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In the Garden: Essays in Honor of Frances Hodgson Burnett (review)

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 32, Number 1, January 2008
pp. 115-118 | 10.1353/uni.2008.0005

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Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of more than one hundred stories and novels, including three classics of children's literature—The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy—believed in the power of gardens for growth, rejuvenation, and remembering. As a gardener herself, Burnett spent hours tending to the soil, green spaces, and roses she wrote into The Secret Garden, thereby planting the seed that would keep her memory alive. Now eighty years after her death, Burnett is the subject of an edited collection In the Garden: Essays in Honor of Frances Hodgson Burnett, through which contributors remember her life, legacy, and writings. Together, the authors give a sense of what can and should be explored about Burnett's work; they stake a claim for continued study of this important literary figure whose texts inspire many adaptations, theatrical performances, historical studies, and critical scholarship.

From the cover image of a lush, green garden with stone walkway to the multiple metaphors of annual renewal, seasonal change, and the curative nature of wild places, In the Garden is an enthusiastic tribute to the author of The Secret Garden. Many of the contributors presented their essays at the first-ever conference on Frances Hodgson Burnett, held in 2003 at the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children's Literature at California State University, Fresno. Perhaps because the collection grows out of a conference or because contributors are not only academics but also biographers, historians, reviewers, collectors, and even the great-granddaughter of Burnett, the collection includes a range of approaches to remembering Burnett, some noticeably more scholarly and well-researched than others.

Editor Angelica Shirley Carpenter describes the aim of the book as "offering new interpretations of Frances Hodgson Burnett's life and work" (xvi). With biographical, historical, and literary approaches, In the Garden achieves its aim and serves as an introduction not only to Burnett's life and children's texts but also to her novels for adults and their many adaptations. The collection's broad scope is, arguably, its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. Its strength is that it provides an introduction to Burnett: readers experience a breadth of scholarship and learn about (or are reminded of) the range of Burnett's own work: writing for children and adults, with romance and realism, in the United States and Great Britain, for pay and pleasure, with praise and criticism, and as a popular but understudied author. The weakness of this broad scope is that at times the collection presents something of a hodgepodge—a little of everything without sustained attention to any particular thread. The editor and contributing authors work against this potential weakness by identifying gaps in scholarship on Burnett and by proposing future areas of study.

Although Carpenter describes each essay in the introduction, she fails to provide a trajectory or clear structure for the collection. What follows are sixteen essays, beginning with biographical material, then followed by literary analyses, discussions of theater and film adaptations, a narrower focus on The Secret Garden, and finally essays on the practical aspects of collecting Burnett's texts and about the Frances Hodgson Burnett Online Discussion Group. A filmography and index provide reference material at the end. Noted historian and biographer Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina frames the collection with her keynote address as the first essay and her interview with Penny Deupree, Burnett's great-granddaughter, as the conclusion. Gerzina's work allows readers to experience the 2003 conference and to join the community of Burnett scholars and fans committed to growing scholarship on this author.

As the first of two biographical essays, Gerzina's 2003 keynote address, titled "Not Just for Children: The Life and Legacy of Frances Hodgson Burnett," is one of the strongest in the collection. Gerzina shares her writing, research process, and details of the controversy over building a Burnett memorial in New York City's Central Park. In "A Biographer Looks Back," Ann Thwaite extends this meta-biographical approach and tells the story of how she came to write Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Both Gerzina and Thwaite speculate on why biographers choose their subjects and what processes...

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