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.
Questions About Contrasting Regions: India and England
- When does Mary most commonly use Indian words and descriptions? How do these descriptions contrast with the English countryside that becomes the setting of the novel for the majority of the book?
- We say that The Secret Garden's representation of India is stereotyped. How about the novel's representation of England? Are there sections of the book that try to make Yorkshire seem exotic or foreign to the reader?
- Mary's pale complexion and thin hair are all supposed to be the result of her early life in an Indian climate. What about Colin's exposure to the Yorkshire climate—why has Misselthwaite Manor's setting in Yorkshire not done him more good before now? Do you think that Mary might have found India more healthful if she had had a more active family life to introduce her to the country around her?
Chew on This
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.