Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Secret Garden On Healthy Environments and Imperialism – FM+

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If something doesn’t have an anime adaptation, has it truly made it? I kid, but a random Youtube rabbit hole adventure led me to Anime Himitsu no Hanazono, an adaptation of the children’s classic The Secret Garden.

This rabbit hole was during college when I took Child Lit for the second time and chose to write about Frances Hodges Burnett’s 1911 novel about the cranky little British girl sent to live at her uncle’s only becoming less contrary after finding a “secret” garden!

For all of its focus on the the impact of one’s environment on their health, capital M magic, and human companionship, the book is also complicated in its portrayal and attitude on imperialism and colonialism.

For anyone who hasn’t read or seen an adaptation of the story, Mary is an abandoned young British girl living in British ruled India during a cholera outbreak which has killed both of her parents who by the way didn’t even want her. Oof. The Indian servants having no reason to care about her let her become spoiled and self-centered so when she’s sent to live with her wealthy uncle Archibald Craven, she’s a rude brat to put it lightly. Over time after finding out about her dead aunt’s secret garden, and meeting two young boys Dickon and her sickly cousin Colin, she gets better!

Environment Effects On Growth

This theme is seen through Mary and Colin’s interactions with the moor and the titular secret garden, which returns Colin to health and transforms contrary Mary to a lovable, joy-filled, young girl.  The effect of the moor and garden are in direct contrast to Mary’s time spent as a child in India, and Colin’s seclusion in Misselthwaite Manor which are at fault for their health problems.

In particular, the opposition between India and England reflects the British imperial and racist views of Burnett’s time and establishes England as the superior location for positive health outcomes for both Mary Lennox and Colin Craven. Burnett portrays India in a negative manner to illustrate the positive relationship between the moor and the secret garden on the characters’ renewed health.

The portrayal of India reflects the orientalist tradition of Burnett’s time as explored by Edward Said. British colonizers took official charge of India in 1858 and presented what is now three separate nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as a backwards nation in need of British rule for progress (Kaul, 2011).

In his seminal study Orientalism, Edward Said recognized that orientalism was used to establish hegemony over the orient where Europeans appropriated for themselves the authority to deem their knowledge as natural and self-evidently true (Said, 1978). 

By representing the Middle East and what is now South Asia as one distinct Orient with exotic creatures and practices, the Orient was made inferior to the culturally, racially, and morally superior Europe. Replicating the orientalist description of India in The Secret Garden allows for an immediate connection to be made for Burnett’s European readers who can instantly understand that India is no place for a British child.

In this case however, the cholera outbreak can be seen as a representation of British intervention in India itself, awful for India, and awful for Mary who without caring parents is sickly and rude.

First, India’s inferiority is made clear by its ill effects on Mary Lennox. Immediately within the first paragraph of the novel, the reader is introduced to Mary, the most “disagreeable-looking” child with yellow hair and a yellow face because “she had been born in India” and had always been ill “in one way or another” (1).

By the age of six, Mary was “tyrannical and selfish a little pig” because her mother allowed the Indian servants to spoil Mary to no end (1). Here, India is presented as a land where parents do not care for their children and sickness (cholera) is rampant, killing everyone near Mary.

Even though Mary is the child of a “pretty creature,” her time in India did her no favors. Not only is Mary sickly looking, she has a spoiled and angry personality not becoming of a young girl (10). The obvious message is that a girl her age should be more socially aware and less selfish.  Unfortunately, even the other British children dislike Mary and call her “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary” which though naughty, is understandable because she refuses to talk to anyone or even smile (10).

While these other children are British, they are forgiven by the narrative because Mary’s behavior is so unlikeable. The introduction of India directly posits England as the land that will assumedly return Mary Lennox to positive physical and mental health and establishes India as a place that is clearly not for children as they turn into creatures like Mary. Or at least British children since Indian children don’t make an appearance.

Anime Himitsu no Hanazono sure makes Mary seem way nicer and cooler than she is at the start of the book.

Even as a ten year old, Mary is completely unaware of how others view her! In fact, Mary often thinks others are disagreeable, including Mrs. Medlock, the “most disagreeable” person Mary “had ever” seen (13). Mary also reverts to acting like she did in India when she does not agree with someone. Mary “[pinches] her” thin lips together making herself look sick. (22). Again, her personality defects reflect her time in India.

When Mary meets Martha, Martha immediately starts talking to Mary, which Mary believes is strange and disrespectful. Unlike Martha, the Indian servants knew their place and never spoke freely. Mary asks if Martha is to be her servant in her “imperious little Indian” way as if Mary’s haughtiness is due to living in India, and not because her parents did not show her care (27). India is yet again emphasized as the reason for Mary’s bad health and bad personality.

Martha also represents the racism and imperialist view of India at the time when she responds that there are a lot “o’ blacks” there instead “o’ respectable white people” (28).  Here, only white people, and the same white people responsible for harming India are respectable.

This remark leads to an uncivilized outburst from Mary who states that the Indians “are not people” and throws herself onto the pillows and sobs “so unrestrainedly” that Martha is frightened by it (29). Though Martha does respond that she has nothing against Indians and seems to admire their religiousness, the narrative still portrays them in a racist manner. Moreover India had spoiled Mary because she “had always been attended by her Ayah” (57).

In Misselthwaite Manor, however; Mary learns to dress herself due to Martha looking at Mary as if Mary “was silly and stupid” when she wanted everything done for her (57). Martha inspires Mary to change her spoiled and “imperious Indian” behavior and learn independence unlike the Indian people.

After all, India is full of people that are simultaneously “not people” but still serve as servants who must do as their masters say. Ultimately, India is imagined as full of people in need of British rulers to progress. Had Mary grown up in England around people who did not spoil her, the assumption is that she would have been much more likeable. Also, except for the ayahs and runaway servants, there are no other characters of color in the book.

Unfortunately the webseries modern adaptation didn’t include any POCs as leads either.

As the novel progresses, Burnett continues to describe England in positive terms to reveal how Mary’s time in England is doing her a great service by rejuvenating her into a better and healthier version of herself.  Whereas Mary always “felt hot and too languid” to care about anything in India, the “fresh wind from the moor” blows “the cobwebs” out of her brain to “waken” her up (50).

Already within a week of arriving to England, Mary is starting to get better physically and mentally. This is also the first time that Mary is described as being interested in anything other than herself, including food. In India, Mary would likely have continued to grow into a spoiled, sickly adult.

Her time at Misselthwaite Manor has also resulted in three other “good things” outside of her healthy appetite (52). She has run so long in the wind that her “blood had grown warm” (52). She also “understands a robin” and learns what it is like to “feel sorry for someone” after learning about her uncle (52).

The bar is so low for this white kid! She even shows surprise when Martha brings her a skipping rope since “a cottage full of fourteen hungry people” could not afford to give a present (75).  Additionally, the wind and “rough fresh air” whips “some red color” into her cheeks and brightens “her dull eyes” when she “did not know anything about it” (46).

Mary finally has an appetite, “stirred” blood, and a “stirred” mind too. The manor’s closed rooms start her inactive brain and awaken her imagination, unlike in India where she had always been too “hot and languid and weak” to care about anything (73). Describing India as hot and languid twice makes clear just how negative India is for Mary.

On the other hand, the climate and weather of the moor are in direct opposition to India’s. The latter’s environment is only described as being hot, or having “hot and blazing” skies, but the “deep blue” sky in the moor seems to “sparkle like the waters” of a “lovely” lake (64). As such, Misselthwaite Manor and the moor create the first positive environment for Mary, and by extension any child, to develop well.

Magic Secret Garden and Companionship

Once Mary’s independent personality is awakened and she finds the titular secret garden, the garden continues Mary’s change for the better. As Mary tends to the garden, the garden tends to her. This is the first time that Mary has felt something for anything or anyone besides herself. Burnett continues to emphasize just how important the garden’s environment is for Mary’s development.

Immediately after finding the garden, Mary decides to bring the garden back to life for the first time in ten years. Mary’s intent to rejuvenate the garden leads to her being much “more civil” to Ben Weatherstaff, the grounds’ caretaker, who does not object “to her as strongly as he had at first” (95).

Though this civility is slightly selfish, it is due to Mary developing well. The garden also inadvertently leads to Mary finally meeting Martha’s brother Dickon, whom Mary had taken an instant liking to after listening to Martha’s stories. Mary befriends Dickon, and with his help, is able to fully start the process of bringing the garden back to life.

Even after the second day of work, the garden is showing its positive effects on her. Mary states that when she digs, she is not tired (115). Dickon’s response that the earth is “rare good for” Mary highlights the major theme that people’s environments have a large effect on their health. India did nothing for Mary’s personality or physical being.

The first color film bypasses cholera and kills Mary’s parents with an earthquake though she is still a bit spoiled.

On the other hand, Martha, the Manor, moor, secret garden, and the resulting friendship with Dickon restore Mary to a healthy young and self-aware child. When Mary meets her uncle for the first time, she mentions for the second time that she is getting fatter. Mary is also aware that her play makes her stronger, as does the wind that “comes over the moor” (126). She is correct of course, and Martha too “had seen a change” in Mary (164).

Though Mary has only spent a short amount of time tending to the garden, that work coupled with her earlier improvement due to the Manor and the moor culminates in Mary’s complete transition from the sickly, yellow faced girl of India to the healthy, red cheeked, and inquisitive girl of Misselthwaite Manor.

Entering the garden and meeting her uncle mark the midpoint of the novel where Burnett shifts from focusing on Mary’s growth to how the garden rejuvenates Colin Craven back to health. Colin Lennox has been sickly since his birth and is “always, ill and having to lie down” (136).

However, like Mary, the thought of the garden immediately starts a change in him as he is “attracted” to the idea of a secret garden. His imagination too has finally awakened after years of being cooped up with only the servants as companions in his room. Burnett also makes clear that the issue with Colin is not a sickness, but that like Mary he has been spoiled and there has been too “much lettin’ him” have his own way (151).

If Colin was optimistic and allowed to go outside and breath some fresh air, which has done Mary so much good, Colin too could become healthy again. After all, one’s environment has a large impact on one’s health, as Mary understands. Though Colin has yet to see the secret garden himself, talking about it and to an improved Mary lessens his temper just as the new environment lessens Mary’s (163). Utilizing Mary as the agent of change in Colin’s life allows for two protagonists of two genders and an explicit link to issue of environment on health.

Colin’s change does not stop at an awakened imagination however, and Burnett continues to frame Colin’s development through his relationship to Mary and Dickon, and time in the garden connection to Mary, the garden, and later Dickon culminating in a final attainment of good health.

First, Colin goes into hysterics when Mary does not visit him for one day, emphasizing just how far Colin has to go before reaching ultimate health. Of course, Mary refuses to listen to Colin’s whining about how he “felt the lump” on his back, which is really just his backbone, and that assertiveness leads to Colin finally agreeing to go outside with Mary and Dickon to the moor.

Colin’s cowardice is also affected by this fight and Colin begins to move away from his namesake as “Craven” means cowardly. As Colin spends time in the garden, his health returns. From watching Dickon feed his various animals and tending to the many flowers in the garden, slowly but surely Colin gets healthier and healthier.

Most importantly, he relearns how to walk. His personality like Mary also undergoes a change, especially after Mary who has come to realize just how terrible her personality was in India, tells him that “always having” his own way that “made [him] so queer (252). There’s a whole separate essay here about ableism and 1900s understanding of physical disability though Colin seems to truly just need to get over himself and some fresh air.

At this point, Colin holds Mary’s opinion to a high standard. So her statement is the final push needed to develop his personality into that of a likeable young boy just like Mary’s development. As expected, their time spent together in the garden with Dickon continues to fatten them up and brighten their personalities so that even Mrs. Medlock and the Manor’s staff see a change in them (289).

Colin too realizes how much of a change has come over him exclaiming in the garden that he is well. Instead of being a “half-crazy little hypochondriac,” his time with Mary and Dickon leads to life coming “back to him” (304). Like Mary, his blood too “ran healthily though his veins” (304). Both Colin and Mary finally attain the health becoming of a young child and are no longer the spoiled, sickly, and temperamental children at their introductions.

Dickon is portrayed by Sudanese English actor, Amir Wilson in the 2020 adaptation.

Finally, Burnett utilizes the reintroduction of Colin’s father into the novel to demonstrate just how necessary a positive environment is for positive health outcomes, and in this case, a positive environment is not that of a foreign land. Mr. Craven took to traveling away from the manor after his wife’s death. He “had forgotten and deserted his home and duties” and when he traveled to foreign places, darkness followed him (305). So many dads who leave their kids in fiction! Also dead mom’s but that’s yet another essay.

Fortunately, in the Austrian Tyrol, Mr. Craven undergoes a transformation (just as Colin has undergone back home) by the river in the valley and even dreams of the secret garden. Lastly, a letter from Dickon’s mother leads to him returning home and finding Colin in the garden “glowing with life” (317). The novel ends with Colin walking “as strongly and steadily” as any boy in Yorkshire with his father and the others back to the manor, evidencing the great change that came over Colin after meeting Mary and tending the garden.

Burnett’s meaning is clear. Had Mr. Craven stayed at home with his son, on the wonderful moor near the beautiful gardens, neither father nor son would have been so sickly. Had Mary grown up in a home filled with love and nature, she too would have been healthy and kind, childish and happy, and with a personality becoming of a young girl.

Both characters grow from being truly unhealthy, demanding, and unbearable to the kind of child that anyone could love. Their time spent outside in the fresh air on the moor and in the garden that they bring back to life, in turn revitalizes them.

Unfortunately, Burnett’s demonstration of the importance of a positive nurturing environment for all children and adults is built on the assumption and presented as fact that any other land is a negative and hindering environment. Even with her Burnett’s clear frustration at British involvement in South Asia, this assumption then reflects the imperialist and frankly racist views of India at Burnett’s time, situating England as the superior place for a person’s development and India and any foreign land as an inferior place.

Image courtesy of Studio Canal

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