Nowadays, The Secret Garden (1911) is much-praised for its ecological conscience, its anticipation of the Green movement, and read as a kind of homeopathic balm for the child’s soul. In prescribing Frances Hodgson Burnett’s most famous novel to students, many teachers might think that they are forming the next generation of eco-warriors. First stop the Yorkshire moors, next stop Rainbow Warrior. Of course, to understand the ideological power of the novel critics would be much better off reading Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health (1875) than Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring (1962), given that it is really a synthesis of pre-digested theosophy and Christian Science. However, if there is something enduringly appealing about The Secret Garden (and there appears to be if its many adaptations and ongoing sales are taken as evidence), then it is surely not its eco-politics but its refusal to indulge one of the most pernicious yet pervasive myths of our time, largely manufactured in the eighteenth century, propagated in the nineteenth century, internalised in the twentieth, and orthodoxy itself in the twenty-first: the myth that children are both morally innocent and nice by nature.
The sheer reach of this myth is extraordinary, and the public opprobrium directed towards those who blaspheme against it can reach bizarre proportions. A Martian who stumbled into an average school playground armed only with the information on children gleaned from child- rearing manuals penned by luminaries such as Penelope Leach, Benjamin Spock and their disciples would be thoroughly confused given the difference between the finger-wagging preaching of the experts and the Hobbesian nightmare before her. Failure to acknowledge the sheer awefulness (as opposed to the awfulness) of kids earns one a swift and usually devastating slap from the policemen and women of popular culture. Gina Ford, a rather pedestrian guru of contemporary childcare, who has suggested that children may not be emissaries of heaven whose every cry is an angel’s song, has been accused of wanting to strap babies to rockets being fired into Lebanon. Poor old Princess Anne was anathemized a few years ago when she had the temerity to admit that she didn’t really like kids all that much.
The Secret Garden, one of the few classics of children’s literature which adults can admit to loving without embarrassment, is refreshingly up-front about the supposedly adorable little monsters taking over the planet and admits that a great many of them are unendurable, even for those who brought them into this world and who must bear ultimate responsibility for them. The heroine of the novel, Mary Lennox, is declared in the very first sentence to be both unloved and virtually unlovable. She is acknowledged by ‘everybody’ to be ‘the most disagreeable looking child ever seen’, a verdict completely endorsed by the narrator: ‘It was true, too’. She enters the novel as a kind of infection, her natural aggression towards everyone else transformed into the cholera that wipes out her entire household and leaves only herself alive. She has the kind of power often desired by the young, whose fantasies of parental annihilation have been recognised many times in barely disguised ways in our culture. This is perhaps best captured in the 1990s in the first two energetic Home Alone (1990 and 1992) films, where a cherubic and sociopathic Kevin McCallister, played with Hitlerian glee by Macaulay Culkin, goes to bed one night wishing his family would simply disappear and wakes to the utopian freedom of a world without them.
Mary Lennox – ‘as contrary’ as her nursery-rhyme precursor – is not quite as joyful as Kevin, but isn’t really all that put out by the mass death surrounding her. The narrator kindly informs us that Mary ‘did not cry because her nurse had died. She was not an affectionate child and had never cared much for anyone’, just in case we thought she was upset that her parents had been dispatched. Granted, her parents had not exactly displayed Mrs. March-like devotion to their only child, but our sympathies lie with them given Mary’s ugliness and horrible disposition, and that she is a ‘self-absorbed child’ who ‘gave her entire thought to herself’. And, just in case we are inclined to blame nurture rather than nature for her egotistical state, we are immediately disabused of such Lockean illusions. Mary acts in self interest ‘as she had always done’ (my emphasis). Far too many heroines of children’s literature before The Secret Garden took after Dickens’ Little Nell, whose spirit manifested in Beth March, or Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), good girls whose cherubic purity is terrifyingly acknowledged by all surrounding characters. Here, Mary seems to be channelling Lewis Carroll’s Alice, another nasty piece of work with imperious and murderous designs on gardens and parent figures, or perhaps Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights (1847), another unbearable little girl who wipes out adults in sublimated rage.
Of course, the novel trumps even Mary’s maliciousness with its second child hero, cousin Colin, a boy so twisted internally that he is convinced – as is everyone around him – that this psychological warping will make an external appearance any time soon. One of the nastiest children in the canon, critics have bewailed the narrative shift which places him rather than Mary at the centre of the story. The displacement of the girl is not an unusual trope in children’s fiction, and as Phyllis Bixler complains, this novel ultimately ‘reinforces conventional gender roles’ when Colin’s regeneration becomes even more important to the plot than Mary’s. This particular criticism of The Secret Garden, however, is a bit overdone, as Burnett could be read as merely evening things up a bit, gender-wise. Without Colin, after all, boys would be left with the rather saintly Dickon, whose martyrdom is complete when he has to put up with being shouldered aside by the spiritually deformed Colin, as egocentric and snobbish a child as can be imagined. There is a brilliantly theatrical moment in the text when Colin’s imperiousness becomes most sickeningly obvious. As he surveys the secret garden, which the gardener Ben Weatherstaff has been protecting, he declares with the absolute certainty a colonist arriving on virgin lands, ‘This is my garden’, and rises from his wheelchair as if from a throne:
Colin was standing upright – upright – as straight as an arrow and looking strangely tall – his head thrown back and his strange eyes flashing lightning. “Look at me!” he flung up at Ben Weatherstaff.
“Just look at me – you! Just look at me!”
There cannot be too many readers who do not wish for the reappearance of the death-dealing cholera to take out these two insufferable brats. I suspect that very many readers also feel a great deal of sympathy with Dr Craven, Colin’s cousin, who clearly wishes him dead so that he can inherit the estate. These are children the reader is perfectly entitled to dislike, and a large part of the charm of the novel is its simple acceptance that aversion is what most adults feel when faced with such Dionysian wannabes. Of course, it all turns out all right in the end, and the two demons are transformed by the healing properties of the garden and re-made as good children (and better adults), but that is only to be expected and easily forgiven. Ultimately, in our memories, Mary and Colin remain creatures of the childish will rather than of the adult imaginary. JK