When I was very little, a distant teenage cousin from the East Coast sent me some of her old books. One of them was a copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden*, illustrated by Tasha Tudor.
I still have this copy, which is a bit amazing, considering that it has a copyright of 1962! My mom even taped it up at some point just to keep it in one piece. But in spite of reading it several times as a child, I do remember struggling through it. The Yorkshire accents were quite difficult, and given the fact that I also owned the Hallmark movie (the one where a very young Colin Firth makes an appearance in the final scene), I probably preferred watching the story over reading it.
In my attempt to read more books this year, however (and not just any books, but ones that’ll edify and encourage), I decided it was high time I went back to some of my old childhood favorites. I picked this one up (very gently), and enjoyed it far more than I expected!
When orphaned Mary Lennox, sickly and lonely and cross, comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. Down a corridor of empty rooms she hears someone crying in the night. Outside, she meets Dickon, a magical boy who can charm the wild animals and birds of the countryside. And a robin Mary has befriended shows her the way to a walled, locked garden that has been completely forgotten for years and years. Is everything within the garden dead, or can Mary make it grown again?
–from the back cover of my 1962 edition.
This is book is profoundly whimsical, and whimsically profound. On the one hand, it’s light and fun reading, often humorous and relying heavily on talk of magic and breathtaking descriptions of nature. On the other hand, it also contains a strong message about the importance and effect of good, hard, honest work on a person’s soul and body–which, I have found, is often a good remedy for depression.
Mary Lennox starts out a spoiled brat who’s never been denied a thing, yet who’s also never been truly loved. Once she leaves the stifling, lazy atmosphere of her life in India, however, she finds herself under the influence of fresh air, plain-spoken Yorkshire folk (the same people who populate James Herriot’s veterinarian novels), and the startling power of a situation where you have absolutely no choice but to amuse yourself. Mary’s initially half-hearted quest to end her own boredom leads her straight to her long-dead aunt’s abandoned garden:
Mary was an odd, determined little person, and now [that] she had something interesting to be determined about, she was very much absorbed, indeed. She worked and dug and pulled up weeds steadily, only becoming more pleased with her work every hour instead of tiring of it. It seems to her like a fascinating sort of play. She found many more of the sprouting pale green points than she had ever hoped to find…She wondered how long it would be before they showed that they were flowers. Sometimes she stopped digging to look at the garden and try to imagine what it would be like when it was covered with thousands of lovely things in bloom.
Toiling in the garden forces Mary to take her mind off herself without consciously thinking about it, and it works wonders on her–mentally, physically, and emotionally. Her growing friendship with Dickon, a Yorkshire boy with an enchanting love for living things, has an equally positive impact on her. But her discovery of her “hidden” cousin Colin gives her the chance to finally set an example of someone who refuses to look on the dark side of things. Dickon teaches Mary how to look for the beauty in the snowdrops and roses, even when they can’t yet see what the tiny buds will become. Mary, in turn, teaches Colin to do the same.
The Secret Garden* isn’t without its worldview problems. A little research into the life of Frances Hodgson Burnett shows she was interested in Christian Science, Spiritualism, and something called Theosophy, which is basically the hodge-podge of Hinduism/Buddhism that today we call “New Age.” These philosophies are most apparent in passages where the children speak about “Magic”–or, as Dickon’s mother calls it, “The Big Good Thing.” Nevertheless, the underlying message of the power of hard work, positive thinking, and just spending time outside in God’s creation are well worth skipping any bothersome sections.
To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in, you may never get over it as long as you live.
So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts…she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored and wretched child…[But] when her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children…with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day…there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.
So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness…he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing of the sunshine and the spring…[But] when new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones, life began to come back to him, his blood ran healthily through his veins and strength poured into him like a flood…Much more surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place. ‘Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.’ “
The Secret Garden*, in this respect, only confirms what we know from Scripture: we must “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and “be transformed by the renewing of [our minds]” (Romans 12:2)–for “the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). Sometimes this is easier said than done–no doubt about it. But when our minds are fixed on gratitude to God for all His lavish gifts, and when we make it our ambition to lead a quiet life and work with our own hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11), we may find our own lives transforming into some as vibrant and exciting as Mary Lennox’s secret garden.