Genres: Classic, Middle Grade
First off I must confess, I let myself off lightly with this one. It is a well thumbed, well loved children’s classic that I have reread often since childhood.
I think as child I loved this book because I loved the idea of a secret and romance of a garden hidden behind walls that no one else could access. As an adult, I have a lot of different feelings when reading the book but my overall impression is that this is a timeless classic and full of magic. Not magical magic but the everyday magic and healing powers of nature.
When we meet Mary, she is bossy, stubborn and spoilt with material possessions. As an adult who has spent time researching attachments problems that can occur in children who miss out on love in early life, I have a lot of sympathy for Mary. She is neglected by her parents, lonely and treated as a nuisance. So no wonder she is fretful and whiny and disagreeable.
After the death of her parents in India, she is uprooted to England to live with her bitter, reclusive uncle. And when there the magic of nature works wonders. For the first time she makes friends – from the little robin, to the brusk gardener, to frank outspoken maid Martha – she starts to come to life. And the more she wakes up, the more interest she shows in everything around her the more her character and personality thrive.
I loved the description of the garden. The secretive, neglected, overgrown garden that gradually comes back to life due to hard work of Mary and her friends. It is so inspiring and full of hope. The descriptions are such that you can see everything, you can picture every little bulb and seedling battling underground and fighting for it’s right to grow, develop and bloom just like Mary (and later her cousin Colin) did. I still get a thrill of excitement when Mary first enters the garden:
“She held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened – slowly. Then she slipped through and shut it behind her and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight. She was standing inside the secret garden“.
What I don’t like about this book is something I discovered when I reread as an adult that had gone over my head when I read as a child. It is racist, there is no other way to put it. There no hiding the feelings of the superiority of the British Empire.
“Mary did not even try to control her rage and humiliation. “You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people – they’re servants who must salaam to you.”
Very hard to read that and not cringe. You have to remember that it was written at a time of imperialism and while it wouldn’t be acceptable in a modern book, I make allowances for the age of the book. Still uncomfortable reading though. But as a portrayal of racism at the time, it’s an eye opener.
Racism references aside though, this book is charming. I loved the Yorkshire dialect that is used in the voices of Martha and Dicken and their mother. I know the accent well and it flows lyrically and adds local flavour to the book. The book is full of contrasts – the empty, lonely mansion versus Martha’s big family and tiny house that is overflowing with love. The spoilt Colin versus the natural, friendly Dicken. The ill health of both Mary and Colin and their growth into normal, healthy children who can dream and plan for the future.
As a classic, it’s very easy to read. No wordy text or complicated themes. Just a simple story about nature and the thrill of secrets and the power of friendship. I forgot it was part of my challenge and just enjoyed my pleasurable trip down memory lane.
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