The Secret garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)


The Secret garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)

The classic of English children’s literature, The Secret Garden [1] by Frances Hodgson Burnett first appeared in 1911. More than a hundred years later, the story of the orphaned girl Mary who manages to bring a forbidden neglected garden back to bloom – and with it herself and others – is still enchanting for young and old. It’s exciting, mysterious, and magical.

In one way or another,

says Hodgson,

something always happens, just before things get worst.

With a light tone, she testifies to life wisdom. The book is still in print. It has also been filmed. A new Dutch translation by Imme Dros was published in 2019. Imme Dros is a widely read and award-winning writer who made classical antiquity accessible to everyone. She translated and edited Homer’s Odyssey and The Iliad. She recreated the Greek myths. It is therefore not surprising that she also transformed this classic story The Secret Garden into a contemporary sparkling new version that does justice to the original. One hundred and eleven years after its first appearance it still appeals to the imagination.



Mary Lennox was born in India. Her father works for the British government and is always busy. Her mother, who is called a beauty by everyone, only lives for parties. She never wanted to have a child. She has Mary taken to an Ayah, an Indian nanny, immediately after birth. Mary grows up without loving attention. She looks unattractive, is thin, has wispy blond hair and always looks unfriendly. She is selfish and spoiled because her Ayah and the Indian servants give her way in everything.

When Mary’s parents die in a cholera epidemic, she is sent to live with her uncle and guardian in England. Uncle Archibald Craven lives in the large estate of Huize Misselthwaite. He is a solitary man, does not really want to see anyone and travels a lot. Mary feels lonely and abandoned in the big gloomy house with its many closed rooms. Fortunately, a farm girl tells stories about her family life and Misselthwaite House has a large park for Mary to play in. Wandering along winding paths, flower beds, fountains and vast lawns, she discovers a walled area, which she cannot enter. She comes to know that behind the wall is a garden, which belonged to her young, deceased aunt. No one has been in there for ten years. Mary is getting more curious by the day. One day, a small, stubborn robin points her to the entrance, which is overgrown with plants, and much to her surprise, she also finds the key that appears to fit the entrance gate. Once inside, she finds herself in a wild but beautiful garden, a little paradise, and it is this garden that will make Mary feel less lonely. But the most wonderful discovery she makes on a stormy night when she cannot sleep. In the old house, a strange sound is heard between the roaring gusts of wind. Isn’t that the crying of a child? And who is Martha and who is her brother Dickon, of whom it is said that even the foxes show him the way where they have their young and the larks do not hide their nests from him. The friendship between the children and the animals, working together in the beauty of the blooming garden, changes their lives. Nasty, selfish thoughts make way for mutually helpful, uplifting thoughts. Negative feelings disappear, and positive ones awaken.

… mere thoughts – are as powerful as electric batteries as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one
as poison.

This is the main motif in the book and the author makes it visible, and tangible, not only in the lives of the children but also in those of the adult characters. Thoughts can change. Fear, loneliness, gloom and even physical complaints can be overcome in no time. Finally, on Misselthwaite, a happier life begins for everyone.


The author

I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of…

Frances Eliza Hodgson was born in 1849 in Manchester, England. After the death of her father in 1864, the family emigrates to relatives in America. Seven years later, her mother also dies. As a story writer, she earns enough to support her siblings. Under the social pressure of the time, she married her childhood friend and neighbor Swan Burnett in 1873. She supports her husband with the proceeds from her writing as he works towards his medical degree. They move to Paris where her husband continues his medical studies. Their first son, Lionel, was born the following year. Their second son, Vivian, in 1876. The family then moves to Washington. Her first novel is published in 1877. She does not lead an ordinary woman’s life. Women were not supposed to be in the profession in those days, but she writes and earns money, funding various projects, especially those involving children. She breaks through traditional thinking and breaks new ground, also for other writers by fighting for copyrights, both in the US and in Great Britain. It earns her a lot of criticism and she is disgraced in the press.

In 1890 her eldest son, aged 16, dies of tuberculosis. Frances and her husband were already separated, but they officially divorced in 1898. She remarries Stephan Townsend, ten years her junior, an English doctor, an actor and also her artistic collaborator. She travels through Europe with him. In less than two years they too divorce and Frances returns to America. She spent the last seventeen years of her life living in New York. In 1924 she died and was buried in New York.

The losses she suffers in her life lead to a spiritual search. Around 1900 the ideas of theosophy flourished. H.P. Blavatsky wrote The Secret Doctrine and founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.

Frances is interested from the start and connects with theosophy. After Lionel’s death, she becomes interested in spiritualism and Christian Science. Theosophical teachings teach her the ancient wisdom, the cosmic principles, the power of healing and curing. They give her a new perspective. The Secret Garden bears witness to her insights. The characters in the book, unhappy and unloved, find joy in life again in friendship, beauty and self-conquest. They renew themselves. Frances had her own walled English garden in New York, full of roses and hollyhocks. She looked out as she wrote the following words in her latest book In the Garden [2], perhaps speaking of her own life experience of loss and renewal:

If you have a garden, you have a future and if you have a future, you live!



No human being had passed that portal for ten lonely years – and yet inside the garden there were sounds. They were the sounds of running scuffling feet seeming to chase round and round under the trees, they were strange sounds of lowered suppressed voices  – exclamations and smothered joyous cries. It seemed actually like the laughter of young things, the uncontrollable laughter of children who were trying not to be heard but who in a moment or so – as their excitement mounted,  would burst forth.

What in heaven’s name was he dreaming of – what in heaven’s name did he hear? Was he losing his reason and thinking he heard things which were not for human ears? Was it that the far clear voice had meant? And then the moment came, the uncontrollable moment when the sounds forgot to hush themselves. The feet ran faster and faster – they were nearing the garden door – there was quick strong young breathing and a wild outbreak of laughing shouts which could not be contained – and the door in the wall was flung wide open, the sheet of ivy swinging back, and a boy burst through it at full speed and, without seeing the outsider, dashed almost into his arms.

Mr. Craven had extended them just in time to save him from falling as a result of his unseeing dash against him, and when he held him away to look at him in amazement at his being there he truly gasped for breath. He was a tall boy and a handsome one. He was glowing with life and his running had sent splendid color leaping to his face. He threw the thick hair back from his forehead and lifted a pair of strange grey eyes – eyes full of boyish laughter and rimmed with black lashes like a fringe. It was the eyes which made Mr. Craven gasp for breath.

“Who – What? Who!” he stammered. This was not what Colin had expected – this was not what he had planned. He had never thought of such a meeting. And yet to come dashing out – winning a race – perhaps it was even better. He drew himself up to his very tallest. Mary, who had been running with him and had dashed through the door too, believed that he managed to make himself look taller than he had ever looked before – inches taller.

“Father,” he said, “I’m Colin. You can’t believe it. I scarcely can myself. I’m Colin. (…) It was the garden that did it – and Mary and Dickon and the creatures – and the Magic. No one knows. We kept it to tell you when you came. I’m well, I can beat Mary in a race. I’m going to be an athlete.”

He said it all so like a healthy boy – his face flushed, his words tumbling over each other in his eagerness – that Mr. Craven’s soul shook with unbelieving joy. Colin put out his hand and laid it on his father’s arm. “Aren’t you glad? Father?” he ended. “Aren’t you glad? I’m going to live forever and ever and ever!”

Mr. Craven put his hands on both the boy’s shoulders and held him still. He knew he dared not even try to speak for a moment. “Take me into the garden, my boy,” he said at last. “And tell me all about it.” And so they led him in (…) He looked round and, “I thought it would be dead,” he said. “Mary thought so at first,” said Colin. “But it came alive.”



The power of the book is the realization that you can change inside, that you can overcome whatever you go through, even the loss of your parents at a young age. Life always offers you new opportunities for growth, if you want to see it. Just the ever-returning robin, lavish, friendly chirping curiously turning its head, showing the way with a lovely lightness. The wind, at the right moment, blows the loose ivy garlands aside, exposing the round knob of the door of the walled garden. These are examples that awaken a new previously unknown sense of life in the orphan girl Mary. She perceives it; she goes into it. The book not only takes you into the beauty of visible reality, but lets you experience the depth of an invisible life force that pushes beyond and through it. The children call it ‘the magic’, it is reminiscent of the all-pervading light of the world soul. The book unlocks a glimpse of the mystery of life, of the spiritual perspective that theosophy offers: there is another reality behind the naturally observable, visible world. It lets you search for the truth behind the outer appearances with the children. The green blades that protrude just above the ground give Mary ‘breath’ by removing the ground around them. The ‘waking up’ of the garden symbolizes the awakening of new soul power. In that sense, the walled garden can be seen as the world of the soul. Those who work in it to make the flowers bloom, flourish themselves, change and find healing.

The sickly boy Colin overcomes his belief that he has a hunchback and will die soon. Mary, with her head full of bad thoughts about everything she doesn’t like, changes as soon as she gets filled with robins, flowers and Dickon with his favorite animals, she becomes a different child. Parallel events, we would now say synchronicity, make us realize that there is more between heaven and earth and that everything influences each other. As within, so without – as above, so below – as it is in the small, so it is in the great. Mary and Colin meet for a reason; both unruly and spoiled in their own way, they are a mirror of each other. And when Colin dares to walk on his own in the garden and exclaims that he wants to live forever, his father far away in Tyrol discovers for the first time in ten years that something wonderful is happening in him. It is as if something very softly releases him, liberating him and giving him the feeling that he too is alive again. Unobtrusively and in all simplicity, Frances passes on her universal wisdom, she lets the children discover it, and the reader experiences it, never disturbing or intrusive, but rather enriching. The magic of life, the invisible connection between all that is, and the healing powers of soul life resonate in the story. Ancient wisdom teachings were brought back to light by theosophy at the time expressed by Frances Hodgson in this heartwarming book. The story remains topical because it touches the life of every soul.

Where you tend a rose, my lad, A thistle cannot grow.

An unforgettable reading experience, a multi-valuable book!



[1] Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, The Phillips Publishing Company, New York 1911

[2] Frances Hodgson Burnett, In the Garden, The Curtis Publishing Company, 1925

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Date: March 9, 2023
Author: Ankie Hettema-Pieterse (Netherlands)
Photo: by ThomasWolter on Pixabay CCO

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