As part of my mini-syllabus on Edwardian Girlhood, I recently re-read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I read it in third grade, but I didn’t remember much besides the fact that I loved it, and the image of ivy-covered door leading into the garden. Reading the book again as adult was an absolute joy. Burnett masterfully paints glorious images of the Yorkshire countryside, of Springtime, and most of all, of joy.
After realizing that he is, for the first time in life, healthy and well, Colin, the formerly sickly boy of the Manor, feels the urge to sing out his joy to the beauty of the garden.
He wants to thank the magic of Springtime and natural growth for healing him, but since he knows no songs that would fit his gratitude, his friend Dickon suggests he sing the Church Doxology. After hearing it, Colin says:
‘It is a very nice song,’ he said. ‘I like it. Perhaps it means just what I mean when I want to shout that I am thankful to the Magic.’ He stopped and thought in a puzzled way. ‘Perhaps they are both the same thing. How can we know the exact names of everything? Sing it again, Dickon. Let us try, Mary. I want to sing it, too. It’s my song. How does it begin?…’
And, joined by Mary, the three children sing it together. In The Secret Garden, joy, nature, gratitude, Magic, science, and God are all one and the same: The Big Good Thing. The drive to exist, to grow, and to persevere in goodness and kindness, can be felt in the pages of the text, all as one upswelling of joyous emotion. It doesn’t matter what it is called, or what is truly happening to them. All that matters to them is that it is. Burnett takes away the details about God and nature and science and theology and morality, and wraps them all up in a secret, unwieldy, overgrown garden, bursting with joy. Hidden away in the garden isn’t a cultivated logic of reality, but instead the world, just as it is – hidden, but inviting. Messy, complicated, in need of care, but also willing to reciprocate. Dangerous, occasionally, but ongoing.
What the garden offers the children isn’t a neat and clear lesson, but a chance to experience life just as it is – de re, unburdened by the limits of any categorical label de dicto. They’re not quibbling about what to call it, they’re simply enjoying it.
When Dickon’s mother comes into the garden to join them, the children tell her all about the Magic of the garden that made them healthy and happy and well. When they asked her if she believed in the Magic, she answered without hesitation:
‘That I do, lad,’ she answered. ‘I never knower it by that name, but what does th’ name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i’ France an’ a different one i’ Germany. Th’ same thing as set th’ seeds swellin’ an’ th’ sun shinin’ made thee a well lad an’ it’s th’ Good Thing. It isn’t like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th’ Big Good Thing doesn’t stop to worrit, bless thee. Never thee stop believin’ in th’ Big Good Thing an’ knowin’ th’ world’s full of it – an’ call it what tha’ likes…