The Secret Garden is a story I know well, but shockingly a novel I have never read. Yes, I am guilty of the ‘watching the film before reading the book’ excuse, but in my defence I was pretty young when the film was realised and it seems to be on telly every few months, so I couldn’t exactly miss it. Now I have finally read the book I am a little sad that I never read it in childhood, as it is just the type of thing a younger version of me would have loved.
The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox a young girl growing up in India. Her beautiful, wealthy mother has very little time for Mary, and leaves her in the care of a fleet of servants, meaning that by the time we meet her as a 10 year-old she is spoilt, selfish and obnoxious. A cholera epidemic kills off Mary’s parents and most of the servants, and when a hungry, tired and abandoned Mary is discovered days later she is shipped off to an uncle who lives in a large manor house on the moors in Yorkshire. Mary’s uncle had little time for a small child; he is still in mourning for the wife, a wife who had a secret garden that has been locked since her death ten years before. What an enticing mystery for a small child with little else to do with her time. So yes, a secret garden, a large house with hundreds of disused rooms, an uncle who has been in mourning for a decade and cannot cope with being in the same country as all his memories…oh and some strange crying noises in the dead of night.
This novel followed on well from The Mayor of Casterbridge as it paints such a beautiful image of the British countryside, albeit I have seen a move from the West Country I know so well to the Yorkshire Moors, but that has just reinforced the fact that our countryside offers so much variety and is just spectacular. When Mary first discovers the garden she is not sure if it is a lost, dead garden, but as she tends to it and grows to love it, the garden also begins to grow and flourish and evolve into a place of beauty and life. It also becomes a place of new hope and takes Mary and those around her on a journey to overcome their problems, and thus grow and develop themselves.
I did enjoy this novel and it was comforting to read a narrative I know so well, and yet still offered surprises, the biggest one appearing in the form of the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. In the film Mrs. Medlock is brilliantly portrayed by Maggie Smith, and is a formidable, strict and sometimes scary lady who frequently puts Mary in her place. However in The Secret Garden Mrs. Medlock is still somewhat formidable, but to me she seemed more humane and quicker to realise the positive influence Mary brought to Misselthwaite Manor. She is more accepting of Mary and does not come across as such a dragon. I could argue that the novel misses out on this and needs a tougher nemesis for the spoilt Mary to battle with, but Burnett’s writing and characterisation fit so well together it would have seemed strange to have a more dominant, overbearing Mrs. Medlock.
Overall a pleasant read. I have an urge to watch the film again, however I think I might have to upgrade from my VHS copy first!