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Darkness and Light in 'The Secret Garden'

Whatever the opposite of seasonal affective disorder is, I have it. I love the winter, especially in Manhattan where the funneled winds dare you to leave your house in the morning. I am dubious of spring's high expectations for renewal, and of summer's pressures; those months when it is commonly considered an infraction to be inside ever. Which is perhaps the reason I have always found solace in Frances Burnett's The Secret Garden.

First published in 1911, The Secret Garden is the story of Mary Lennox, a bitter and selfish little girl who hates the world and everyone in it. After she is orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India, she is sent to live with an estranged uncle on his sprawlingly creepy English country estate. When she first arrives, she is pale and thin and sporting a personality that would smell like sour milk if it could. She detests the outdoors. With a little help from her maid and a boy named Dickon, Mary gradually develops the pleasant demeanor of a normal girl. So paradoxically, India made Mary pale, hostile and unaccustomed to strange foods, whereas England makes her healthy, rose-cheeked and full of Zen. As the book's title unsubtly suggests, there is also a garden involved, complete with hidden door and buried key. But as new life springs forth in the garden, so blooms new hope in the wounded hearts of each character.

In many obvious ways, there is no finer novel — young adult or otherwise — to reread while those first fingers of green are poking up through the ground. There is no single book that can more readily transport you into spring as you sit underneath a tree and listen to some bird whose name you don't remember whistle a tune that you do. And because The Secret Garden is the first real novel I remember reading period, it has become a fundamental part of my worldview year-round. No matter how unique the country house described by T.S. Eliot, Tom Stoppard, Virginia Woolf or even Jane Austen — for me, they are all the house from The Secret Garden.

But the real reason to love this book is because, not unlike the garden hidden in plain sight around which it centers, the novel itself has its own dark secret. And that is the following: It is not a very nice book, despite its goody-goody reputation. The illustrations, wistful sketches that adorn each chapter, should have been rendered by Edward Gorey. The Secret Garden is about neglect. Of plants and of people.

Back in India, Mary's mother was a socialite who never wanted her. After the cholera epidemic dissipates, it takes fully five days before Mary is found alone, in the dark of her bungalow. Her only company had been a snake. Mary is taken to England, where everyone she meets repeatedly insults her to her face. Her only friend is a robin and her only solace is found in being alone. Mary stops verbally abusing her maid just long enough to make one human friend, a little boy who talks to sheep. Finding him kindred, she fesses up about the hidden garden and develops a semi-romantic bond. One night, Mary hears crying in a distant corridor of the mansion and goes to investigate. Curled up among the dusty tapestries is a different boy — Colin, her uncle's sickly son. It takes Mary, little strumpet that she is, about a page and a half to spill the seeds about the secret garden. Thus the unspoken love triangle is in place, diffused only by Colin pointing out that he and Mary are cousins.

The Secret Garden is half charm, half wickedness, half summer and half winter. At one point Mary asks her maid why the garden was locked in the first place. She gradually learns of its painful history, but in that innocent question lies the lasting magic of The Secret Garden. It is always the flowers that one notices first before inspecting the dirt below.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sloane Crosley