on 14 March 2012
'The Secret Garden' is a children's book that was written just over a century ago, and, while some stories have become dated and fallen out of favour, it has always been a popular book. I think this is because the writing style is quite light, and lacking some of the lofty airs that make many books of the age a chore to read. The decision to write dialogue in regional accents (fair full o' th' punctuations an' odd spellin's as ought fill tha' nostrils wi' th' smells o' th' Yorkshire moors an' bring a hearty rose t' tha' pale townie cheeks) would now be considered precious to many modern readers, but Hodgson carries it with a pleasing gusto that infuses it with a forgivable charm.
The story takes its bare bones from a traditional array of children's story tropes, especially the wishful-thinking central theme of young child of wealth and status with an absence of duty and abundance of time and space in which to explore and find adventure, further facilitated by absent or lax parenting. Into this vast empty arena a small group of children find friendship and build a world separate from the adults, healing their own hurt in the process. The familiarity of the material is well deflected by the quality of the writing and its particular gentle approach; the transformation of the "sour-faced" petulant young Mary Lennox into her complete opposite is inevitable, but the novel is remarkable for its deviation from the standard conflict/resolution structure: exposition blends slowly into resolution like the changing of the seasons, with little in the way of actual resistance. To some this may be frustrating, should they see the absence of a scene in which the children face a setback in their plans for the garden (discovery and punishment by Mrs. Medlock, for example) as a missed opportunity rather than discerning authorial decision. Another point of interest is the move into multiple character perspectives towards the end of the book: we follow Mary closely most of the way, meeting everyone else as she does, mirroring her self-centred worldview. In the end, when Mary has opened her heart to everyone, the narrative lets us into their lives also, giving us chapters from the perspectives of the other main players, not forgetting a very effective piece from the point of view of 'the robin who showed the way'. None of these feels like a gimmick; in fact it happens so organically that Mary's shift from central character to ensemble player does not jar in the slightest.
Overall it is very attractive pastoral piece, a paean to the power of positive thinking, if you'll forgive the effusive alliteration. On this point, regarding the progress of young "Mester Craven", the book does strike a rather sour note for the modern reader in its foreshadowing, and passionate endorsement, of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for the treatment of severely debilitating conditions. Okay, Colin's ailments may well be all in his mind, but it can easily be taken for Wesselyan propagandising to be applied to cases of genuine illness, especially when dressed up in such perfectly charming fashion as the author has done here. On a loosely related note, the book is breathlessly passionate about gardening (as can be expected), with frequent and lengthy passages describing gardening procedures and the sensory effects of their labours. This is not impenetrable to those who may not share the author's depth of feeling for the minutiae of the subject, as it perfectly reflects the way the pursuit of a hobby can totally captivate a child's mind. At any rate, the book deserves to remain popular in an increasingly insular age for its insistence that a healthy relationship with nature and the great outdoors is good for the soul.
The Oxford edition is unabridged and printed on good-quality paper, and is available as part of an attractive box-set of children's classics. Four stars because it is certainly not for everyone, but for the right person, of any age, this could easily be a lifelong favourite.
- "Two lads an' a little lass just lookin' on at th' springtime. I warrant it'd be better than doctor's stuff."