The Secret Garden
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Its working title was Mistress Mary, in reference to the English nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. It is now one of Burnett's most popular novels, and is considered to be a classic of children's literature.
Mary Lennox is a sickly, sour-faced little girl born in India to wealthy British parents who have very little interest in her, leaving her in the care of an ayah from birth. Orphaned by an outbreak of cholera, she is sent back to England to the legal guardianship of her only remaining relative: her uncle, Archibald Craven, a reclusive widower.
Craven is still mourning his wife, Lilias, who died ten years ago. To escape his sad memories, he constantly travels abroad, leaving Mary and the manor under the supervision of his housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. The only person who has any time for the little girl is the chambermaid Martha Sowerby, who tells Mary about a walled garden that was the late Mrs. Craven's favorite place. No one has entered the garden since she died because Archibald locked its entrance and buried the key in an unknown location.
Mary finds the key to the secret garden and a robin shows her where the door is hidden beneath overgrown ivy. Once inside, she discovers that although the roses seem lifeless, some of the other flowers have survived. She resolves to tend the garden herself. Although she wants to keep it a secret, she recruits Martha's brother Dickon, who has a way with plants and wild animals. Mary gives him money to buy gardening implements and he shows her that the roses, though neglected, are not dead. When Mary's uncle briefly meets with her for the first time since her arrival, Mary asks him for permission to claim her own garden from any abandoned part of the grounds, and he acquiesces. Thanks to her new-found interests and activities, Mary herself begins to blossom, losing her sickly look and unpleasant manner.
On several occasions, Mary hears someone weeping in another part of the house. When she asks questions, the servants become evasive. They tell her that she is hearing things, or they blame the sound on ordinary sources such as the wind, or a servant with a toothache. Shortly after her uncle's visit, she goes exploring and discovers her uncle's son, Colin, a lonely, bedridden boy as petulant and disagreeable as Mary used to be. His father shuns him because the child closely resembles his mother. Mr. Craven is a mild hunchback, and both he and Colin are morbidly convinced that the boy will develop the same condition. The servants have been keeping Mary and Colin a secret from one another because Colin doesn't like strangers staring at him and is prone to terrible tantrums.
Colin accepts Mary and insists on her visiting him often, but as spring approaches, Colin becomes jealous that Mary is spending more time out in the garden with Dickon. One day, Colin threatens to ban Dickon from the grounds, but Mary matches his bad temper and storms out without an apology. That evening, Colin escalates into a hysterical tantrum, convinced that he is becoming hunchbacked and is going to die; Mary shocks him out of his hysteria by screaming back at him. She also demands to see his back, and points out that the lumps behind his neck are simply the outlines of normal vertebrae like her own. Reassured, Colin agrees to let her bring Dickon to visit him inside his room, and they become friends.
They bring Colin outside in a wheelchair so he can see his mother's garden. Delighted, he visits it with Mary and Dickon whenever the weather allows, ordering everyone else to stay away on those occasions. Despite these orders, the children are discovered by the old gardener Ben Weatherstaff, who tried to maintain the roses after Lilias' death by surreptitiously scaling the wall once or twice a year. Ben is angry with them at first, but agrees to share and keep their secret.
As the garden revives and flourishes, so does Colin. He resolves to walk and run like a normal boy by the next time his father returns home; to accomplish these aims, he carries out a program of simple physical exercises and positive thinking. He makes great progress, but they conceal it from the rest of the household with the pretense that he is still an invalid.
Mr. Craven is traveling through Europe, but is inspired to rush home after hearing the voice of his dead wife in a dream and receiving a letter from Mrs. Sowerby (Martha's and Dickon's mother, who also knows the secret) telling him, "I think your lady would ask you to come if she was here." He arrives while the children are outdoors and finds himself drawn toward the secret garden. As he approaches nearer, he is astonished to hear their voices inside the walls; Colin bursts out of the garden door toward him, actually winning a footrace against Mary and Dickon. They take Mr. Craven into the secret garden to tell him everything. When they return to the house, the servants are astonished to see two miracles: Colin walking and his father looking happy again.