The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
ABOUT THE BOOK
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Length: 378 pgs.
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“People never like me and I never like people,” Mary thought.
When Mary Lennox is sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody says she is the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It is true, too. Mary is pale, spoiled, and quite contrary. But she is also horribly lonely. Then one day she hears about a garden in the grounds of the manor that has been kept locked and hidden for years. And when a friendly robin helps Mary find the key, she discovers the most magical place anyone could imagine.
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I had to pick up and read this book as a part of a Copycat challenge in a Goodreads group, in which you signup to be paired with a partner at random and are given a group member who you have to add and then read a book from “read” shelf. I was going to read this book regardless of having to read it but I’m really glad to pick it up sooner rather than later.
The Secret Garden, film, had been really enjoyable to me as a preteen. The book, however, as an adult, I did not like very much. Most of my issue, actually one of my major issues, lies with one particular passage of the book in the beginning. But before I talk about the characters, I did actually want to mention that I did not care so much for the writing in this book. I don’t know if that was just my experience at trying to read this book in the middle of the night or if it really is the book but some sentences sounded somewhat awkward in their phrasing and this made the reading a bit more complicated for me. Not by much, but slightly. I usually don’t note or look for writing as an important aspect of my reviews unless I see something that is either really good or really bad and The Secret Garden is written in average form at best.
The protagonist of the novel, Mary, is a bratty, spoiled child in the beginning of the story and she has some very wrong, preconceived notions about the way the world works. Her parents pass away after India is struck with cholera and Mary has to move across the continent to go live with her only family and uncle. When she meets these new group of people and is introduced to this new environment, I expected her to be a bit resentful and possibly hurt but she is more than just that.
Mary, to my shock and immense displeasure, is a bit of a racist. She, at one point in the beginning, is insulted by Martha (her maidservant) assuming she would be black because she grew up in India. She tells Martha:
“You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people—they’re servants who must salaam to you. You know nothing about India. You know nothing about anything!”
Because Mary was raised by Indian nannies, I can understand she’s a little mad at having to adjust to someone new but this attitude of hers was not only irritating but downright insulting and offensive to me—someone who comes from an Indian heritage. I don’t understand what is wrong with people today who seemed to have overlooked this little part but this scene is reminiscent of a time when white Americans treated black Americans as a group of people inferior to their superior race. And more precisely, a point when whether or not black children should be educated was brought into question. As someone who has lived in India for so long (at least to the point where the story beings), I would’ve thought Mary would be more sympathetic towards a group of people that have been forced into submission and are being told what to do. But she’s just a bigot. I used to think no one’s really born a racist but I’m starting to reconsider my opinion about this. Because honestly, Mary was raised by her Indian Ayah while her parents barely paid attention to her so I don’t see any other source of her bigotry but her own judgmentally rotted brain?
Mary, upon arrival to her new home, observes:
“The native servants she had been used to in India were not in the least like this. They were obsequious and servile and did not presume to talk to their masters as if they were their equals.”
Yes, that is how Indians were. Because British had doninated them, enslaved them. Mary’s ignorance is absolutely frustrating and even more bewildering is the fact that so many people consider this a favorite classic.
Now…you might say that Mary does improve by the end of the story so I shouldn’t really judge her so harshly. But the truth is that even though Mary’s nature throughout the story improves towards people in general, there is no indication whatsoever of change in her opinion about Indians. No clear passage, quote, or emotion is expressed that lets me know that Mary has seen the error of her ways by seeing Indians as those who were below her. She might not be a brat with a vexatious attitude anymore but I have little evidence of whether or not she has stopped being racist by the end of the book. And regardless of what race I, myself, come from this is not acceptable to me. Perhaps I may revisit this book in the future and I may be able to accept that Mary might have changed but to be perfectly honest, this one passage has tainted my view of this book for most of eternity.
What’s incredibly sad about this though is that I actually really liked other little parts of this book. I didn’t care for Collin very much of course but I liked Dickon’s character quite a bit. He was a lovely, free-spirited boy and I really wish there had been more scenes with him. I also liked the story, the aspect of a secret garden. A special place for the children, like some would have imaginary friends, and how much it delights Collin, Mary, and Dickon. Even more endearing is how Mary actually helps Collin come out of his grumpy, arrogant attitude and helps him be a happier person. And towards the end, I even felt sympathetic towards Mary’s uncle, Mr. Craven.
All of these things, even with the somewhat disappointing writing style, could’ve made me really like this book but alas, that passage displaying Mary’s prejudices doesn’t paint a happy picture in my mind. (And yes, I am aware that most of Anglo-Saxon literature has characters such as Mary’s but none of them have infuriated nearly as much as Mary did).
This review is also available on BookLikes.