Study Guide

The Secret Garden Abandonment

By Frances Hodgson Burnett


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?