The Secret Garden
“Where you tend a rose my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”
— Frances Hodgson Burnett
The bouquets last week were inspired by my re-reading of the classic children’s novel The Secret Garden over the holidays.
It’s probably been 30 years since I last read this book, I was about ten or 11 years old, the same age as the protagonists. I recall thinking it was a plodding novel, a bit boring and slow-moving (less gardening, more action!) but now as an adult who loves to garden, I find it perfectly paced and endlessly entertaining in all its minutiae description of specific flowering bulbs poking through the soil and unfurling their leaves in real-time. How we change as we age!
Yet I was most surprised to notice how many of the themes are parallel to our own strange time: the opening scene is one of a pandemic (cholera in colonial India). Mary is orphaned, sent to England to live on her absent Uncle’s sprawling country estate, rumoured to have a secret walled garden, which no one can enter.
She, like many of us this last year, embraces the healing balm of gardening. “What will they be?” she asks the gardener of flower bulbs. “Crocuses an’ snowdrops an’ daffydowndillys. Has tha’ never seen them?” Not in India, she says, and he replies: “Tha’ll have to wait for ‘em. They’ll poke up a bit higher here, an’ push out a spike more there, an’ uncurl a leaf this day an’ another that. You watch ‘em.”
“I am going to,” answered Mary.
She befriends a robin red-breast (“he chirped a good deal and had a very busy air, as if he were showing her things” and indeed he did show her the way into the Secret Garden.)
Inside, alone, Mary gardened: “She went from place to place, and dug and weeded, and enjoyed herself so immensely that she was led on from bed to bed and into the grass under the trees...she could not believe that she had been working two or three hours. She had been actually happy all the time.”
The book builds in crescendo to spring, the hope of freshness and newness to come, with the chapter titled “It has come!”:
“There were things sprouting and pushing out from the roots of clumps of plants and there were actually here and there glimpses of royal purple and yellow unfurling among the stems of crocuses. Six months before Mistress Mary would not have seen how the world was waking up, but now she missed nothing.”
By now she has befriended Dickon and Colin, and the children alone ruled the Secret Garden, “And delight reigned.”
I now think that must be one of the most beautiful sentences in all of English literature. And delight reigned. Amen!
Oh how we all need to feel that way again. The hope of spring.
“Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
how does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.”
In the story Mary asks which flowers are bell-shaped in reference to the nursery rhyme which other children had sung to tease and taunt her.
The gardener answered: campanulas (known as “Canterbury bells”), Lily of the Valley, and hyacinths.
So the hyacinths in your bouquets are the bell-shaped flowers. Their scent is spring itself! The roses in your bouquet have significance in the story as well, (“the roses are wick as wick can be!”) and of course, the ivy, which covered the walls and concealed the entrance to the Secret Garden. I had also planned to include some of the first daffodils of the season (“daffydowndillys”!) however they were sold out by the time I got to the flower co-op.
If you stick with me though... there will be many more ‘daffydowndillys’ in your future!
Loneliness in The Secret Garden
I’m quite astonished that I was able to read most of a novel over the Christmas holiday. It was in fact a very difficult time for our little family, only in that all of our regular childcare sources were on vacation (nanny, daycare) and my husband and I simply submitted ourselves to the daily onslaught of chaos which is life with two toddlers and no outside family help or otherwise. It was intense and we couldn’t even call a babysitter to relieve us even for a few hours. To top it off, our cat mysteriously hurt himself and was in acute pain in need of emergency help. He is fine now (our theory: he fell off our son’s elevated bed. While taking one of his luxurious naps, he stretched just a bit too far and luxuriated himself — ka-thunk-thunk-thunk— right down the little staircase for getting in and out.) He is prone to klutziness, and my husband reminded me he was in fact wearing a cone around his head the first time we met him. Many thanks to both veterinarians who treated him!
But even in this I found parallels in The Secret Garden, specifically surrounding the character Colin, the spoiled heir to the estate, locked up in a room, ignored by his father, believing he will die young, friendless, with only servants at which to bark orders. One chapter is simply titled “Tantrum,” of which any parent like ourselves, locked up in a house with toddlers, can relate!
Yet when I spoke to my other neighbours, their pandemic holiday experience was often very different than mine. Living alone, or with children grown and out of the house, they find their days a bit aimless or lonely. We marvelled at the contrast between our households!
The Secret Garden has much to say about loneliness, and here is only one of the many quotations:
“Mistress Mary went a step nearer to the robin and looked at him very hard. ‘I’m lonely,’ she said.” The gardener said to her: “Tha’lt be lonelier before tha’s done... I’m lonely too mysel’ except when he’s with me,’ and he jerked his thumb toward the robin. ‘He’s th’ only friend I’ve got.’”
Pandemic restrictions mean we’re all living lives of extremes: either an excess of solitude or too much togetherness. The bitterness of loneliness or the utter absence of even an ounce of aloneness.
I could keep writing but I need to get these flowers delivered before it gets too dark to read house numbers. On the bright side, the days are getting longer now, we made it over the hump!
Here’s the the coming Spring!
January 2021 Newsletter
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