Study Guide

The Secret Garden Contrasting Regions: India and England

By Frances Hodgson Burnett

Contrasting Regions: India and England

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.