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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.

The various adaptations have included:

  • The Secret Garden (1919), starring Lila Lee. Very little is known about this film, as it's thought to be lost.
  • The Secret Garden (1949), starring Margaret O'Brien. This film was done mostly in black-and-white, but made use of Technicolor for the garden segments, in a move similar to The Wizard of Oz.
  • The Secret Garden (1975), a TV series starring Sarah Hollis Andrews. This series remained extremely faithful to the source material and kept most of the characters and plot threads that other adaptations tend to excise, most prominently Susan Sowerby and her children.
  • The Secret Garden (1987), an episode of the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV series starring Gennie James. Notorious because a certain someone undergoes a Death by Adaptation.
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  • The Secret Garden (1991), a musical version that premiered on Broadway. This version placed more emphasis on the adults, with much of the plot being narrated by a ghostly chorus of "Dreamers". It also expands the plot considerably, up to adding in a primary conflict in the form of Archibald Craven's brother Dr. Neville Craven, who was in a love triangle with his own brother and Lillias, and is charged with both keeping Colin healthy and keeping the estate in order while Archibald is away.
  • Himitsu no Hanazono (1992-1993), an anime series starring Mina Tominaga as Mary as well as several other well-known seiyuu. Like the musical version, it expands the story quite a bit, focusing a lot on four elements: the Sowerby family (and not only Susan, but also her youngest kids); Lillias Craven's personality and her influence around those who surrounded her; Colin's notoriously frailer-than-in-other-adaptations health, and his long and difficult way to physical recovery with Dickon and Mary's help; and the Canon Foreigners Camilla (a Romani young woman who acts as Mary's Cool Big Sis), and Maximilian "Max" Hawkins (an accountant who used to work for the Cravens). Not to be confused with Himitsu No Hanazono, a Japanese comedy.
  • The Secret Garden (1993), starring Kate Maberly and directed by Agnieszka Holland. This is probably the most well-known of the films. The film features excellent cinematography, a haunting mood, and Maggie Smith in the role of Mrs. Medlock.
  • The Secret Garden (2017), an OEL Manga published by Seven Seas Entertainment.
  • The Secret Garden (2020), starring Dixie Egerickx and directed by Marc Munden. It also features Julie Walters as Mrs. Medlock and Colin Firth as Archibald Craven. The time period is changed from the original Edwardian setting to 1947, with the beginning now taking place in the context of The Partition of India.
  • The Secret Garden/Le jardin secret (2021), A French Comic-Book Adaptation published by Dargaud and in English by Europe Comics.
  • The Secret Garden (2021), A Graphic Novel published by Andrews McMeel Publishing

This book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • 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."
  • Appetite Equals Health: A sign that Mary is getting fitter (though she was never sick) is her feeling hungry.
  • Arc Words: "The Magic" and "I shall live for ever and ever!"
  • 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.
  • 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 when people look at him.
    • He also has one 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".
  • Big Fancy House: Misselthwaite Manor.
  • 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.
  • The Caretaker: Mrs. Medlock.
  • 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.
  • Coming of Age Story: For both Colin and Mary.
  • Cool Big Sis: Martha, to Mary as well as literally for Dickon.
  • Creepy Child: Most adults see the very still, quiet, and sour Mary as this before her Character Development.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Ben Weatherstaff.
  • 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: Oh, Lillias. Falling out of a tree when pregnant didn't really help, either.
  • 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.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Mary.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: Colin, before his Character Development.
  • 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's 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 this.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Dickon.
  • Friendless Background: Both Mary and Colin.
  • Funetik Aksent: The Yorkshire accents, which Mary thinks is a different language at first. 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 leads to her own redemption and character growth.
  • 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.
    • Mary and Colin themselves. The difference is that they don't end the book that way.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Mary and Colin, full stop.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Mary and Archibald Craven are regarded as this 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, lost through Death by Childbirth.
  • 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.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Dickon serves as a male version of this for both Mary and Colin. Until he shows up, his sister Martha is a good Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Mary.
  • 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' spirit is working to reunite her husband and son, and bring life back to the manor.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Archibald Craven is a weak, sickly hunchback.
    • 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.
  • 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. At 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 differing 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.
  • Odd Friendship: Mary's friendship with Dickon.
  • 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.
  • The Power of Friendship
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Team Mom: Mrs. Susan Sowerby, so very much.
  • There Are No Therapists: Physical or otherwise. Good thing they don't need them. Not that Colin wanted them around anyway.
  • 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 He Smiles: Ben Weatherstaff. Mary is shocked by how much nicer he looks just by smiling.

Adaptations with their own pages include:

Other adaptations contain examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The anime series runs through 39 episodes, so it has to stretch the story quite a bit: more emphasis is put on Mary's initial difficulties to adapt herself to the mansion (i.e she has a very tearful Heroic BSoD after meeting Archibald and mistakenly believing he doesn't care about her person), the rest of the Sowerby family is given more spotlight, Colin is actually ill rather than spoiled and hypochondriac, some canon foreigners join the cast and turn out to be vital to the last parts of the story, etc.
  • Age Lift: The 1987 movie Book Ends the story with grown-up versions of Mary and Colin.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: The 2020 film makes this the cause of Mary's Parental Neglect. Her mother lost her sister to a terminal illness and was always too depressed to be around Mary, who reminded her of said sister.
  • Break the Cutie: In the anime version, Camilla and Max Hawkins were horribly broken in their backstories, which also influences Max in his revenge quest against Archibald. Not to mention, we get to see exactly how badly Lillias's Death by Childbirth broke Mr. Craven himself...
  • Casting Gag: Colin Firth played adult Colin in the 1987 movie and went on to play Archibald Craven (Colin's father) in the 2020 version.
  • Cute Kitten: In the anime, Mary has a kitten named Patty, the only thing Mary treats with a shred of kindness prior to her Character Development.
  • Death by Adaptation: Dickon, in the 1987 film version. He and Colin both enlisted in the British Army for WWI, while Mary joined the Nurse Corps. Dickon was killed in action in the Argonne Forest, while Colin comes home with a wound that gives him a limp.
  • Delicate and Sickly: In the anime series, Colin is actually ill and crippled. And he almost dies at some point.
  • Driven to Suicide: In the anime, when it seems he's about to lose the manor to Hawkins and be economically ruined, Archibald Craven makes arrangements for Mary and Colin's caretaking and gets ready to blow his brains off with a gun while staring at a picture of his dear Lillias. He backs off at the last moment.
  • Framing Device: The 1987 movie begins with Mary as a young woman returning to the manor and encountering Ben. The story is then told in flashbacks before returning to the present, where an equally grown-up Colin joins her and proposes to her.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: "Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary" is briefly used in the anime, where a boy taunts Mary with it in the first episode.
  • Kissing Cousins: Averted in the 1987 version, which changes Mr. Craven from Mary's uncle to an old family friend who agreed to take her in.
  • Love Hurts: In the anime, and how. Not only did Archibald cross the Despair Event Horizon when his dear Lillias died, but Camilla and Max Hawkins become Star-Crossed Lovers as well.
  • May–December Romance: In the anime series Lillias was much younger than Archibald (she looked no older than 25 while the younger Archibald looked almost exactly like his present and older self save for his still not white hair), yet they still clearly adored each other. It would explain a lot about how hard he took her death.
  • Missing Mom: While both Mary's parents are dead, she tends to think of her mother more often than her father.
  • Motifs: The 1987 film particularly likes Flower Motifs.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Mary, rather jarringly, has a Texan American accent in the 1987 version. Occasionally she can be heard trying for a British accent, but it just doesn't work. There's also that one scene where she attempts a Yorkshire accent...
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In the Broadway Recording, you can tell that the actors tried really hard with their Yorkshire and RP accents, but they're still pretty cringeworthy.