Public Service Announcement: Today we start our discussion of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Be careful of grabbing an abridged version of the book, unless you’re looking to read an abridged version. There are many abridged versions in print, but it seems the free Kindle version is complete.
If a book is it’s own self-contained universe then it’s not necessary to research the historical setting of a novel, but we don’t always do things as a result of necessity. Sometimes, we do things because we want to know a little more. I’ll start the discussion there and then start to delve into some of the book’s major ideas.
1. What’s going on in England/India in 1911?
I’m no historian, but I do know that India was a British colony in 1911. Ghandi had not yet come back to India a hero after his work in South Africa. One of the most common occupations for an English citizen was as a servant. Something near a seventh of employed persons worked in some capacity as a servant. Can you read the book as a criticism of over-reliance on the servant? Look for instances where over-reliance is viewed negatively.
The word, Ayah, is a special native Indian servant employed by Europeans. From the use of this specific English word we can tell the servant culture had been imposed upon India as well.
Did this system result in absentee parents? Did this system result in lazy children?
2. What is cholera?
Cholera killed more than 800,000 people. It was a disease that stemmed from poor waste disposal and water treatment systems. At or around 1911 cholera had been classified as an epidemic. Does an epidemic like cholera have as much of an impact on a cities’ residents as war?
Consider a line from the book: “The cholera had broken out in its most fatal form and people were dying like flies.” loc 73. Does this seem too gruesome for a children’s book or is death something that children faced at an early age as a result of the cholera epidemic?
3. What is the literary significance of a forbidden or secret place?
Do you believe everyone needs a place they can call their own? Even a child? Why does this seem to be universally true? Is it more important at certain ages than others? Is it more important after certain life events than others?
4. What is a moor?
A moor is an open, rolling, infertile land that is usually boggy. Why does the author make a point to describe the moor in detail? We’re told Misselthwaite Manor is on “the edge of the moor.” loc 181. The moor is further described as “a dense darkness”( loc 235) and as “just miles and miles of wild land that nothing grows on but heather and gorse and broom, and nothing lives on but wild ponies and sheep.” loc 241. Is the moor a source of power? What literary purpose does the moor serve? How might the moor be important for developing the book’s “Nature” theme?
5. What role does nature play in our lives?
Burnett states it as an unequivocal fact “that the fresh wind from the moor had begun to blow the cobwebs out of her young brain and to waken her up a little.” loc 503. Do you believe this is true? Can a change of scenery from city life to country life have that kind of impact? Are there health benefits to being outdoors? I’ve read scientific studies that talk about the impact of nature and exercise on mental health. Is Burnett ahead of the curve or reacting to similar scientific findings she would have been privy to at the time she wrote the novel?
Of course, the robin Mary meets also plays a role in the book. Do you believe we can be guided by nature? What does Mary believe at the start of the novel? Try to track whether Mary’s attitudes toward Nature change during the course of the novel.
6. What does it mean to be sorry for some one?
We’re told at loc 526 that one of the things Mary learns is how to “be sorry for some one.” What does that mean? Is Mary growing up and losing the ego-dominance that marked her early years or is she being awakened by the place she’s in? Could it be both? Will Mary associate that awakening–this new empathy–with Misselthwaite Manor for the rest of her life? Do you have a similar place in your memory? Could you write a story about it–even a short one?
7. Whose story is this?
This seems to be a story about Mary, doesn’t it? Let’s try to pay attention to whether that idea holds throughout the novel.
8. What does the garden symbolize?
The garden plays a central role in the book. What does it mean to Mary? What do you feel when you hear about the garden?
For next time, let’s read to Chapter 14 (XIV), “The Young Rajah.”