Reviews 2012

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden: A Children’s Classic at 100

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden: A Children’s Classic at 100. Jackie C. Horne and Joe Sutliff Sanders (eds.). Lanham MD: Children’s Literature Association/The Scarecrow Press, 2011. 271 pages. $65.00 (hardback).

Jackie C. Horne and Joe Sutliff Sanders’ edited collection of thirteen essays, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden: A Children’s Classic at 100—the sixth in the Children’s Literature Association Centennial Studies series—marks a century since the novel’s publication. However, this collection does not seek to put the novel on a pedestal; rather, it explores its themes from a modern angle that, at the same time, also speaks to many of the more general shifts that have affected children’s literature studies.

The editors’ Introduction, a useful essay in itself, offers a brief biography of Burnett together with a potted history of the novel’s critical reception that provides directions for further study both for scholars new to the novel, and for those wishing to follow up on some of the ideas in the individual chapters. The essays themselves are divided across four main sections, covering a variety of topics, but with some sections having greater depth of coverage than others. The two essays in the short, first section, for example, consider possible influences on Burnett’s writing. Holly Blackford’s ‘Maiden, Mother, Mysteries: The Myth of Persephone in The Secret Garden’ considers the connection between the novel and both the Greek myths of Demeter and Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries in terms of what light they shed on the main child characters. ‘When Mary Met Cathy: Frances Hodgson Burnett in Brontë Country’, by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, summarizes her own and others’ earlier work to draw attention to the thematic similarities between the work of the Brontë sisters and that of Burnett.

The second section’s interesting and varied mix of responses to the novel opens with Meredith R. Ackroyd pushing past some of the standard feminist criticisms of the novel to consider how mothering functions within a patriarchal system. Her ‘Mothering and Space in The Secret Garden’ argues that Burnett contributes to an idea of mothering as ‘communal, non-gendered work’ (60). Jennifer Marchant’s ‘“A Real Person—only Nicer”: The Robin as a Companion Species’ takes discussions towards animal studies territory (an area still under-represented in children’s literature studies to date) by examining the particular role of the robin in the novel. Marchant’s chapter is complemented by Alun Morgan’s ‘Places of Transformation in The Secret Garden’, which draws on recent ecopedagogical considerations to demonstrate how the novel reveals the importance of embodied emplacement in the natural world for human well-being. Lori N. Brister then takes a queer theory approach to the novel in ‘Outing the Garden: Queer Theory and Queerness in The Secret Garden’ and, whilst noting the novel’s ending returns us to normative conceptions of gender roles, considers how Burnett shows that the traditional gender binaries are not necessarily fixed. Jen Cadwallader’s ‘The Three Veils: Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in The Secret Garden’ considers Edwardian spiritualism and raises questions about how death is depicted in Burnett’s novel, whilst Maureen M. Martin’s reads the novel as a rejection of a British Imperialism that was not so much empowering for men as it was emasculating. Her essay, ‘Healing National Manhood in The Secret Garden’, sees the return to England as a cure for the ills of empire.

The third, shorter section takes a more comparative approach, with Marilyn Pemberton arguing in her ‘Burnett’s Secret Spaces: Glimpses of Utopia’ that utopian elements in Burnett’s novels, including The Secret Garden, make it valuable to consider her work alongside other utopian fiction. ‘Not-So-Secret Gardens: Eroding Eden in Contemporary Children’s Literature’, by Claudia Mills, would also fit well in an ecocritical collection, although its place here is somewhat tenuous. Nevertheless, its discussion of the idea of the garden as a trope in terms of multiculturalism does show where intertextual connections can and should be made whilst, at the same time, noting how poorly the trope can be employed.

The two essays in the final section on peritexts and adaptations, ‘Imag(in)ing the Garden: Illustrators’ Interpretations of Burnett’s Classic Novel’ from Anne K. Phillips, and Martha Stoddard Holmes’ ‘Crippling Colin: Disability in Two Film Versions of The Secret Garden’ both consider visualisations of the novel. Phillips’s examination of how various illustrators of the novel have interpreted key scenes offers interpretative insights into the novel’s conclusion, something much contested by critics. Holmes’s discussion of the film versions sheds light on how the nature of illness presented in the book has been interpreted. Finally, Roderick McGillis’s epilogue, ‘The Secret Garden—Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder’, provides a fitting finale with its specific reading of both the novel itself and other children’s fiction through the notion of children’s literature being ‘a literature of absence’ rather than ‘lack’ (231).

On the subject of lack, the editors do acknowledge that there are still several areas deserving of attention that are not covered here (an inherent weakness in collections of this type, where editors must often work with what they receive rather than being able to explore all the likely avenues of research). It should also be noted that, even though The Secret Garden has been translated into many languages since its re-emergence from the popularity doldrums, there is an absence of considerations of how the book has been received around the world. In this respect, the collection’s very Anglophone contingent of contributors might suggest that attributing canonical status remains a very western preserve or, at the very least, that the term canonical should always be used alongside some form of parochial qualifier.

These small misgivings aside, however, the collection is a solid celebration of the novel’s centenary. The essays in the collection provide different ways into the complexities and delights of the novel, and they show (directly, or implicitly through what is not said) that, even a century on, what the editors refer to as the “fertile ground” (xxix) of The Secret Garden still has much to offer scholars of children’s literature today.

Anthony Pavlik
Boğaziçi University, Turkey