Do you remember long, long ago when I was talking about seasonal books, back in the context of Moominland Midwinter? Well, I have many seasonal books– do you? I have one for Christmas and one for fall, although, oddly, I can’t currently think of one for summer. But my springtime reading is the strongest, the oldest, the most persistent: The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
In one sense, it’s perfectly obvious, isn’t it? There’s Tasha Tudor’s iconic cover page right there, and you can see the early roses clambering around the barely waking garden, with Mary looking prettier than she has any right to look based on the description in the book. And yet, what strikes me as I read it this time around is how early in spring I always feel the urge to read this book. I don’t read it when the grass has sprouted anew or the flowers are budding or blooming; I read it when I make that first trip to the hardware store to replace the wrecked or disappeared pruning shears from last year. I read it when I pause and see the seed display and impulsively snatch up a few packets. I read it when I frown at the ground, so recently covered by snow, now covered by the winter’s trash, and think, “Dear God in heaven, we’ve got to clean that up.” And that got me thinking about the book and its relation to the seasons, and, in turn, what that means to the book. (Hey, if you got that I just drew a little circle of arrows with words, and that makes it sort of a cycle, and the seasons form a cycle, you win my undying love.)
Let’s think about the plot a bit: there’s a girl, Mary Lennox. I have no evidence that she’s from the British branch of the family which won’t acknowledge the breakaway American branch, Lenox, which emigrated to America and started selling china, but neither do I have any evidence to the contrary, so I choose to believe that. (I’m terribly, terribly sorry. Now you’ll never be able to unthink that. I do apologize.) The British branch always did the Right and Proper thing, and so Mary’s father shouldered the White Man’s Burden and went off to India while her aunt married a man of excellent property, even if he was (gasp or horror!) a hunchback, and therefore lived at lovely, gloomy Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. Your guess is as good as mine as to why we’re supposed to care that he’s a hunchback, but I feel awfully sorry for the fuss everyone made about it. No wonder he suffered from depression.
Back to Mary: her parents might be very Right and Proper, but they’re simply awful parents and neglect her so badly that I always want to step through the pages and give them a talking-to. It’s to nobody’s surprise that with no example of good behaviour and no example of how to love, she doesn’t learn to behave well or to love well. She’s lonely and sour and I want to give her a big hug. It’s sad to say, but the best thing to happen to her is when her parents die and she’s sent to England to learn how to love. That isn’t how the book puts it, but it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? The first person to smile at her properly is Martha, the maid, who looks after her a bit. Well, Mary starts to like Martha. The first person to care enough to entertain her when he didn’t have to is the robin. Mary loves the robin. The first person to go out of his way for her sake and be himself with her, care for her, and take an interest in her interests is Dickon. And she loves him.* And of course there’s darling, curmudgeonly Ben Weatherstaff who’s a pea from her own pod: feigning uncaring while truly caring a great deal for her. (My favourite is still the robin, personally.) All of these people teach her enough about love so that when she finally meets Colin she is capable of caring for him, and by caring for him she teaches him that he’s really important.
Let’s pause for a parenting lesson for a moment. You may be saying to yourselves, “Did Deborah say he needed to be taught he was important? But, Deborah, are you sure we’re reading the same book? The boy was like a prince, a Rajah, remember?” And how often do princes or Rajah’s truly have anyone caring about them, or feel that they are important in and of themselves? Colin needed someone to say, “You’re so important I want you to be alive and healthy. I care about you.” And Mary needed someone to say, “Your happiness is important to me.” As soon as Dickon and Martha and the robin did that– and each helped the other, of course– they came to life. Let that be a lesson to you: find your child and say, “I love you. You’re important to me. I care about your happiness.” That won’t spoil them, but neglect will. I say this from a whole two and a half years of flying by the seat of my pants, so you know it’s true.
And there we are. Two children who had been alive long enough, but were like dormant seeds, sickly in storage. They got soaked for a bit to perk them up: one in the Yorkshire rains, the other in salt tears from his anxious hypochondria. Then they went out in the sun and woke up. They grew, they stood strong, they came to life. And so did the gardens around them. But here’s the thing: they needed to start in that dirty stage: the clean-up, getting their hands dirty, softening the ground, overcoming their tantrums and stumbling into politeness. That’s where spring starts, really. You need to do the ground work (get it? get it?) before you can reach the flowers and the prettiness. You need to tell the ground and the seeds that they’re important. You need to feed them. You need to get your hands and feet dirty and do a bit of pruning. And you need to do this regularly, every year. After all, back when he was married Archibald Craven had been awake, but then he shrivelled up, didn’t he? Why yes, he did. But in the fall, a late bloomer, he woke up again, because he’d figured out he was important: Mrs. Sowerby told him he was.**
Every spring I need my own reminder, is what I’m guessing, and that’s why I read The Secret Garden again. Oh, it has its flaws (I do feel bad about the emphasis on poor Mr. Craven’s hunchback, and I wish that we saw more of Dickon at the end), but it tells us all that we deserve our own bit of the orange, to extend Mrs. Sowerby’s metaphor. It tells us we deserve to be alive and happy and healthy. It tells us that we matter. And it always gets me out of doors, getting my hands dirty, and feeling hopeful for what the spring will bring. I never know which flowers will be the prettiest, but they all get their bit of earth, and that’s what matters.
I should be in South Carolina when this goes up (I hope my scheduled posts work), and will be feeling a bit like Mr. Craven, seeing a new part of the world and finding new beauty spots. I hope you’re enjoying your early spring wherever you are, and be sure to tell your garden you care about it, OK? Get your rake and your spade and get your hands dirty. Then go inside, wash your hands, and find your own spring reading.
*So, my pet wish: I think that Mary and Dickon or Mary and Martha should end up together, but I know the class distinction would be a barrier. But this is later in the 19th C so maybe Mary will come over all rebellious and reject social norms? It would be weird for her to end up with Colin, anyway. But I think that’s why Frances Hodgson Burnett quietly cuts Dickon, and even Mary, from the story towards the end, don’t you? Maybe they’ll run away to the Lennox branch of the family!
**Wait, wait! Is there a Mr. Sowerby? We never hear of him, do we? What if Mr. Craven and Mrs. Sowerby get married???