The Secret Garden


Ideology and the Children’s Literature: A Critical Analysis of The Secret Garden

April 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

‘You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people – they’re servants who must salaam to you. You know nothing about India.’

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (32)

The Secret Garden is one of the books featuring India written for young British citizens during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These books gave an idea of British life in India, centring on the adventures and exciting experiences children could have, such as riding on elephants, and on the tales that children heard. Looking at The Secret Garden in relation to other books in the genre reveals a vivid and clear picture of the opinions the British held of India and the view they expect their children to have of the colony. These expressions included the rarely questioned idea that Britain should rule over India, that the British were “better” than Indians and that Britain itself was “better” than India.

The British East India Company entered as a trading company, established in the early 1600s and gradually monopolizing the trade between England and India. It received special dispensations from the British government and was the major cause of British presence in India for long years. Some other countries, most remarkably France and the Netherlands, also had their own East India Companies. All of the trading companies competed with each other, militarily and in trade, for influence in and control of India. Robert Clive and later on Lord Clive leaded the British East India Company to win European control of India against the French East India Company in the mid-1700s. The British East India Company essentially ran India quite easily for England until the Indian Mutiny, an uprising by Indian troops. After the Mutiny in 1857, the British government made India an official colony of the British Empire, and it remained so until the independence was achieved in 1947.

During those times, when India was facing great political pressures, Britain was also experiencing societal changes, including in education. The expansion of literacy and the increase in British involvement in India occurred at the same time. In response to the increasing demand for books, publishing houses sold many books about the British Empire, including many stories for children. The Empire was an unexpectedly topic of interest for literature, since authors who had never travelled outside of Europe could find information on the colonies written by fellow British citizens and use this information to populate their novels. Colonies were exotic, but since they were under the auspices of the British Crown, children could, if they wished, easily imagine themselves travelling there. Furthermore, colonies provided an excellent story setting for the teaching of imperialist culture to children. Studies show fiction helps children retain information about distant places and times better than more traditional teaching methods (McGowan 204). For Victorian children, India was a distant place, and still an exotic destination even while under control of the Empire. Fiction also teaches and reinforces norms of behaviour and attitudes. Not all fiction, however, equally shows the ideology that it teaches.

As a final point, the intertwining – in a popular children’s novel – of the British imperial project abroad and the one back home aptly demonstrates how deeply imperialism was (and according to Rushdie, is) embedded in every aspect of British culture. ‘I never saw spring in India because there wasn’t any’ (Rushdie, 131-2). The Secret Garden deals at length with the topic of exoticizing Yorkshire to be for Mary a world not unlike India is for British children in other stories. Parallels between Britain and India are more easily seen and the superiority of Britain is proved by showing Yorkshire as a quite different, rather better world.

The novel, at the very first reading, does not guarantee a long-lasting success. The story, compared with so many adventure novels for boys produced in the same period, is far from breathtaking: Mary Lennox, a ten-year-old English girl, born (and from the beginning of the novel living) in India, loses both her parents in an outbreak of cholera. She survives by luck: a few days later, gentle (yet indisputably manly) English soldiers come across her and, after a couple of unpleasant weeks spent with a large family of a poor English clergyman, Mary returns (the word everyone is using unwittingly is revealing because, of course, she has never been there) to England, or, as one of the minor characters in the novel says, home. Home is in Yorkshire; a gloomy house on the edge of the moors, with hundreds of locked rooms, one locked garden, and quite a few benign secrets waiting to be revealed. The house belongs to Mary’s uncle, Archibald Craven, the man whose unhappiness is equalled only by his wealth – the widower in perpetual mourning for his beautiful wife (dead for ten years), and the father who emotionally abandoned his seemingly invalid son the moment the child was born.

The Secret Garden is set in England, not India, and has as its main character a true Anglo-Indian girl, born and raised in India before moving to England to live in a shut-up manor on the moor. Mary discovers her imperious, crippled cousin Colin, who, as everyone says, will never be able to walk, and the garden that her uncle shuttered when his wife died in childbirth. With the help of Dickon, a local boy who knows the moors and native animals, and the magic Mary knows of from India, Mary and Colin rehabilitate the garden and each other. The Secret Garden has a clear story arc and character growth.

The beginning of the novel is illustrative enough: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.” The first sentence states two facts, first, that Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite, Yorkshire to live with her uncle – so the beginning of the novel (the beginning of Mary’s life proper) literally starts with what everyone calls her return to England (and the implied departure from India) – and, second, that she was reported to be ‘the most disagreeable-looking child’. Only two sentences later, our trustworthy narrator informs the readers, that ‘Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.’ The origin of her ugliness is thus categorically (remarkably early, also) located: Mary’s face is yellow because she has been ill a lot, and she has been ill because she was born in India. The first time India is mentioned, it is immediately linked with illness; this association is ingeniously strengthened by the fact that Mary’s parents, Captain Lennox and his wife, die in an outbreak of cholera. India, dark, primitive, unhygienic other to England, makes one ill; moreover, if one is not watchful enough, it literally kills, in its sly, creeping, profoundly un-English, unmanly and dishonorable Oriental way – by disease. This, if anything, is the textbook example of ‘the motif of Orient as something denoting danger’ that Edward Said identified in a variety of Western discourses. Mary is, first and above all, extremely spoiled and disobedient – for instance, whenever she is angry she slaps her Indian nurse, her ayah and calls her ‘pig’ and ‘daughter of pigs’ (“because”, the narrator tells her young readers, in an undisturbed, you-might-need-it-some-day way, “to call a native a pig is the worst insult of all.”). She is physically stiff, thin, and weak. Plus, she is extremely unfriendly. But why should these rather unpleasant traits – over and over again attributed to Mary’s being born and raised in or by India – be suggestive of moral corruption? And why should this view be imperialist in origin?

Mary, though English and thus, the novel subtly affirms, genetically superior, was born in India, and has been brought up entirely by Indian servants, who humour her in all possible ways, who dress her up, who bow before her, whom she can slap and verbally abuse. Mary has to come to England to hear the truth about herself for the first time, because in India people are too servile, and they lie. As a result of all this, she is, at the mature age of ten, totally unpromising material for an angel in the house – too tyrannical, too disobedient, too ugly. In other words, she too seems to have gone native. Burnett makes clear that, as M. Daphne Kutzer puts it, ‘India has brought out the worst in both Mary and her mother.’ (In keeping with this view, Colin is, in his most horrible tyrannical moods, consistently described as ‘young rajah’ over and over again – the implication is clear: his unnaturally bad behaviour is so un-English that no English terms can be used to denote it.

Despotism, tyranny, even such small-scale tyranny as Colin exhibits, are, the novel asserts, somehow Indian, not British. Even Mary’s unpleasant, commanding tone, which she uses when angry, is qualified as ‘Indian’.) But a girl’s waywardness and insubordination, spelled all over her yellow face, tolerated (or even encouraged) in India, are morally wrong in the context of England: Mary is no longer a ‘Missee Sahib’, whose very ethnicity (combined with the military power personified in her father) grants her unlimited authority over ‘the blacks’; in Yorkshire she is a young lady who must learn some important lessons in self-denial, obedience and respect. And here already we draw the parallel between the two empires: both are patriarchal and phallocentric, both are built on subordination – but whereas the Empire subordinates the natives (imaginatively, economically, socially, and culturally). A domestic empire is built upon the subordination of the lower social classes, plus all ‘the female[s] of the species’. The perfect system must never be threatened by disobedient angels in or out of the house.

Yet despotism, moral corruption, illness and death are not the only signifiers for demonic India in The Secret Garden. India, with its oppressive, blazing sun, its hot and humid climate and its lying people, is a fairy-tale-like evil foster mother: it affects (better to say, arrests) physical and mental development of English children, of young girls in particular – thus poisoning the very future of the Empire. (The point is succinctly brought home by Mary’s self-explanatory comment regarding Martha’s mother, “She doesn’t seem to be like the mothers in India.” (89) If one bears in mind that Susana Sowerby is kind, gentle, clean, pure, loving and wise, Mary’s first-hand criticism of Indian mothers – of India as a mother – is striking.) There are countless references to Mary always being too hot, weak and sleepy to do anything in India – all leading to the conclusion that Empire’s children, if removed for too long from the beneficial influences of their mother country – its bracing climate, clean air, its birds (which are ‘not like Indian birds’) real gardens, its spring and truth-speaking people – might end up as mentally, as well as socially and emotionally, retarded. That is the undercurrent of Ben Weatherstaff’s telling Mary “Tha’ shapes well enough at it for a young ‘un that’s lived with heathen.” [You’re developing quite well considering the fact you lived among the heathens.] (76).

Treacherous India, Burnett insists over and over again, has seriously harmed a helpless child; due to the shared failure of her parents, unprotected Mary has been turned by India into an ugly, sour, yellow-faced, thin girl who doesn’t like anyone or anything much and who is prone to tantrums and physical violence. Fortunately for Mary, there is Yorkshire to mend her ways, to bring her back to her original, English, ladylike self.

Children’s fiction is naturally the first literature to which children are exposed, and so shapes their experiences with fiction and reading. The importance of this influence calls for additional attention as it’s at the crux of shaping their mindset, opinions, reviews and outlook. It can be seen that 19th century British imperialism in The Secret Garden is naturalized, domesticated, replicated, explained, mystified, narrated, given ‘human form divine’, made familiar, acceptable, desirable. It is decidedly not questioned, analyzed, or criticized – with the exception of potential imperial flaws.


1. Burnett, Frances Hodgson. (1998) The Secret Garden. Wordsworth Editions Limited, Hertfordshire.

2. Devereux, Cecily. (2001) ‘Perhaps Nobody has told you why the English are called Sahibs in India’: Sara Jeannette Duncan’s Imperialism for Children. Canadian Children’s Literature 102.

3. Kutzer, M. Daphne. (2000) Empire’s Children: Empire & Imperialism in Classic British Children’s Books. New York: Garland. Print.

4. McGowan, Thomas M., Lynette Erickson, and Judith A. Neufeld. (2010) “With Reason and Rhetoric: Building the Case for the Literature-Social Studies Connection.” Social Education. 60.4 (1996): 203-207. ProQuest. Web. 27 Dec.

5. Morris, Tim. (2000) You’re Only Young Twice. Illinois University Press.

6. Rushdie, Salman. (1992) Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, Granta Books, London.

7. Said, Edward. (2000) Orientalism. Biblioteka XX vek i Cigoja Stampa, Beograd.

Web Resources:

1. Modern History Sourcebook Online

2. The Northon Anthology of English Literature Online

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The Secret Garden and the Path to Physical and Emotional Wellbeing

January 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

In The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, a young girl discovers the importance of the relationship between humans and the natural world. At the start of the novel the orphaned and contrary Mary Lennox is brought from her home in India to her mysterious Uncle Archibald’s manor in England. It is there on the moor and in a secret locked garden that Mary begins to heal her mind and body. In the process she exorcises the demons of Misselthwaite manor and betters the lives of its inhabitants. In this paper I argue The Secret Garden claims that human’s emotional and physical wellbeing is inextricably tied to their relationship with the natural world. Positive relationships cause health and good temperament while negative relationships cause illness and bad temperament. This claim is evident in the dichotomy between Dickon Sowerby and Mrs. Medlock and in the healing process of Mary Lennox and Colin Craven. Ben Weatherstaff and Archibald Craven, however, divert from this pattern. Despite their positive relationship to nature, they are portrayed as ill and bad tempered. This seeming contradiction in fact only qualifies the initial claim by contributing the idea that a second factor is also necessary for a person’s physically and emotional wellbeing. This second factor is the practice of the “Magic” of positive thinking.

The Secret Garden claims a person’s relationship to nature determines their physical and emotional wellbeing. Characters with positive relationships to nature are portrayed as healthy and good tempered while characters who have a negative relationship to nature are portrayed as ill or bad tempered. This is supported by the character of Dickon Sowerby and Mrs. Medlock. Dickon has the strongest connection to nature of anyone in the novel. When he understands the needs of flowers and trees, makes friends with wild animals such as robins, crows, ponies, and squirrels, and speaks to them in their native languages he is reminiscent of a sprite or woodland fairy. This positive relationship with nature is evident in his physical and emotional health. Dickon’s physical descriptions in the novel consistently emphasizes his strength, the ruddy color of his cheeks, and the bright blue of his eyes which highlights the life he has within him. In addition, he never gets sick because, as his mother says, “[He’s] sniffed up too much fresh air for twelve year’ to ever get to sniffing with cold” (106). Dickon is also emotionally healthy. He seems always to be in a jovial mood and Mary claims he is nicer than “any boy that ever lived…he’s like an angel” (169). Dickon also practices the “Magic” of positive thinking, the powerful tool of saying “nice things are going to happen until you make them happen,” used by all the children (237). This is shown in his optimism about the future of the seemingly dead garden. He says “A body might think this was dead wood, but I don’t believe it…there’ll be a fountain o’ roses here this summer” (104). In contrast to Dickon, Mrs. Medlock has a decidedly negative relationship to nature. Mrs. Medlock is rarely shown to leave the manor and she expresses her dislike for the moor directly when she says, “It’s a wild, dreary enough place to my mind” (21). This negative relationship with nature causes her to be emotionally unwell resulting in her being cross and mean. Mary’s first impression of Mrs. Medlock is that she is, “the most disagreeable person she had ever seen” (13). Mrs. Medlock lives up to this description by often commanding Mary in a severe way and threatening to “box [her] ears” or “lock her up” if she doesn’t obey (58). Dickon and Mrs. Medlock exemplify the claim that a person’s relationship to nature, be it positive or negative, is related to their physical and emotional wellbeing.

The claim The Secret Garden makes, that human’s relationship with nature is tied to their wellbeing, is also supported by the healing processes of Mary Lennox and Colin Craven. Mary begins the novel as a sickly, disagreeable, and altogether wretched child who loves nothing and is loved by no one. She spends her childhood locked up in the nursery and playing in the hot dust of India so when she arrives at Misselthwaite, with its many lush gardens and the cold wild moor, she hates it. As she has nothing to do inside, however, and at the insistence of her servant Martha, Mary takes to exploring outdoors during the day. As Mary strengthens her relationship with nature, running through the gardens, breathing the air off the moor, and making friends with the robin, she begins to grow stronger in body and mind. Mary gains weight, grows thick healthy hair, loses the jaundice color from her completion, and begins to be a kind and agreeable girl, to the point where she selflessly decides to share her secret garden with Colin, in order to help him heal as well. Mary also practices the “Magic” of positive thinking in her attempts to help Colin heal. This can be seen when Mary repeats fiercely, as Colin tries to stand, “You can do it! I told you you could! You can do it! You can!” the narrator explains that, “she was saying it to Colin because she wanted to make Magic and keep him on his feet” (227).

The healing process of the character Colin Craven similarly supports the main claim of the novel. Colin is Mary’s cousin and the son of Archibald Craven. He has been sickly and bedridden all his life and is convinced he is going to die before adulthood. Similarly to Mary, Colin begins the novel with a negative relationship to nature. He says to Mary at their first encounter, “I hate fresh air and I don’t want to go out” (127). Colin also begins the novel as disagreeably as Mary did. He gains himself the nickname “The Little Raja” for the way in which he orders everyone about and he often becomes so fretful that he throws himself into hysterical tantrums. Also like Mary, Colin finds the more he strengthens his relationship to nature, by coming out to the garden in his wheelchair every day to weed and sow, the stronger and more pleasant he becomes. By the end of the novel, not only does Colin find that “nothing disagrees with [him],” anymore, but he is also finally able to walk (252). Similarly to Mary, Colin believes in and practices the “Magic” of positive thinking. Colin says “I am sure there is Magic in everything…the magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man” (239-240). He practices the Magic by repeating to himself many times a day, “Magic is in me! Magic is making me well! I am going to be as strong as Dickon!” (240).

While The Secret Garden appears to claim that a person’s positive relationship with nature causes them to be physically and emotionally healthy, the characters of Ben Weatherstaff and Archibald Craven seem to contradict this idea. Both characters have positive relationships to nature but neither are initially displayed as good tempered or healthy. Ben has one of the strongest connections to nature of the novel. He is a gardener at Misselthwaite and therefore spends his entire day outside. In addition, like Dickon, he has made friends with a moor animal. He calls the robin, “th’ only friend I’ve got” (40). However despite his positive connection to nature Ben is often described in such disagreeable terms as “surly”, “sour”, and “uncompanionable” and is plagued by painful rheumatics (34; 40; 42). Similarly, Archibald Craven has a positive connection to nature because he surrounds himself with “fjords and…valleys,”, “blue lakes”, and “mountainsides” (283). Despite this positive relationship, however, he is physically unwell with, “a drawn face and crooked shoulders,” and so deeply grieved “it was as if he poisoned the air about him with gloom” (283).

While the characters of Ben and Archibald seem to contradict the claim of the novel, that a positive relationship with nature causes emotional and physical wellbeing, these characters actually only qualify this claim by contributing a second claim. The second claim states that to achieve wellbeing, a person must practice the “Magic” of positive thinking in addition to upholding a positive relationship to nature. A person cannot be well by doing only one or the other, both are necessary. Dickon, Mary, and Colin espouse this “Magic.” Colin says at the end of the novel when explaining to his father how he was healed, “It was the garden that did it…and the Magic” (295). Colin recognizes that both maintaining a positive relationship to nature and practicing the “Magic” are necessary to being emotionally and physically healthy. Neither Ben nor Archibald initially practice this “Magic” and that is why, despite their positive relationship with nature, they are physically and emotionally unwell. The “Magic” described in this novel is called by many names; Magic, science, religion, the “Big Good Thing”, and the “Joy Maker.” At its core the “Magic” is the idea of positive thinking which says, “to let a sad thought or a bad one into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body,” and that, “surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one” (278-279; 281-282). The children believe in and practice this power to “say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen,” and the narrator of The Secret Garden would seem to believe in its power as well because at the start of the chapter “In the Garden” on pages 281 and 282 the narrator’s tone shifts from its usual lyrical tone to a didactic one to describe the nature of this power and to summarize the way in which it aided the healing of Mary and Colin (237).

Neither Ben nor Archibald practice this power. This is because Ben does not believe in the “Magic” and Archibald is simply not aware of it. Towards the end of the novel, however, both characters either begin to believe in or to practice the “Magic.” While the children have faith that the “Magic” will help Colin safely walk about the garden Ben, “being a stubborn old party and not having entire faith in the Magic… had made up his mind that if he were sent away he would climb and look over the wall so that he might be ready to hobble back if there were any stumbling” (244). In another instance, when Colin insists the “Magic” is in his back Ben answers dryly “you said th’ Magic was in my back. Th’ doctor calls it rheumatics” (244). As the novel continues, however Ben’s disbelief in the “Magic” begins to be challenged by watching the miraculous recovery of Colin. This change in Ben is seen in the second to last chapter. Ben begins the chapter with no “particular reverence” for the Doxology, which is portrayed as a song of thanks to the “Magic”, and takes off his hat for the song “with a sort of puzzled half-resentful look on his old face” (273-274). However, in the third line Ben vigorously joins in with the singing and at the end of the song begins weeping and says “I never seed no sense in th’ Doxology afore…but I may change my mind I’ time” (275). While Ben does not begin to practice the “Magic,” and therefore cannot yet benefit from it, he accepts that in time he may change his mind about its existence. Similarly, Archibald Craven does not initially practice the “Magic.” He has “never tried to put any other thoughts in the place of the dark ones” (283). Therefore, like Ben, he is prevented from being physically and emotionally well, despite his connection to nature. Unlike Ben, however, Archibald begins to practice the “Magic” and benefit from it by the end of the novel. Archibald’s change in mindset is more unconscious than Ben’s because he does not have the children to teach him the ideology behind what he experiences, but his experience is nonetheless the beginnings of acceptance and practice of the “Magic.” It begins when he allows himself to notice the beauty of a flower. This positive thought fills his mind and pushes out the negative thoughts of sickness, loss, and isolation which have governed him since the loss of his wife. This unconscious use of the “Magic” of positive thinking has an immediate effect on his emotional wellbeing. He feels that “something seemed to have been unbound and released in him, very quietly,” and he says to himself, “What is it? I almost feel as if— I were alive!” (285). As Archibald continues to practice the “Magic” he notices that in addition to his emotional healing his “body is growing stronger,” as well (286). Archibald is able to begin healing emotionally and physically because he has both a preexisting positive relationship with nature and he begins to practice the “Magic” of positive thinking. Throughout the novel Ben and Archibald are not physically or emotionally well despite their strong connection to nature because they do not practice the “Magic” of positive thinking. Towards the end of the novel, however, Ben’s disbelief in the “Magic” is challenged and Archibald begins to practice the “Magic” which, in addition to his positive relationship to nature, causes him to begin growing both emotionally and physically well.

The Secret Garden appears to believe that two factors are necessary for physical and emotional wellbeing. The first is a positive relationship to nature. This is most obviously supported in the novel by the dichotomy between the characters of Dickon and Mrs. Medlock and by the healing processes of Mary and Colin. The second is the practice of the “Magic” of positive thinking. This is supported in the novel by the characters of Ben and Archibald. While The Secret Garden continues to be a classic in part because of its lyrical storytelling centered on enduring themes of loss, family, and healing, the novel also doubles as a sort of guide for the acquirement of physical and emotional wellbeing.

Works Cited

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. New York: Scholastic, 1999. Print.

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