Study Guide

The Secret Garden Happiness

By Frances Hodgson Burnett


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?