Growing up in the 1960s, I didn't know about perennials or annuals, let alone that there was a difference. Allegedly flowers and vegetables came from seeds, but roses only came in bouquets or corsages, and lilies were for Easter. My parents didn't garden. But sometime, someone had planted snowdrops and crocuses in the yard of our big old house, and they came up every spring. So when Mary found her first snowdrop in The Secret Garden, I was hooked.
As children, lots of us read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1909, one hundred years ago this year. Most of us read the version pictured here, illustrated in 1963 by Tasha Tudor, who just recently passed away, in June of 2008. The secret garden even became a psychological metaphor of sorts, and many of us have our own "secret garden", whether it be a complete walled garden or a corner of a room. The book itself undoubtedly inspired a love of gardening in many people, the way it did in me. That secret garden in Yorkshire, lovingly tended by orphaned Mary Lennox, her cousin, sickly Colin Craven and their friend from the village, Dickon—what might it really have looked like? With the help of PlantFiles and other pictures, let's try to find out.
"Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And marigolds all in a row."
Soon, sallow, contrary, disagreeable young Mary sails for England (which she has never heard of) to stay with her uncle "Mr. Archibald Craven" who is "a hunchback, and horrid," according to the other children.
Her uncle has a "grand big place in a gloomy sort of a way ... The house is six hundred years old ... and there's near a hundred rooms in it," explains Mrs. Medlock, who has been sent from Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire to fetch Mary from London.
It is late winter or very early spring when Mary arrives at Misselthwaite Manor. It is her Yorkshire maid, Martha, who first explains to Mary that "one of the gardens is locked up. No one has been in it for ten years. ... Mr. Craven had it shut when his wife died so sudden. ... He locked th' door an' dug a hole and buried th' key."
Mary takes a walk and finds herself "in great gardens ... but the flowerbeds were bare and wintry." This is also the occasion when she meets the robin! Ben Weatherstaff, the estate's old gardener, says robins are "th' friendliest, curiousest birds alive."
Mary's robin redbreast is a European robin, Erithacus rubecula, like the one in the picture above. Erithacus rubecula has much redder feathers and is not related to its American namesake, Turdus migratorius.
Mary is scrawny and yellow and unpleasant and there is nothing to do and nobody to entertain her. On clear days she walks or skips among the estate's vast gardens, talking to the robin and working up an appetite for the first time in her life. She is idly searching for the garden which has been locked up for ten years—for as long as she has been alive.
She notices, as she twitters to the robin, that there is a tree branch from which he can chirp to which none of the paths seem to lead. Is he, perhaps, singing inside the secret, locked-up garden? Her search becomes more focused. She wonders if it is "quite dead" after being abandoned for ten years.
One day, as Mary is taking one of her long walks about the grounds and talking to the robin, she sees him digging for worms, and catches sight of a very old key which he has just dug up.
Then not much later, on a windy, gusty day, she finds "the robin swaying on a long branch of ivy." A "strong gust of wind ... swung aside some loose ... trailing sprays of untrimmed ivy hanging from the wall." A door of wood and iron is revealed, under a "swinging curtain of ivy." The old key, which she has been carrying in her pocket, fits perfectly, the door opens, and "she slipped through it"
Old Ben Weatherstaff has described the coming of springtime to Mary: "in th' flower gardens out there things will be stirrin' down below in th' dark. ... You'll see bits o' green spikes stickin' out o' th' black earth' after a bit. ... Crocusses an' snowdrops an' daffydowndillys."
Mary is entranced with the bulbs' progression from tiny shoot to stalk to bud to flower. She is rewarded with snowdrops and with crocuses of royal purple and gold.
Like the flowers she is watching unfold, Mary herself is growing, thriving and transforming into a healthy, glowing, cheerful, rosy-cheeked Yorkshire lass.
One day, after digging in the garden, Mary asks her maid, Martha, "what are those white roots that look like onions?" and Martha answers, "th' very little ones are snowdrops an' crocuses an' th' big ones are narcissus an' jonquils an' daffydowndillys. Th' biggest of all is lilies an' purple flags. Eh! they are nice. Dickon's got a whole lot of 'em planted in our bit o' garden. ... Our Dickon can make a flower grow out of a brick walk."
Mary gets the idea of making the secret, dead-looking garden come alive again. She tells Martha "if I had a little spade ... I might make a little garden."
Mary has already decided she must keep the discovery of the garden a secret—she is afraid someone will take it away or lock it up again.
Martha answers "I saw little garden sets with a spade an' a rake an' a fork all tied together for two shillings. ... They sell packages o' flower seeds for a penny each, and our Dickon knows which is th' prettiest ones an' how to make 'em grow."
Once Mary finds her way into the Secret Garden, she begins to discover that although it has been neglected for ten years, it is not dead, but only sleeping. She sees bushes she recognizes as roses, and wonders whether they could possibly still be alive.
(She is familiar with roses in India, but they never went through dormancy there.)
"'See here,' he said suddenly, turning around to look at her. 'I'll plant them for thee myself. Where is tha' garden?'"
What a quandary for Mary! Should she keep the garden a secret? Should she trust this stranger, a boy, with her biggest secret? But he has already been nice to her, he has bought the tools and seeds for her, he knows how to use them, and he can charm wild animals and talk to the robin!
He explains to Mary, "I'm keepin' secrets all th' time. ... If I couldn't keep secrets from th' other lads, secrets about foxes' cubs, an' birds' nests, an' wild things' holes, there'd be naught safe on th' moor. Aye, I can keep secrets."
Dickon tells Mary that her secret is as safe with him as the nest of a missel thrush (from which Misselthwaite Manor gets its name). And so, Dickon becomes the second person to see the secret garden.
"It's a queer pretty place!" Dickon whispers, when Mary first shows him in. ... "'Eh! the nests as'll be here come springtime,' he said. It'd be the safest nestin' place in England. No one never comin' near an' tangles o' trees an' roses to build in. I wonder all th' birds on th' moor don't build here.' ...
'Will there be roses?' she whispered. ... 'I thought perhaps they were all dead.'...
'This here's a new bit,' and he touched a shoot which looked brownish green instead of hard, dry gray.'" He takes out his pocket-knife and shows Mary how beneath the gray, brown surface runs a layer of green. These branches, he explains, are "wick," or alive.
"I want them all to be wick" cries Mary.
"'They've run wild,' he said, 'but th' strongest ones has fair thrived on it. The delicatest ones has died out, but th' others has growed an' growed, an' spread an' spread, till they's a wonder. ... There'll be a fountain o' roses here this summer.'"
Mary spends a lovely afternoon with Dickon in the garden.
Mary and Colin are both just ten years old, and are first cousins, although they have never met before. They find some gardening books in one of the abandoned rooms in the enormous manor. Colin is partial to "del-phin-i-ums," which he has seen in a book.
Although the garden is, of course, primarily a rose garden, it is filled with perennials and annuals, all of which have been left to themselves. Dickon identifies clumps of columbine which, he says, will "look like a bed 'o blue an' white butterflies flutterin'."
And so Colin, who "hates fresh air," is the third person in on the secret. It takes a lot of mysterious planning on the part of the three children as to exactly how they will get him outside and into the garden secretly. Colin simply declares that he likes fresh air when he is with his cousin Mary, and that Dickon will be pushing his wheeled chair. Everyone knows that Dickon is dependable and as strong as a moor-pony.
Ben Weatherstaff surprises the three children on their first day together in the secret garden. Colin, fretful, sickly Colin who did not believe he would live to grow up, rises, literally, to this confrontation. He stands up and shows Ben that neither his back nor his legs are crooked. Ben Weatherstaff is moved to tears. "He choked and gulped and suddenly tears rolled down his weather-wrinkled cheeks ... 'The lies folks tells! ... Tha'lt make a mon yet.'" Ben says.
So Ben Weatherstaff is the fourth person—and the first adult—to learn about the key and the door and that the secret garden has come back to life!
Dickon knew all along about the Magic of spring and the life inside a tiny seed. Mary has seen snake charmers and magicians in India, and is ready to believe in Magic. Colin says "there is Magic in there—good Magic."
The seeds Dickon and Mary had planted grew as if fairies had tended them. Satiny poppies of all tints danced in the breeze by the score, gaily defying flowers which had lived in the garden for years and which it might be confessed seemed rather to wonder how such new people had got there. ..."
Throughout the summer the children enjoy themselves and the garden, and get healthier and stronger. (One problem Colin and Mary encounter is as their vigor increases, so do their appetites. The kitchen staff is accustomed to having Colin send back most of his trays uneaten. The secret might be out if he starts requesting second helpings! The solution is that Dickon and Martha's mother begins to make extra food for them, and Dickon buys food for them in the village. Now they are able to continue their disdain for the fancy food sent up from the kitchens!)
Mr. Craven—Colin's father—decides unexpectedly to return from wandering around Europe to visit his son at Misselthwaite. Despite Colin's anxious fretting about where and when their reunion should take place, it happens in the secret garden!
"This is not what Colin had planned. ... 'Father,' he said, 'I am Colin. You can't believe it.' ... Mr. Craven's soul shook with unbelieving joy. ... And so they led him in. The place was a wilderness of autumn gold and purple and violet blue and flaming scarlet and ... lilies which were white or white and ruby. ... Late roses climbed and hung and clustered and the sunshine deepening the hue of the yellowing trees made one feel that one stood in an embowered temple of gold."
When my grandmother read me this book, and when I read it again as an older child, I had only my imagination to illustrate it. Now that I have grown poppies, delphiniums and roses, and experienced many other gardens filled with flowers, I have a clearer picture of what the secret garden could have, might have looked like. I urge you to reread your copy if you have one or get one if you don't. Read it to yourself or to any children who will sit still. The Secret Garden is filled with timeless themes of rebirth, making friends and, of course, GARDENING.
This week, the writers here at Dave's Garden are celebrating Gardening Book Month. Be sure to read . . .
Plant Select's new book: A resource for all gardeners by Suzanne Talbert.
Gertrude Jekyll - my garden inspiration by Jan Recchio.
Henry Mitchell by Marie Harrison.
Introduction to the Modern Library Gardening Series by Benjamin Hill.
Enjoy garden and nature books, but save some money for the plants by Sally G. Miller.
The cover image illustration by Tasha Tudor is the property of HarperCollins Publishers and used with permission.
All quotations are from the text of The Secret Garden. Read it free here.
Picture credits gratefully go to adinamiti, Aunt_A, bentleygardens, Bookerc1, Calif_Sue, carrielamont, critterologist, Dinu, gallesfarm, Kathleen, kqcrna, melvatoo, Mrs_Ed, pixie62560, rannveig, sallyg, Sharran, TBGDN, threegardeners, Todd_Boland, and wallaby1!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 23, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)