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Classic of the Month: The Secret Garden

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

As you probably recall, I started a new monthly series that will highlight a new "classic" every month. This month's classic is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Again I am very loosely basing my idea of classic's on this "A classic is a novel that represents a genre or a writing style, or it can be a novel that makes a contribution to literature. There are all kinds of classics, from horror classics to romance classics, from novels that sold millions of copies to a novel that changed how a genre was written." Due to the widely different views on what a classic is, these books may be considered classics by me but your opinion may be different.


What is The Secret Garden?

The Secret Garden is a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett first published in book form in 1911, after serialization in The American Magazine (November 1910 – August 1911). Set in England, it is one of Burnett's most popular novels and seen as a classic of English children's literature. Several stage and film adaptations have been made. The American edition was published by the Frederick A. Stokes Company with illustrations by Maria Louise Kirk (signed as M. L. Kirk), and the British edition by Heinemann with illustrations by Charles Heath Robinson.

Little is known about the literary development and conception of The Secret Garden. Biographers and other scholars have been able to glean the details of her process and thoughts on her other books through her letters to family members; during the time she was working on The Secret Garden, however, she was living in close proximity to them and thus did not have the need to send them letters. In an October 1910 letter to William Heinemann, her publisher in England, she described the story, whose working title was Mistress Mary, as "an innocent thriller of a story" that she considered "one of [her] best finds." Biographer Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina offers several explanations as to why there is so little surviving information on the book's development. Firstly, Burnett's health faltered after moving to her home in Plandome on Long Island, and her social excursions became limited as a result. Secondly, her existing notes about The Secret Garden, along with a portrait of her and some photographs, were donated by her son Vivian after her death to a lower Manhattan public school serving the deaf in remembrance of her visit there years ago, but all the items soon vanished from the archive of the school. Lastly, soon after the novel's publication, her brother-in-law died in a sudden, violent collision with a trolley.

Burnett's story My Robin, however, offers a glimpse of the creation of The Secret Garden. In it, she addresses a reader's question on the literary origins of the robin that appears in The Secret Garden, whom the reader felt "could not have been a mere creature of fantasy." Burnett reminisces on her friendship with the real-life English robin, whom she described as "a person—not a mere bird" and who often kept her company in the rose garden where she would often write, when she lived at Maytham Hall. Recounting the first time she tried to communicate with the bird via "low, soft, little sounds," she writes that she "knew—years later—that this is what Mistress Mary thought when she bent down in the Long Walk and 'tried to make robin sounds.'"

The book's working title was Mistress Mary, a reference to the English nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. Maytham Hall in Kent, England, where Burnett lived for a number of years during her marriage, is often cited as the inspiration for the book's setting. Burnett kept an extensive garden, including an impressive rose garden. However, it has been noted that apart from the garden, Maytham Hall and Misselthwaite Manor are physically very different.


Plot Overview (Detailed)

At the turn of the 20th century, Mary Lennox is a neglected and unloved 10-year-old girl, born in British India to wealthy British parents who never wanted her and made an effort to ignore the girl. She is cared for primarily by native servants, who allow her to become spoiled, demanding, and self-centered. After a cholera epidemic kills Mary's parents, the few surviving servants flee the house without Mary. She is discovered by British soldiers who place her in the temporary care of an English clergyman, whose children taunt her by calling her "Mistress Mary, quite contrary". She is soon sent to England to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven, whom her father's sister Lilias married. He lives on the Yorkshire Moors in a large English country house, Misselthwaite Manor. When escorted to Misselthwaite by the housekeeper Mrs Medlock, she discovers Lilias Craven is dead and that Mr Craven is a hunchback. At first, Mary is as sour and rude as ever. She dislikes her new home, the people living in it, and most of all, the bleak moor on which it sits. Over time, she befriends her maid Martha Sowerby, who tells Mary about Lilias, who would spend hours in a private walled garden growing roses. Lilias Craven died after an accident in the garden ten years prior, and the devastated Archibald locked the garden and buried the key.

Mary becomes interested in finding the secret garden herself, and her ill manners begin to soften as a result. Soon she comes to enjoy the company of Martha, the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and a friendly robin redbreast. Her health and attitude improve with the bracing Yorkshire air, and she grows stronger as she explores the estate gardens. Mary wonders about the secret garden and about mysterious cries that echo through the house at night. As Mary explores the gardens, the robin draws her attention to an area of disturbed soil. Here Mary finds the key to the locked garden, and eventually she discovers the door to the garden. She asks Martha for garden tools, which Martha sends with Dickon, her 12-year-old brother, who spends most of his time out on the moors. Mary and Dickon take a liking to each other, as Dickon has a kind way with animals and a good nature. Eager to absorb his gardening knowledge, Mary tells him about the secret garden. One night, Mary hears the cries once more and decides to follow them through the house. She is startled to find a boy of her age named Colin, who lives in a hidden bedroom. She soon discovers that they are cousins, Colin being the son of Archibald, and that he suffers from an unspecified spinal problem which precludes him from walking and causes him to spend all of his time in bed. He, like Mary, has grown spoiled, demanding, and self-centered, with servants obeying his every whim in order to prevent the frightening hysterical tantrums Colin occasionally flies into.

Mary visits him every day that week, distracting him from his troubles with stories of the moor, Dickon and his animals, and the secret garden. Mary finally confides that she has access to the secret garden, and Colin asks to see it. Colin is put into his wheelchair and brought outside into the secret garden. It is the first time he has been outdoors for several years. While in the garden, the children look up to see Ben Weatherstaff looking over the wall on a ladder. Startled to find the children in the secret garden, he admits that he believed Colin to be "a cripple". Angry at being called "crippled", Colin stands up from his chair and finds that his legs are fine, though weak from long disuse. Colin and Mary soon spend almost every day in the garden, sometimes with Dickon as company. The children and Ben conspire to keep Colin's recovering health a secret from the other staff, so as to surprise his father, who is travelling abroad. As Colin's health improves, his father experiences a coinciding increase in spirits, culminating in a dream where his late wife calls to him from inside the garden. When he receives a letter from Mrs Sowerby, he takes the opportunity finally to return home. He walks the outer garden wall in his wife's memory, but hears voices inside, finds the door unlocked, and is shocked to see the garden in full bloom, and his son healthy, having just won a race against Mary Lennox. The children tell him the story, and the servants watch, stunned, as Archibald and Colin walk back to the manor together.


What genre is this book?

The Secret Garden is a children's novel as well as a work of fiction. I consider that this book is a very good read for any age.


Was this book ever banned?

This book was banned and challenged for racist language and viewpoints.


Why is it a Classic?

The Secret Garden is considered a classic British children’s book, but the interesting thing about it is that it was written neither as a book, nor for children. The story was first published, serialised, in an adult magazine. It wasn’t until 1911 that it was published in its entirety as a book, and then it was marketed to both adults and children simultaneously, in much the same way as the Harry Potter books or Philip Pullman’s Lyra trilogy were decades later. In its time, The Secret Garden was a bit of a damp squib among Frances Hodgson Burnett’s far more successful novels, such as A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy. What probably saved it from obscurity was a sudden adult interest in the studying of children’s fiction at the time and that marketing of it as a book for adults.

The Secret Garden emphasises the power of positive thinking: “thoughts – just mere thoughts – are as powerful as electric batteries – as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison”.

This focus on the power of positive thoughts highlights Burnett’s interest in New Thought and Christian Science. New Thought teaches that people can enhance their lives by altering their thought patterns. It was developed by Phineas Parkhurst Quimby in the 19th century, and one of Quimby’s students was Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. While Burnett did not join either religion, she acknowledged that they influenced her work. Both religions often reject mainstream medicine.




The first filmed version was made in 1919 by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, with 17-year-old Lila Lee as Mary and Paul Willis as Dickon, but the film is thought to be lost.

In 1949, MGM filmed the second adaptation with Margaret O'Brien as Mary, Dean Stockwell as Colin and Brian Roper as Dickon. This version was mainly black-and-white, with the sequences set in the restored garden filmed in Technicolor. Noel Streatfeild's 1948 novel The Painted Garden was inspired by the making of this film.

In 1987 the third film adaptation of The Secret Garden was produced by Rosemont Productions Limited. It starred Gennie James as Mary, Barret Oliver as Dickon Sowerby and Jadrien Steele as Colin Craven. This film was made-for-television and aired on CBS 30 November 1987.

American Zoetrope's 1993 production was directed by Agnieszka Holland, with a screenplay by Caroline Thompson, and starred Kate Maberly as Mary, Heydon Prowse as Colin, Andrew Knott as Dickon, John Lynch as Lord Craven and Dame Maggie Smith as Mrs Medlock. The executive producer was Francis Ford Coppola.

The 2020 film version from Heyday Films and StudioCanal is directed by Marc Munden with a screenplay by Jack Thorne.


Dorothea Brooking adapted the book as several different television serials for the BBC: an eight-part serial in 1952, an eight-part serial in 1960 (starring Colin Spaull as Dickon), and a seven-part serial broadcast in 1975 (also on DVD).

Hallmark Hall of Fame filmed a TV adaptation of the novel in 1987, starring Gennie James as Mary, Barret Oliver as Dickon, and Jadrien Steele as Colin. Billie Whitelaw appeared as Mrs Medlock and Derek Jacobi played the role of Archibald Craven, with Alison Doody appearing in flashbacks and visions as Lilias; Colin Firth made a brief appearance as the adult Colin Craven. The story was changed slightly, with Colin's father, instead of being Mary's uncle, being an old friend of Mary's father, allowing Colin and Mary to start a relationship as adults by the film's end. It was filmed at Highclere Castle, which later became known as the filming location for Downton Abbey. In 2001, Hallmark produced a sequel called Back to the Secret Garden.

A 1994 animated adaptation as an ABC Weekend Special starred Honor Blackman as Mrs. Medlock, Derek Jacobi as Archibald Craven, Glynis Johns as Darjeeling, Victor Spinetti, Anndi McAfee as Mary Lennox, Joe Baker as Ben Weatherstaff, Felix Bell as Dickon Sowerby, Naomi Bell as Martha Sowerby, Richard Stuart as Colin Craven, and Frank Welker as Robin. This version was released on video in 1995 by ABC Video.

In Japan, NHK produced and broadcast an anime adaptation of the novel in 1991–1992 titled Anime Himitsu no Hanazono (アニメ ひみつの花園). Miina Tominaga contributed the voice of Mary, while Mayumi Tanaka voiced Colin. The 39-episode TV series was directed by Tameo Kohanawa and written by Kaoru Umeno. Based on the title, this anime is sometimes mistakenly assumed to be related to the popular dorama series Himitsu no Hanazono. Unavailable in the English language, it has been dubbed into several other languages including Spanish, Italian, Polish and Tagalog.


Stage adaptations of the book include a Theatre for Young Audiences version written in 1991 by Pamela Sterling of Arizona State University. This won an American Alliance for Theater and Education "Distinguished New Play" award and is listed in ASSITEH/USA's International Bibliography of Outstanding Plays for Young Audiences.

In 1991, a musical version opened on Broadway, with music by Lucy Simon, and book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. The production was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Daisy Eagan as Mary, then eleven years old.

Festival Theatre Edinburgh presented a musical adaptation in 2010-2011 on stages in Scotland and Canada.

In 2013 an opera by the American composer Nolan Gasser, which had been commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, was first performed at the Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.

A stage play by Jessica Swale adapted from the novel was performed at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in Chester in 2014.

In 2020, the Scottish family theatre company Red Bridge Arts produced a retelling of the story set in modern-day Scotland, adapted by Rosalind Sydney.



Hope you enjoyed today's post :) See you next time.


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