Holly Webb – Return to the Secret Garden: a classic challenge

When my inner child dragged my beloved to see the fourth Indiana Jones film, he didn’t put up much of a fight. When we came out, his piquant review was ‘Thank you, Mr Spielberg, for pissing on my childhood’ (needless to say, he didn’t put himself through all the Star Wars ‘prequels’). This neatly sums up the hazards of revisiting childhood favourites – even when the same creator revisits a work, there’s no guarantee it will be a success (Mr Lucas, I’m looking at you).

So my excitement to read a sequel to The Secret Garden was tempered by the knowledge that this is the sort of thing that can end badly. It’s impossible to please everyone, and ultimately – especially in the case of works that are unprotected by an estate – the author will have his or her own vision and story to tell, that may not be the one you longed to read.

The good news is that Return to the Secret Garden is by and large a loving homage to the original, rather than an exercise in cashing in on a classic. Set 30 years after Mary Lennox turned Misselthwaite Manor on its head, the book sees ten-year-old orphan Emmie Hatton being evacuated from the Craven Home for Orphaned Children as war breaks out. Separated from her beloved Lucy (a black street moggy she has befriended with fish paste sandwiches) and mocked by the heartless boys she has grown up with, Emmie arrives at Misselthwaite lonely and in much need of comfort. Like Mary before her, she finds solace in the gardens, a gruff, scarred gardener who works in them and a certain cheeky robin. If you’re looking for one of those sequels that basically retreads familiar ground, we’re off to a flying start. Cries in the night and a lonely young Craven boy soon get added to the mix.

Holly Webb has a good turn of phrase, and the narrative embraces themes of bullying, isolation and hope as fierce, lonely Emmie Hatton learns to make connections, helping to heal a household under the shadow of war. It’s perfectly decent stuff, if a little bland, and the parallels to Hodgson Burnett’s classic are unmistakable. Here’s the rub – I think the novel would have been stronger if it had been inspired by The Secret Garden, but not framed as a sequel.

In claiming the mantle of a classic, you set up a world of expectation. It is of course an authorial prerogative to approach it as you wish, but as a reader I expect the author to (try and) match the tone and style of the original; I certainly expect a good deal of continuity in terms of characterisation. Sadly, this is where Webb’s novel falls short for me.

The style here is thoroughly modern. One of the things I love in the original is the prose itself, which begs to be read aloud. We are taken by the hand by an entirely present omniscient narrator, who isn’t above a fair bit of preaching, but who largely shows us the characters feelings and thoughts through their dialogue – and then adds a bit of acerbic commentary of her own. Webb’s sequel focuses closely on Emmie’s perspective, holding us inside her head and telling us her thoughts and feelings. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s a more modern way of telling the story, and Emmie is a great character – but it doesn’t lend itself to reading aloud as well and it results in a very different tone (not that I missed the moralising!)

I think the choice to set the novel decades later is a gift. In growing up, we all expect for the original trio of children to have changed, and this gulf in time – made even larger by the impact of the Great War – neatly papers over cracks that might otherwise be too glaringly obvious. But Webb chooses to tie the two novels more closely together by having Emmie discover Mary Lennox’s diaries. Unfortunately, the diaries don’t read (to me at least) like Mary’s words. Instead, they feel like a sanitised recap of that older novel for readers who are less familiar with it.

I also felt that the novel didn’t entirely succeed in conveying the emotional landscape of the Craven family – Mrs Craven and Jack go through the ringer here, and while there are some lovely scenes illustrating their reactions, Emmie’s constrained perspective robbed me of the sympathetic punch I expected (Emmie is more concerned at being kept out of her beloved garden, and much too young to know what Mrs Craven is going through). This was particularly telling at the end, where Emmie gets her emotional resolution, but the Cravens don’t.

It’s a shame, as this is otherwise a perfectly fine children’s book about wartime and displacement – both of which I think are important themes given current events.

It will probably work just fine for readers who are less judgmental (I know I’m awkward) and younger readers who will probably be delighted to revisit the Garden and the robin regardless – hell, I would have liked it just fine if I’d read it aged 10. As an adult though, it falls short of the mark.

All in all – this would be fine on its own two legs (***), but for me it makes for a very unsatisfying sequel (**1/2).