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Literature / The Secret Garden

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First published in 1911,note  The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is a children's novel and has since been adapted into several television and movie versions, as well as a musical and an anime series.

The central narrative follows a young English girl named Mary Lennox, who, at the beginning of the story, has been raised entirely by servants in India; her neglectful parents are too self-absorbed to even notice her, and she's grown into a major Spoiled Brat. When a freak accident — originally a cholera epidemic but an earthquake in some adaptations — orphans her, she is sent off to England to live with her reclusive, mysterious uncle, Archibald Craven. Little does anybody know that her presence will transform the place, and it, in turn, will transform her.

The book is in the Public Domain and available for legal download. There is even a free Audiobook available at Librivox.

See here for Derivative Works.

This book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Upon witnessing Colin's reunion with his father in the 1993 version, Mary runs away and cries that no one wants her, being reminded of how she's an orphan herself. This is followed by Archibald Craven comforting her. This scene did not happen in the book.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The 1987 film version adds an epilogue where the characters are adult and Colin proposes to Mary (in which them being cousins was changed to not being related) and Dickon apparently died in the war.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Mrs. Medlock is portrayed as even meaner in the 1993 film version than the book. In the book, Mrs. Medlock is happy and accepting of the influence that Mary has on Colin. In the 1993 film, she remains sceptical and crass towards Mary, refuses to believe Colin is getting any better, and at one point attempts to lock Mary in her room and forbid her from even seeing Colin. There's even a scene where she lashes out and slaps Martha. As in the book, however, she does get better at the end and is happy when she realises Colin truly did get better.
  • Always with You: Implied via Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane; In Archibald's vision, he hears Lilias telling him that he can find her "in the garden with Colin."
  • Animal Lover: Dickon loves hanging out with his horse and the birds.
  • Appetite Equals Health: A sign that Mary is getting fitter (though she was never sick) is her feeling hungry.
  • Asshole Victim: Mary's parents, who never showed their daughter any love and preferred to indulge themselves in their wealth attending dinner parties to flaunt their status and good name, leaving Mary in the care of their servants and largely ignored; Mary has virtually nothing nice to say of them when they eventually die from cholera.
  • Baffled by Own Biology: Due to his father having a crooked back, and the servants all thinking he's terminally ill when actually he's just suffering from a lack of sun and weak muscles due to lack of exercise, Collin freaks out when he feels a "lump on [his] back", thinking he'll get a lump somewhere else on him and then die. Actually, it's his bones sticking out.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Played with. Mary gets more beautiful as she grows kinder (although this is mostly because she's now getting more exercise and generally taking better care of herself), and Lillias was described as very beautiful, but so was Mary's mother, who neglected Mary to the point where most of her associates don't even know she has a daughter.
  • Berserk Button: Colin hates it when people look at him. He also has a phobia that sometimes causes him to become angry with fear connected to finding lumps on his back until Mary tells him in no uncertain terms that he doesn't have any.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Martha gives off this vibe. Mary once considers slapping her as she did to her servants in India, but thinks better of it because Martha "seemed like she might slap back".
  • Brutal Honesty:
    • Mary tells Colin that people dislike him because he is hateful to be around, and shakes him out of a temper tantrum by pointing out that there are no lumps on his back whatsoever and he's got nothing to be crying about.
    • Martha, who is not used to working for the gentry, frequently tells Mary (who still expects help getting dressed at age nine) that Martha's four-year-old sister can look after herself better. She also compares wealthy kids, who are taken for walks by a nurse rather than playing on their own, to puppies.
  • Catchphrase Insult: Due to growing up in India, where pigs are looked down upon, Mary uses "pig" and "son/daughter of a pig" as insults, which just leads to culture clash when Mary calls Martha, who doesn't see pigs the same way coming from England, the "daughter of a pig".
  • Character Development: Mary and Colin gradually become less spoiled and selfish and learn to care for other people.
  • Children Are Innocent: Despite the general demeanor of the story's two leads, it still manages to play this one straight, since it's stated that they're only brats due to bad treatment and are just victims of their bad parents.
  • Culture Clash: Mary struggles with this when she first moves to England since she's used to how things are done in India.
  • Cunning Linguist: Mary's upbringing by Indian servants exposed her to various dialects from birth, and she was formally taught French. She decides to learn broad Yorkshire as well, comparing it to the native dialects of India that learned English people choose to study.
  • Death by Childbirth: Lillias died from falling out of a tree when pregnant, but she still technically died in childbirth (giving birth prematurely to Colin because the fall triggered labour early) even if it wasn't the childbirth that did it.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: Averted with Mary's parents. While they weren't horrible people, the book doesn't gloss over how they neglected her. Played straight with Colin's mother, who was described as being a kind Nature Lover.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: Colin, before his Character Development, used to excuse his bratty attitude by pointing out that he was disabled and probably dying.
  • Disappeared Dad: Mary might as well not have had a father for all she remembers him.
  • Downer Beginning: The book opens with Mary's entire household (including her parents) dying of cholera.
  • Ethereal White Dress: Mary. Colin's father finds black too much for a child, and white is the only alternative, since she is in mourning for her parents.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Essentially how the book begins. The first chapter is even titled "There Is No One Left".
  • Everyone Has Standards: Dr. Craven stands to inherit Misselthwaite if Colin dies. He apparently does have hopes in this direction, and Colin thinks the Doctor wants him dead. Nevertheless, we see that he's honestly doing his best to treat the boy to the best of his abilities.
  • Family Eye Resemblance: Colin has his mother's eyes, which is a significant part of why his father can't stand to spend much time with him.
  • Fish out of Water: Mary, who travels from British-occupied India to England.
  • Foil: Colin to Mary — it is through him that the beginnings of her growth are emphasized and encouraged. In fact, to begin with, he's practically her Shadow Archetype.
  • Follow the White Rabbit: By following a robin, Mary finds the key to the secret garden.
  • Free-Range Children: Martha's family runs on the idea that children can look after themselves as early as nine.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Animals don't fear Dickon, and he even has birds landing on him.
  • Funetik Aksent: The Yorkshire accents, which Mary thinks is a different language at first, are written phonetically (such as "yellow" written as "yeller"). By the end of the story, she becomes so fond of Martha's family that she tries to speak with this accent herself.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • Mary's mother spends all her time socializing with "gay people", meaning light-hearted and cheerful.
    • The word "queer" gets an extensive workout, including in this exchange:
      Colin turned his head, frowning.
      "Am I queer?" he demanded.
      "Yes," answered Mary, "very. But you needn't be cross," she added impartially, "because so am I queer—and so is Ben Weatherstaff. But I am not as queer as I was before I began to like people and before I found the garden."
      "I don't want to be queer," said Colin. "I am not going to be," and he frowned again with determination.
  • Hey, You!: Mary sees so little of her parents that she never addresses them, but in her head, she calls them "The Memsahib" and "Captain Lennox."
  • Hope Sprouts Eternal: Mary's efforts to bring the long-neglected secret garden back to life lead to her own redemption and character growth.
  • Hypochondria: Until Mary convinces him otherwise, Colin thinks he has a lump on his back and is terminally ill.
  • I'm Standing Right Here: Mary's caretaker and Mrs. Medlock openly discuss how plain and ugly Mary is and how unlikely she is to improve while she's within earshot. Mary doesn't care.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Dickon astounds even his own family with how happy he is on the moors and how well he gets along with animals. Of course, he trains Colin and Mary in his ways.
  • Inherent in the System: Whether in India or England, Mary's and Colin's initial sickly, Spoiled Brat tendencies are caused by their wealthy parents being able to dump them on servants who have to give them their way, instead of nurturing or disciplining them. Martha even comments that wealthy children being coddled and waited on by nurses leads to them being dependent and ungrateful, while poorer children like her siblings learn early on to be more self-sufficient and appreciative of what they have.
  • Innocently Insensitive: When Mary first meets Martha, the maid brazenly admits that she had been looking forward to the prospect of Mary being a Native Indian (a "black" as she put it) because she had never met a person of colour before. This causes Mary, who is homesick for India and believes its Native people are a Servant Race at the time, to fly into a sobbing rage. Fortunately, because of Martha's heartfelt apology and her kind disposition, the tantrum does not last longer than a page.
  • Irony: Mary's Parental Neglect is the reason she's so selfish and bratty, but it's also what saved her from contracting the same cholera that killed them.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Ben Weatherstaff, who believes that he and Mary are not so different since both want to be kind but behave rudely.
    • Mary and Colin themselves are Spoiled Brats at first, but even then, they still were never really bad, just badly brought up. The difference is that they don't end the book that way.
  • Kissing Cousins: At one point, Colin declares that he wants to marry his cousin Mary.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Mary and Archibald Craven are regarded as weirdos at the beginning, the former because she prefers to play by herself and the latter for living alone in a huge mansion with no visitors and the doors all shut up.
  • The Lost Lenore: Lilias, the deceased owner of the titular garden, was lost through Death by Childbirth (or rather, death by a fall that triggered early labour) and as a result, it made her widower very sullen and miserable.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: Played with. After an appropriate amount of build-up about mysterious moaning noises in the night and whispers about the deformed relative kept hidden away out of sight, it turns out there's nothing actually wrong with Colin that won't be helped by getting out and meeting people.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • Playing outdoors and hearty food is what nurses Mary and Colin to health, and the only mention of "Magic" is easily chalked up to the children's imagination. However, it is implied, especially in the final chapter when Archibald Craven is overcome by a need to return to Misselthwaite, that Lilias's spirit is working to reunite her husband and son and bring life back to the manor.
    • The robin who leads Mary to the garden and finding the key opens the gate. Was it just coincidence or is the robin the reincarnation of Lilias, guiding Mary to the garden itself? Or an ordinary robin who is sensing Lilias's spirit?
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Archibald Craven is a weak, sickly hunchback. "Craven" is old-timey slang for a weakling.
    • Mary, as it earns her the fitting nickname "Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary."
  • Missing Mom:
    • Mary's mother passed her off to the servants right after she was born to keep her quiet and out of the way, and never so much as looked at her since. And then she dies.
    • Lilias Craven, victim of Death by Childbirth, or more specifically, death by falling out of a tree that triggered early labour.
  • Nature Lover: All of the kid characters, but especially Dickon, greatly enjoy spending time in the eponymous garden, tending to it and just generally playing. Lillias is also said to have been a nature lover in life, as the garden was originally hers and she died from falling out of a tree.
  • Neglected Garden: After Colin's mother died in her beloved garden, it was closed off and unable to be tended to until Mary found the key, and it blossoms under care alongside herself and Colin as they grow healthy and strong.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Averted by Mary, who used to hit her servants. Since they only wanted to keep her quiet and out of her mother's way, she learned to manipulate them young. In a way, this is symbolic of Mary's Character Development. In the end, Mary is a much better person and obviously considers her maid, Martha, to be a friend.
  • No Antagonist: The novel has no villains, only people with different priorities who need to learn to get along with each other. At one point, Colin accuses Dr. Craven of plotting to do away with him since he stands to inherit the Craven estate if Colin dies, but the narrator makes clear that although Dr. Craven wouldn't mind inheriting, he takes his profession seriously and is genuinely trying his best to help Colin.
  • Old Retainer: Ben Weatherstaff. Lillias charged him with taking care of the roses in her garden, and he was so devoted to following her orders that, even after Archibald ordered the garden to be locked up, Ben continued to get in by climbing over the wall.
  • Parental Neglect: Mary's parents died from a deadly plague, but even before that, they were distant and didn't care much about her. Many of her parents' acquaintances in India are unaware that they have a daughter at all. Colin is distanced from Archibald, and we all know what happened with Lillias.
  • Public Domain Character: Which is why there have been so many movie versions since 1994.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Mary hands a big one to Colin when he's throwing a tantrum—at age ten, no less.
  • Ship Tease: Mary and Dickon briefly get this in the 1993 movie. Colin asks them to sit on a swing so he can take a picture of them, which results in Mary and Dickon sharing a Held Gaze. Colin even becomes jealous at the sight and yells at them to avert their attention.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Archibald is reputed to be a dreadful-looking hunchback, but when Mary meets him in person he's revealed to be normal-looking, with high and crooked shoulders. Colin is reputed to be a hunchback as well, and unable to walk due to malformed legs, when actually he's just a sickly boy (due to lack of exercise and sun) who is so spoiled the servants never try to get him walking.
  • Spoiled Brat: Colin and Mary. Mary is this because her mother didn't want to be disturbed by Mary's crying, so she gave Mary to servants who were instructed to do everything Mary wanted so she wouldn't cry. Colin because of how he was always coddled and treated as an invalid.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: How did the garden manage to last, even after having been locked away and untended for ten years? It turns out that it hasn't been untended for all that time; Ben Weatherstaff has been climbing over the garden wall with his ladder to take care of it.
  • There Are No Therapists: None of the characters get sent to a shrink. Good thing they don't need them. Not that Colin wanted them around anyway.
  • Throwing Off the Disability: Colin used to be unable to walk, but he learned how once he got into the garden.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Mary's mother might have survived the cholera outbreak if she hadn't delayed her escape to attend a dinner party. Lampshaded by the young officer that reminds her that she should have fled over two weeks ago. She even calls herself a fool for it.
  • Tough Love: Mary ends up slapping Colin out of his spoiled and feeling-sorry-for-himself funk by being the only one in the house who was just as spoiled as he was, and not sparing his feelings like the servants did.
  • When She Smiles: Rare male example in Ben Weatherstaff. Mary is shocked by how much nicer he looks just by smiling.

Adaptations with their own pages include: