- "Us is near bein' wild things ourselves":Procreation and Sexuality in The Secret Garden
Us is near bein' wild things ourselves.Us is nest-building too, bless thee.
Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911) is full of mysterious allusions and half-uttered messages. The reader imagines a voice whispering something beyond and between what is written. Lately an interesting discussion has been going on about the gender relations in Burnett's novel, a discussion tied to the enigmatic ending, where Mary is suddenly put aside as the principal character and replaced by her cousin, Colin, the heir to Misselthwaite Manor. Referring to this ending, Elizabeth Lennox Keyser has claimed that Burnett "seems to be affirming male supremacy" and making "a defense of patriarchal authority" (12).
Phyllis Bixler, on the other hand, maintains that the novel should instead be read as "a nearly utopian vision of female nurturant power" ("Gardens" 210). She sees the garden as the main character and conceives of it as "an image of powerful motherhood." According to Bixler, the children in Burnett's novel are surrounded by "a community of mothers" connected with the garden: the housemaid, Martha; her mother, Mrs, Sowerby; and, last but not least, the deceased Mrs. Craven, whose spirit remains in the garden ("Gardens" 212), Motherhood and nurturant power can also be found in some of the male characters, above all in Martha's brother Dickon, but also in the gardener Ben Weatherstaff. Another of these nurturant males is the robin, nesting and feeding his brood. In Bixler's interpretation these nurturant powers also conquer and transform Misselthwaite Manor, a symbol of male power and female dependence. She reads the scene in which the door to the garden is flung wide open and Colin leaps into his father's arms as a metaphoric delivery in which the garden represents the maternal body. What the book is really about, according to Bixler, is "the usually repressed desire to explore the secret mysteries of the mother's body as well as her soul" ("Gardens" 223).1
Bixler's reading is in many ways convincing, but I think she misses an important point in this article. The Secret Garden is a tribute not just to motherhood and nurturance but also to procreation itself. The novel is not only about bearing and bringing up children but also about generating them. It is by penetrating the forbidden garden (significantly, with the help of a male robin) that the children come to life. Although it is masked, sexuality is nevertheless strongly present in The Secret Garden as a kind of imprint of the forbidden and repressed. With remarkable frequency the text talks about the procreation of flowers and birds, while at the same time emphasizing the similarities of human beings, plants, and animals. Burnett's novel is full of gaps, omissions, and incomplete events, but that which is not to be mentioned by women or to an audience of children is indirectiy conjured up over and over again.
Some scholars—among them Bixler herself—have touched upon this point. In her latest work on The Secret Garden, Bixler comments on "the latent sexuality of Mary's discovery of the garden with Dickon" (57). She also sees sexual symbolism in the description of the garden (57), and, like Kathleen Verduin and Judith Plotz, stresses The Secret Garden's similarities to D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.2 Claudia Nelson mentions that The Secret Garden recognizes female sexuality and looks at physical matters in a positive way (Boys 27-28). But nobody has paid adequate attention to procreation as a main theme in Burnett's text, even though The Secret Garden is very much a novel not only of motherhood but also of fecundity. The work's fascination with this issue is apparent in its imagery, which also reveals Burnett's use of a hitherto unnoticed source.
Burnett often borrowed from other authors; one obvious example is her rewriting of a tale from Frances Browne's Granny's Wonderful Chair (1856) for St. Nicholas Magazine(Bixler, Burnett 51). In the case of The Secret Garden, we already know that the novel is full...