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Redemption and Domestic Chores

The Secret GardenMary Lennox is a lonely girl who only becomes more lonely when her parents die of cholera and she’s sent to live in her uncle’s huge, foreboding manor. But it is there that she meets her cousin, Colin, a boy just as lonely and neglected as she. He has lived his whole life in bed, believing he is going to die. Together the two embark on a mission to find a secret garden, and in the process, find the love and care they’ve been missing their whole lives.

My mom read this to me when I was a kid. At that point, I loved secrets and the idea that two ten year olds could coax a garden to life with no adult supervision was a thrilling one. I also really liked Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards, a book about an orphan who finds an abandoned cottage and makes it her own. I guess I had a fascination for independence… and domestic chores. Not sure what that says about me. But now I’m grown up and certain things have happened to me, and when I picked this book up to read it again, I was drawn to the memory of Colin. I wanted to see what Frances Hodgson Burnett had to say about living with a disability (especially in 1911). Funny thing though, about three quarters of the way through I finally realized it’s not about living with a disability at all. It’s about the perception of disability and the perils of living too much in your own head with nothing but fear for company. It’s about the transformative powers of challenge and determination. It’s about redemption.

Colin’s illness is a direct result of the fears and misconceptions surrounding disability and infirmity in the world as a whole and Mistlethwaite Manor in particular. There’s nothing physically wrong with him. But his father is a hunchback (really just some severe scoliosis), and from his birth everyone around Colin assumed that he would be the same. The assumptions grew and multiplied until it was whispered that his back was weak, his legs were crooked, he was half-witted, and it was only a matter of time until he died. Even if all that were true, his ears worked just fine, so is it any wonder he believed all the horrible whispers, especially since no one ever bothered to say anything nice or positive to counteract them?

That is, until Mary shows up. I love the symmetry of Mary and Colin. It takes a sour, miserable little girl to shake a sour, miserable little boy out of the prison of his thoughts. It’s through Mary that we can see under the tantrums and the imperious demands to find and comfort the terrified boy underneath. Colin doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to wake up one day and find that his back has started to twist. But no one has ever bothered to give him something else to think about and hope for. Mary cuts though his despair with her own kind of harsh wisdom, giving him such simple childhood gifts like laughter and a belief in magic.

Normally, I’m not a fan of stories where a disabled character is healed (whether miraculously, magically, or through their own hard work), but since Colin’s disability was a product of fear and his unwillingness to test his own strength, his recovery was about something more than just slapping a pair of legs on a crippled boy as a reward. Colin’s healing was his redemption. He grew from a miserable, nasty child into a strong healthy boy determined to leave his “queerness” behind. He triumphed over his own mind, his fears, and his beliefs.

Colin’s recovery fit. But what bothered me at the end of the book was that his father’s return and their joyous reunion seemed to reinforce Colin’s belief that if only he were strong, if only he were well, then his father would love him. Archibald Craven’s feelings regarding his son aren’t very well defined. He wonders what he should feel when he visits the sleeping boy. And he only returns because of a vague feeling of happiness and the nagging of a local mother. In the Broadway version, it’s much clearer that Archie loves his son and only stays away because he’s been led to believe his presence would disturb Colin and make him more ill. Their reunion in the garden is bittersweet as they forgive past neglect and move into the future with hope and promise. However, I was very dissatisfied with the ending of the book. I wanted Archibald to be redeemed and Burnett obviously wanted us to believe he was but it just didn’t ring true to me. Too little, too late, Archie.

And not only does Archibald Craven’s love and care for his son seem to hinge on Colin’s new strength and ability, but also, Mary disappears. In remembering his son, Archibald is still forgetting the other young life dependent on him. Though given Mary’s independence and the lessons she’s learned, I think she’ll probably do just fine, even if her uncle can’t get his act together.

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