As the daughter of a wealthy English couple, Mary Lennox grows up in India. Largely ignored and neglected by her parents, she is left to the care and education of Indian servants.
The drama that takes place is, even for that time, frightening: During an outbreak of cholera in the region where the house of her parents is, nearly all residents die, including their parents. Those who survived, have fled the place. Mary could only avoid an infection since she didn't dare to leave her room - so she survived. When they find her, now an orphan, she is being sent to a distant relative in England, which now - as her guardian - is responsible for her.
In a novel by Jane Austen
the girl would grow up to be a young woman, probably in the constant awareness of their subordinate social position in society. And would then probably - trying to escape marriage with a minister of the next parish whom she doesn't love - leave the manor to work as a lady's companion or governess, until ...
With Charles Dickens
she would perhaps arrive on the island just to learn that her guardian also died, and has left her behind penniless. She would then try to feed herself through, dressed up as a boy ...
The Brontes would very probably tell a story very similar to the novel by Jane Austen, yet more based on the realities of a social Nobody (see, eg, Jane Eyre), but then bring it to an happy ending all the same.
Lewis Carroll would perhaps have her experience a storm-related accident during the journey, which throws her to the shore of a strange, fantastic island, where bizarre adventures with talking animals are waiting for her.
These four authors may serve as a (very rough) timeframe of the time when Frances H. Burnett wrote "The Secret Garden". Born 1849 in England, life led Frances Hodgson into emigration to the USA together with her family, where she first married a doctor, and later one of their publishers. After some years in England she returned to the U.S., where she died in 1924.
Frances H. Burnett makes this story not a novel of love and entertainment with a social touch, nor a history of tension with Happy Ending, not a fantasy-adventure - her novel "The Secret Garden" first published in book in 1911, has a little of everything in it.
In about a hundred articles, essays and books, which were published between 1868 and 19221, "The Secret Garden", especially "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "A Little Princess" are the main works of this author.
Although all three books are being referred to as children's literature, they are especially popular among adults. For the reputation of "Little Lord Fauntleroy" the adaptation under the title "Little Lord Fauntleroy" of 1980, directed by Jack Gold with Sir Alec Guinness and Rick Schroder certainly added a great deal. Shown on the television screens regularly at Christmas even brings our hard-boiled editor to tears.
A bit of her own history can be found both in "Lord Fauntleroy" and in "The Secret Garden": Experiencing the differences between the English and a foreign society. As young Cedric Burnett also learned how different these two worlds are, being yet pretty similar as well.
Mary from "The Secret Garden" finally lives in Misselthwaite Manor, the house of her guardian. For Mary, everything is new: Not only the people and way of life, she even discovers to her surprise that there is such thing as a "moor". One thing however has not changed: even here she is' just there', as a child she is of no relevance, the landlord does not care about her, but leaves her, just like their parents, to the care of servants.
From a houseservant that has been ordered to care for Mary, she hears about a strange secret garden and the reason for the continued absence of the landlord, her guardian. Ever since the death of his beloved wife there is nothing that can keep him here. With the help of a robin who shows her the way, Mary finds the key to that secret garden. In fact, this was the garden of the deceased wife of the landlord, whom she lovingly cared for and maintained. Since her death, no one has officially paid any attention to it.
The story in "The Secret Garden" depicts, in a very unspectacular way, the very limited possibilities of medicine at that time. The empty property in India, the death of the young wife of Mary's guardian giving birth to her son (who has not yet appeared), who also suffers from sickness.
Even Mary is described as an unattractive child:
She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another. Her father had held a position under the English Government and had always been busy and ill himself, and her mother had been a great beauty who cared only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people. She had not wanted a little girl at all, and when Mary was born she handed her over to the care of an Ayah, who was made to understand that if she wished to please the Mem Sahib she must keep the child out of sight as much as possible. So when she was a sickly, fretful, ugly little baby she was kept out of the way, and when she became a sickly, fretful, toddling thing she was kept out of the way also .2
Until modern times medicine was more or less a gamble. Without the discovery of penicillin, vaccines, and the knowledge about viruses and bacteria, medicine was largely confined to the ancient doctrine of liquids, which included the theory of liquids that hold the "bad" (sickmaking) parts. Applying leeches or bloodletting were well used in the 18th Century still. Only with penicillin, the effective treatment of viral or bacterial diseases began.
Überhaupt dürfen wir uns den kontinuierlichen Konzeptwandel, der die Medizin des 18. Jahrhunderts prägte, nicht als unablässige Folge radikaler Brüche vorstellen, sondern muss ihn vielmehr als Phämonen kontinuierlicher Umgestaltungen und Überlappungen verstehen (...), so hat sich doch der ärztliche Praktiker der Zeit in aller Regel das System seines ärztlichen Handelns selbst konsturiert. Schon in den Schriften vieler Ärzte des Jahrhunderst (...) finden wie die wunderlichsten Konglomerationen unterschiedlichster System- und Konzeptfragmente. (...) Viele der großen, gedruckten Entwürfe der Zeit haben den kleinen Praktiker häufig entweder gar nicht erreicht oder sind von ihm nicht korrekt verstanden, geschweige denn konsequent umgesetzt worden ...3
Vaccination with a "defused" infectious agent didn't develop until the end of the 18th Century (first with vaccination using Cow Pox against human smallpox in 1796), aspetic surgical techniques were n't practiced in operations until the 19th Century, making sickness, including birth, a dangerous affair.
Only in the 19th Century, there is a great awakening to modern medicine. Real profession of medicine and acceptance develops with growing professionalism. Virchow or Helbra are just two examples of the great medical discoverers and developments of the 19th Century.
Accordingly a large number of women died by the dreaded puerperal fever:
Usually the second or third day after childbirth, but sometimes even later, the woman is attacked by frost, the same initially begins in the head, frightening and anxiety of the breast and large exhaustion to be prolonged by strong heat.4
Cause of puerperal fever was an infection, which was almost inevitable without proper aseptic treatment. The internal injuries, which arose at birth (very roughly), offered an excellent place for all types of infectionous attacks. Due to the lack of antibiotics, doctors were hardly given more opportunities than to wait - and hope.
As with all other infectious diseases, little more remained to him than treating the symptoms and making things a little bit easier for the sick, whether by cooling measures or by offering laudanum. One watched, waited and hoped for a positive outcome of the "crisis", that peak of the disease, which should decide whether the patient would survive or die.
One was referring to a situation as a crisis occurred, if, after a high fever, temperatures and other symptoms menacing the ill, the person would calm quickly, become aware and fever dropped.5
Very interesting are the entries in Meyers Konversations-Lexikon on the topic of "childbed fever", because here the cause of the disease is already being discussed, treatment options are named, the prevention of infection is described, but also:
Child-bed fever is under all circumstances a life-threatening disease, the further the suppuration in the pelvis is spread, the less effective the treatment. In recent times the total removal of the uterus proved good success, yet this will probably be limited to exceptional cases.6
It was Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, who linked the infections of mothers with hygiene in the birth process and beyond. In 1847/48 his studies marked a major breakthrough, although it should still take a long time until its results were widely recognized and implemented.
Even the Lord of Misselthwaite Manor lost his "blossoming woman" this way. Only his son, Colin, remained to him, but he can't be the father the child needs since he is unable to deal with his grief. His son is not healthy as well, what he lacks, one doesn't know. He lives far away from the world, kept isolated in his room. He spends his days in bed, cared for by some servants, occasionally visited by a doctor. The mourning of the father keeps his son from taking a decent development. In those days infant and child mortality were high. Frequently, only one of 12 children survived and grew up.
Consequently this means in "The Secret Garden" that Colin, being the only child of the owner of Misselthwaite Manor, is the only heir, and thus actually "required" for the continued existence of the family. His sheer existence is not only reminding the widower again and again of the fact of the death of his wife - he is also ill and appears to be of the fragile nature of his father. The nature of the "sick" child serves as an example for dealing with the sick as well. The doctor simply doesn't know what to do with Colin.
One night, Mary can not sleep, she hears somebody cry somewhere in this strange house. She assumes that it can only be a spirit, yet this doesn't keep her from searching - and so she discovers the room Colin lives in.
It was a big room with ancient, handsome furniture in it. There was a low fire glowing faintly on the hearth and a night light burning by the side of a carved four-posted bed hung with brocade, and on the bed was lying a boy, crying fretfully.
Mary wondered if she was in a real place or if she had fallen asleep again and was dreaming without knowing it.
The boy had a sharp, delicate face the color of ivory and he seemed to have eyes too big for it. He had also a lot of hair which tumbled over his forehead in heavy locks and made his thin face seem smaller. He looked like a boy who had been ill, but he was crying more as if he were tired and cross than as if he were in pain.
Mary stood near the door with her candle in her hand, holding her breath. Then she crept across the room, and as she drew nearer the light attracted the boys attention and he turned his head on his pillow and stared at her, his gray eyes opening so wide that they seemed immense.7
(Compare the original illustration above to the "modern" illustration by Inga Moore - see bottom)
Colin doesn't want to leave the room since he feared he might overexert, his father almost never visits him, the servants are not allowed to speak about him with anybody. For an unspecified reason, there were fears that Colin could get a great hunchback, accordingly, he was put in an iron corset to hold his back straight. Then came a famous doctor from London. He saied Colin was insane. The boy should stop wearing corsets and get little fresh air.
Colin wants to see the garden his mother loved so much - but Mary dares not. Mary fell for the garden, taking care of it with the help of the young Dickon for quite a while. Dickon is the brother of Mary's confidant (the maid). She knows so little about the art of gardening that she has to depend entirely on Dickon who teaches her the secrets of the garden and gardening in general. The garden is so important to Mary that she doesn't want anybody to tell the landlord about her rediscovery. And if the servants brought Colin there, it can certainly no longer be kept secret.
Friendship develops between the three very different children. Dickon, Mary and Colin experience wonderful hours and days in the secret garden, truly magical moments. Both Mary and Colin experience surprising changes. From a thin, sickly-looking girl with yellow skin, Mary became a healthy 10-year s old English girl, described through their thick, wheat blonde hair. Colin gets lively through the fresh air, the company with the other children and the experience in the garden. He becomes even stronger and starts to walk again.
The children can't keep the story secret for long. Colin's father learns of the change, and returns unexpectedly to Misselthwaite Manor.
In search of the children the man enters the garden, where he - to his infinite surprise - finds his son walking up to him all healthy.
It was the strangest thing he had ever heard, Archibald Craven thought, as it was poured forth in headlong boy fashion. Mystery and Magic and wild creatures, the weird midnight meetingthe coming of the springthe passion of insulted pride which had dragged the young Rajah to his feet to defy old Ben Weatherstaff to his face. The odd companionship, the play acting, the great secret so carefully kept. The listener laughed until tears came into his eyes and sometimes tears came into his eyes when he was not laughing. The Athlete, the Lecturer, the Scientific Discoverer was a laughable, lovable, healthy young human thing.
The story ends with a very good ending. Colin is healthy, as well as Mary. Both have, through the magic of the garden, found a way out of their traumata, and are lively, happy children. Even the father, who was unable to accept his wife's death for so long, can't resist the special charm of this place. Like his son and his ward he has an encounter with the garden that shows him a way out of his reticence.
When Mrs. Medlock looked she threw up her hands and gave a little shriek and every man and woman servant within hearing bolted across the servants hall and stood looking through the window with their eyes almost starting out of their heads.
Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his side with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in YorkshireMaster Colin!
Frances H. Burnett describes an ideal of healing, in literature on the book and its author often referred to as being based on her religious orientation in later years of life. She is saied to have gotten into believing in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. The doctrine of M.B. Eddy focuses on the idea of healing through faith. A God who wants good for his people and lovingly cares for them, may - by prayer - be encouraged to bring healing. Similarly various other spiritual approaches are being mentioned, e.g. the importance of healing through the power of thought. Obivously F.H. Burnett had little faith in traditional medicine. Their failures had resulted in her son's death and in her own experiences of illness. Instead, she stresses the importance of the magical power of the garden.
Regardless of the spiritual or social backgrounds and social elements of the story, "The Secret Garden" is an incredibly touching tale of three children in their own world, and their changing. This gets very visible in the illustrations in a book recently published by Walker Books, which has led me to study the background of that secret garden a little bit. The pictures in this book are really captivating, have a look at the review
Recommended age: 10 - 12 years
2/7 Quotes from "The Secret Garden" by F. Hodges Burnett, original text, 1911
3 Wolfgang U. Eckart - Geschichte der Medizin: Fakten, Konzepte, Haltungen, Springer, 2008
4 Brockhaus Bilder-Conversations-Lexikon, Band 2, Leipzig, 1838
5/6 Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 1888