When I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, despite the rapid spread of the corona virus, the UK was not yet in lockdown. By the time I’d finished it, it was. And as I closed the final page I couldn’t help thinking that my reading it at this time was particularly poignant.
Though the story’s protagonist is Mary Lennox, a formerly spoilt and unfriendly girl who is sent to live at her uncle’s manor on the Yorkshire moors; the story by its conclusion is as much about Mary’s cousin, Colin Craven, as it is about her. And it is Colin’s story in particular that seemed to make the book all the more impactful as I read it, given the current real-world circumstances.
Every bit as secret as the garden Mary has already stumbled across, Colin is discovered by his cousin crying in his room at night time and appears doomed. Shut up inside all day every day, Colin has been told he is a hunchback and will not live to see adulthood. Mary helps to show him that this is not the case, using the beauty of nature that has already transformed her outlook on life to show Colin that there is much to be enjoyed in the world and plenty of hope to be had.
It was this way in which Mary, with the help of surely the most beautiful garden ever described in literature, manages to lift Colin out of his misery that seemed so relevant amid the challenges the world currently faces. As we remain shut up in our homes day after day, forbidden from going outside, with predictions of gloom all around us, it is easy for us all to feel as though we are modern day Colin Cravens. His unlikely transformation reminds us that however bleak things may appear, there is always hope and that nature will always have the power to put a smile back on our faces once again, when the time is right.
Though this is the most topical lesson Burnett’s undisputed classic teaches, it is by no means the only one, with the tale also providing a sage reminder that the greatest joys in life seldom involve money. This message is conveyed through the contrast between the troubled yet wealthy Mary and Colin and the penniless yet irrepressibly cheerful Dickon; who roams the moors every day to his heart’s content, accompanied by a merry procession of animals that he has befriended over the years.
The story is one that manages to fuse the purity of childhood with powerful moments of both sorrow and joy while still being virtually faultless in its delivery. From its vivid descriptions of the title garden to its authentic and individually charming set of characters, The Secret Garden is impeccably crafted, and even the dourest of critics would be hard-pressed to pick apart its claim to being one of the greatest children stories ever told.
So if over the next few days you find the lockdown gloom beginning to fester, why not pick up or download The Secret Garden? You might just find your faith in the future of the world restored.
Rating: 5/5 A masterpiece of a children’s story that 109 years after publication still has the power to make one laugh and cry.