Today I’m bringing you a review of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is a really well known classic children’s book. There’s also recently been a new movie adaptation of it, though I think unfortunately it’s only available from that online retailer we all hate. The book, however, is available as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg if you wanted to get yourself an ecopy!
An important thing to note about this book is that it is absolutely a product of its time. As the protagonist, Mary Lennox, grew up in India before being sent to England at the start of the book, there are a lot of racist attitudes towards Indian people. Given the reading age a child would have to be to read this book (I’d say children with a reading age of 9-10 would enjoy it), they would be at an age where they would be able to have a discussion about the treatment of people of different races (as well as disabled people) in this book, and recognise the issues. I personally probably wouldn’t recommend this to younger children with an advanced reading age, partly because of issues with racism and partly because a lot of old-fashioned language is used, as well as Yorkshire dialect, which I think younger children would find challenging unless you wanted to read the book to them!
Aside from quite obviously being a product of its time, this is a charming story. Mary Lennox arrives in Yorkshire a spoilt brat, with a very disagreeable and entitled nature. As the story progresses, she starts to realise the joys of the natural world, and becomes kinder, more considerate, and more independent. Her character arc is great, particularly for younger children, as it teaches them to recognise the flaws they may have themselves, and encourages self-improvement and selflessness. Alongside Mary, the main characters are Martha, who acts as Mary’s maid, Martha’s younger brother Dickon, and the sickly Colin. The three children form an unlikely friendship group, which is also a lovely message for children to see. Initially, Mary and Dickon seem like total opposites from one another, both in terms of their demeanours as well as their backgrounds. Having the pair bond so immediately despite the differences in their upbringing is a great message for young readers. Then when Colin is introduced as well, as a disabled child, Mary and Dickon treat him no differently because of his disability or illnesses. In fact, Mary is the one that convinces Colin that he might be able to go outside and live a normal life despite his illness, which Colin sees as life-consuming and fatal.
While the idea of Colin being ‘cured’ of his illness/disability isn’t the greatest message, I think the fact that the other children don’t pity Colin for his disability is important for young readers. Colin’s character arc also teaches young children that putting your mind to something can yield amazing results, and a little bit of self-belief can go a long way. Through showing Colin’s temper tantrums and deeply self-pitying attitude, Burnett is able to show children how undesirable and unpleasant this kind of behaviour is, in a similar way to how Mary is portrayed at the start of the book.
The plot of the book, which obviously involves the discovery of the secret garden, is also really heartwarming. The children develop a love for nature throughout the book, which is something that definitely should be encouraged in today’s youth. They spend most of their time playing with the animals, and caring for the garden. This book is great for showing children the value and reward that can be found in spending time outdoors, and could possibly even encourage them to take up a bit of gardening themselves!
Obviously, as a children’s book, the writing style is fairly straightforward, though it does use language that young readers might not be familiar with, as it can be a bit outdated. This is definitely a book that I think children would get most out of if they read it with an adult, or older sibling. Reading the dialect out loud would help children to understand it, and it also provides an opportunity to discuss new words, and how attitudes towards people of colour have changed since this book was written. Unlike many other classics, though, the plot is not at all obscured by the language, and the events of the story are very clear throughout, even for younger readers.
Overall, I would recommend this for adult readers, and mature younger readers. While this book is undeniably racist, I think it does have many other merits, and should be treated as a product of its time. The message the book shares of the value of nature, and the importance of recognising and addressing one’s own selfishness and entitlement is great for young readers, as is the way it shows how friendships can occur regardless of a difference in background. And, for the most part, it’s just a sweet, engaging story of childhood and friendship!