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  • The Girl in the Garden:Variations on a Feminine Pastoral
  • Gwyneth Evans (bio)

The image of the secret garden has had a potent attraction for children's literature at least since the time that Alice experienced such difficulty in following the white rabbit into the garden of Lewis Carroll's fantasy. The forms of pastoral in writing for children reveal different patterns of narrative by means of which the child is brought into a healing and restorative relationship with nature (Bixler, Kuznets Grahame). Among these patterns are the stories of gardens in which children work with nature, creating beauty through growing things and at the same time experiencing spiritual and emotional growth in their own lives. The prototype of such novels is Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911), which creates a powerful image of the rebirth of a garden and the awakening of the lonely and unhappy young girl who discovers it and helps it come back to life. While in some pastoral novels such as Julie of the Wolves the female protagonist goes on a journey to find healing and renewal in the powers of nature, in others such as Burnett's it is the girl's discovery of a refuge in the enclosed world of a garden which gives Nature the opportunity to restore her (Kuznets "Fresh," Stott). Rather than moving outward, this kind of feminine pastoral offers an intensely private and enclosed world, the image of the emotional life of the girl who tends it. In this form of pastoral, the sense of enclosure, seclusion and secret labor is essential to the process whereby the girl finds meaning and value in life through close contact with nature. As Rumer Godden noted of The Secret Garden, "after fifty years its spell is just as strong: a blend of power, beauty, vivid interest and honest goodness" ("Secret"), and the influence of Burnett's version of the pastoral on Godden and others who write of girls in gardens implies a significant literary tradition. Two later novels about girls creating gardens—Godden's An Episode of Sparrows (1955) and Monica Hughes's The Refuge (1989)—both directly rework the Secret Garden story, putting it in the context of very different social worlds from that of Burnett's Mary. An exploration of what happens to the image of the secret garden in the later twentieth century suggests both the nature of this distinctively feminine pastoral form and the ways it has responded to social change.

While Burnett's secret garden seems more powerful than any of the human characters, who cannot invade it or even lock it up forever but can only be transformed by it, the secret gardens of Godden and Hughes are more vulnerable. The girls who create gardens in these later novels do so not within the ordered walls of Misselthwaite Manor but in an urban wilderness, where their efforts and even their own security are continually threatened by commercial exploitation and by (male) violence. The underlying pattern of The Secret Garden is altered in each of the two later novels by an episode of violent destruction, which doubtless draws some of its power from the association of the little urban gardens with Mary's wonderful garden; Hughes's novel, in particular, makes an ironic inversion of certain of Burnett's images and themes. But while the urban gardens of the recent novels are subject to invasion, and far more temporary than Mary's secure, walled Edwardian garden, they are no less valuable to or beloved by the children who create them. Both authors in their own ways speak as strongly as does Burnett for the value and importance of the garden, in terms of the psychological development of the young girl who creates and shelters in it and in terms of society's need for and responsibility to Nature.

The spell cast by The Secret Garden owes its power at least in part to the close relationship created between Mary and the garden itself: before she finds it, she is intrigued by the idea of a garden as secret and closed-up as she herself has become. When she does enter the garden, she is no...


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pp. 20-24
Launched on MUSE
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