About trauma in a book that was written more than 100 years ago

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. Illustrated by Graham Rust

Printed by David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 224p

 

I still don’t know if I liked this novel or not. It is so idealistic that I tend to find it unrealistic. But, on the other hand, it is so innocent and powerful than you just have to like it. There are parts written in old language and it forced me to remember the old English I have studied at university to read the Yorkshire spoken by the characters but it was nice picturing three children playing and working in a garden, discovering the benefits and wonders of nature and developing social and interpersonal relationships.

The main subject is not uncommon; it is about a spoiled girl, Mary Lennox, born and raised in India whose parents die of cholera and who is sent to Yorkshire, England, to live with Archibald Craven, her uncle she has never met before. Mr Craven’s wife used to spend hours in a beautiful private garden but since her death nobody was allowed to enter there. Mary meets Colin, her cousin, an angry boy in pain who thinks he is going to die and together with Dickon, the brother of a girl working in the house, they find the garden and make it their beautiful secret place where they learn to discover themselves and live happily. I think it is the symbolical level and the powerful messages that have turned this book into a classic and put it on all the lists with books for children.

The characters are very well built, they all have strong personalities and although they are children they are extremely autodidact. Mary has never been loved by their parents and when she was nine they both died; Colin’s mother has died soon after he was born and his father blamed him for her death; Dickon is from a poor family and nothing is said about his father. So they all have a traumatic background and individually they all have to fight pressure, absence of parents and experiences that threat their existence. Dickon is the only one presented as happy from the beginning; he loves the moor, spends his time outside taming animals and cultivating a vegetable garden and has his mother who is a busy woman with many children but who is kind and always gives him wise pieces of advice. So he has enough activities to find equilibrium and turn himself into a healthy physical and spiritual being. Dickon is like Peter Pan and he brings magic into Mary’s life. He is gentle and setting himself as an example he manages to change her too.

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too. She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another… by the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.

Before coming to England Mary was an object to her parents and had nobody but her Ayah who could not substitute her mother and father; the girl had never known what love was and her mother had never taught her manners, so she grew up selfish and dictatorial.  Colin was the same. He was angry and hysterical and kept his mother’s portrait covered because he didn’t want to see her smiling. He had a fragile body and feverish symptoms. He felt everybody ridiculed him and in his paranoia he thought he would soon die. His anger and irritability were signs of a lonesome child whose father preferred to travel rather than spend time with him.

Before meeting each other, both Mary and Colin could not stand the presence of other children and responded with rudeness and anger to all adults’ approaches. Their anger was in fact a mask to hide their fears and the social isolation seemed to be the best choice. Colin’s nightmares and his fatigue during the day were signs of his depression. He tried to bury his memories and his illness was practically psychological rather than physical. The hunch he thought he had on his back was the burden of all his memories he tried to repress. Both children are physical deteriorated and this is a consequence of their trauma. Discovering the garden they leave the empty house and learn to grow stronger. They have wisdom that sometimes not even grown-ups have and it is really beautiful seeing them growing and changing. They are all very sensitive children and they find remedy in their laughter and their friendship.

What I really want to underline is that the author wants her readers to see how trauma can affect children; the tone is optimistic, The Secret Garden is not a gloomy, dark book but beyond the magic of the garden and the happy end we see a long process of recovery.

 

You can find the book here: http://www.bookdepository.com/?a_aid=wordstoworlds

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