When an orphan named Mary is left to explore a gothic mansion, she discovers a mysterious walled garden that has been locked for over a decade. With the help of a robin and a good-natured Yorkshire boy, she uncovers why the garden has been locked away, and how to bring it—and herself—back to life. Here’s more on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s book The Secret Garden.
1. THE SETTING WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL GARDEN.
In 1898, Burnett rented Great Maytham Hall in Kent, a Downton Abbey-style manor with a walled kitchen garden. When Burnett moved in, the ivy on the walls was so overgrown that she couldn’t find the door to the garden. Finally, like Mary in The Secret Garden, a robin sitting on a nearby branch showed her where it was. After that, Burnett threw herself into fixing up the neglected grounds, planting flower gardens, putting in rose bushes, and improving the views. She wrote In Connection with the DeWilloughby Claim in the gazebo. Henry James was a neighbor.
Then, in 1908, the hall was sold and Burnett moved back to America. While there, her beloved English garden came back to her. Both it, and the robin, inspired The Secret Garden.
2. THE ORIGINAL TITLE WAS MISTRESS MARY.
Mary’s name comes from the English nursery rhyme:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? With silver bells, and cockle shells, And pretty maids all in a row.
At the beginning of the book, Mary is an unlikable character, described as ugly, spoiled, and rude. The other children chant this nursery rhyme at her and call her “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary.” Burnett used Mistress Mary as a working title for the book but eventually settled on The Secret Garden instead.
3. THE SECRET GARDEN IS INFLUENCED BY CHRISTIAN SCIENCE.
Burnett admired Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science teachings, which include the rejection of medicine in favor of prayer and positive thinking. These beliefs make their way into The Secret Garden through the character Colin, a sickly boy locked away in the mansion. It's even been proposed that the novel can be read "as a feminist, Christian Science revision of ... rest cure," which was a popular treatment involving "bed rest, social isolation, and force-feeding." The doctors in the book do Colin more harm than good with this method, and it’s Mary’s influence, as well as the influence of nature and good thoughts, that make Colin walk again. "When new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones, life began to come back to him, his blood ran healthily through his veins and strength poured into him like a flood," the book reads. Colin also says he wants to study “The Magic” when he’s older, which is commonly believed to stand for Christian Science theology.
4. COLIN MAY HAVE BEEN BASED ON BURNETT'S DEAD SON.
In 1890, Burnett’s 16-year-old son, Lionel, died from tuberculosis, which devastated his mother. Some biographers think Burnett based the young Colin on Lionel. The ending, where Colin walks again in front of his father, is thought to be Burnett imagining her son restored to health. However, others disagree with this interpretation. "Colin has nothing at all in common with the real Lionel, or with the idealized dead son," the novelist A.S. Byatt once wrote. "The writer is tougher than the woman.”
5. THE SECRET GARDEN WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED FOR ADULTS.
In 1910, The Secret Garden appeared in serial format in The American Magazine, a publication aimed at adults. It was possibly the first children’s story to appear in an adult magazine before coming out as a book, which may have caused confusion about whether or not it was intended for kids. The book was published the following year in both England and America. (As a side note, Charles Robinson’s illustrations in the original British edition depict Mary with dark hair.)
6. IT WAS ONE OF BURNETT'S LEAST POPULAR BOOKS.
Perhaps because of the odd way the book was published, The Secret Garden was overlooked in Burnett’s lifetime. While it sold well and received good reviews, it didn’t compare in popularity to other works such as Little Lord Fauntleroy or The Little Princess. In fact, when Burnett died in 1924, The Secret Garden wasn’t even mentioned in her obituaries. It wasn’t until the 1940s, and the rise of scholarship around children’s literature, that people started calling The Secret Garden a classic.
7. SOME HAVE CRITICIZED THE SECRET GARDEN FOR COLONIALISM AND RACISM.
The Secret Garden is not without controversy. Mary’s parents are British colonizers, living in luxury in India until they’re killed by a cholera epidemic. Mary also expresses racist attitudes to the maid Martha. When Martha says she thought Mary would be black because she was from India, Mary bursts into tears and says, "You thought I was a native! … They are not people—they are servants who must salaam to you." Because of this, The Secret Garden is often listed as an example of racist classic literature.
8. THE EXPIRED COPYRIGHT HAS LED TO MANY ADAPTATIONS.
The Secret Garden entered the public domain in 1987, which has allowed for many versions and adaptations of the story, including movies, TV, musicals, plays, coloring books, anime, cookbooks, radio shows, and free versions of the novel online. There’s even a YouTube show called "The Misselthwaite Archives," which is a modern retelling of the story. You can watch it here.