First off–my sincere apologies for the delay in posting this discussion. It’s the first time something has failed to publish the day it was supposed to, and it’s my fault entirely, as I’m in the middle of a rather intensely busy and crazy-making period offline.
Thank you all for being so patient with me, however, and thanks to Kim and Layla, too. I’m eager to get into this one, so let’s begin!
Wendy: This is one of my favorite books of all time. As a child, I responded so strongly to the lovely English-ness of everything–it’s part of what set me on the path of being a lifelong Anglophile. And whenever I was in botanical gardens and parks, I was always on the lookout for secret doorways and walls that might be hiding something. And look! As an adult, I finally found one. The photo to the right was taken at the Ojai Library.
Layla: It has been years and years since I read this. While I admittedly loved A Little Princess more than The Secret Garden as a kid, I suspect this one holds up better (I bet I’d find Sara annoying, while Mary Lennox seems to me to be far more sympathetic as an adult reader). An enjoyable re-read, though I cringed quite a few times.
Wendy: You know, I reread A Little Princess a few years back and was surprised to find that it actually holds up very well, too. I quite liked Sara, she wasn’t nearly as stuck up or priggish as I mis-remembered; perhaps I thought that due to various film adaptations or the current overly pink-princess-preciousness that’s trendy for young girls that I despise. I’d love to reread that for TMG sometime! But in any case, this one is still my favorite of the two.
Kim: I had never read it before! I have adored the 1993 film version since I first saw it in theaters, though. Needless to say, I love this story and the book did not disappoint! I confess to having been a little nervous but I was utterly enchanted.
Wendy: As an adult, I love the themes in this book, particularly that of rebirth. Spring comes to the garden, and it comes to Mary, too.
Layla: I feel awful for Mary, especially at the beginning of this book. This is not to make apologies for her – I know that she is a real brat and has screwy ideas about how to interact with people, particularly people who work for her family. But that everyone is immediately reallll judge-y about how plain she is, and like, the assumptions that being plain corresponds with moral failings like a short temper and a sour disposition? And it’s not just characters in the book? I feel like the narrator is just … harsh about her. For example, when she’s in the railway carriage with Mrs. Medlock and Mrs. Medlock judges her “queer, unresponsive face,” and the narrator states that Mary’s attempts to hide her interest in things is one of her “unhappy, disagreeable ways.” And, hello. She has been neglected by her parents and no one has paid attention to her, like, her whole life. She has been taught that “it doesn’t matter … whether [she] cares or not” about where she goes or where she lives. I don’t know, man, Mary’s unresponsiveness seems really self-protective (and like it’s coming from a place of vulnerability) rather than proof that she’s just a peevish weasel of a child. (When Martha is telling Mary about Dickon and Mary is like, “He wouldn’t like me … No one does.” MY HEART IS BREAKING.)
Kim: Oh totally. Poor Mary! I never got the sense, though, that the narrator faults or blames Mary for being sour and disagreeable. I actually got the distinct impression that the narrator was very judgmental of her parents (and surprise surprise–particularly her mother. You know, being all pretty and vain as she was…Unforgivable!) for their neglect.
Wendy: I think the narration did what it set out to do–show us how Mary appears on the surface to a regular onlooker, and then gradually we understand why she is the way she is, and there’s implied criticism there on neglect, and advocating for how strongly children respond to nurturing, both physically and emotionally. I mean, the whole book is about transformation, so obviously the author has sympathy for her.
Layla: I wanted to talk a little bit about how the book seems to define “health.” This conversation could go in a number of directions, but the first thing I wanted to ask you all about was if anyone else was bothered by the assumptions that seem to undergird what “good health” looks like in this book. (Both Mary and Colin are unwell by the novel’s standards at the start of the story, and achieve some sort of cure by the end.) So. Maybe this is just me, but I was really bothered by the way Mary’s change in wellness seems to correspond with her move from India, where she is always “ill and tired and it was too hot,” to the English moors, which, by way of contrast, feature “rough fresh air blown over the heather [that] filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes.” ::skeptical face:: O RLY? I mean, I like being outside, it’s awesome, but this seems like it’s related to some pretty suspect attitudes towards India.
Wendy: My interpretation: the intent was to provide marked contrast between the environment she was raised in. While I agree there is something niggling in the author’s views on the British colonization of India that I would love to know more about, I think the overemphasis on health is partly due to her parent’s deaths from cholera, which to be scrupulously fair was but one of many epidemic diseases quite common in the region at that time–leprosy and malaria being others. I was reading in my wonderful The Secret Garden cookbook that Mary’s yellow skin might’ve been a reference to jaundice, and I’ll connect the dots myself to cholera and malaria, since apparently patients with either disease might exhibit symptoms of yellow skin. I would think that someone reading about all these outbreaks at home in England would feel a great deal of concern for what was happening overseas, and protectiveness of the “English” way of life.
Kim: I see what you’re saying. My original takeaway was that Mary’s flourishing in the story comes from the love and companionship that is infused into her her life in England. In India she was unloved and emotionally atrophied. Her physical health improvement directly corresponds with her emotional health and they feed into the other. It’s unfortunate and I think there is a certain level of (unintentional? I hope) ignorance in creating the parallel. But yeah, the novel does seem to think that it’s India’s fault that Mary was ill. It seems like only when surrounded by all things English could Mary be cured. Also, Master Craven is always traveling and it isn’t until he comes home for good that he too can be well. So yes, there is definitely a rather unpleasant English superiority vibe.
Layla: Haha, yes. This is what I meant. There’s this idealization of the British moors with their healthful air which blows the cobwebs out of her brain and wakes her up and so on and so forth, but like, there seems to be a pretty clear contrast with India, where, let us remember, she could never grow flowers. (She just stuck them in the sand and they died.)
Wendy: Yeah, there’s a preference for the homeland there. Though there is certainly public documentation of both shutting children away for fear of contagious disease as well as public health attitudes towards hygiene and fresh air in the late 19th and early 20th century, so I think it’s safe to say that has to inform the author’s thinking on some level. I can think of anecdotes in several children’s books that speak to this, too–the Moffats are all quarantined because Rufus has scarlet fever, and so are the All-of-a-Kind girls, who later on also take a friend to the seashore following a bad accident so that she might regain her physical and mental health. Oh, and Jo takes Beth away in Little Women for this reason as well! It seems to me that I’ve also read/seen so many stories set during this time (and before and after) in which children were shut away and “sea air” or whatever being prescribed that this point does not seem that unusual to me, I guess.
Kim: Okay, so here’s a thing that was really weird for me: I always majorly shipped Mary and Dickon in the movie. But in the book for some reason I was all about Colin. What is wrong with me? Perhaps because Dickon is already so whole and so loved and magical in the book. Mary and Colin grow on their journey together. I loved their dynamic. I loved that by working with Colin to overcome his own loneliness and tyrannical tendencies, Mary was able to find purpose and a place to direct her energies. I liked that she was a good foil for him. Oh, Colin, you met your match! *insert Deal With it gif*
Wendy: I cannot get over the cousins thing, sorry. Actually, there is an old TV film starring Colin Firth that made me positively livid, because it includes an epilogue in which Dickon dies–DIES–and Colin proposes to Mary. I enjoyed the Colin-Mary scenes, but shipping? No no no, not for me.
Layla: I did also really enjoy Mary and Colin together, if only because no one else loves them and they are both so lonely and then they find out they have each other. I also love how both of them have huge crushes on Dickon, which, you know, makes sense. He has squirrels in his pockets.
Kim: I will add that I did not super love the whole “If only you think positively then everything will be great and wonderful for you! Banishing ‘dark thoughts’ (i.e. depression, grief) is as easy as thinking it away!” there at the end. I love that this is a positive book with an uplifting message, but that perspective is just too naive and ill informed, and also, to me, heavy handed. I didn’t get an overt sense of preachiness from the rest of the novel but that bit tacked on at the end didn’t sit super well.
Layla: Yes! I am all about Mary, Colin, and Uncle Archibald finding love in a hopeless place, but like, the idea that illness can be cured by positive thinking (and lots of healthy fresh air from the moors) seems to me to be really troubling. I am also bothered by Archibald’s neglect of his child as long as he believes him to be a “deformed and crippled creature,” and ugh, it was so sad when Colin is like, “If I can walk, do you think my dad will love me?” Also also also, in terms of skepticism about the magic, I disliked that horrible part when they’re talking about how the Magic works (if you say something enough times, it becomes true), and Ben Weatherstaff brings up a woman who calls her husband a drunk, and Colin is like, “Well, you see something did come of it. She used the wrong Magic and made him beat her. If she’d used the right Magic and had said something nice …”. <– face of horror
Wendy: The Disability in Kid Lit peeps did a great write-up talking about the troubling trope of Colin’s “magical cure.” Since I’m long familiar with this story from childhood, I never thought of it as being in the same category as other books that have bothered me View Spoiler », for example, when Eona’s no longer crippled at the end of Eon « Hide Spoiler, but it is a very problematic message. I think we have to make some allowances for the time period in which this was set, and I don’t believe Archibald’s distancing himself from his child was that uncommon for someone of his rank and privilege. (It’s still not that surprising now among the wealthy set these days, though it’s certainly more frowned upon.) That’s without the stigma of Colin’s supposed lump on his back, too.
Kim: Yes, that part was particularly bad. So I did some looking around on the internet and apparently the author was a Christian Scientist and this idea that physical health can be restored by merely banishing negative thoughts is specifically Christian Scientist. I’m pretty surprised because I thought the book was only preachy at the very end. I thought this was just a straightforward story about the power of love and friendship being transformative! I certainly see the story in a whole new light now.
Wendy: For my personal taste, the book does not feel all that preachy to me re: pushing overt Christian Scientist values–no more so than Philip Pullman’s atheism affected His Dark Materials, which is a view I know you do agree with, Kim. Discovering the author’s background after the fact provides context for sure, but for me this didn’t overshadow the story or characterization while reading. Obviously you can’t just cure everything with positive thinking, but it’s certainly something that does help during times of illness–and in this particular case, it seemed the author’s intent was to say Colin wasn’t actually crippled? And his father just didn’t want to or was afraid to deal with him? Archibald was a hunchback, but it seemed to me it was fear of disease and illness (and emotional attachment) that was keeping Colin shut away.
Kim: Oh also! Apparently the sisters/twins things was an invention of the movie? But I found that part so lovely! I guess this is the part where I profess my never ending love for the 1993 movie. I’m strongly biased because I have just the loveliest memory of going to see it in theaters with my mom, aunt, my sister and my three cousins. Movie night (on a school night!) just for the girls. We all loved it and found the movie to be such a magical experience. I can also distinctly remember the day my mom surprised me after school by pulling the VHS out of nowhere. “Surprise, Kim! I got you this movie we both adore!” I still have that VHS too! Was this the movie that made me love moors? MAYBE. View Spoiler »If you have ever read The Sweet Valley Twins saga that tells the generations of their family history you would know that the Wakefields are also originally from the moors and ALSO a large part of why I love moors.) « Hide Spoiler I have an absurd love for them. I don’t know about you, but I see a huge, drafty palace on the English moors and I think,”Hello, heaven!” Misselthwaite seemed such a perfect place for imagination to run wild, even as isolated and unfriendly as it was. The movie is haunting, atmospheric, yearning, and magical. ALL OF MY FAVORITE THINGS. Also, why is Kate Maberly’s diction so perfect? It’s absurd.
Wendy: I’ve been saying Kate Maberly has perfect diction for years. Actually, I remember saying it on our favorite books-to-film adaptations post. I love that film, and we should totally all watch that together.
Layla: I don’t remember the movie! I know that we had it, but I don’t remember actually seeing it. (I do remember shipping Dickon/Mary, though, and being disappointed that there is like apparently a sequel where Dickon dies in the wars and then Mary and Colin get together? Nooooo.)
Wendy: Not the official sequel, it was the epilogue tacked onto a different production.
Layla: I only remember the musical. Where, spoiler alert, Dr. Craven is also in love with Lily, leading to a totally great duet.
Wendy: I ADORE THE MUSICAL. It takes liberties with the story but I don’t even care, I love it. (Listen to samples if you haven’t experienced this, particularly tracks #6, 8, 15, 25, 28, 30, 35 .) I listen to it and the movie soundtrack all the time! I actually give both albums and various Secret Garden packages often during the spring, some of the photographs are on this post.
Layla: It is my favorite musical in the world (it is not perfect, but I love the music so much) and Mandy Patinkin makes me much more sympathetic to Archibald than I would otherwise be. I cry tears every time I hear “How Could I Know,” and that entire album is on permanent rotation in my car. For anyone who has not seen it, both Wendy and I love it dearly, so you should go listen to it on Spotify or something. It is truly lovely.
Kim: I’m not as familiar with the musical! I only listened to it once through before at the urging of Wendy but I really enjoyed it.
Layla: What’s the significance of them learning to speak Yorkshire? I was curious about this because it seems like the folks who speak Yorkshire in the book are working class, and like, what does it mean for Colin and Mary to both try to adopt this dialect? (I’m asking this also because it seems like the people who are good people and know how to raise children aren’t, like, members of the upper class like either Mary or Colin’s parents. Mrs. Dickon’s Mom comes off far better and is much more of a model in the book.)
Kim: I think it has to do with them becoming more English where English is the most ideal and healthy thing you can be. Like, in the novel Dickon is clearly wonderful and magical and perfect. We all want to be more like Dickon.
Wendy: I just took that as natural curiosity, children trying on different guises. And it’s a contrast between Mary’s initial attitude towards the servants/her upbringing and her friendship with Dickon, there’s some implied egalitarianism in this portrayal as well. I really wish there was more known about the author, I’m fascinated by the themes running through both of her books that I’ve read.
Layla: Another thing: food porn? My choice is “two tin pails … full of rich new milk with cream on top of it and … the other held cottage-made currant buns.” I have never had currant buns but I would like to eat A PAIL OF THEM.
Wendy: You know, I remembered the food from A Little Princess better, but when I got the cookbook I realized there was food porn in this book, too! Which obviously makes me very happy.
Kim: 4.5 stars. Though there are definitely problematic elements, I tend to be more forgiving of them in 100+ year old books. I will continue on in ignorance of the Christian Scientist influence of this book and continue to see it as the charming story of two children who found health, renewal, and love through the magic of a garden. I don’t think it was “banishing bad thoughts” that saved Mary and Colin so much as it was the chance to both receive affection and receive affection for the first time in their lives. It’s a very sweet story and my eternal love for the movie was always going to ensure I loved this one too.
Layla: 4 stars, and they are all for Mary and no one else! I agree that the book has its problems (it is in many ways a product of its time) but I still very much enjoyed reading it. Any story that is about children thwarting adults and flourishing in spite of neglect, I am down with.
Wendy: 5 stars for me, forever and ever.
The Secret Garden Watchalong!
We looooove the 1993 film adaptation of this book, and we want to watch and live-tweet this specific version with you! What date and time works best for everyone who’s interested in joining in? Tell us in the comments, and we’ll announce on Twitter and fill in the info below.
The official movie trailer is pretty terrible, but there’s a little snippet from the soundtrack above that gives you a nice feel for the film.
Trust us–it’s a wonderful interpretation of this story, with splendid casting (The most perfect Mary Lennox imaginable, plus Professor McGonagall/Violet Crawley!), and perfect music, setting, and…everything. EVERYTHING. Come watch with us! It’s going to be a magical experience.
April Readalong: A Ring of Endless Light
Okay, so: here are a handful of words that will tell you why I’ve been dying to read this book for these readalongs for ages:
— wonderful family dynamic
— serious discussion of handling illness
— one of my very first book boyfriends is in it (!!!)
— she rides a freaking dolphin! A spoiler, obviously, but it’s right there on the cover, so.
This is one of the first YA books I ever remember reading, and it has stayed a favorite throughout adulthood. Ignore the “Austin Chronicles #4” thing, this can be read as a standalone.
Title: A Ring of Endless Light
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Discussion Date: Friday, April 24th
After a tumultuous year in New York City, the Austins are spending the summer on the small island where their grandfather lives. He’s very sick, and watching his condition deteriorate as the summer passes is almost more than Vicky can bear. To complicate matters, she finds herself as the center of attention for three very different boys.
Zachary Grey, the troubled and reckless boy Vicky met last summer, wants her all to himself as he grieves the loss of his mother. Leo Rodney has been just a friend for years, but the tragic loss of his father causes him to turn to Vicky for comfort—and romance. And then there’s Adam Eddington. Adam is only asking Vicky to help with his research on dolphins. But Adam—and the dolphins—may just be what Vicky needs to get through this heartbreaking summer.
It’s kind of crazy, but it looks like the only paperback edition in print is $8.89 on Amazon, although it’s only $6.41 for Kindle. This is a title that you should be able to get at the library, but you may have to place an order for it, since it’s one of L’Engle’s lesser-read works.
— If you’d like to get a head start on May’s book, we’ll be reading Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.
So, did you fall in love with The Secret Garden? Planning to join us for summery magic and heartbreak in A Ring of Endless Light?
Oh, and be on the lookout in the comments! Our friend Katie from Bookish Illuminations is going to link us to her blog post on her readalong experience, which will also detail her trip to the GARDEN THAT INSPIRED FRANCES HODSON BURNETT. *pea green*