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.
Questions About Abandonment
- Do you think there is a difference in the way this novel treats abandonment by mothers and by fathers? According to the novel, is it somehow worse for a mother to leave her children behind than for a father to do so? What evidence can you find for or against the idea that abandonment might be related to the novel's representation of gender?
- Why do you think Mary appears to resent her parents so little for their abandonment of her? Who become Mary's maternal and paternal figures in the absence of her parents? Why does Mary's parental abandonment seem so much less central to the novel than Colin's?
- Both Mary and Colin have everything they could physically want, even when their parents are avoiding them with all of their power. Why do you think that this novel is so focused on emotional neglect rather than physical neglect? How does the novel's treatment of emotional abandonment seem to be tied to the upper class status of both Mary and Colin?
Chew on This
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.