draw in long breaths of it. That's what Dickon does when he's lying on the moor. He says he feels it in his veins and it makes him strong and he feels as if he could live forever and ever. Breathe it and breathe it." (19.46)
Here's the thing: The big cities of the early 20th century were pretty gross. Imagine what New York or London must have smelled like before cars were in common use, when horses were still the main form of transportation. Plus, chimneys and smokestacks for private homes and factories added to the overall stink of the city air. So we can understand why this book keeps repeating this great appreciation for the health and deliciousness of country air.
And this, if you please, this is what Ben Weatherstaff beheld and which made his jaw drop. A wheeled chair with luxurious cushions and robes which came toward him looking rather like some sort of State Coach because a young Rajah leaned back in it with royal command in his great black-rimmed eyes and a thin white hand extended haughtily toward him. And it stopped right under Ben Weatherstaff's nose. It was really no wonder his mouth dropped open.
"Do you know who I am?" demanded the Rajah.
How Ben Weatherstaff stared! His red old eyes fixed themselves on what was before him as if he were seeing a ghost. He gazed and gazed and gulped a lump down his throat and did not say a word. "Do you know who I am?" demanded Colin still more imperiously. "Answer!" (21.68-70)
When Ben Weatherstaff spots Mary in the Secret Garden and starts yelling at her, he probably should have looked around a little first—then he might have spotted Colin sitting there in all of his luxury. Again, this passage presents the strange contrast of Colin's life: He is so spoiled and so sure of his own authority over his employees that he behaves with the manners of a "young Rajah." At the same time, we know that he throws tantrums like a two-year-old when he's on his own.
"Tha'—tha' hasn't got crooked legs?" quavered Ben more hoarsely yet. It was too much. The strength which Colin usually threw into his tantrums rushed through him now in a new way. Never yet had he been accused of crooked legs—even in whispers—and the perfectly simple belief in their existence which was revealed by Ben Weatherstaff's voice was more than Rajah flesh and blood could endure. His anger and insulted pride made him forget everything but this one moment and filled him with a power he had never known before, an almost unnatural strength. (21.81)
On the one hand, Ben has no right to make any kind of assumptions about Colin's physical health without even knowing the kid. We can understand Colin getting mad over that. But on the other hand, it sounds a little bit like Colin is getting angry, not just because Ben is making assumptions, but also because he is personally offended at the idea of disability.
Why should "insulted pride" come up, as though having "crooked legs" would be a sign of anything at all about Colin as a person? Again, we can see the subtle, underlying assumption in this book that being healthy is morally good and being disabled is somehow a personal weakness. For more on The Secret Garden and disability rights, check out our analysis of Colin Craven over in the "Characters" section.
I just love [the moor]. It's none bare. It's covered wi' growin' things as smells sweet. It's fair lovely in spring an' summer when th' gorse an' broom an' heather's in flower. It smells o' honey an' there's such a lot o' fresh air—an' th' sky looks so high an' th' bees an' skylarks makes such a nice noise hummin' an' singin'. Eh! I wouldn't live away from th' moor for anythin'. (4.8)
The Sowerby family—Dickon, and here, Martha—seem to belong to Yorkshire in this intense way. They all speak with thick Yorkshire accents, and they all have a deep appreciation for the natural beauties of the area. Compare their deep sense of belonging with Mary's total alienation from India. There, she has a lot of luxury—a nanny and servants—but she doesn't seem to feel that she belongs.
According to The Secret Garden, what makes a person belong in a place? Does Colin belongin Yorkshire the same way Martha says she does? Why or why not?
"You'll go by yourself," [Martha] answered. "You'll have to learn to play like other children does when they haven't got sisters and brothers. Our Dickon goes off on th' moor by himself an' plays for hours. That's how he made friends with th' pony. He's got sheep on th' moor that knows him, an' birds as comes an' eats out of his hand. However little there is to eat, he always saves a bit o' his bread to coax his pets."
It was really this mention of Dickon which made Mary decide to go out, though she was not aware of it. There would be birds outside though there would not be ponies or sheep. They would be different from the birds in India and it might amuse her to look at them. (4.74-75)
What is it that you think starts Mary's transformation into a better person? Is it simply moving into Misselthwaite Manor, away from her spoiled early life? Is it meeting Martha? Is it hearing about Dickon? Is it playing outside for pretty much the first time in her whole life? Why do you think Mary starts to change?
Presently an old man with a spade over his shoulder walked through the door leading from the second garden. He looked startled when he saw Mary, and then touched his cap. He had a surly old face, and did not seem at all pleased to see her—but then she was displeased with his garden and wore her "quite contrary" expression, and certainly did not seem at all pleased to see him. (4.83)
Like Dickon, Ben Weatherstaff spends almost all of his time outside. But unlike Dickon, it doesn't seem to have transformed him into this angelic, practically-able-to-talk-to-animals kind of character. He's still crusty and unfriendly. But we do find out that he has a good heart: He was really attached to the late Mrs. Craven, and he's tried to look after her Secret Garden for her, even against Mr. Craven's wishes. He may not have the best people skills, but his love of gardening still indicates that he's a great guy underneath.
Mistress Mary went a step nearer to the robin and looked at him very hard.
"I'm lonely," she said.
She had not known before that this was one of the things which made her feel sour and cross. She seemed to find it out when the robin looked at her and she looked at the robin. (4.123-125)
Ben Weatherstaff tells Mary that the robin hangs around because he likes company—and without company, he gets lonely. This discovery that therobingets lonely helps Mary to realize that she does, too. For someone who spends a lot of her time thinking about herself and what she wants, she doesn't seem to understand herself much. It's only when she compares herself with the living things she sees around her that she starts to recognize what she needs in this world.
[Mary] did not know that [going outside] was the best thing she could have done, and she did not know that, when she began to walk quickly or even run along the paths and down the avenue, she was stirring her slow blood and making herself stronger by fighting with the wind which swept down from the moor. She ran only to make herself warm, and she hated the wind which rushed at her face and roared and held her back as if it were some giant she could not see. But the big breaths of rough fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes when she did not know anything about it. (5.1)
It's interesting to get this divided point of view on Mary's actions. By running around outside, Mary isn't starting a new exercise routine on purpose, but even so, the narrator wants to make sure that we understand that outdoor exercise is good, no matter why you do it. Mary's instincts lead her in the best direction for her, even without input from her conscious mind. It's like that totally self-contradicting One Direction song: Mary doesn't know she's exercising, which is what makes her exercise.
"I smell something nice and fresh and damp," she said.
"That's th' good rich earth," he answered, digging away. "It's in a good humor makin' ready to grow things. It's glad when plantin' time comes. It's dull in th' winter when it's got nowt to do. In th' flower gardens out there things will be stirrin' down below in th' dark. Th' sun's warmin' 'em. You'll see bits o' green spikes stickin' out o' th' black earth after a bit." (7.34-35)
One part of Frances Hodgson Burnett's claim that we humans are all a part of nature seems to be that nature is also a lot like us. That is, the book often implies that different elements of our environment think and feel the way humans do. There's that scene in Chapter 25 told from the robin's perspective, and there's also this moment, when Ben Weatherstaff describes the earth as though it wants to be producing plants.
"Do you understand everything birds say?" said Mary.
Dickon's grin spread until he seemed all wide, red, curving mouth, and he rubbed his rough head.
"I think I do, and they think I do," he said. "I've lived on th' moor with 'em so long. I've watched 'em break shell an' come out an' fledge an' learn to fly an' begin to sing, till I think I'm one of 'em. Sometimes I think p'raps I'm a bird, or a fox, or a rabbit, or a squirrel, or even a beetle, an' I don't know it." (9.83-85)
Dickon loves animals so much that he feels like he is one. Still, his animal-like traits—his innocence, and his love of being outside all the time—also means that he doesn't seem that easy to talk to about human stuff. For example, we doubt that Mary has spent a lot of time chatting with him about her history in India, or about her parents. All of their dialogue in this novel focuses primarily on nature and the life cycles of living things.
It's hard to imagine what Dickon would be like at school or at a job or as an adult more generally. Of course, that may be part of the point: this book is like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Peter Pan in that it sets up a separate, special, protected world just for kids.
"I'm sure you wouldn't mind [Dickon]," said Mary.
"The birds don't and other animals," he said, still thinking it over, "perhaps that's why I shouldn't. He's a sort of animal charmer and I am a boy animal."
Then he laughed and she laughed too; in fact it ended in their both laughing a great deal and finding the idea of a boy animal hiding in his hole very funny indeed. (15.16-18)
This description Colin uses for himself—that he's a "boy animal"—is pretty far from his previous pose as a king of all of the lowly servants around him. Colin's willingness to be charmed by Dickon, the same way Dickon's bird and pony and lamb have been, shows that he's starting to let go of some of his more stuck-up and entitled ideas. At least, he's willing to make an exception for Dickon, He's still pretty bossy and unpleasant to Martha and his nurse and the other Misselthwaite Manor servants.
"Tha's doin' Magic thysel'," [Dickon] said. "It's same Magic as made these 'ere work out o' th' earth," and he touched with his thick boot a clump of crocuses in the grass.
Colin looked down at them.
"Aye," he said slowly, "there couldna' be bigger Magic than that there—there couldna' be." (22.10-12)
When Colin first stands up, he thinks that Dickon's doing magic. But no, reassures Dickon, the magic is all Colin's—he's doing the same magic that makes plants grow out of the ground.
We talk about Colin's cure in the "Characters" section, so here we plan to chat about the plant half of this passage. We just want to say: Nature isn't all fun plants growing out of the ground. Plants are tough guys, and they have all kinds of natural defense systems to fight back against animals and insects that might eat or destroy them. Sure, we're not saying that your lawn is about to rise up and attack you, but Frances Hodgson Burnett's view of nature lacks any sense of the struggle that plants (and animals) have to go through to survive and thrive.
He could only say that he was sure that the Eggs would never flap about in such a manner; but as the boy who could speak robin so fluently was doing the thing with them, birds could be quite sure that the actions were not of a dangerous nature. Of course neither the robin nor his mate had ever heard of the champion wrestler, Bob Haworth, and his exercises for making the muscles stand out like lumps. Robins are not like human beings; their muscles are always exercised from the first and so they develop themselves in a natural manner. If you have to fly about to find every meal you eat, your muscles do not become atrophied (atrophied means wasted away through want of use). (25.6)
We definitely agree that, to robins, watching humans work out to build muscle must seem deeply stupid. Why would a robin worry about keeping in shape? But most of us have grown so far from the need to make our own nests or to gather our own food that we can't exactly imitate a robin's lifestyle to keep in shape.
When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too. She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another. (1.1)
This passage is how the story begins, and it sets up the main conflicts of the novel: Mary's need to shift from being "disagreeable-looking" to being healthy and fit, her need to reconnect with England (and, specifically, rural Yorkshire) after living in India. It almost reads like the opening to a fairytale, don't you think?
[Mary] was in such a rage and felt so helpless before the girl's simple stare, and somehow she suddenly felt so horribly lonely and far away from everything she understood and which understood her, that she threw herself face downward on the pillows and burst into passionate sobbing. She sobbed so unrestrainedly that good-natured Yorkshire Martha was a little frightened and quite sorry for her. She went to the bed and bent over her.
"Eh! you mustn't cry like that there!" she begged. "You mustn't for sure. I didn't know you'd be vexed. I don't know anythin' about anythin'—just like you said. I beg your pardon, Miss. Do stop cryin'."
There was something comforting and really friendly in her queer Yorkshire speech and sturdy way which had a good effect on Mary. She gradually ceased crying and became quiet. Martha looked relieved. (4.34-36)
Mary starts crying in this early scene, now that she's in Misselthwaite Manor, because she's far away from anything she's ever known. But this scene is pretty much the last moment in the novel when Mary actually misses her old life. When Martha starts speaking to Mary, Mary quickly seems to replace any attachment she had for India with her new ties to England. She doesn't seem to have too much trouble adapting to her new home, which says something about the flexibility and resilience of kids.
"Martha," [Mary] said, "they were your wages. It was your two-pence really. Thank you." She said it stiffly because she was not used to thanking people or noticing that they did things for her. "Thank you," she said, and held out her hand because she did not know what else to do.
Martha gave her hand a clumsy little shake, as if she was not accustomed to this sort of thing either. Then she laughed.
"Eh! th' art a queer, old-womanish thing," she said. "If tha'd been our 'Lizabeth Ellen tha'd have given me a kiss." (8.34-36)
Mary has had so little experience with other kids that she doesn't seem to know how to behave impulsively or openly. Here, she repays Martha for the jumprope Martha has brought her. Martha thinks Mary's effort at thanks is "old-womanish," since it's so stiff and formal. In a way, then, Mary's character development has less to do with becoming a grown-up and more to do with becoming a more natural, less stiff, and less awkward kid. She's not coming of age over the course of the novel, exactly; she's just becoming better.
To talk about Dickon meant to talk about the moor and about the cottage and the fourteen people who lived in it on sixteen shillings a week—and the children who got fat on the moor grass like the wild ponies. And about Dickon's mother—and the skipping-rope—and the moor with the sun on it—and about pale green points sticking up out of the black sod. And it was all so alive that Mary talked more than she had ever talked before—and Colin both talked and listened as he had never done either before. And they both began to laugh over nothings as children will when they are happy together. And they laughed so that in the end they were making as much noise as if they had been two ordinary healthy natural ten-year-old creatures—instead of a hard, little, unloving girl and a sickly boy who believed that he was going to die. (14.103)
Again we see signs that the point of this book is not for Mary and Colin to grow up;instead, it's for Mary and Colin to be "ordinary healthy natural ten-year-old" kids. The whole idea that childhood is a special time of life that needs to be cherished as separate from (and maybe better than) adulthood is a specifically Victorian invention, which Frances Hodgson Burnett used to make a ton of cash on books like Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), A Little Princess (1905), and of course, The Secret Garden.
"Us mustn't seem as if us was watchin' him [the robin] too close," said Dickon. "He'd be out with us for good if he got th' notion us was interferin' now. He'll be a good bit different till all this is over. He's settin' up housekeepin'. He'll be shyer an' readier to take things ill. He's got no time for visitin' an' gossipin'. Us must keep still a bit an' try to look as if us was grass an' trees an' bushes. Then when he's got used to seein' us I'll chirp a bit an' he'll know us'll not be in his way." (15.49)
The robin loves being friends with Dickon and Mary until he starts building a nest and preparing to have a family. Then, once kids are on the horizon, he doesn't want to spend too much time with his old friends, since he's "got no time for visitin' an' gossipin'." Actually, there's some grown-up human truth to this: It's really hard for people to keep up with old friends once they have kids. See how many life lessons this robin has to teach us?
"[The Secret Garden] is just what you thought it would be," he said at last. "It sounds just as if you had really seen it. You know I said that when you told me first."
Mary hesitated about two minutes and then boldly spoke the truth.
"I had seen it—and I had been in," she said. "I found the key and got in weeks ago. But I daren't tell you—I daren't because I was so afraid I couldn't trust you—for sure!" (18.55-58)
Mary really does take a long time to let Colin in on the fact that she has found the Secret Garden. It takes her weeks to decide to let him in on the truth, even though she tells him plenty of supposedly fictional stories about what the Secret Garden might be like. Do you think Colin guesses that Mary is holding out on him? What makes Mary trust Colin with this secret in the end?
The most absorbing thing, however, was the preparations to be made before Colin could be transported with sufficient secrecy to the garden. No one must see the chair-carriage and Dickon and Mary after they turned a certain corner of the shrubbery and entered upon the walk outside the ivied walls. As each day passed, Colin had become more and more fixed in his feeling that the mystery surrounding the garden was one of its greatest charms. Nothing must spoil that. No one must ever suspect that they had a secret. People must think that he was simply going out with Mary and Dickon because he liked them and did not object to their looking at him. (20.3)
Given how few good experiences Mary and Colin have had with adults in their lives, it's not that surprising that they care so much about keeping things secret so that the adults can't spoil their plans. Even so, the level of Colin's investment in making sure that none of the servants know that he, Mary, and Dickon are going into the Secret Garden is like a top-secret military operation. He's surprisingly careful for a ten-year-old.
"I once heard an officer in India tell my mother that there were fakirs who said words over and over thousands of times," said Mary.
"I've heard Jem Fettleworth's wife say th' same thing over thousands o' times—callin' Jem a drunken brute," said Ben Weatherstaff dryly. "Summat allus come o' that, sure enough. He gave her a good hidin' an' went to th' Blue Lion an' got as drunk as a lord."
Colin drew his brows together and thought a few minutes. Then he cheered up. "Well," he said, "you see something did come of it. She used the wrong Magic until she made him beat her. If she'd used the right Magic and had said something nice perhaps he wouldn't have got as drunk as a lord and perhaps—perhaps he might have bought her a new bonnet." (23.45-47)
Here Colin is showing his total ignorance and naiveté about the world. He decides that the healing power of words is so powerful that it must be Mrs. Fettleworth's fault that she couldn't find the right things to say to make her husband stop drinking and hitting her. Which is seriously creepy: It shouldn't be a person's responsibility to find the right words to make someone not hurt them. Mr. Fettleworth shouldn't be beating her, period.
The book seems to be commenting on the fact that Colin is onto a good idea with this whole Magic thing, but he still has a lot to learn about the world around him.
"That's true," he said slowly. "I must only think of the Magic." It all seemed most majestic and mysterious when they sat down in their circle. […]
Colin really looked quite beautiful, Mary thought. He held his head high as if he felt like a sort of priest and his strange eyes had a wonderful look in them. The light shone on him through the tree canopy. (23.59-61)
We know that Dickon can practically talk to animals, and Mary is the one who finds the Secret Garden in the first place. So why does Colin become the one to take the lead on Magic? What is Colin's role in the book, compared to Mary's or Dickon's?
"Eh!" [Mrs. Sowerby] said, "that pair's enjoyin' their-selves I'll warrant. They'll get a good bit o' actin' out of it an' there's nothin' children likes as much as play actin'. Let's hear what they do, Dickon lad." Dickon stopped weeding and sat up on his heels to tell her. His eyes were twinkling with fun. (24.15)
Dickon lets his mother in on the all of the going's-on at the Secret Garden (with Mary and Colin's permission, of course). And Mrs. Sowerby seems tickled pink at the things those two kids are getting up to, hiding their work on Colin's health. But where's the line between "play actin'" and lying? We're not saying that Colin and Mary owe it to anyone in particular to reveal their harmless garden fun. But their secretiveness is really intense; it seems kind of unusual for ten year-olds.
Who would you tell if you found a place like the Secret Garden? Would you keep it to yourself, or would you share it with friends and/or family?
The woman [servant] looked frightened, but she only stammered that the Ayah could not come and when Mary threw herself into a passion and beat and kicked her, she looked only more frightened and repeated that it was not possible for the Ayah to come to Missie Sahib.
There was something mysterious in the air that morning. Nothing was done in its regular order and several of the native servants seemed missing, while those whom Mary saw slunk or hurried about with ashy and scared faces. But no one would tell her anything and her Ayah did not come. (1.4-5)
The result of Mary's extremely bossy and violent nature toward her Indian servants is that, when everyone's started to get sick with cholera, no one comes to tell her that there is a plague in townand that her Ayah has died. Mary never gets directly punished for her earlier, horrible behavior in this novel, but her bad health and unhappiness is a kind of indirect punishment for her cruelty and negative nature.
Mary listened to her with a grave, puzzled expression. The native servants she had been used to in India were not in the least like this. They were obsequious and servile and did not presume to talk to their masters as if they were their equals. They made salaams and called them "protector of the poor" and names of that sort. Indian servants were commanded to do things, not asked. It was not the custom to say "please" and "thank you" and Mary had always slapped her Ayah in the face when she was angry. She wondered a little what this girl would do if one slapped her in the face. She was a round, rosy, good-natured-looking creature, but she had a sturdy way which made Mistress Mary wonder if she might not even slap back—if the person who slapped her was only a little girl. (4.11)
Mary has gotten into the habit of beating and kicking her family's servants in their home in India. In other words, British India is a place where English kids can be the most colossal brats to their local servants without any kind of punishment or scolding. When Mary gets to Misselthwaite Manor, on the other hand, she takes a look at Martha and realizes that, if she slapped Martha, Martha "might […] even slap back." Why do you think Mary can get away with slapping her servants in India, but she can't in England?
"Eh! I can see [India is] different," [Martha] answered almost sympathetically. "I dare say it's because there's such a lot o' blacks there instead o' respectable white people. When I heard you was comin' from India I thought you was a black too."
Mary sat up in bed furious.
"What!" she said. "What! You thought I was a native. You—you daughter of a pig!"
Martha stared and looked hot.
"Who are you callin' names?" she said. "You needn't be so vexed. That's not th' way for a young lady to talk. I've nothin' against th' blacks. When you read about 'em in tracts they're always very religious. You always read as a black's a man an' a brother. I've never seen a black an' I was fair pleased to think I was goin' to see one close. When I come in to light your fire this mornin' I crep' up to your bed an' pulled th' cover back careful to look at you. An' there you was," disappointedly, "no more black than me—for all you're so yeller."
Mary did not even try to control her rage and humiliation. "You thought I was a native! You dared! You don't know anything about natives! They are not people—they're servants who must salaam to you. You know nothing about India. You know nothing about anything!" (4.27-32)
The racism in this passage is really striking and hateful. Mary gets angry when she finds out that Martha assumed that she was "black," since she came from India. She screams at Martha that "[natives] are not people—they're servants who must salaam to you." In other words, Mary is so stuck up with her English colonial privilege that she sees the servants who looked after her as a child as "not people;" they're just there to bow to her.
And Martha isn't exactly better, when she says she's got "nothin' against th' blacks." We don't think the novel is necessarily supporting the opinions of either of these characters, since Mary is a spoiled, unreliable brat and Martha is speaking from total ignorance. Even so, it's ugly to read these ideas from characters whom we are eventually (supposed to) care about.
While there is a lot of subtle romanticizing in The Secret Garden about the beauty and the health of England (as opposed to India), this scene is probably the most straightforward moment when we find out how biased the characters are about the people who live in British India.
"It's very queer," [Mary] said. "Ben Weatherstaff said there was no door and there is no door. But there must have been one ten years ago, because Mr. Craven buried the key."
This gave her so much to think of that she began to be quite interested and feel that she was not sorry that she had come to Misselthwaite Manor. In India she had always felt hot and too languid to care much about anything. The fact was that the fresh wind from the moor had begun to blow the cobwebs out of her young brain and to waken her up a little. (5.21-2)
Again, the narrator is strongly implying that there is something unhealthy about the land of India. The heat of India made Mary too "languid" (which means slow and relaxed) to care about stuff—it's only now that she's in Yorkshire that the "fresh wind from the moor" is stirring her blood and making her active and interested in things around her. In The Secret Garden, it appears that England is literally better for people than India, which is (obviously) a strongly biased point of view.
The time had come when Mary had forgotten to resent Martha's familiar talk. She had even begun to find it interesting and to be sorry when she stopped or went away. The stories she had been told by her Ayah when she lived in India had been quite unlike those Martha had to tell about the moorland cottage which held fourteen people who lived in four little rooms and never had quite enough to eat. The children seemed to tumble about and amuse themselves like a litter of rough, good-natured collie puppies. Mary was most attracted by the mother and Dickon. When Martha told stories of what "mother" said or did they always sounded comfortable. (6.3)
Mary admires the stories of the Sowerby family, since she seems to find their lives quite quaint and rustic and even adorable ("rough, good-nature collie puppies"… seriously?). But the economic reality that they live with—fourteen people in four rooms—sounds brutal to us. The way that this novel romanticizes the life of poor people in rural England seems a little messed up to us.
"I thought perhaps it always rained or looked dark in England," Mary said.
"Eh! no!" said Martha, sitting up on her heels among her black lead brushes. "Nowt o' th' soart!"
"What does that mean?" asked Mary seriously. In India the natives spoke different dialects which only a few people understood, so she was not surprised when Martha used words she did not know.
Martha laughed as she had done the first morning.
"There now," she said. "I've talked broad Yorkshire again like Mrs. Medlock said I mustn't. 'Nowt o' th' soart' means 'nothin'-of-the-sort,'" slowly and carefully, "but it takes so long to say it." (7.5-9)
We're glad to know that Mary sometimes has as much trouble with Martha's thick Yorkshire accent as we do. Mary's comparison of Martha's "dialects which only a few people understood" in India with Martha's Yorkshire English is intriguing—it suggests that Martha's accent (and Dickon's, of course) is included in the novel to add a touch of the exotic and of local color to the book, something like Huck Finn's exaggerated accent in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Living as it were, all by herself in a house with a hundred mysteriously closed rooms and having nothing whatever to do to amuse herself, had set her inactive brain to working and was actually awakening her imagination. There is no doubt that the fresh, strong, pure air from the moor had a great deal to do with it. Just as it had given her an appetite, and fighting with the wind had stirred her blood, so the same things had stirred her mind. In India she had always been too hot and languid and weak to care much about anything, but in this place she was beginning to care and to want to do new things. Already she felt less "contrary," though she did not know why. (8.2)
Weirdly, this sentence in the passage above about Mary being "too hot and languid" in India to care about stuff appears twice in this novel in almost exactly the same words. In Chapter 5, Mary also reflects that, in "India she had always felt hot and too languid to care much about anything" (5.22). Frances Hodgson Burnett wants to emphasize the contrast in climate between India and England so much that she repeats herself in two different paragraphs.
"This is such a big lonely place," [Mary] said slowly, as if she were turning matters over in her mind. "The house is lonely, and the park is lonely, and the gardens are lonely. So many places seem shut up. I never did many things in India, but there were more people to look at—natives and soldiers marching by—and sometimes bands playing, and my Ayah told me stories. There is no one to talk to here except you and Ben Weatherstaff. And you have to do your work and Ben Weatherstaff won't speak to me often. I thought if I had a little spade I could dig somewhere as he does, and I might make a little garden if he would give me some seeds." (9.36)
Mary decides right away that she definitely can't trust Archibald Craven not to keep her out of the Secret Garden if she comes clean with him right away. So instead, she explains her desire for a garden in terms of a contrast between India and Misselthwaite Manor. She emphasizes that in India, there wasn't much to do, but there was a lot to look at. Here, there's not much to look at, so she needs more to do.
And since this whole book is about how good it is to have stuff to do, it actually turns out to be good for Mary that Yorkshire is so rugged and empty. She can't just sit back and watch the world go by; she has to make a world for herself in the Secret Garden.
"Aye, that we mun," she said (which meant "Yes, indeed, we must"). "I'll tell thee what us'll do first," she proceeded, and Dickon grinned, because when the little wench tried to twist her tongue into speaking Yorkshire it amused him very much. "He's took a graidely fancy to thee. He wants to see thee and he wants to see Soot an' Captain. When I go back to the house to talk to him I'll ax him if tha' canna' come an' see him tomorrow mornin'—an'. bring tha' creatures wi' thee—an' then—in a bit, when there's more leaves out, an' happen a bud or two, we'll get him to come out an' tha' shall push him in his chair an' we'll bring him here an' show him everything." (18.18)
Mary practices the Yorkshire accent as though it's a whole different language. Do you have a strong accent that connects you to where you're from? Do you have an accent that you can put on and then stop using at will? Have you ever taken this awesome (though not particularly accurate) English accent quiz? Maybe you've been a Yorkshire speaker all along and you just don't know it yet.
Colin was delighted and so was Mary. Fired by recollections of fakirs and devotees in illustrations Colin suggested that they should all sit cross-legged under the tree which made a canopy.
"It will be like sitting in a sort of temple," said Colin. (23.54-55)
Even though The Secret Garden presents a somewhat ambiguous portrait of British India, there's no denying that Mary's upbringing there has had a huge cultural effect on her. Not only does she sing to Colin in Hindi, but she also tells him stories about holy men in India that inspire Colin's ideas about the Magic in their Secret Garden. India is a richly meaningful place for Mary, even if it's not totally a happy memory for her.