Helena Pielichaty was born in Sweden to an English mother and Polish-Russian father. She moved to Yorkshire when she was five and, despite spending the past 25 years in Nottinghamshire, her spirit has remained in Yorkshire ever since. Helena has published over 20 books for children. Her most recent, Accidental Friends, is on the YoungMinds Book Award 2008 longlist. She is currently working on a series of football books for 8-11 year olds called Girls United, due out to coincide with the England Women's team winning the Euro 2009 Championships! In this post Helena discusses Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden.
Helena Pielichaty on The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Last year I was asked if I'd be interested in writing an abridged version of The Secret Garden for 'younger, modern children who might find the original too demanding and a little dated.'
I was reluctant at first - who was I to tinker with Frances Hodgson Burnett, a classic children's writer (she also wrote A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy among others) who was still in print after over a century? But the fact it was set in Yorkshire appealed to me, as did the non-altruistic thought that it might sell in garden shedloads.
Upon the first read-through I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed it, despite the risible attempts at Yorkshire dialect. The story was vibrant, fast-paced and brimming with rum characters. I was absorbed by it. True, there were several politically incorrect passages that had to go. On the opening page we hear that Mary's mother 'had been a great beauty who cared only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people'. That made me howl! Mary also calls her servants pigs. '"Pigs! Pig! Daughter of Pigs!" she said, because to call a native a pig is the worst insult of all.' Today's editors would have a fit.
The Secret Garden begins in India where the spoilt, precocious 'disagreeable-looking child' Mary Lennox is quickly orphaned and dispatched to live in Yorkshire with an uncle she has never met. The stark contrast in climate and landscape bewilders Mary, as do the different rules for dealing with servants. They don't take kindly to being called pigs in Yorkshire, tha' knows, not even t' chambermaids. Mary soon learns no one will come running when she stamps her foot. Soon learns, in fact, that Misslethwaite Manor isn't going to be any different from her home in India. She will be fed and clothed but not nurtured and loved. Even her Uncle Archibald, it turns out, doesn't want to see her. 'He's a hunchback and he's horrid,' Mrs Medlock the stern housekeeper relishes telling the girl.
Despite some tentative conversations with Martha, her young maid, Mary is generally left to her own devices. To stop her from being a nuisance, she is encouraged to explore the vast gardens of the manor house. Her daily forays soon put some colour into her sallow cheeks and she learns what she can about flowers and plants from the rather blunt, anti-social gardener Ben Weatherstaff.
Then, as they should, things begin to happen. A chirpy robin leads her to discover the key to a secret garden. As Mary turns the key, the reader's heart is thudding. Burnett's writing is simple and direct but sweeps us along.
Mary took a long breath and looked behind her up the long walk to see if anyone was coming. No one ever did come, it seemed, and she took another long breath, because she could not help it, and she held back the swinging carpet of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly-slowly...
As if the mysteries of the hidden garden aren't enough, Misslethwaite Manor itself holds its own secrets. A cry in the middle of the night sends Mary exploring out-of-bounds passages and landings. Here she discovers a child her own age - Colin, Uncle Archibald's son. Colin, a fearful, bedridden hypochondriac is even more spoilt and precocious than Mary and equally neglected. A friendship soon develops and Mary becomes the only one who can calm Master Colin's epic temper tantrums. The scene where Mary out-screams him is one of my favourites. I reckon that in a fight between Mary Lennox and her modern day equivalent of Jacqueline Wilson's Tracy Beaker, Mary would win hands down.
Not all the children in The Secret Garden are neglected and damaged. The Sowerbys, Martha's sentimentalized poor but salt-of-the-earth siblings, would have been snapped up by Hovis's marketing people. It is Martha's brother Dickon, the ethereal 'boy spirit', who teaches Mary and Colin that nature can salve and heal.
The power of nature is the central theme in The Secret Garden. Burnett herself was a keen gardener and wrote the book from her garden. She is quoted as saying, ‘As long as one has a garden, one has a future; as long as one has a future, one is alive.' I loved the way that through tending the secret garden, Mary and Colin change from stilted and prickly little things to something much more vital and healthy.
There is also a mystical-realism element to the story. Burnett was a Spiritualist and it shows. The distraught Uncle Archibald, so bereft by his wife's death he is unable to parent his son, hears his wife calling to him as he roams some remote Italian mountain. 'Where are you?' he asks. 'In the garden,' she replies. So to the garden he returns, to be reunited with his overjoyed son for an appropriate, feel-good ending.
I'm sure any child today could read and enjoy The Secret Garden. In fact, they'll probably read it with a sense of envy. There's no school, no SATS, no panicky parents breathing down Mary's neck in case she falls out of a tree. There's a vast garden to run round and a massive house to explore. What's not to like? No wonder it is still in print a century later.