Mary Lennox is sent to Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire England after her parents die from Cholera. Also living in the manor house is her sickly cousin Colin, who is every bit as spoiled as she. Mary and Colin are like two peas in a pod, closed up in a gloomy old manor on the Yorkshire moors, until a secret garden captures their imaginations. As spring brings new life to the Earth, Mary and Colin's sour natures begin to change. Playing and working every day in the secret garden improves their nature and health, as the "magic" of the garden transforms them into normal, healthy children.
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As well known as the story is, I really enjoyed listening to Anne Flosnik's narration. I liked her Yorkshire, although I must admit that, never having heard the real thing, I couldn't say whether it's well done or not.
In the beginning of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's novel The Secret Garden (1910/11), ten-year-old newly-orphaned Mary Lennox is sent from India to live in her uncle's Yorkshire home, Misselthwaite Manor. Her uncle, Archibald Craven, is a wretched, unhealthy wealthy man, because ten years ago his beloved wife died in their beloved garden, so that he locked it up and buried the key. Misselthwaite Manor is a great Gothic setting: the 600-year-old house on the edge of the moor has 100 mostly shut up and locked rooms, a labyrinth of gardens and orchards, a reclusive and absent master, and mysterious sounds of crying that may be the moor wind or a child. But of course Burnett is writing an anti-Gothic novel in which the main characters, far from suffering psychic and physical assaults from malign supernatural entities, are improved, saved, and made healthy by the natural "Magic" of rain, sun, growing things, and positive thinking.
At first Mary is an unloving, unloved, and unlovely girl, sour, scrawny, and sallow. Neglected by her parents and spoiled by her native servants in India, she never learned how to deal with people. She has never had a friend. Luckily for her, Martha, the Misselthwaite housemaid assigned to her, is a good-natured, "common" cottage girl from a family with twelve kids and a comfortable and wonderful, kind and wise mother, Mrs. Sowerby. Martha's goodness, affection, and volubility interest Mary, while Mary's solitary forays into the fresh air and extensive manor gardens, pushing against the wuthering winds off the moors, smelling the heather, skipping rope, and building up an appetite and eating more all begin making the girl healthier, "fatter," and more pleasant. Her imagination is also waking up, largely due to having been told about the forbidden secret garden. Mary befriends the cross old loner gardener Ben Weatherstaff, who introduces her to a curious robin redbreast. And she becomes fast friends with Martha's 12-year-old brother Dickon, an animal and plant charmer, "a wood fairy," "a Yorkshire angel" who wanders the moors in rain or shine, sensing, learning about, and nurturing all manner of flora and fauna, and just fully being in the world.
The rich health and wonder of the natural world through the seasons and the growth of Mary are so beautifully, vividly, and lovingly depicted that the book is exquisitely moving (without being sentimental), with many insights into human nature and child nature. Several times I got tears in my eyes, as when Mary speaks Yorkshire to Martha, or Colin says that he wishes that Mrs. Sowerby could be his mother, or Mary feels something queer in her heart when the robin, with black dew drop eyes and "a tiny plump body and a delicate beak, and slender delicate legs," takes a fancy to her.
There are many wonderful descriptions of living and growing things, like this one:
"And the roses--the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades--they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair fresh leaves, and buds--and buds--tiny at first but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air."
The novel is full of fine touches, as when the narrator says, "One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever," or describes from the robin point of view, "the immense, tender, terrible, heart-breaking beauty and solemnity of Eggs." There is also much humor, as when Mary out-temper-tantrums Colin, or as when the kids stifle laughs while pretending that they are not growing healthier by the day.
SPOILER PARAGRAPH The possible flaws in the novel are largely due to the era of its composition: its somewhat condescending (though not hateful) view of the "blacks" and "heathen" of India, and its natural assumption of Colin's master status once he starts improving. Colin takes over the novel in its last third. He lectures the others on Magic, leads them in scientific Magic experiments, explains to Mrs. Sowerby Indian fakirs and his joy, and recounts to his father the whole story of the garden--all while Mary remains rather silent. He is “The Athlete, the Lecturer, the Scientific Discoverer,” as well as being “a laughable, lovable, healthy young human thing,” but no similar inchoate professions or essential description are affixed to Mary in the last chapters. It seems as if Mary has been set aside so that the future Master of Misselthwaite may step into his rightful place. The last words of the novel are a triumphant “Master Colin!”
But the book just feels so healthy and is so charming and moving, that I can really forgive it anything. Ah, the earth, rain, sun, and growing things pushing up, sprouting, uncurling! Animals, insects, heather, buds, flowers, friendship, and freshly milked milk and cottage-made current buns! The Magic all around and inside us.
About the audiobook I just listened to, much though I like the reader Anne Flosnik's dry, sensitive, distinctive voice, I found her Yorkshire pale, so I re-listened to the audiobook version of the novel read by Johanna Ward, who does a much more convincing and broad Yorkshire. One of the great pleasures of the novel is hearing the locals speak the dialect and then Mary start using it: "I'm givin' thee a bit o' Yorkshire," answered Mary triumphantly. `I canna' talk as graidely as Dickon an' Martha can but tha' sees I can shape a bit."
If you've never read The Secret Garden, you should, because it is an early 20th-century classic, and if you want to hear a wonderful thick Yorkshire, I'd recommend Johanna Ward's audiobook version over Anne Flosnik's (fine though Flosnik's otherwise is).