The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of my absolute favorite books growing up. I'm not sure how old I was when I first read it, but I was immediately captivated by the lush imagery of India, the harsh winter on the moors in northern England, the eerie sense of a lonely manor house with hundreds of unused, empty rooms - and most of all by the thoroughly unpleasant, unhappy little personage of mistress Mary Lenox herself.
The potential of spoilers to ruin this lovely book is so great that I will not say very much about the tale - only that a neglected but spoiled ten-year-old living in British colonial India finds herself orphaned following a cholera epidemic, and she is sent to Yorkshire to live with her uncle. Her uncle, however, is rarely home, and no one besides a chambermaid and a grumpy gardener take any interest at all in the little girl, who is left to her own devices and told to stay out of everyone's way. When Mary hears about a hidden garden, locked up tight, the key buried, it fires up her imagination in a way nothing ever has before. She explores the extensive manor gardens, hoping for a clue about the garden that was locked up ten years earlier. The garden is just the first clue in a larger mystery surrounding the estate, and Mary doesn't have much to do but wander and explore, and soon she is determined to discover as much as she possibly can.
One of the reasons I loved this book as a child was that Mary was such a nasty little girl who was ill tempered and self absorbed, unlike just about any other character I'd ever read about. Listening to the audio book with my children, it struck me that the author was very skillful in maintaining the reader's sympathy for Mary despite the fact that she is an unlikable character. The third-person narration, nearly a character in itself, is instrumental in maintaining the reader's sympathy, as it explains why Mary is the way she is, as she was always kept out of the way of her socialite mother and busy father, her every whim indulged by servants whose main goal was keeping her quiet and out of the way. When Mary is being particularly unpleasant, the narrator unfailingly gives the reader a little insight into the reasons why, and so the reader begins to cheer for Mary as she begins her slow journey to becoming a more empathetic person.
I believe this book is most likely the one that started my lifelong enjoyment of Gothic novels, and I do hope it does the same for my own children. My older daughter (11 years old) did seem to enjoy this more than my 9-year-old did, but my younger daughter for some reason took a dislike to the narrator. I quite liked the reader, whose voice reminded me a bit of Maggie Smith's, but unfortunately it prevented my younger one from enjoying the book as much as she might have otherwise. I'm hoping that she might pick it up again in a year or two and try it for herself, but of course not every book is for every reader, and not all my beloved books will be as adored by my own children. Still, I enjoyed revisiting this one, and while not all of it held up to my fond memories, it still holds a very special place among my childhood favorites.
Here is a link to the free download of this book on the Project Gutenberg site.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; narrated by Wanda McCaddon (Audio Partners Publishing Corporation, 2006; originally published in 1911)
Also reviewed at:
Books I Done Read: "Actually, I think that aside from the whole secret-enclosed-massive-hide-out, one of my favorite things about The Secret Garden is how Mary Lennox is such a snot-nosed little bitch."
Things Mean a Lot: "I enjoyed The Secret Garden quite a bit more than I thought I would. And it's not that I was expecting not to like it. It was charming, and I knew it would be, but I was pleasantly surprised that the tone wasn’t nearly as saccharin as I feared."