Was and still is, The Secret Garden by Frances E Hodgson Burnett, who was born in Cheetah Hill, Manchester, November 24th 1849, and passed away October 29th 1924.
Some of her other well known books are: A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Making of a Marchioness.
Her father Edwin having died when Frances was three, the family ironmongery failed eventually, when Frances was around 21 years of age, the family emigrated to Knoxville, Tennessee. This is where Frances began to write her famous books.
Her family relied on her success as it supplemented their income. Frances married a doctor, named swan Burnett. They had two sons, Lionel and Vivian.
With all this responsibility behind her, I believe the author put all her emotional experiences in England into her writing. In an unpretentious way, I could identify with the main character in the story – Mary Lennox.
Mary was only nine years old when she first came to live Misselthwaite Manor, whereas I was twenty when I went to work in a lovely school, which had been a mansion. It had been extended since it was opened in 1955 to 1956.
The modern school area included a large Hollywood style heated swimming pool, surrounded by tall, wide glass windows, and plants grew everywhere. The mansion was near my home town of Pontypridd in Mid Glamorganshire.
The heroine of the story, Mary Lennox, who had come from India after her parent’s death, did not come alone, she brought with her a resentful attitude, which receded each day as Mary got to know the staff, the grounds, the plants and woodland creatures that skipped around her.
As winter turned to spring , ‘warming up’ all the people involved with the house and gardens, one being the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, Mary Lennox now considered they were all her friends.
The school I worked at had a single gardener, Mr. Mansfield, I have a photo of him pushing his wheelbarrow around. He also had a greenhouse, and we (the staff and the 60 children in the school, aged from 3 to 17 years, of varying disabilities, some severe, others not so) eat the contents of this greenhouse every day. To my mind Mr. Mansfield was my Ben Weather staff!
In the story, Mary’s nights were disturbed by crying, so she would take a candle plus candlestick, and wander through the passageways of the large house. One night curiosity overcame her when she followed the sound of insistent, loud, angry crying. She came across a young boy. As it turned out it was her cousin Colin who was thought to be too ill to leave his bedroom.
Being a practical girl, and used to dealing with difficult situations after the death of her parents and her nurse in India, Mary was forthright and confident, thus passing on these attributes to young Colin.
Another character is a boy called Dicken, a lover of all creatures, who helps to introduce the outside world to the unhappy boy, Colin.
Like Mary, I too prowled the boarding school passageways at night with a torch, as I was a night nurse (alternate day carer and class room helper) in this boarding school for disabled children aged from 3 to 16 years. The grounds were extensive.
Approximately in the middle area of the school grounds (once a mansion) was a walled garden where I took, in small groups, the bright, cheerful children after school, in the lunch time, and on half term holidays, as some lived too far away (even overseas) to leave the school, just for a week. So the story of the ‘Secret Garden’ came to life for me.
I bought a new copy of the book and would read it to them. They had their own idea of the story, that being, they could be Mary Lennox, but a disabled Mary Lennox find this cousin Colin who was upset because he had a lump on his back, and would not be able to walk.
They could take him out into the garden in his Bath chair as they were called, (similar to the children’s wheelchairs, they had various walking aids; electric chairs were also introduced at this time). There he would realise that life is wonderful then understand he was quite well. They could all play together. This was their dream, to attend ordinary schools, where they were accepted and could be like the other pupils or students.
Now, of course that situation almost, where possible, tends to be the norm, even on good old ‘South Park’ – the American cartoon series.
I often imagine them watching that and recalling their school days, as there are two little fellows in the programme who have disabilities and is a wheelchair user, always getting into trouble with the other kids in their ordinary school. The character clearly shows he’s very much aware of all the fun and games.
Then there is young Jimmy, on his crutches, he cannot speak too well, but like Timmy very popular and funny. They are often seen side by side on screen. How I wish the disabled kids in ‘my day’ could have experienced shows like that.
In the snow we would have to borrow Mr. Mansfield’s wheelbarrow, as the wheel chairs were not functional in deep snow, wrap the more disabled kiddies up really well, with cushions underneath them. Then with the help of the other not-so disabled kids, we would drag the wheelbarrow to the walled garden area (which we never did get into), and enjoy the snow as non disabled kids can.
The school still continues to this day, I cannot bring myself to visit the establishment as there are too many emotional memories, I was aware that one ex pupil had passed away when he was only about 22, I believe. Mr. Mansfield must have passed on also.
So all the above is the reason for my love of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story of the Secret Garden.
Read the original letter here