Slow-Read Sunday, The Secret Garden (to Chapter VII)

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.”

Photo: Some rights reserved by gnomonic.


  1. A.

    This is a fantastic discussion starter, Brandon, with so many wonderful things to think about.

    I think, what strikes me the most about this story and why, as an adult I wanted to re-read it, is because people have this assumption that children’s stories are modeled in a certain way, that they cannot be intelligent or poignant. That they have to be poetical and light. However, even some so-called Young Adult books today are grim. Sexual and violent. In comparison, this is such a calming, deep and wonderful read. I go into this “mode” when I dive into this world. It soothes me like you wouldn’t believe.

    I think it is lazy and an easy approach to the novel to read Mary Lennox’s characters as a snobbish, bratty, stubborn, hard-hearted girl, who cares for no one but herself… but her upbringing is striking and I am glad you mention it. Her mother cares for no one but herself; wishes to attend parties, live it up, do what she wishes to do. Where could Mary have learned this behavior? It only seems, no one does truly care for her or love her. The servants are there out of obligation. Under rule. Love is not involved. The cold reality of this is the scene where Mary is left behind. Only the snake is with her.

    The reason she has this revelation, this growing empathy for others, is not only through new-human contact, but through contact with nature and especially the animals within nature. Animals, so far, have been mentioned several times. Not just through the robin, who sort of ‘opens’ Mary up, but also in the character of Dickon, Martha’s brother, who patrols the moor and befriends a whole assortment of animals. Setting is important, definitely, but so are the characters within that setting. It is in her interaction with nature and all of its creatures that she realizes that she doesn’t have to be so lonesome or walled off. I see it as a series of steps. A gradual process. First, the robin, the possibility that it could be a real friend. She even sees it as a human at one point, because he is so intelligent and amazing. Then, she opens her arms a bit more to Martha, Martha’s mother, and siblings – really hopes that they like her, as she seems to like them (what little she knows from Martha’s tales.)

    Again, brilliant opening and I cannot wait to see what you come up with next week! (And better yet, thanks for reading this one with me!)

    1. Brandon Monk

      Thanks A.I haven’t read much YA stuff as of late so it’s a nice change of pace to read this. The book’s really read as pretty upbeat despite the fact that there’s death and disease all around. I was trying to think why that was when I was reading the other day. I mean, this girl loses her parents and I don’t really find myself depressed for her. Instead, I have some hope she can get better after she discovers the garden.

      I can also see a YA reading this and actually reconsidering their behavior. They might learn some manors and empathy, they might try to get outside more. Mary is shown to have a choice to act this way and I think that’d be empowering to some kids out there reading this.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting and thanks for recommending the book A.

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