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.
Questions About Youth
- What does The Secret Garden seem to imply is right and necessary for young people to do? What do Mary, Colin, and Dickon all share in common by the end of the novel? How do they differ?
- The Secret Garden implies that it is the role of "ordinary healthy ten-year-old creatures" (14.103) to laugh loudly together. But in fact, in some ways, it's as natural to childhood to have tantrums and to be bossy, the way Mary and Colin are at the start of the novel. What makes Mary and Colin's tantrums unnatural or requiring treatment?
- In some ways, Colin seems quite grown-up at the end of the book. What about him still seems childlike? Do you find any of his ideas about the Magic and about the natural world to be naive, or do his views fit in naturally with his character?
Chew on This
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.