Secret garden. Intriguing words, aren’t they? What images spring to your mind when you hear the words “secret garden?”
Do they bring up images of a space all your own?
A space where no one but you can get to?
A refuge where no one else is allowed in?
A secret hideout known only to you? Well, only you and the very few people you choose to tell about it.
The mere idea of a garden brings peace, calm, a steading feeling. Working in the earth relaxes and invigorates and grounds you. Woking with the soil and watching as the things you planted take root and begin to poke their heads above the ground. It’s a symbol of life and renewal. A beautiful picture of the resilience of nature. A garden is more than a picture of nature, though. It is a living demonstration of what can happen in people when they allow themselves to open up to new growth.
I love walking around and enjoying a beautiful garden, but for me to be the one to cultivate and care for a garden? Let’s just say, that garden might not make it! I have not been gifted with a green thumb! But I have always admired those who can cultivate and grow a garden. Their skill, their patience, their tenderness is evident as they work with the plants, coaxing them to grow. And the beautiful garden that bursts forth under their skilled care stands as evidence of their time, energy, skill, and effort to bring their garden from a mere idea to a stunning reality.
An Unlikely Beginning
When you look at the title ‘The Secret Garden,’ you wouldn’t expect this book to start out in India with a spoiled little rich girl. You would expect it to start with a garden! And yet, when the book opens, you meet Mary Lennox in the far reached of India. As far as main characters go, Mary stands out – and not in a good way! Spoiled. Selfish. Demanding. Obstinate. Proud. All these traits are clearly on display in Mary’s attitude, making it extremely hard to connect with her.
As a mom you almost start to think: I don’t want my child reading this example! I never want my child to act that way! Even from a child’s perspective, Mary’s extreme selfishness makes it challenging to relate to her. To feel anything other than the fact that she got what she deserved.
Yet, Frances Hodgson Burnett brings out some interesting things even in this very difficult beginning. Teaching and training have the power to shape a child. When a child is allowed to do anything and everything they want, they will grow up to be a spoiled, selfish human being. Yet, no human is beyond hope. As you begin to see and experience Mary’s journey through India, across an ocean to England and across the moors to Misselthwaite Manor, you begin to see not only the scenery, but Mary change.
You see, when you come face to face with a major life change, when circumstances beyond your control happen, you have a choice. You can spend all your time and energy resisting the change and wishing things were different. Or you can choose to embrace the change. To accept your unchangeable circumstances and choose to redirect the trajectory of your life. Mary lives out this choice, this power to choose change right before your very eyes through the pages of this book.
At first glance, it’s odd that such a transformative story should spring from such unlikely beginnings. And yet, as the story unfolds, this beautiful picture unfolds before you. The transforming power of decisions. The positive influence of others on a selfish life. The impact you can have on others when you begin to change for the better. And you start to see that, even though it might not show at first, the hard work to start bringing about change in your own life will one day burst forth into full bloom.
But what would a classic book be without characters? Quirky, lovable, memorable characters that leave an impact, not only on the others in the books, but who have the ability to reach through time and space, having an impact on your life as well.
Each person, each character is very distinct and unique in their own way. You would be hard put to mistake one character for another as you begin to meet them all alongside Mary! It’s a very small cast of characters that you meet, and yet each one profoundly contributes to the overarching story in their own way.
The moment you meet Martha, the story seems to brighten. It’s as if you start to see the sun breaking through the clouds in the dull, gray sky over the moor as Martha begins to chat. There is something about Martha you can’t deny. Something about her that draws you in. A realness. A genuineness. Her heart is open. You can feel that she truly cares about people – not only her family, but the people she has taken into her heart as her family.
The warmth and openness of Martha stands in direct contrast to the gruffness and reserve of Ben the Gardener. And yet, even as you first meet this man of few words, there is a sense of more. More to him than meets the eye. More to him than he wants to let on. Almost as if, given the right key, you could tap into a whole new part of him and unlock his tough exterior.
And then there is Dicken. What’s not to love about Dicken? His friendships with animals and the trust they place in him showcases his patience, his open and caring heart, his willingness to learn when he does not know. You can easily picture Martha and Dicken in the same family. Even though they both possess very distinct traits, there is a warmth of heart that comes from them both. A genuine care for other people that shines through in all they say and do. Dicken is the unsung hero of this story. Without Dicken, Mary would have been hard put to learn the lessons she does. Without Dicken, May would not have had a teacher to show her how to garden. Without Dicken and his example of patience, Mary might not have had patience with Colin as he learned his own lessons.
Mary herself intrigues you. She is a paradox! The book opens with a spoiled, selfish Mary willing to do anything and everything to get her way. She is rude, demanding, and horrid to be around. Were it not for the tragic events in her life, catapulting Mary from the world she knew to a brand new world, it would be almost impossible to connect with Mary.
And yet, Mary’s journey rings true. Her story is so familiar, making it easier and easier to identify with her as you see more and more of her character learn and develop throughout the book. She starts off as this selfish creature, but slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, her focus begins to shift from fixated on herself to focusing on others. To caring about those around her. To noticing those around her. In fact, her outlook makes such a dramatic shift to where she is able to reach and connect with Colin in a way no one else ever could. She calls him out on things no one else can because she has lived through those same attitudes. She fought through them and she overcome them.
Mary’s strength does not come in muscles or physical ability, although being outdoors does help with that! Her strength is an inner resolve. A determination that at first seems like her greatest enemy transforms into her greatest strength when she refocuses on other people. When she fully makes up her mind to do something, nothing can stop her!
At first glance, the characters seem simple enough. Each character in the story is so distinct that it is very easy to keep them all straight. Yet, when you go back and start looking deeper, looking under the surface, a depth, a fullness starts to emerge that hides underneath the simple exterior.
Transformative Power of a Garden
‘Might I have a bit o’ earth?’
This simple question from Mary to her uncle, Archibald Craven, holds the power of summing up the entire book in 7 words. In this mere phrase you see the connection with nature, the anticipation of planting a garden, the joy of putting in the work, and the expectation as you watch it transform before your very eyes.
From the title of the book, you would think this book is all about a garden. And, to be sure, the garden is central to the story. But at the same time, the garden almost becomes both a character in itself and at the same time an afterthought.
The garden remains in the background. Yet it demonstrates outwardly the changes happening internally in both Mary and Colin. You are even able to see glimmers of change beginning to take place in Uncle Archibald!
Discovering the walled garden alongside Mary leads you to realize how closed off Mary had been to anyone and everyone her entire life.
Finding the key to the garden, following the clues and the trail to the key, gives you a glimpse of the changes starting to take place. Mary takes the time to watch, play with, and talk to the robin. You begin to see her making an effort to see other people around her and not only herself.
Walking into the dormant garden, feeling the life still pulsating there, just waiting for a little bit of love awakens your senses to realize Mary is not a lost cause. She has potential. She needs someone to take the time to show her love. To show her what it looks like to focus on others and not solely on yourself.
Watching the work Mary puts into the garden awakens you to the fact that that change is not always easy. On the contrary, change is hard! Change takes time. And many times, like tending a garden, you have to put in a lot of work up front knowing you will not see the changes showing on the surface for a long while.
Seeing the leaves and shoots pushing up through the dirt in the garden shows you the extent of the work Mary has been putting in. All the tiny shifts to refocus on others. All the subtle changes to let others into her heart. The opening of her heart to care for the garden – something other than herself. It’s through the garden that you can clearly see changes starting to bloom in Mary’s life.
Experiencing the wonder of watching the flowers and plants burst forth into life, reveling in the miracle of spring, reveals the miracle occurring in Mary’s life. It’s almost as if she is being reborn, leaving the spoiled, selfish brat behind. Blossoming into a new person who cares about others. Who wants to help others as a friend, as a cousin, as a human being.
Transformative Power of Looking Beyond Yourself
Looking beyond yourself holds a transformative power that is displayed beautifully in The Secret Garden. In taking your eyes off of yourself and looking around to others, you begin to see this power come alive in your own life. And not only in your own life! As you redirect your focus onto others, you can help them grow and change for the better even as you continue to grow and change.
Looking at the friendship of Mary and Dicken or Mary and Martha leads you to think that Martha and Dicken’s positivity, calmness, and gentle acceptance of Mary are the main reasons why she begins to change as much as she did. Without a doubt, Martha and Dicken had a huge impact on Mary’s transformation!
And yet, Martha and Dicken were not the only factors in Mary’s transformation. You can clearly see this in the relationship and friendship between Mary and Colin. It’s as if both of these characters start out in the same place: Selfish, demanding, thinking only of themselves, spoiled little rich kids who are waited on hand and foot and allowed to do or say or think or feel anything they want.
It grabs your attention when Mary gets catapulted on a road to change by the circumstances around her. Yet she refuses to walk this road of change alone. When she sees someone, Colin, who needs help looking beyond himself she will stop at nothing to bring him along on this journey with her.
She uses her stubbornness and determination to her advantage, challenging Colin head on. And yet, even through this determination, even through this strength of will, this battle of wits that happens between the two of them, there develops a mutual respect. And from that respect a friendship begins to grow. Even though Mary is tough on Colin and refuses to put up with his antics, you can feel her desire to connect with him, her genuine care for him, her desire to have a friendship with him.
The Secret Garden holds a hidden message: When you take the time to look beyond yourself, you will see miracles happen. Everyday miracles like flowers blooming. Everyday inspiration like birds playing in the trees. When you start looking for inspiration in the everyday, your focus shifts from you to others. How you can help them see what you see and discover what you have discovered. It’s so much more than a story about a girl with a tragic childhood finding and breaking into a locked garden. It’s about the transforming power that comes from looking outside of yourself and helping others.
Closing the Gate
At first glance, The Secret Garden looks like a delightful children’s story about finding a secret garden, planting flowers and watching them grow. Yet, hidden within this simple children’s book are characters and lessons that will resonate with you for years to come.
Characters who, if you allow them, can have the power to
Reveal your faults…
Show you your own selfishness…
Help redirect your focus…
Shape your character…
Push you to see beyond yourself…
Lessons that resonate and tuck themselves deep inside your heart. Not making themselves obvious at first, but like a flower waiting for the springtime, these lessons will wait. And at the right moment, they will burst into bloom, having the most impact as you realize anew the lesson you read, be it ever so long ago.
Have you read The Secret Garden? Tell me one lesson you learned as you read in the comments below!
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Elizabeth Tatham, founder of Inspiration in the Everyday, is a homeschooling momma of 5 who loves helping other homeschooling mommas create a unique homeschooling adventure your kids will love…without the overwhelm! Join in on the journey with 7 simple steps to make your homeschooling day go faster, easier, and with less tears here.