“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published as a full novel in 1911, is my favourite book of all time, since the first time I read it when I was a child. It is also, therefore perhaps surprisingly, the book I am putting forth today for #LibrarianFightClub, because when it comes to examining internal biases and problematic messages in books, nothing should be sacred.
I was first alerted to the problematic nature of the portrayal and attitudes towards disability in this book while chatting with my friend Lucy, @thecatchpoles. Previous to us discussing it I had never questioned this book.
You may be familiar with the story, it has been redone as plays, movies, picture books, etc., though I find that the original novel despite being a “classic” very readable for a modern reader, because Burnett was a boss writer.
The story is as follows, Mary is a British expat raised in India when, after Cholera strikes her parents and basically everyone she knows dies. She couldn’t care less, beyond inconvenience to her lifestyle. She is shipped back to England, to be raised in Misselthwaite Manor, the home of her Maternal Uncle by marriage. It is all very Edwardian gothic, she is a miserable “sickly little creature” and being back in the healthy English air and surrounded by good English people who take “no nonsense” improves her horrible temper and health. In fact upon her arrival at the English manor her maid says that India is full of “a lot of blacks instead of respectable white people.” To which Mary very angrily informs her “Natives are not people.” It is not mentioned again overtly, but the implicit racism, colonialism, and colourism runs deep in the veins of this book.
Serious question, is it possible to find a classic book that isn’t full of a deep base of white supremacy and colonialism? I’m not sure. And how does this affect if and how we approach reading it. These overt lines are of course scrubbed from modern retellings, but can you really remove the attitudes which form the basis and premise of this entire book? Does simply erasing the overt lines actually do more bad than good because it makes it harder to critically look at the entire structure?
Now, as to the depiction of disability and chronic illness, that gets complex. So, in this book the uncle is a romantic wretched fellow who is a “hunchback.” After being widowed by a beautiful girl who it is made clear should never have looked at him twice he never recovers and abandons his son who is also disabled, to wander around the world being morose and stinking rich. The son is a miserable tyrannical child who lives his life in bed having panic attacks about being ill. After meeting Mary, and spending time outside with her and learning about love and friendship, he is magically cured? Or, it was all in his head in the first place. His father when he sees his son is not in fact disabled, decides to return and be a father. Talk about a fairweather relationship.
So the trouble here is that really, this attitude that disability is partly in the mind and inextricably tied with a poor attitude is something that is still arguably ingrained into society. Or that disabled children are a depressing burden on their parents. We can connect these ideas back to all of the sorts of books people applaud about disabled people using a can-do attitude to overcome, to be inspiring. The basis is all here, and written out in the 1890’s.
However to further complicate things, it turns out, that this is actually a story that reflects the author’s own very fascinating life. Frances Hodgson Burnett as it turns out lived many of the experiences she wrote about personally including chronic illness and depression.
As a child, her family fell into ruin after the sudden death of her father. They were forced to immigrate to America from England, where she befriended a young ‘invalid’ boy, who she later married (arguably her inspiration for the relationship between Mary and Colin?) She began writing to support her impoverished family when she was only 18 and continued to write as breadwinner her entire life. She supported her husband through medical school, while raising two boys and keeping a household. She suffered from chronic undiagnosed illness throughout and bouts of depression. She eventually left her husband, and her elder son fell ill with tuberculosis. She moved back to England with her elder son, where he died. She divorced her husband, had an affair with a much younger man who then blackmailed her into marriage. She was roasted by the media and local religious leaders for her “advanced ideas regarding the duties of a wife and the rights of women.” She was also criticized heavily for the femininity with which some of her male protagonists were depicted, they were based on her son.
She wrote “The Secret Garden” after the death of her own son, surrounded by an English garden, in the depths of the grief and depression that her characters experience. Does this change the way we see the book?
This really brings me to think about European “classics” in general. They’re all problematic because they’re all written by people who lived within this society. They inform an entire Anglophone writing tradition and I’m not sure if simply removing it from a reading list is the most useful choice. You might disagree with me. Thinking on the ideas in this book, on its context, and then considering how it impacted, influenced, and inspired so much of modern children’s literature. Do we not gain something from picking apart the original? Especially when that original is written by a woman who was really pushing the boundaries of women and what was acceptable in society? What do you think?