The story begins in colonial India, where Mary Lennox lives with her mother and father. When Mary's parents die, the scene shifts to Misselthwaite manor, the Yorkshire home of Mary's reclusive uncle, with whom she has been sent to live. At Misselthwaite, Mary discovers a garden that her uncle has kept locked up and abandoned for ten years, ever since his wife suffered a fatal injury there. The garden has run wild and is choked with dead or dying weeds and grasses. Mary decides to make the garden her secret place and begins to try to revive it.
Although The Secret Garden has many of the characteristics of a fairy tale, its most elemental symbol is rooted not in fantasy but in nature. The abandoned garden's rebirth parallels the rebirth of Mary and Colin. Like them, it has been left to die of neglect, yet it still has the seeds—albeit hidden and buried—that will allow it to flower and grow if only someone will nurture it. As the garden grows, so too do the children who work there. Once the garden is revived, the children come to recognize its tremendous strength and power. Although they label this power "magic," they recognize that magic works "best when you work yourself." They sing hymns and chant incantations in the joyous knowledge that they, too, share in and help perpetuate the miracle of life.
Symbolically, Burnett draws on an old pastoral literary tradition that transforms the garden into a substitute, benign mother. The garden nurtures the children by offering them a safe, secluded spot in which to learn how to care for themselves and others. Indeed, the children spend approximately nine months—spring, summer, and fall—hidden behind the protective walls of the garden before they emerge triumphant.
But she was inside the wonderful garden and she could come through the door under the ivy any time and she felt as if she had found a world all her own.
The Secret Garden's tightly unified plot is controlled by the changing seasons, allowing the rebirth of both the garden and the children to take place smoothly and cohesively. Burnett also makes good use of dialogue: Colin's and Mary's increasing use of Dickon's Yorkshire dialect vividly illustrates the young pair's growth as they leam to see the world through their friend's eyes. Ultimately, the characters' growth and their ability to transform their lives makes this novel a story of redemption.
Bixler, Phyllis. Frances Hodgson Burnett. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A thorough study of Burnett's adult and children's novels which pays particular attention to her depiction of female characters.
Burnett, Constance Buel. Happily Ever After: A Portrait of Frances Hodgson Burnett. New York: Vanguard, 1969. Based largely on Burnett's autobiographical The One I Know the Best of All (1893), this work is an entertaining, positive examination of Burnett's life that appeals primarily to young people.
Gohlke, Madelon S. "Rereading The Secret Garden." College English 41 (April 1980): 894-902. While comparing her reading of The Secret Garden as an adult and as a sickly child, Gohlke examines the themes of death, rebirth, health, and illness in the novel.
Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. "'Quite Contrary': Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden." Children's Literature 2 (1983): 1 -13. Examines the shift in focus to Colin at the end of the novel.
Koppes, Phyllis Bixler. "Tradition and the Individual Talent of Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Generic Analysis of Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess and A Secret Garden." Children's Literature: An International Journal 7 (1978): 191-207. A well-conceived, thorough comparison of the three novels.
Thwaite, Ann. Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett 1849- 1924. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974. An exceptionally complete biography that provides a bibliography of Burnett's English and American plays.