Study Guide

The Secret Garden Weakness

By Frances Hodgson Burnett


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.