Frances Hodgson Burnett is an author and playwright who has written more than forty novels and several plays. She is best known for her children’s stories, including The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. Burnett was born in Manchester, England, in 1849 but moved with her family to America when she was sixteen and has lived there ever since. Originally titled Mistress Mary, The Secret Garden was published serially starting in 1910; it was published as a completed novel in 1911.
Mary Lennox is a cross, ugly nine-year-old girl who is raised by a series of servants in India because her mother does not want to be bothered with her. As a consequence, Mistress Mary is a spoiled, lethargic, anemic girl who has never even dressed herself and imperiously gives orders to everyone around her; not surprisingly, no one likes her. She is so secluded (and ignored) that only a few people even know she exists; she is so selfish and self-absorbed that no one cares. When a cholera outbreak strikes her home, Mary’s parents die, and Mary is forgotten and abandoned. After she is finally discovered, an English clergyman’s family takes her in. They give her the nickname “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary.” She remains there until she is sent to her uncle’s home in England.
Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, meets Mary and accompanies her to Misselthwaite Manor, a six-hundred-year-old mansion with a hundred rooms. The isolated estate adjoins a moor, but it contains many gardens. Mary is not a pleasant girl. One of the house servants, Martha Sowerby, makes it clear that she will not be treated as Mary used to treat her servants back in India. In fact, Martha thinks it is almost comical that Mary is unable to dress herself—Martha’s four-year-old sister dresses herself every day. Mary is pale and weak and dependent, but Martha does not intend to feed those weaknesses; instead, she determines that Mary will become independent and strong under her care.
Martha mentions a secret garden that had been the private domain of Archibald Craven’s deceased wife, and Mary begins to search for it. The garden has been unused for ten years, but Mary is determined. One day she sees a robin in the gardens. She has never before seen a robin, but she feels an immediate kinship with this bird. When the cantankerous gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, sees that the robin appears to...
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Although The Secret Garden depicts the dismal effects of a loveless home, its goal is to show how nature, coupled with positive thinking, can transform people's lives. The central characters, Mary and Colin, initially seem to be spoiled, mean-spirited, and completely self-absorbed characters. Although they do not recognize their own emotional emptiness, they are both hungry for affection and companionship. The novel concerns itself with the process of Mary and Colin's awakening to the world, other people, and their own feelings. In many ways the story has the texture of a fairy tale: the magical effects of a special and secret place save the children. However, the story is more satisfying than a fairy tale because Burnett's characters evolve into caring, sensitive beings through their own efforts, demonstrating that people are capable of changing their lives for the better.
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