The Secret Garden


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Book Review

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Ten-year-old Mary Lennox is a sour, spoiled child raised mainly by servants. Her father holds a position with the English Government in India, and her beautiful mother loves people and parties. When a cholera outbreak kills everyone in her house, Mary is sent to temporarily live with an English clergyman and his family. Then she sails to England to live with an uncle she’s never met named Archibald Craven.

Mr. Craven’s home, as old as it is enormous, is called Misselthwaite Manor. It sits on the edge of a moor. Mr. Craven’s housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, tells Mary most of the gloomy manor has been locked up since Mr. Craven’s wife died 10 years earlier. She warns the girl not to go poking around. The next day, Mary meets a friendly housemaid named Martha. Martha doesn’t coddle her as Mary’s maids did in India, which makes her confused and angry.

Mary hates the bleak moor out her window. She becomes intrigued, however, when Martha mentions a garden once belonging to Mrs. Craven. It has been locked since her death, and Mr. Craven has buried the key. When Mary goes outside to explore, she searches for the mysterious walled garden. She meets an old gardener named Ben Weatherstaff and an attentive robin she soon considers a friend. When Mary asks about Mrs. Craven’s garden, Ben tells her there is no door to the garden and hasn’t been for 10 years. He echoes Mrs. Medlock’s warning not to poke around.

Mary asks Martha more questions about the garden. The maid reveals Mrs. Craven died there after a tree branch she was sitting on fell. Mary also inquires about a noise she’s been hearing in the halls. It sounds like the crying of a child. Martha insists it’s just the wind.

Mary begins to eat more and gains some color in her cheeks. She enjoys hearing Martha talk about her large, poor family. Mary is particularly interested in Martha’s 12-year-old brother, Dickon. He seems to have a special gift for tending plants and animals. Mary explores the house, passing old artwork and dusty rooms. Again, she hears the crying sound. Mrs. Medlock finds Mary in a forbidden part of the mansion and ushers her out, warning that she may get herself locked up if she doesn’t stop poking her nose where it doesn’t belong.

Martha’s mother, Susan, buys Mary a jump rope. While Mary is out jumping one day, the robin guides her to a buried key and the door to Mrs. Craven’s walled garden. Mary walks in and wonders if anything there is still alive. Without mentioning the garden, she later asks Martha to send Dickon to buy her gardening tools and flower seeds. Dickon brings the things to Mary himself. She likes him right away and shows him the secret garden. He says many flowers are still alive, and the two spend long days pruning and planting.

Mr. Craven calls Mary to his study for the first time. She realizes he is not ugly or horrible, as she’d expected, just very sad. She asks him for some earth on which to grow flowers, and he tells her she may take any unwanted piece of land she finds. He leaves on a long trip.

In the night, Mary continues to hear crying. She finally stumbles upon a bedroom where a boy her age lies. Once they each determine the other is not a ghost, they discover they are cousins. Colin is Mr. Craven’s son. He cries and throws horrible fits because he’s been led to believe he’s dying or becoming a hunchback. Mary tells him wonderful things about the moor and India, and her company delights Colin.

The servants are grieved to know Mary has discovered the boy. They quickly change their minds, however, when they see how Mary can scold and sway him in a way no one else can. People have always given him whatever he has wanted. Since Mary herself used to be spoiled and sullen, she fearlessly tells him to stop whining and start living.

Mary arranges for Dickon to come to Colin’s room and bring the various animals he’s charmed. Mary and Dickon convince Colin to come with them to the secret garden. Colin hasn’t been out of the house in years, but he loves the idea. He demands all of the servants stay away from the gardens so no one will see where they go. The three spend many days in the beautiful, blooming walled garden. Mary’s and Colin’s appetites continue to increase, and they grow stronger.

Ben, the gardener, is angry at first to discover them there. In time, he becomes their helper and ally, especially after he sees how Colin is improving. Not only does Colin grow healthier, but he secretly learns to stand and then walk. He keeps these new abilities a secret from all but his friends in the garden, as he wants to surprise his father when Mr. Craven returns from his trip. Mary and Colin are convinced there is Magic surrounding them and within them that is causing all of the change and beauty in nature and in their hearts. Dickon has told his mother about the garden, so Susan comes to visit as well. Colin exercises daily and proclaims he will live forever.

Far away, Mr. Craven feels a sudden sense of hope that has long eluded him. When he receives a letter from Susan urging him to come home, he prepares at once. Upon his return, he feels he is being led to the secret garden. He arrives to find his son healthy and walking. They walk back to the manor together, in full view of the awe-struck servants.

Christian Beliefs

Ben says Mrs. Craven is in heaven. Ben and the children sing the Doxology in a moment of joy and celebration. Mrs. Medlock refers to the sneaky Mary and Colin as a pair of young Satans.

Other Belief Systems

Mary and Colin believe in and speak a great deal about Magic. The word is capitalized throughout the book. Mary hears many stories about Magic from her servants in India. The kids believe it is the life force in nature, what makes the garden grow. Dickon is able to charm animals.

Colin decides to grow up to be a scientist who studies the essence of this Magic. He sits everyone in a circle and has them chant to call forth the Magic so he can walk. Mary clarifies she’s certain this is good, or white, Magic. After they all sing the Doxology, Colin says the lyrics are expressing the same thing he means when he says he’s thankful to the Magic. When he asks Dickon’s mother if she believes in Magic, she says yes. She says she never heard it called that before, but she supposes there are different names for it everywhere. She also suggests it doesn’t matter what you call it since it made Colin well. She refers to it as the Big Good Thing and the Joy Maker. (Notes in the book explain author Frances Hodgson Burnett was a Christian Scientist, which informed her worldview and the worldview of her characters.)

Authority Roles

While not an unkind soul, the grief-stricken Mr. Craven distances himself from everyone. Stern Mrs. Medlock warms to Mary once she sees the girl’s impact on Colin. Martha speaks kindly and honestly to Mary, sharing stories of her family. Mrs. Medlock, Martha and the other servants are required to pander to the every command of the spoiled, 10-year-old Colin. Susan Sowerby is a well-respected mother of 10 who offers wise advice. Ben seems surly at first but becomes a friend and helper when he sees what the garden has done for the children’s health.

Profanity & Violence

The phrase Good Lord appears a few times. Ben calls the people spreading rumors about Colin’s condition jacka–es.

Sexual Content


Discussion Topics

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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