Monday, 31 October 2011

A child's Jane Eyre by Miriam Halahmy

 This year is the centenary of the publication of The Secret Garden which the British author and friend of Frances Hodgson Burnett (FBH) called, 'a sort of child's Jane Eyre.' There are lots of interesting parallels; Yorkshire, an isolated house, an absent owner and a girl who turns up, orphaned and alone.

I’ve just been on a wonderful study day on The Secret Garden, held by the Children’s Historical Book Society.  I received my copy of the book as a prize when I was nine and someone else on the study day had exactly the same version with her, for the same reason.
I fell in love with the book straight away. We often visited Yorkshire as we had family there and I loved tramping over the moors. We also visited Haworth and marvelled over the tiny handwriting of the Bronte sisters, viewed through a magnifying glass.
I found Mary and Colin so strange and compelling, Martha was like the big sister I never had and I was probably in love with Dickon. The book has remained a favourite ever since.

On arriving at the Study Day someone showed me a handwritten, undated letter which had fallen out of a second hand book she had recently acquired. Here is the transcript :

Maytham Hall

Dear Mrs Parkes,
I should come with the greatest of pleasure now that I know that I shall not be a pariah and an outcast.
Yours sincerely,
Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Two of FBH’s biographers were next to me, Ann Thwaite ( who also wrote a biography of A.A. Milne) and Gretchen Gerzina, from New York. The letter caused quite a stir and according to the experts, probably referred to FBH’s  unhappy relationship with her second husband, Stephen Townsend and the problems these caused her socially.

The day was filled with talks by some of the world’s experts on FBH and her books and was full of the most marvellous insights. Ann Thwaite had met members of the family as well as former servants when researching for her book, including a man in his 80s, Harry Millam, who was a 12 year old stable boy at Maytham. I asked if he might have been the inspiration behind Dickon. Both biographers responded with, Oh, interesting, yes, well never thought about it before. Afterwards someone said, ‘Well done for asking the best question, you electrified them!’ It was like winning the school prize all over again.

Ann Thwaite’s husband, Anthony Thwaite, edited Larkin’s Letters to Monica and found a letter about The Secret Garden which Larkin read for the first time in 1953. He found the book ‘astonishingly good..calls on everyone to live life to the utmost....masterly ( about Yorkshire).’
Larkin observed how technically clever it was to depict two children, neither of whom had ever seen the spring. I hadn’t really thought about that before. Wonderful.

Snippets about FBH and The Secret Garden (TSG) you may or may not know ( taken from notes made on the day, so any errors are mine)

1.      FBH wrote 53 novels, mainly for adults, out of print now.
2.      There is a memorial to TSG in Central Park in New York.
3.      FBH wrote TSG in America where she lived for many years.
4.      FBH was considered one of the top five novelists in America and was ranked with Henry James.
5.      She crossed the Atlantic 33 times ( by sea) and was met by paparazzi every time, both sides.
6.      She was one of the highest paid authors, ever.
7.      The robin in TSG who showed the way came from Maytham, her home in Kent.
8.      Dickon was originally called Dick but FBH was told this was a silly name. She felt that Dickon was a good country name.
9.      TSG didn’t become famous until the 1930s after her death in 1924 aged 75 years.
10.   FBH would be most surprised at the celebrations all over the world this year for the centenary of The Secret Garden.

I could write more on Mrs Sowerby and the politics of The Secret Garden but I think that will be a whole new blog. I do hope you share my enthusiasm for the enduring fascination of this author and this book.


Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting - sounds like a great weekend. It must be about time for another film or TV adaptation - it seems to transfer to the screen very well.

Lovely to see the letter!

Lucy Coats said...

I adore TSG - one of my favourite books of all time. I have a 2nd edition copy which belonged to my grandmother, with beautiful hand-stuck coloured illustrations protected by onionskin paper. I had no idea there was a Children's Historical Book Society - would have gone to this particular day like a shot! Thanks for sharing, Miriam.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I hadn't heard of the society either but I thought I got the email through the S of A. However, next time I see something like that I'll put up the link on Balaclava.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

What a wonderful day! Everytime I see a robin in my garden I think about the story so it was lovely to know about the original inspiration.

Savita Kalhan said...

Lovely post, Miriam, and so informative. It made me realise how little I knew about FHB's life. TSG was one of my favourites too. In fact I just bought an illustrated copy of it in Paris this weekend!

Unknown said...

What a wonderful day you had. I feel the urge to dig out my copy and re-read it immediately!

Penny Dolan said...

A most interesting post - and what sounds like a totally fascinating day! (Never heard of CHBS either so must go and look them up.)

Ness Harbour said...

Absolutely fascinating post. Thank you! I absolutely adore TSG even and have used it on a Child Lit Module I taught on.

heather k said...

Great Post Miriam thanks! Wow I’d never heard of the Children’s Historical Book Society either, I’ll have to check them out. I can’t resist walled gardens because of that book. I came across a couple of good ones in Charlton House the during the London open home weekend.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I get the feeling the SAS is going to swamp the Children's Historical Book society!! I'm sure they'll be delighted. Thanks for all your comments folks, there is so much more to cover. One of the talks was about the Politics of the Secret Garden.... but no, don't get me started. I'll try to summarise it in another blog. Wonderful stuff.