Soaking in a quiet joy

Soaking in a quiet joy

The Secret Garden remains a book to go back to every now and then to find solace and heal wounds.

The Secret Garden

I still remember the illustrations in the copy of The Secret Garden I had as a child. This was an abridged version I was given when I was seven years old, to read and to come to grips with the English language. The story starts with young Mary Lennox, a spoilt brat, being orphaned in India due to a cholera epidemic at the time of the Raj. She is abandoned by the retinue of servants that attended to her parents and herself. The illustrations showed a young girl with a pale oval face looking out of arched windows at a generic Indian landscape. Veiled ayahs were shown running away from Mary.

Eventually, Mary returns to England where the only relative she has is a widowed uncle, Archibald Craven whose house is in deepest Yorkshire. Mary reaches the country estate, Misselthwaite Manor to find her uncle absent and the house run by the formidable Mrs Medlock who tells her to keep to her room and not roam about.

Naturally Mary, never one to listen to instructions, disobeys the housekeeper’s orders. One of the maids who attends to her, young Martha, tells her about a secret garden that was the late Mrs Craven’s — however, after her death it has been locked up and no one is allowed to enter the place. Mary manages, after a few days of exploring and chatting with the estate gardener, to open the door and enter the walled garden. It’s overgrown and untidy and she sets about cleaning it. As she works on the garden and changes it, the garden and nature, in turn, work its magic on her. Mary slowly transforms from the sullen, headstrong child she’d been to one who is kind, warm and generous. And as the house reveals more of its secrets, the magic of what Mary has unlocked changes everyone around her as well.

Ever since that first abridged adaptation I’d read as a child, I have gone back to The Secret Garden time and again — in the form of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original as well as an anime series from Japan and Agnieszka Holland’s delightful cinematic adaptation made in 1993.

Evening birdsong

Burnett was 61 and already famous on both sides of the Atlantic when The Secret Garden was published in serial form in a magazine called the American in 1910. Her life had not always been one of ease — born in Manchester to a poor family that migrated to the United States after her father’s death, she started writing stories in order to earn money.

She had been known in her lifetime for her writing for adults but she’s most known and loved now for her children’s books that also include A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy. Her life was marked by depression, long bouts of illness, and loss. Trying to overcome the death of a son, she travelled for a few years before returning to England and finding solace in gardening at the home she had there.

All these experiences shaped her fervent belief that looking outwards and engaging with the people and environment around us can help the mind and the body. Wounds can never completely heal of course, but planting a garden, listening to birdsong on an autumn evening and the quiet joy of things growing can assuage the pain for a while.

The author is a Bengaluru-based writer and communications professional with many published short stories and essays to her credit.

That One Book is a fortnightly column that does exactly what it says — takes up one great classic and tells you why it is (still) great. Come, raid the bookshelves with us.


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