Girls and Boys and Lord of the Manor, or What’s Up With the Secret Garden?

This is both the problem and the bonus about creating something that people view more or les in real time: things change. Ah, change. Necessary, wonderful, and terrifying, all at once.

So, I went on at great and fervid length about how much I loved The Secret Garden. How delightful! I crowed. I got quite carried away. But the thing is, Chestnut and I had not yet finished the thing. And now we have.

Here's where one is confronted by the vast distance between memory and reality. I remembered, or thought I did, a lot about the book, but when I was confronted with what the book actually was? Nothing like I remembered. Sure, there were moments I remembered entirely, down to the words used. But I remember it, too, as Mary's book—Mary's metamorphosis, Mary's garden, Mary's new self filled with light and strength. Imagine my surprise, then, when she all but disappears from center stage about two thirds of the way through the book. All of sudden it's all about Colin's health, and Colin's strength. And where Mary had to learn to be kinder and gentler, Colin's rajah behavior is almost celebrated. And all of a sudden you realize that where you'd been rooting for strange sour little Mary to get her place in the sun, it somehow meant that you were also rooting for what essentially is England's place as a colonial power (I know, I know, I'm getting carried away again just in the opposite direction).

It's just that when we got to the very last chapter, and to the very last page, and all of sudden it's all about Master Craven, and the joyful ending is this:

Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite, and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his side, with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter, walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in Yorkshire—Master Colin!

I had to just shut my mouth and let Chestnut enjoy it, but I thought—are you kidding? We've gone through all this to end with Master Colin? What a rip! I couldn't believe it. It's as if somehow in the middle of the novel someone just swapped out our strange little heroine for someone else. And I know I will get over it, and it is still and excellent children's novel to read aloud, and the beginning is amazing, and so on and so on, but boy, what a rip-off.

8 thoughts on “Girls and Boys and Lord of the Manor, or What’s Up With the Secret Garden?

  1. Oh. What a let down. I haven’t read The secret garden, at least that I can remember. I remember reading it out loud to a class of kids while I was doing one of my observations. I was excited to read it to my daughter, but now, meh.

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  2. Hmm, must go back and read it again. I think you may be quite right.I haven’t read it in ages, and also thought of it as primarily a book about Mary. Or, at least a book about Mary, Colin and Dickon. I’m almost afraid to reread it now…
    The interesting question might then be: Why do we remember it as a book about Mary? Because the book starts with her? Because she’s the girl? Because she’s the most interesting character?

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  3. Because the good parts are about her? I’m laughing because I wrote something similar in a comment on October 10th. It’s a wonderful book until it stops being one 3/4 of the way through. I don’t mind the imperialism as much as the retreat from very pleasurable and well-drawn character development into mystical woo-woo and the cult of Health. Daily calisthenics, and singing the Doxology! Gack.

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  4. Thank you for updating; when I read your original post, I wondered whether I misremembered my adult rereading, in which my experience was extremely similar to yours. I remember the first chapters word for word, I think of it as Mary’s book, I have tremendous attachment to my memory of the story, and then I listened to it on tape with my mom a few years ago, and we were both very surprised and puzzled at its (sexist, racist) weirdness as Colin takes over the story. The funny thing is, in retrospect it was a book that I read many times in childhood, but not all the way through. It isn’t that I never read the end, but it was the beginning I read over and over, and that meant so much to me…..

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  5. Wow, I remember having this same reaction upon rereading it as an adult a few years ago. It’s like the last few chapters are missing! But I think that’s because Mary’s already mellowed – there’s a point, I think it’s right after she and Colin have the shouting match and she storms off swearing she’ll never speak to him again, where she stops and reconsiders and I think that’s really the end of “Mary’s story” because she’s now stopped and thought about someone other than herself. At that point, she recedes from the action and we turn to Colin to see if he’s going to be able to turn his shortcomings around. I think we’re supposed to understand that his rajah-like behavior is only because he’s never been told it’s wrong *because he’s an invalid* and not because he has some kind actual stunted emotional growth, and that it’s really his physical recovery that’s the counterpoint story to Mary’s emotional/psychological recovery. Anyway, this is clearly something I’ve thought about a lot more than I realized! I have an excellent recording of the book that I listen to during my commute on occasion and apparently ponder these things.
    (Love your site, by the way. My mother is a children’s book illustrator and as-yet-unpublished author, so children’s literature comes up a lot!)

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