Did you ever imagine someone would put Politics and The Secret Garden (TSG) in the same sentence? But that is exactly what happened when I went to a study day on this wonderful book a couple of months ago. 2011 was the centenary year of the publication of TSG and there have been events all over the world. Only this week I was asked by two different groups of schoolchildren about my favourite book and when I said, TSG, a cheer went up. Amazing - 100 years later.
Every author’s dream.
So why Politics and TSG? Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester in the mid-19th century into a highly charged political background. She used to play with the poor children in nearby streets and became aware of the divisions in society from a tender age. As she was growing up Engels was publishing his work, Conditions of the Working Class in England, based on his observations of the abysmal poverty in Manchester. The perfect background for an author with a social conscious.
According to our speaker on the study day, Dr Dennus Butts. TSG highlights the divisions in society and the way in which the different groups simply fail to connect. Mary, the little orphan girl in the book, is brought to live in a great house with 100 rooms, long dark corridors and many mysteries. People in the house just don’t talk to her. Outside isn’t much better. There are long paths, high walls and a door with no key. Barriers everywhere, obstacles which prevent movement forward, just like society at the time.
The book highlights divisions in society in three ways :-
Firstly TSG opens in India where there is a clear division between the British who are in control and the Indians. Mary has a truly shocking attitude to her ayah,or local nanny. Her father is a member of the ruling class. Until of course Mary is orphaned.
Secondly Frances Hodgson Burnett ( FHB) was always very interested in the social divisions of great houses - the Upstairs/Downstairs. This is a recurring theme in her books – 53 novels in all. It is worth noting that she was one of the highest paid authors of her day and ranked as one of the top 5 novelists, together with Henry James.
Thirdly, the unequal and unfair treatment of women in the nineteenth century.
FBH wanted to portray the harmony that can exist despite these divisions and she is on a mission. At the centre of her argument is the character of Mrs Sowerby. She is the mother of Dickon the country boy who tames animals and lives in a cottage on the moor with his large and happy family.
According to FBH, Mrs Sowerby, “is the most important character in the book. You only see her for a moment at the end of the book but she is the chief figure in it.”
Mrs Sowerby represents goodness, healing and an affirmative life force.
“I found out,” says Susan Sowerby, “that the world was shaped like an orange and I found out before I was ten that the whole orange doesn’t belong to nobody.” So there’s no sense in grabbing at the whole orange which is what many of the characters in TSG try to do. They have to be prepared to cross barriers, and bridge the divisions between themselves and others in the novel. Colin, Mary, rheumaticky gardener Ben, the maid Martha, Mr Craven, all make this journey.
Once Mary begins to see her maid Martha as a human being she starts to respect and then admire her. FBH demonstrates throughout her wonderful novel that the way to overcome the divisions in society between classes and socio-economic groups is simply to get them talking to each other. Simple! And very current!
It is Mrs Sowerby who points the way. Just like the robin!