Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Politics of The Secret Miriam Halahmy

 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!


Ness Harbour said...

I too love TSG and in face have spent the last few years teaching it on a Children's Lit course. All the students love it and they are all 20+
I was always fascinated by the ending and the fact that despite Mary being strong along with Mrs Sowerby as you mentioned the perceived patriarchal 'norm' is reinstated in the last chapter which is all about Colin and his father and hardly ever mentions Mary.
Thank you for this post Miriam and am so pleased that children are still loving it just as much.

Abi Burlingham said...

A really interesting post Miriam. I confess, I have never read this book, but loved the film and have just bought it for my daughter. I think I may have to buy the book too after this!

Sally Zigmond said...

I have read my Puffin copy of TSG so many times the pages have fallen apart but I wouldn't part with it for the world. The breaking of class barriers features even more heavily in FHB's A Little Princess where Sarah Crewe goes from privileged pupil to starving drudge within the same school. Her growing relationship with the Indian servant next door and poor Becky is magical. The final message that however hungry one is, there's always someone even more hungry still resonates today.

Nicky said...

Really interesting post. I loved TSG as a child but haven't read it for forty years. I am rather afraid of what I might find, but your piece has reassured me.

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting - I'd never seen The Secret Garden in this context. And I love the cover with the red coat!

Myra Ahmad said...

Really nice post. The Secret Garden has been my favourite story since I first read it, when I was ten. The whole story has always fascinated me, and perhaps it is actually the 'politics' in the story that really touches one's heart, and the fact that one can cross the borders if one wills.
Great post. You just found yourself a follower.
--- Myra Ahmad

Miriam Halahmy said...

Thanks for all your great comments. If you are new to the blog I did en earlier post on the secret garden, last december I think, also after attending this marvellous study day. By the way, the pics are all film posters. The book really became popular in the 1930s and 40s when they started filming it.

jongleuse said...

How interesting, Miriam. I've just written an essay for my Children's Lit MA which is partly about The Secret Garden. The rather dissonant ideologies (negative references to blacks and 'natives', colonial images of India on the one hand, on the other hand romanticising the 'honest' poverty of the Sowerbys) are one of the reasons it is such a studied text-some academics have remarked on how the colonialism reinforces the class divisions! On rereading as an adult I was struck most by the debt to the Brontes, the strange crying of Colin at night, his presence being kept secret, and the rather inadequate explanation for all this faux gothic mystery!

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