"Then she slipped through the door,
and shut it behind her, breathing quite fast
with excitement and wonder, and delight.
She was standing inside the secret garden."
— Frances Hodgson Burnett
When it comes to stories centered on gardens, one title has stood above all the others for almost 100 years: Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden." Regardless of age, it has the power to transport the reader to a degree that few works of fiction can claim. That power comes from the timeless nature of the story as well as from Burnett's own story and the garden at the center of her tale.
Burnett was born in England but spent her childhood in the U.S. after the death of her father. Though her first husband was an American, Burnett wound up spending much of her married life in England, including the years during and after a disastrous second marriage. That partner's abusive and threatening personality are considered the basis for the fictional tyrant, Sir Nigel Anstruthers, one of the central figures of Burnett's 1907 novel, "The Shuttle."
"The Shuttle" looks at the trans-Atlantic weaving together in marriage of impoverished British aristocrats and wealthy American young women and the culture clashes that ensue. Burnett profiles a new kind of woman: wealthy, brainy, loaded with initiative and not about to take a back seat to anyone — including her husband.
"The Shuttle," reprinted by the U.K. feminist publisher Persephone Books, is an enthralling read. It's also the place where you can begin to see the importance Burnett assigns to gardens as places of beauty, nourishment and especially, new life. Burnett wrote most of "The Shuttle" at Maytham, a Georgian house near Rolvenden in Kent where she lived for about ten years beginning in 1898, according to Anne Sebba's introduction to the book. The village is still there, virtually unchanged, though the house was demolished in 1910 and replaced by the current Lutyens creation.
Burnett wrote on the wide terrace of the house; there were woods crowding by, and a walled rose garden that one entered through a wooden door. In "The Shuttle," Burnett begins the theme that this landscape suggested and that she will explore so deeply: "One feels so much in a garden ... One is so close to Life in it — the stirring of the brown earth, the piercing through of green spears, that breaking of buds and pouring forth of scent."
Four years later — in 1911 — "The Secret Garden" was published. There was surprisingly little attention paid to the book — nothing like that for her popular adult novels nor for her children's tales like "Little Lord Fauntleroy." Its renaissance seems related to the release of the first (silent) film version of the story in 1918 and to the increasing notice given to children's literature as the 20th century progressed.
"The Secret Garden" revolves around three children: Dickon, a local Yorkshire lad; Mary Lennox, the orphan come to England from India; and her sickly cousin, Colin Craven, whose father is the master of Misselthwaite Manor where the story takes place. It's a forbidding and mysterious house, filled with long corridors, strange sounds and people who have little time for a cranky orphan. The story revolves around the discoveries the children make about themselves, each other and the healing power of Nature, and the abandoned, hidden garden they bring back to life.Inga Moore's illustrated edition of "The Secret Garden," published in 2008 (above left) may be the best version since the book was originally published in 1911 (above right).
My favorite version is the 1987 Hallmark Hall of Fame television production. Normally I steer clear of Hallmark but I think they've done a superb job of capturing the essence of the story — which you can see by the fact that I have both a video and a DVD of that production. It was entirely filmed on location in England with Highclere Castle standing in for Misselthwaite Manor. The building has an overpowering exterior (below) and its 75 rooms required little in the way of props or changes. Its gardens were cared for by a staff of 19 in the years before WWII.