At the start of The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox is nine years old. Nine! We're adding an exclamation point because, when you remember how young she is in that first chapter, it seems particularly ridiculous that no one remembers her when her parents both die and the servants flee the house due to cholera. In fact, the only reason Mary doesn't disappear entirely is because two army officers stumble upon her by accident when they visit the house after the death of the Lennoxes: "There is a child here! A child alone! In a place like this! Mercy on us, who is she!" (1.25).
It's because Mary has spent all of her life being kept out of sight by her vain, self-absorbed mother that she turns into such a sour little kid. And of course, when we meet Colin, it's the same story all over again: His father can't deal with his grief, so he stows away his son at Misselthwaite Manor and spends as little time at home as possible. And this treatment makes Colin into a tantrum-throwing monster.
Because these children have been more or less abandoned (at least, until the Magic starts working to bring them into the Secret Garden), they have to find their own ways to connect with the larger world. Luckily for both of them, they meet the sensible Sowerbys, who put them on the right track toward nature-loving and good fellowship. But it's this theme of child neglect that makes The Secret Garden such a dark book at its heart.
By portraying the warm, kindly Sowerby family as a foil to the Cravens and the Lennoxes, Frances Hodgson Burnett implies that families with lots of money are often more distant and less caring than families who have to stick together in the face of poverty.
By emphasizing the maternal power of Susan Sowerby and Lilias Craven, The Secret Garden implies that Mrs. Lennox is the least redeemable of all of its major characters.
The Secret Garden takes very seriously the idea that home is where the heart is: Mary lives in India for the majority of her life, but she doesn't seem to care at all when she leaves it behind. It's only as she starts to make friends and to care about the Secret Garden at Misselthwaite Manor that she finds any sense of home at all.
Similarly, Colin Craven lives his entirely life in the house where he was born, but it doesn't truly become home to him until he can find a way to connect emotionally with the grounds and with the ghost of his mother. So clearly, in this book home goes beyond the question of shelter or basic needs and becomes a matter of where you can find emotional support and care.
Dickon's strong sense of home on the Yorkshire moors saves him from self-consciousness or awkwardness in all human social situations, from his own family's cottage to the aristocratic settings of Misselthwaite Manor.
While Misselthwaite Manor is a rich place that has been in the Craven family for six hundred years, the huge emptiness of this mansion makes it harder to make a home there than the crowded, overstuffed but cozy cottage of the Sowerbys.
Okay, Frances Hodgson Burnett might be rolling over in her grave at this comparison, but we think it works: Both Mary and Colin appear to suffer from the Batman problem in The Secret Garden. That is, they have both been left alone during important periods of their childhood, so they run the risk of turning into single-minded monsters. Of course, we're not suggesting that either of them are going to put on a bat suit and start fighting crime—for one thing, Colin wouldn't be physically capable of doing so when he first appears in the novel.
But the story of Batman is probably the clearest example we can imagine of what too much time alone can do to you: It can make you isolated, totally unable to integrate socially, and prickly and difficult to everyone around you. That sounds like Mary and Colin to us. Thank goodness they both find the Secret Garden and a group of friends.
In order for the character development of The Secret Garden to work, Colin needs to meet Mary before he meets Dickon. He must fight with someone who will tell him straight out that his behavior is terrible before he can learn how to correct that behavior through Dickon's kindness and support.
While Colin and Mary's bad behavior as children represents the damage that isolation can do to a kid's development, Archibald Craven's isolation as an adult appears to have a much more devastating and damaging effect on his personality. This implies that isolation is dangerous to children, but that it is even worse for adults.
The Secret Garden really couldn't be clearer about its moral message if the book were called Happiness = Unselfishness. Basically, the secret to happiness in this book is to think less about yourself and more about the other people (and plants) around you. Mary and Colin are unhappy when they have nothing to think about but themselves, but Dickon and Mrs. Sowerby are both deeply happy because they have to bustle around taking care of the little Sowerbys.
While we really like this idea in general—yes, being selfish can make you unhappy and, alternately, thinking of others can make you happy—we do think it can come across as a bit pushy and overly idealized in this novel. Poor Mrs. Sowerby has twelve kids and no money; it seems a lot to expect that she should just enjoy her life all the time because she has so many other people to take care of. Surely people deserve to be selfish every once in a while.
Colin's broad thinking about the Magic and scientific experiments contrast strongly with Mary's more domestic interest in the Secret Garden and Colin's health in the short term; Colin's ambitions and Mary's domesticity indicate a subtle gender division in The Secret Garden.
The Secret Garden's strong emphasis on the health and happiness that Susan Sowerby and the robin and his mate get from taking care of their homes and children implies that domestic work is the best kind of work that an individual can do in this world.
Who are the most powerful characters in The Secret Garden? We're definitely not talking about Archibald Craven, who spends most of his life running away from his responsibilities as a father, and it can't be Mrs. Medlock and Dr. Craven because they are both servants who aren't exactly dedicated or good at their jobs. No, arguably, the strongest character in the book is Dickon, with post-Magic Colin coming in a close second.
Dickon's ability to tame animals and befriend even the grumpiest of humans is like a superpower. After he starts discussing the Magic, Colin also becomes able to inspire Mary and even Ben Weatherstaff to participate in his kooky experiments.
And if strength for these characters comes from their interest in and love of the natural world, then weakness has to be the result of its opposite. When Mary and Colin first start off, they are both physically and emotionally weak. Mary can't dress herself, and Colin can't get out of bed on his own—so while they both have plenty of money, they are totally cut off from their natural interests. It's this sense of isolation from the natural world that leaves them both deeply weak; once they begin getting outside more, they recover the strength they should have had all along.
While both Colin and Mary arguably start out as the weakest characters in the novel, they also dominate the novel's plot line as they slowly recover their strength. There is an inverse relationship between the weakness of these characters and the amount of narrative control they have over the plot of The Secret Garden.
The Secret Garden offers the problematic view that physical weakness is the direct result of emotional or even moral weakness, leaving the responsibility for Colin and even Archibald's illnesses strictly on their shoulders. Thus, The Secret Garden does not provide a compelling model for physical disability that cannot be cured through positive thinking
If you take a minute to think about what a garden really is, you start to see some of the implied tension in this book between humans and the natural world. That is, a garden includes plants, so it is a part of the larger natural world. Importantly, though, a garden is also specifically arranged and kept up by humans. If humans leave a garden alone, it dies off and/or returns to its natural state.
So while a garden represents some kind of communion between humans and the world of growing plants, it also demonstrates our control over these plants and their growing patterns. And in fact, while The Secret Garden lovingly describes the spare, stark landscape of the Yorkshire moors, even that supposedly wild territory is absolutely under human control. Consider Dickon, who is constantly going in there and taming foxes and crows and ponies. Dickon is a great kid, but he is also regularly exerting human control over the natural world.
Now, don't get us wrong, we're not saying that any of this is a bad thing: We love gardens and tamed animals. But while Frances Hodgson Burnett writes often about the pleasure that her characters feel being outside in nature, all of these outdoor landscapes—and most especially the Secret Garden, with its walls—are carefully domesticated and kept under control. It's as though, for characters to feel most at home in the natural world, they have to bring it under their control. It's hard to image how this view of nature would adapt to include huge disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.
The Secret Garden emphasizes the pleasures of working in a garden rather than hiking in a forest or working on a farm because it is trying to create a space of homey self-contained fun for Mary and Colin to learn how to be more classically childlike.
The friendliness and ease of the robin as it communicates with its chosen humans contrasts positively with the vain, shallow social worlds of Mary's parents or the stiff, often hostile relationships between Mary, Colin, and their servants and nannies. The Secret Garden uses the robin to imply that human communication is less fulfilling and honest than animal communication.
The whole idea that childhood is a special time to be savored as separate from adulthood is basically a Victorian invention. Oh sure, humans have always had children (obviously), but we haven't always treated them as separate and distinct from adults. But in the Victorian and Edwardian periods (so, from the 1840s up until World War I), a whole new publishing industry emerged for fairy tales and novels like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan (which came out the same year as The Secret Garden, in 1911) that specifically emphasize the wonderful, imaginative time of childhood.
In some ways, Mary and Colin have to grow artificially into this idea of childhood as a carefree time. Martha describes Mary as "a queer, old-womanish thing" (8.36) early on, before Mary learns to jump rope and have fun like a standard nine-year-old. And Colin obviously starts out as super-serious and difficult as they come, but then evolves into the boy running races in the Secret Garden who ends the novel. This characterization implies that Frances Hodgson Burnett is aware that children often don't fit into the stereotype of the angelic, fancy-free kid—but that she strongly feels that they should, if at all possible.
Although Dickon helps to encourage Mary and Colin to respond to the world around them with the bright curiosity of children, his own extreme maturity makes his age in the novel (twelve years old) seem much less important to his character than Mary and Colin's ten-year-old status.
While Colin grows into a mature and charismatic leader over the course of The Secret Garden, his ongoing effort to make everything fit into the framework of Magic sometimes comes across as comedy. By presenting his views ironically at times, the novel reminds us that Colin is still a child learning to navigate the world around him.
Mary Lennox is an Anglo-Indian child, which means that her parents are both English but she was born in colonial India. This implies a whole set of hierarchical relations that are as rigid as any of the English class lines that keep Mary and Martha apart at the start of The Secret Garden.
By the time Mary makes it over to Yorkshire in Chapter 3, we know how she expects to treat "native" (that is, Indian) servants. Apparently, she has gotten used to beating and kicking her Indian nannies (called "Ayahs") without any kind of punishment at all. And the book clearly does not approve of Mary's behavior; her sourness is no excuse for abuse.
At the same time, the novel's portrayal of India contains a lot of subtle prejudice. The idea that these Indian servants would just sit and take Mary's nonsense (unlike good old English Martha Sowerby) because they "were obsequious and servile and did not presume to talk to their masters as if they were their equals" (4.11) is a huge stereotype. Basically, Frances Hodgson Burnett is saying that these Indian servants were huge suck-ups who would never dream of disciplining Mary, while "we" English people would never stand for such treatment.
Not only is this premise totally racist, it overlooks the strong history of Indian resistance to British rule from the 1857 Rebellion of the Indian army onward. Mahatma Gandhi was already working for Indian liberation by the time The Secret Garden was published in 1911, for Pete's sake, and he was about as far from "servile" as it's possible to get.
Not only does The Secret Garden stereotype English people, but it also uses a lot of incorrect clichés about the Indian climate. As Mary adapts to England, she finds the weather itself to be fresher and healthier. She draws a contrast to India, where "she had always felt hot and too languid to care much about anything" (5.22).
The idea that India itself helped to make Mary sick at the start of the novel is based on a lot of English assumptions about the tropics as a place of fevers and sickness. So again, offensive stereotypes are used to draw a contrast between where Mary starts (a hot climate with "servile" nannies) and where she winds up (a cool climate with friendly, straightforward servants).
As the novel continues, Mary continues to refer to the cultures of India that she saw as a child. She describes Dickon as an animal charmer and Colin as a "Rajah," a kind of young king. But these images are also deeply generic and say nothing of genuine depth about India or the people who live there. Mary's Indian references gives the novel an exotic touch according to the Euro-centric tastes of Frances Hodgson Burnett's contemporary readers, but none of those elements age well in today's political climate.
While The Secret Garden shows a lot of prejudice against India and Indians, Mary's lullaby to Colin in Hindi and the stories that she tells him, which she learned from her nannies, suggests that she had a more supportive upbringing while she was living there than Colin has had surrounded by doctors and nurses in Misselthwaite Manor.
India takes on a negative connotation and Yorkshire a positive one in The Secret Garden. Nonetheless, Yorkshire's positive traits—a strong sense of community and local culture, the beauties of the moor, and the happiness of even the poorest of its residents—are as clichéd and stereotyped as the novel's portrayal of India's bad side.