In fourth grade, I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden. I owned a mint-green Dell Yearling paperback copy that I must have bought with my allowance money. It was a book that likely inspired my childish love of the idea of England, of the idea of gardens and nature.
In The Secret Garden, ten-year-old Mary Crawford is sent to England after her parents die in a cholera epidemic in India. She finds herself at the Yorkshire estate of her uncle Archibald, a widower with a tragic past.
Mary is described as an unpleasant child: sallow, thin, spoiled, unsmiling. She is used to ordering people about and having no other children to play with. But once she’s in Yorkshire, the maid Martha begins telling her tales of her family, especially her mother and Martha’s animal-loving brother, Dickon. Mary soon finds herself shunted outside to play, where she befriends a robin and grumpy gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and learns about a secret enclosed flower garden on the estate. Being outdoors improves Mary’s physical stamina and mental outlook: she starts running around, and jumping rope. And once she finds the key and the door to the secret garden, she begins poking around in the earth.
She also meets Dickon and, later, her ten-year-old cousin, Colin, an invalid whose cries echo through the manor. She soon gets Colin out of the house and into the garden. Being outdoors enacts a transformation of Colin’s health and gives him a channel for his autocratic tendencies. Soon the children are running around singing, chanting, and speaking odes to the healing magic—sorry, capital M Magic—of “plain” English food, English weather, and English gardens.
Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in England in 1849 but spent a large portion of her adult life in the United States—moving first with her family to Knoxville, Tennessee, then Washington, DC, and ending her days in Plandome Manor on Long Island in 1924. In addition to The Secret Garden, she was best known for her children’s novels Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess. Burnett was also a prolific author of plays, serials, and novels for adults. Her work was successful enough that she was able to spend time in Paris, across Europe, and at a home in Bermuda where she wintered. She also became interested in Christian Science, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, and the effects of those beliefs can be seen especially in the last quarter of The Secret Garden.
As a kid, I remember skipping over those “spiritual” sections a lot, although I can’t say it affected my enjoyment of the book. Our Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Stephenson, had similar feelings when showed us what I think was probably the 1975 BBC miniseries adaptation. She said she liked it, although she mentioned the magical-spiritual garden stuff being very hokey.
Hokey is perhaps not the word I’d use today.
I’d love to say that tiny Mindy read The Secret Garden and was able to identify the shitty colonial ideology of the book. But no, the opposite happened: the book helped make me an Anglophile in my stupid, stupid youth. I loved this idealized version of England with chatty robins and wild animals tamely following Dickon around the moors. I tried to speak with a Yorkshire accent. I wanted to like things described in the book, such as good thick porridge (even though in reality I didn’t like porridge, unless it was Taiwanese rice porridge), currant buns (I disliked currants), the chilly outdoor air (we were in Canada and it was often more than chilly), and running around in it (no). I even wanted to like gardening, though in my personal experience my parents’ and grandparents’ suburban Canadian vegetable patch was pretty terrible and certainly didn’t involve sweet-smelling flowers or fresh healthy air. Clearly I was willing and able to endure a lot of cognitive dissonance around the realities of what I liked and wanted in life versus the ideals described in The Secret Garden.
One thing I could not love even as a child, however, was Colin. And on re-reading the book, well … if anything, he’s worse.
It is very clear to me as an adult how much love and attention the narrator lavishes on Colin. He is often described as “beautiful.” He has a “beautiful smile.” He’s “quite beautiful in spite of his thinness.” His eyes are “beautiful” and strange, and he has long, thick lashes.
Despite not being introduced until the second half of the story, he takes over most of it; Mary—remember Mary? The girl we start off following and the one who finds the whole damn secret garden?—has no more than a few lines of dialogue in the last quarter of the story. Colin, by contrast, talks for pages and pages.
“The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man,” Colin says at one point.
After spouting off in kind for a few more paragraphs, he has Ben Weatherstaff, Mary, and Dickon sitting cross-legged in a circle with him:
“Now we will begin,” he said. “Shall we sway backward and forward, Mary, as if we were dervishes?”
“I canna’ do no swayin’ back’ard and for’ard,” said Ben Weatherstaff. “I’ve got the ’rheumatics.”
“The Magic will take them away,” said Colin in a High Priest tone, “but we won’t sway until it has done it. We will only chant.”
Colin becomes the expert on Magic—even though he’s not the one who came up with the idea. But Dickon and Mary and Ben Weatherstaff accept his leadership. He’s a budding cult leader, complete with questionable medical ideas, “beautiful”/hypnotic eyes, and an imperious manner.
In Colin the most annoying parts of Burnett’s spiritual-colonial enterprise are personified. The boy is often also described as a “the young Rajah.” Mary says:
Once in India I saw a boy who was a Rajah. He had rubies and emeralds and diamonds stuck all over him. He spoke to his people just as you spoke to Martha. Everybody had to do everything he told them—in a minute. I think they would have been killed if they hadn’t.
The “Rajah” epithet sticks because Colin is bossy as fuck. He is the master of the house while his father is away—and never stops reminding people of the fact. But what does it mean that Colin is continually compared to a young, spoiled non-English tyrant, when in fact, being cooped up in England on his own estate has made him the dictator that he is?
In the characterization of Colin, we run up against the fact that so much of the book depends on comparing India unfavorably with England, even as the book exploits Indian things that it finds convenient. The children cobble together a spiritual practice by referring to animal charmers, “fakirs,” transplanting Mary’s childish colonial cultural observations and bits from Colin’s books, mixing in the idea of the pastoral, and trying to mash all of these things into a kind of magical—sorry, capital M Magical—English-ness.
I live in Manhattan now, in an apartment. My upstairs neighbors are renovating, so all morning I’ve been trying to write some sort of conclusion to this piece between the whines of drilling and the thump of a sledgehammer being taken to the walls. My life is the opposite of bucolic, and at times like these, I find myself wanting to agree with Frances Hodgson Burnett—an Anglo-American, city-loving socialite writer—that there is no location more magical and desirable than a great, green garden in England.
But that place is largely a myth—a nation-building tale from another time—and I don’t think the the rulers of that place would particularly welcome me.
About Mindy Hung
Mindy Hung‘s essays and articles have appeared in The Toast, Salon, The New York Times, and many other publications. Her short (often very short) fiction has appeared in Joyland, PANK, and The New Quarterly. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship in 2010. Her literary novel, Trip, was published in 2012 by Outpost19.