Nostalgia has a funny way of giving you a complex. It seems to inspire obsession in a concentrated way, further ostracizing those who weren’t in on the joke the first time around. This has happened to me a lot. I don’t like singing along to Disney movies as much as my friends are convinced I do. I think I watched about five episodes of the original Ren and Stimpy run. And the worst is that, apparently, I did not read.
Ok, I did read some. I read Goosebumps and the Wayside School stories and Calvin and Hobbes. I flipped through my mom’s old A. A. Milne books. I did my best with the Narnia series. But there are, apparently, large gaps in my collection, and there’s something about the modern penchant for nostalgia that shines a harsher light on this. Oh, the shock from my friends upon discovering I never read The Phantom Tollbooth. What did I mean, I hadn’t read Anne of Green Gables? How could I be a proper intellectual if I hadn’t spent my adolescence reading Little Women instead of making friends?
So with this series, I’m setting out to fill those gaps. This is my chance to see what my friends were talking about, and maybe retroactively get in on all those conversations. Or I’ll just see what nonsense everyone thought we should be taking in as children. It’ll be fun!
The Secret Garden (Indiebound | Amazon) was an obvious first choice, mostly because I already have a copy in my apartment. I have no idea how it got there, but I assume it was my mother’s. It’s a worn hardcover in faded-green canvas and full of illustrations. For some reason it ended up with me.
The Secret Garden is a pleasant book about a bunch of racists who are convinced that living in the windy moors of England somehow cures disease. Okay, that’s not all it is. It’s actually a pretty wonderful book. But, as with most books written before…1920? 1970? Last month? All right, just as with most books, it’s got some weird racist bits. These bits particularly struck home for me because my dad is an Indian immigrant. (I’ve been assured that A Little Princess is far more racist. I’ll get back to you on that.)
It starts off with Lady Mary (can we please pretend this is baby Lady Mary from Downton Abbey? People still watch that show, right? I know she’s supposed to be blonde but that would make her Lady Edith) wasting away in her palace in India because her parents don’t pay enough attention to her. (Colonialism!) Then her parents die, and Mary gets shipped to England to live with her uncle, Mr. Craven, in a different palace, except here people sometimes talk back to her and she doesn’t like that as much. Her new Yorkshire maid, Martha is like “Oh my god, why are you white?” because she expected everyone from India to be “a black,” but eventually the two of them start getting along, and Martha gets her to start running around outside and kibitzing with the gardener and stumbling upon…a secret.
I really love how shocked everyone is when she discovers the garden that her uncle shut up after his wife died, even though it’s basically all anyone talks about to her. “Oh, and by the way, there’s this garden that you never would find unless you were really looking and it’s locked because your benefactor, whom you’ve never met, forbids anyone to go in there, okay bye!” Then: “For some reason she couldn’t stop thinking about the garden.” They’re also surprised when she discovers her (also secret) invalid cousin, Colin, even though she hears him screaming in his room every single night.
So Mary spends most her time running around the gardens, trying to find the secret one, and working up an appetite. A good third of this book is dedicated to describing in detail just how “fat” Mary gets once she learns how to jump rope and do other active things, and though I do appreciate a setting where a little girl getting fat is a good thing, it is god damned boring. Chapter after chapter of how Martha’s mom thinks Mary should get some exercise, and Mary telling Martha “oh, your mom seems nice” and Mary going into the garden and hanging out with a bird. Maybe this is why I couldn’t get into these books when I was a kid. I lived in New York City with a mural that said “Crack is Wack” up the street from my apartment. I did not have time to read about a little girl who managed to finish an entire bowl of porridge.
In between the jump-roping and the eating, Mary sort of befriends Ben Weatherstaff, the crabby old groundskeeper, because they both like the same robin that keeps flying around the garden. At this point I start getting worried, because Mary is ten years old and doesn’t seem to have ever gone to school, and her only friends are an old man and possibly a bird. Someone in the book even suggests she should get a governess, but then Martha’s mom intervenes with, “Oh, she doesn’t need school, she needs to jump more rope!” And that’s how the patriarchy gets you.
But guys, we need to talk about Dickon.
Dickon is Martha’s brother. First, I spent the first 150 pages mentally referring to him as “Daikon,” like the radish, because I can’t read. Second, I am really worried about Dickon. Did they have meth back then? I think he’s on meth. He’s up every morning before the sun comes up, just wandering around the fields saying things like “ahahaha canna tha’ hear the birds and smell tha’ honey I’ve been here for four hours look a pony this is my friend the fox I eat one piece of toast a day and I’ve trained these squirrels to hang out on my shoulders because they trust me don’t you ever just want to crawl in the moor and die because it’s so beautiful I’m gonna dig now!!!!!!” It’s horrifying. It also doesn’t help that in my copy’s illustrations, he looks like Raggedy Katharine Hepburn.
I also feel really bad for the children who read this and assumed that if they just had enough Magic (Magic is always capitalized in this book), squirrels would perch on their shoulder and be their friends. This is not how squirrels work. I got bit by a squirrel once, they are not a friendly bunch. Or maybe that’s just because I’m not an Angel of the Moor.
Anyway, the book moves on and pretty much forgets about Mary and Dickon to focus on Colin, Mary’s cousin who’s been told he’s an invalid his entire life. As soon as Colin starts trying to walk in the garden we never hear about Mary or even Dickon again, even though for the first three-quarters of the book she was its entire focus. What happened to her? Did she get nicer? Did she and Dickon fall in love? Way to follow through, Burnett. But Colin’s story is that he’s a little asshole who finally has someone (Mary) call him out on all the tantrums he throws, and he gets outside in the fresh English air and gains his strength and learns to walk until his dad comes home and loves him again.
For most of the book Colin is convinced he is going to die, because his weird doctor-uncle has told him he’s an ugly hunchback who is going to die. His doctor-uncle may or may not be next in line to inherit the mansion if Colin dies, so his motives may have been suspect. Sadly, it doesn’t pay off, and once Colin insists on going outside with Mary, his doctor-uncle basically says “well, that’s nice, you seem fine” and is never heard from again. Burnett seemed to want to write about four different books here.
As ridiculous as everything turned out to be, I actually liked Colin! I feel like as a kid, that’s who I would have connected with. Not the little girl who seems completely unappreciative that she has lived in not one, but two palaces in her young life. Not the little boy on meth. Give me the little boy who is surrounded by adults who lie to him and finally decides “fuck you, I’m going to walk.” That’s the narrative most young people reading YA connect to, regardless of how they grew up. It’s empowering to see a character your own age makes their own choices about their life! It’s fantastic! I was totally rooting for him…
Until he started saying some really terrible things. He was always sort of terrible, in the standard rich-kid-who-always-gets-his-
To counter this, Weatherstaff tells the story of Jem Fettleworth’s wife, who would “say th’ same thing over thousands o’ times–callin’ Jem a drunken brute,” until her husband “gave her a good hidin’.”
Colin responds “She used the wrong Magic until she made him beat her. If she’d used the right Magic and had said something nice perhaps he wouldn’t have got as drunk as a lord and perhaps–perhaps he might have bought her a new bonnet.”
EVERYONE WHO READ THIS AS A CHILD, PLEASE TELL ME YOU DID NOT INTERNALIZE THIS. Holy shit. Please tell me that you did not grow up thinking that it’s okay if someone drunkenly beats you because it is probably your fault anyway, and if you’re nice enough you could maybe squeeze a sweet hat out of it. And the worst part is everyone agrees! Ben Weatherstaff calls Colin “a clever lad” and says he’ll tell Lady Fettleworth this fantastic new theory on why her life is such garbage. How pleased she’ll be!
I think the last twenty pages or so are just about Colin’s dad thinking about returning to England from wherever else he was in Europe, but all I could think was how much I hoped his dad would come back to see a tree fall on Colin and break his legs for real.
I’m reading this as an adult, after having read Wuthering Heights, having met far too many women who just want to drink tea by a big window and stare out at a desolate rainy field and have a really complicated love life. I get it. But I don’t think I would have gotten it at the age of ten. I think I would have walked away feeling like a girl’s value is in how nice she is and that I was weird for being half-Indian. Even though Burnett forgets Mary, she leaves her at a time when everyone is saying how nice and agreeable and pretty she is, and what an improvement that is over her being too skinny and talking back to everyone. Meanwhile, Colin talks back constantly and everyone praises him for how much energy he has.
Or maybe I would have been too confused by Dickon’s accent to read more than 50 pages.
Anyway, what should I read next?