The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Last month it was my turn to host my book club, so I got to pick the book. I told the others to read a children's classic of their choice.

This was chiefly because I was reading The Secret Garden at the time and didn't want to put it down in favour of a serious adult book that I knew I wouldn't enjoy nearly as much.

Because The Secret Garden is hugely enjoyable. It has all the elements of a terrific story: mystery, excitement, loveable characters, adorable animals and a few epic tantrums. These tantrums, and the characters who throw them, are particularly crucial to the enjoyment of the tale, as they keep the whole thing from becoming too saccharine.

For, you see, this tale is a sweet tale about an orphaned child who makes friends with a robin, and the robin shows her the way into a garden that has been locked up for ten years, and she learns all about gardening and sharing and making friends and leading a hearty, healthy life out of doors among the birds and the flowers and the fluffy spring lambs.

Bleugh, right?

But not so, because Mary Lennox, the heroine of the tale, is disobedient and spoilt and curious and rude. She undercuts the sweetness of the story with a streak of stubbornness that is most welcome. Her initial excitement about the garden is because she can be alone there, away from all the horrid other people. She pacifies her cousin, Colin, by screaming at him. Even as the magic of the secret garden works on her and she slowly makes friends, it doesn't change her essentially. She does not turn into a good, sweet little girl. Instead, she becomes content in herself, because those around her value her qualities. At the start of the book she is a sad, stubborn child. At the end she is a happy, stubborn child. And that notion - that you don't have to change who you are to be happy - is most satisfying.

My only criticism with the book is that it loses focus on Mary at the end in favour of Colin. And, sure, Colin's story is engaging, with his secretly learning to walk and magical experiments and renewing his relationship with his father, but it's sad to see Mary's character fade into seeming insignificance. I console myself that she's probably too busy digging in the garden to engage in all that emotional guff.