The Secret Garden

Mary Lennox was born in India to a beautiful lady who loved attending parties, and who ignored her only child. When Mary “was a sickly, fretful, ugly little baby she was kept out of the way, and when she became a sickly, fretful, toddling thing she was kept out of the way also.” She grew up bullying and insulting her native servants, who had to make sure she didn’t make a fuss and disturb her mother or father.

When Mary was nine years old a cholera outbreak killed her parents and some of the servants, and the survivors ran off without giving a thought to the surly child left behind. After being alone for a couple of days two army officers found her, and arrangements were made for her to be sent to an uncle in England.

Archibald Craven was the owner of Misselthwaite Manor, an estate by the edge of the moor. His home had about a hundred rooms, but most were closed off, with no one ever entering them. Mary’s uncle was a sad, rather disagreeable man who spent most of his time traveling. He had no interest in the orphan left in his care, beyond seeing that she be given food, clothing, and a bedroom and sitting room to stay in.

Mary wasn’t upset that her uncle refused to see her before he left on his latest trip, for no relative had ever paid attention to her, and no one had ever show her affection. What did upset her was learning that English servants wouldn’t let her have her own way. A stern housekeeper named Mrs. Medlock informed Mary that she had to stay within her rooms unless she chose to go outside and walk along the garden paths. She’d arrived during chilly early spring so the sickly girl, raised in a sweltering climate, did not want to go outside.

A girl named Martha was assigned to be the housemaid who brought Mary her meals and cleaned her rooms. She was not a servile servant – she didn’t bow or call her “protector of the poor” as the Indian servants had, but Mary liked listening to Martha’s Yorkshire accent, and became interested in stories about the girl’s family, especially her brother Dickon, who could tame wild animals and make any plant grow and thrive.

She told about Mary’s Uncle Archibald Craven, a hunchback who’d married a kind and beautiful lady who’d spent much of her time in a walled flower garden. About ten years earlier Mrs. Craven was killed in an accident, and Mr. Craven locked the garden door, buried the key, and ordered that no one was to ever again enter his wife’s favorite garden. Mary now had a reason to take walks outside, for she was determined to find the secret, hidden garden.

Friendly, good-hearted Martha enjoyed talking to Mary, and for a time answered all of her questions. But one rainy day Mary heard what sounded like a child crying, and when she asked Martha about it she was told it was just the wind blowing.

On another rainy day Mary decided to walk down one of the long corridors and explore the content of some of the one hundred unused rooms. She ended up walking down many hallways and up a stairway, and once again heard a child crying. She tried to locate the source of the sound, but came upon Mrs. Medlock, who grabbed hold of her arm, and said that if she ever again went where she was told not go she’d be locked inside of her rooms. Mary was not used to being told she couldn’t do something, and was determined to learn the secrets of Misselthwaite Manor.

She began walking amongst the many walled vegetable and flower gardens, and discovered ivy-covered walls that seemed to have no door. Because a dog had dug a hole she found an old key, and a few days later located a door hidden under the ivy, and was able to go inside the secret garden. It was still early spring, and she didn’t know if the bare rose bushes were dead or alive, or if any flowering plants had survived years of neglect, but she longed to bring the garden back to life.

Mary was given spending money each week, so after saying she’d like to grow a garden she and Martha wrote a letter to Dickon, asking him to purchase gardening tools and some easy-to-grow flower seeds. When Dickon came to deliver the items Mary showed him the secret garden she had “stolen.” He assured her that the rose bushes were still alive, and promised to come and help her tend the garden when he wasn’t needed at home.

After that Mary spent much of her time in the secret garden, though she let others believe she was only walking about or skipping rope. Never before had she been outside working, and she’d never had a friend to talk with until her time with Dickon. The sickly disagreeable girl was becoming healthy, and she was beginning to learn how to be kind to others.

Soon after finding the garden Mary was awakened in the night by the sound of crying, and she took her bedside candle and set out to find who was so unhappy. By following the sound she came to a room, went inside and saw a frail boy crying. His name was Colin, and he was the son of Archibald Craven, which made him Mary’s cousin.

Colin and Mary were both astonished to learn another child lived in the manor house. When asked if he had to stay shut up in his room Colin said that he hated going outside or having anyone look at him because he was a cripple who would soon die. Mary inquired if she should leave and Colin said he would like to talk with her.

The boy said his father hated him because his mother died when he was born and Mary blurted out a comment about that was why the garden had been locked. Colin began asking about the locked garden, so Mary said she had heard of it. When Colin became excited and declared he would order the servants to take him there Mary was afraid she would loose her special haven, and said it would be best to keep it a wonderful secret, and that she would go out each day looking for it.

Mary enjoyed visits with Colin, but he was not as important to her as her time working in the garden with Dickon. She skipped a planned time to be with Colin, and the boy threw a tantrum that frightened the servants. But the two cousins were both spoiled tyrants, and instead of giving in to Colin’s demands she engaged him in a shouting match, which turned out to be good for him in the long run, but first brought on a health crisis.

Late at night Mary was awakened by hysterical screaming loud enough to be heard throughout the vast house, and after a time Mary was sent for when the adults – including the trained nurse – could do nothing to stop Colin’s lengthy fit. Mary went into the room with her own angry tantrum, and when the startled boy confided his secret health fears to her, a truce of trust was formed.

After the adults left the room, Mary said she was sure she would soon find the secret garden, and Colin declared he wanted to go outside with Mary and Dickon and see the garden his mother had loved.

Soon Misselthwaite Manor had a new secret. Colin was sure that time in the garden would heal him, but he didn’t want anyone to know he was getting stronger. His dream was to wait until his father returned home, when he would walk up to him and show Mr. Craven he had a strong healthy son he needn’t be ashamed of.

If you’ve never read The Secret Garden you may know the story, for there have been several movies based on the novel. I’ve seen a couple of the films, but they left out parts, or added things I hated. Hallmark Hall of Fame did a lavish production, but set the story as a flashback, and viewers learn Dickon was killed during the first World War. No, no, no! The novel was first published in 1911, and I want no “made up” deaths that take place after the events of the story.

I’ve read the novel several times, and though there are a few “magical” and / or coincidental elements (how convenient that a stray dog happened to dig up the buried key) I find everything believable when I’m caught up in the wonder of the story about two bad-tempered neglected children, a splendid wonder-gardener boy, and the health-giving benefits of hard work to bring beauty to an imprisoned flower garden.
I highly recommend The Secret Garden, which can be downloaded free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17396

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Little Lord Fauntleroy

I’m sure many men born in the 1880s or 90s vividly remembered Little Lord Fauntleroy – but not all had pleasant memories.

The 1886 novel, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, tells the story of Cedric Errol, a young American boy raised by his loving mother, Dearest, after his English-born father died. Cedric had golden hair that fell in ringlets about his face, and Dearest used fabric from a black velvet gown to make her son a special-occassion suit.

Oh, the misery that outfit caused a generation of small boys, for the book illustrator draw Cedric with long, golden-love-locks, wearing his black velvet suit, plus a lace-collar shirt. And untold legions of mothers felt life wouldn’t be complete until their own young sons were photographed in a velvet suit and lace collar. Alas, photographs never let you forget an unfortunate clothing choice …

To be fair to Dearest (the name her late husband always called her) she didn’t always dress her son in velvet. And Little Lord Fauntleroy is an enjoyable read, though not as enjoyable to me as Burnett’s other famous children’s books, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess.

Captain Errol had been the youngest son of a disagreeable Earl who hated Americans. (Yes, I know, Errol is a terrible last name for an earl.) Just to be contrary, the Earl sent his son to the U.S., and when the young man fell in love with an American lady he was disowned.

The Captain found work, purchased a small house, married Dearest, and had a son before dying of fever. He had either purchased an excellent insurance policy or was still receiving family money, for his widow was able to employ a servant. Dearest spent her days helping poor and sick neighbors.

Young Cedric was popular with the other boys, and loved playing sports – presumably while wearing “normal” boy’s clothing. He also spent time with his two best friends, a bootblack and the local grocer.

When Cedric was seven, the Earl’s last remaining son died, thus Cedric had become Little Lord Fauntleroy. Being a sensible lad, he told his mother he’d prefer not to be a future Earl, but Dearest was sure her late husband would have wanted his son to have the title, and one day inherit the family’s estate.

Dearest had been informed she could travel to England with her son, but she would have to stay in a house a few miles from where Cedric would be living, for the Earl wanted nothing to do with the American who’d married Captain Errol. Dearest wanted her son to love his grandfather, so refused to speak ill of the man, and told Cedric the reason for separate housing was something he wouldn’t be able to understand until he was older.

The Earl had never liked children – not even his own – but he took a fancy to his grandson, and was pleased that Cedric considered him to be a kind and generous man. The grandfather had no sympathy for anyone living on his vast estate, and if a workman became sick and was unable to pay rent the man’s family was evicted from their home.

To test his grandson, the Earl would ask his opinion about what to do with those who had fallen on hard times, and Cedric always replied he was sure his grandfather would help them. And to please Cedric, the Earl would grant mercy on those having difficulties, though he made sure it was known that it was the grandson who was extending help, and not himself.

Dearest visited with her neighbors throughout the estate, and did what she could to help anyone in need. One day she told Cedric about those who lived in unsafe homes beyond repair. Her son rushed to tell his grandfather, assuring the paternal relative he knew his grandfather hadn’t known about the poor houses.

Cedric grew to love his grandfather, but though he was allowed to visit his mother every day, it grieved him that Dearest couldn’t be with him all the time.

The Earl was becoming happy for the first time in his life. And then catastrophe struck. Another American woman showed up, with another young boy in tow. This American claimed to be the wife of the oldest son, which would make her offspring the heir to the family estate.

This upset the Earl so much he did the unthinkable – he went to see Dearest, and told her his troubles. And instead of saying “serves you right you old grump” she sympathized with his plight.

The story of the new alleged heir made headlines on both sides of “the pond” and back in Cedric’s old hometown the bootblack and the grocer saw a newspaper story – complete with illustrations. And one of the pair knew the so-called widow had never been married to the Earl’s oldest son. Letters were written, and the bootblack and grocer sailed to England to save their dear friend’s future inheritance.

With Little Lord Fauntleroy it’s best not to think too much on whether the plot makes perfect sense or not, but it’s a page-turning read, for something interesting is always happening. Interesting, though not always likely. Cedric is a likable boy, who handles his troubles and disappointments with pluck and courage.

If you’d like to read his adventures there are two versions to download free of charge from Project Gutenberg. An abridged version can be found at www.gutenberg.org/files/49579/49579-h/49579-h.htm

and the full-length novel is at www.gutenberg.org/files/479/479-h/479-h.htm