Has a novel ever taken root in your dreams? The most deeply felt, refreshing dreams I’ve experienced had their origins in The Secret Garden, published in the U.S. a century ago. With this unforgettable novel, Frances Hodgson Burnett explored the possibilities for children’s literature to illuminate the landscape spanning the inner, psychological world and the world of nature.
The chiaroscuro of the novel reflects the world of dreams and the bewildering experiences of any child. The protagonist, Mary Lennox, first lives in India, surrounded by luxury but neglected by her self-absorbed parents. Even this shabby semblance of an upbringing unravels when a cholera epidemic wipes out the household. How did Mary manage to survive? The reader sees the ten-year-old girl hiding out in her nursery, as outside, quietness descends, broken only by the sound of a small, rustling snake. At last, cross and hungry, Mary emerges from her room, wondering “Why does nobody come?” And then she discovers she is an orphan. There it is: the unspoken but universal fear of abandonment, peering at you from the surly, unloved face of Mary Lennox.
In a gray rainstorm, Mary makes the arduous journey to England, a country she’s never seen, and to an uncle she has never met. What kind of welcome awaits her? Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, describes “a house with a hundred rooms, nearly all shut up and with their doors locked – a house on the edge of a moor …” Mary’s uncle, she added, had a crooked back and kept to himself. The bleak, windswept setting reflects the girl’s dreary state of mind.
And what of the reader’s inner landscape? Burnett’s image of the home’s infinite rooms is one that has visited many of my dreams; in fact, it is one of my favorites and has revealed itself in various incarnations. Some nights, I find myself climbing a dark, winding staircase to reach an unexplored room that beams with light from a bank of windows overlooking a forest. Other times, the dream takes me to a small, snug room with a rough old table, hand-carved alphabet blocks spread upon it.
My dreams have connected the home of infinite rooms to the secret garden, the place where Mary will undergo a gradual and powerful transformation, both magical and real. The garden – like the house – like the child – has been locked up and overlooked. The uncle shut it up after his young wife fell to her death there years ago. It seems lifeless when Mary first discovers it, thanks to an attentive robin that helps her find the buried key. And yet … in reality it is just waiting for attention, for care, for people to restore its beauty. Mary, like Sleeping Beauty, will awake and grow and experience joy in that safe, hidden place — and will bring Collin, her uncle’s neglected son, into that larger world, and even his father.
The solitary darkness of Mary’s world shifts to one of light, laughter, companionship, and verdant life. One cannot help but feel: If Mary Lennox can discover a way out of despair, so can I. This message of hope is waiting for someone today. As winter wanes, perhaps you will choose to seize this time to share this treasure with a child. Who knows what dreams will grow from it?
For children too young for The Secret Garden (recommended for 8-11) , consider The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang, and Weslandia by Paul Fleishman.
Note: I’m offering a free paperback edition of The Secret Garden to one person in the U.S. who either subscribes to my blog OR shares this post on Facebook any time during March. Leave a comment and I’ll let you know if you win!