Every September of my English teaching career, I’d type up the semester’s reading list and prepare myself for the inevitable question: I’ve already read this! Why do I have to read it again? I’d tell my students that rereading a novel at a new period in their lives could bring fresh insight. But I never experienced my own advice so dramatically as when I reread The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett during the 100th anniversary of the novel’s publication in 2011.
When I was ten years old, what most appealed to me as I followed the adventures of Mary, Colin, and Dickon were the cool ideas of the children running free with little adult supervision, their pact of secrecy, and the element of magic. But now, several decades later and in a new chapter of life, I entered The Secret Garden as a mother, making connections and gleaning insight into raising my now-three-year-old daughter Grace.
The character that led my way back into the garden is Mrs. Sowerby, the mother of Dickon and Martha, two of Mary’s companions. While most of the novel is set at sprawling Misselthwaite Manor where Mary and her cousin Colin live, Susan Sowerby lives with her twelve children in a modest cottage far across the moors. Though she enters the secret garden only once, her motherly maxims are sprinkled throughout the novel. From her own experience, “the two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way — or always to have it.” Martha, Mary’s maidservant and eventual friend, invokes her mother’s often-used saying in reference to Colin, who stays in bed convalescing from a largely imagined illness and barking orders all day. Everyone obeys him for fear of his infamous tantrums; as a result, he becomes a miserable, self-centered boy. Martha is also referring to Mary who, when living a privileged life in India, was “quite contrary” and had everything done for her. As a result she arrives at the manor frail, pale, and poorly equipped to perform even the simplest tasks, such as dressing herself.
Mrs. Sowerby’s wisdom is evergreen; she has been a champion of children and a mentor to parents for over one hundred years. Though her aphorism had little impact on me before becoming the mother of a preschooler — let alone when I was ten — the second part of it has been at the forefront of my mind in raising Grace; as the parenting guides suggest, I strive not to indulge her every whim. But the first part of Mrs. Sowerby’s statement about the dangers of never letting a child have his own way also rings true. Shortly after turning two, Grace started boldly asserting her independence, generally when we needed to leave the house on time. She was determined to do everything herself: fasten her clothes, pour the maple syrup, climb into her car seat, and other things that created stressful departures. Through necessity I started adding extra time to let her practice zipping, pouring, and clicking. But I soon realized that the benefit of letting her have her own way extended far beyond making my life easier. Her self-esteem improved, and her contrariness waned as she honed new skills and learned to express herself.
Another bit of parenting wisdom I culled from The Secret Garden was through a striking quote by the narrator explaining that two opposing elements cannot coexist: “Two things cannot be in one place. ‘Where, you tend a rose, my lad, / A thistle cannot grow.’” Burnett refers to both Colin and Mary in this commentary. Colin believes he’s too weak to walk, so he doesn’t even try to get out of bed. Mary is told she is contrary and selfish, and so she is. Both children discover on their own that these things are untrue, and in the realm of the secret garden they come alive. I can’t help but think how much sooner both Mary and Colin would have blossomed if someone had planted the seed in their minds that, instead of being thistles, they were destined to be healthy, wonderful roses.
I’m quite sure that when I was ten, the metaphor of roses and thistles meant little to me. But as a mother, the passage resonated quite loudly in helping Grace through her tumultuous threes. When a child starts exerting her independence and throwing tantrums, the “constant and specific praise” technique often touted in parenting books to encourage young toddlers in their strides toward walking and talking becomes more challenging to follow. But as hard as it can be, I’m trying to say only positive things about Grace’s actions, to cultivate her as a rose, as Burnett suggests, so that there is no room for a thistle.
The most important — and useful — lesson I’ve taken away from my recent rereading of The Secret Garden is that a lifelong friendship with books begins with storytelling. When Colin is convalescing, Mary tells him vivid tales of the garden in hopes of drawing him out of his bed: “Things are crowding up out of the earth,” she tells him, “and there are flowers uncurling and buds on everything and the green veil has covered nearly all the gray.” These stories stimulate his imagination until Colin is propelled to get out of bed and read about flowers and birds, a precursor to venturing outside.
Whenever I’ve thought about The Secret Garden over the years, I’ve recalled this image with much affection. I love to picture Colin and Mary curled up on the velvet couch having tea and biscuits, reading for hours on end. I couldn’t wait to read to my own child (and eventually have her read aloud to me). Grace didn’t start speaking until she was almost two years old, but my husband and I kept talking to her and telling her stories constantly. When we read to her, we used theatrics and dramatic pauses to get her to join in: “a comb and a brush and a bowl full of…” For the longest time, Grace would sit on our laps, touching the pages of board books, silent. I wondered if I would ever hear her voice.
One day, when Grace was almost two and a half years old, I was folding clothes near her bedroom. I heard the words “…tree, Shel Stein.” I walked into her room and saw her, with her back turned to me, a familiar green book propped up on the rocking chair. I listened in awe as she “read” The Giving Tree aloud. I heard her voice rise and fall in the same manner as ours; I heard the excited pause in her voice at every page turn. Grace had been reading all along; we just couldn’t hear what was going on in her mind until she found her voice.
As an English teacher, I was always glad that Burnett chose storytelling and reading as the forces that got Colin out of his bed and into the garden. In reading The Secret Garden as a mother, I realized that storytelling and reading had produced a similar magic in our house.
As a teacher, one strategy I used for getting students to reread a novel was to tell them to equate reading a book with visiting a museum. Then I’d invoke the teenage literary icon Holden Caulfield to help me make my point. In The Catcher in the Rye, I’d tell them, Holden never tires of going to the Museum of Natural History. Even though nothing in the museum ever changes, it’s a different place every time he enters because he is different. Perhaps he’d just seen a beautiful gasoline rainbow in the street or overheard his parents arguing that morning. With each layer of experience, the museum is a new place because he is a new person.
The Secret Garden was a new and wonderful place when I entered it as a mother, just as it was when I was ten years old. Colin and Mary have lived with me for as long as I can recall, and I’m thrilled that I could see so much of my current life reflected in their adventures. From this experience of revisiting a classic, I’m looking forward to seeing what parenting wisdom I can cull from Charlotte, Scout, Jo, and all my other childhood literary friends.
From the September/October 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.