Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Secret Garden: nothing like a bit of fresh air to make you feel better

Mistress Mary (quite contrary) is orphaned by a cholera outbreak in India, and shipped to Yorkshire to be the ward of her remote uncle. Left to her own devices with nobody but a well-meaning maid to keep an eye on her, she spends much time outdoors and quickly blossoms from a tiresome little tyrant to a curious, energetic girl. When she begins discovering the secrets of the forbidding house and its tragic gardens, she brings magic and hope that changes the fates of all its inhabitants.

Read as an adult, it’s unarguably moralistic stuff. We’re repeatedly told that Mary is a horrid, awful child, but we really get very little evidence of it. For sure, she’s quick to anger and likes her own way, but the Rector’s children in India are worse-mannered. We only twice see her have a properly pettish fit, and they’re both sympathetic in their way.

The first, to be fair, is inspired by snobbery, class values and outright racism (she thinks Martha considered her ‘a native’), but in the context of a girl who has lost her whole family – however remote they may have been – and been uprooted from everything she has ever known and dumped in the most contrasting context – her sulky crying fit is remarkable for only happening the once.

The second occasion is glorious, when she faces down her cousin in the midst of his own hysterical tantrum and matches him strop for strop. From the start, Colin is indeed the little monster the narrative would have us believe Mary is/was, and the tale works much harder to show it.

I loved the first half of the book. Mary is cold and remote, almost certainly detaching from those around her to try and cope with all the changes in her life. Her oddly adult manners (which really don’t fit with her upbringing, but work to keep the world at a distance) bemuse the adults around her and provide lovely exchanges with Martha, who is used to the affectionate rough and tumble of a dozen siblings in a tiny cottage.

The second half loses some of the charm. Mary is no longer exploring the mysteries of Misselthwaite, but acting as Colin’s guide. Once Colin reached the garden and the focus shifted to ‘curing’ him, it felt like the pace slowed right down. I also got slightly tired of the extended digressions that essentially boil down to ‘think positive, be healthy’, ‘fresh air is good for you’ and ‘be nice to people, kids’. It’s not that these aren’t lovely sentiments, but I preferred the lighter character-driven touches to the Voice of the Author intervening.

On the plus side, this remains a charming classic with a cast of delightful characters (Ben Weatherstaff!). It does show its age in the casual racism and the Victorian/Edwardian idealism – nature will cure all things (and disabilities are all in the mind; um) – but I can’t get past the crafty conjuring of the Yorkshire seasons and the magic of growing things, or the lovely prose whose cadences invite you to read aloud.