Updated: Nov 9, 2022
If ever there was a book about the healing power of gardens and the love they can evoke, then the Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett has to be it. I loved it as a child, but having re-read it my own children recently I realised there is a lot that we can relate to as adults too.
The Secret Garden was a book that transported us to another world. Pulling aside that curtain of ivy and unlocking the secret door to the Secret Garden was akin to the delight and excitement of crawling through the wardrobe and finding oneself in Narnia. But one of the beauties of this novel is that the other world is actually right here in our world, and we can all find it should we choose. The novel takes what is essentially just a garden and highlights what makes them so magical, beautiful and special. Whatever the place where we garden, I believe there is an element of this awe and delight in all of us who love our outdoor spaces - their ability to take us out of our regular lives for a short time and find joy and solace in nature. The same escape that the children find in their garden is found by so many of us who garden, who find that mindful time gardening and connecting with nature regularly is very cathartic.
When I trained and worked as a garden designer I learned about genius loci – ‘the spirit of the place’. This is that intangible feeling and atmosphere that each garden holds, and I always endeavoured to be guided by the space when implementing something new. I had always known what this meant and yet had not known the words to describe it, because for me the house where I grew up had a garden whose spirit completely captivated me. For so many of us who love gardens, it is some kind of spiritual feeling that connects us with the place and guides us in how we develop and care for it. In the Secret Garden this is expressed in spades (pun intended). That feeling of discovering and entering a living space, being enveloped in nature and immersed in the world of plants, trees, birds and wildlife is intensified in the novel because it is secret – if it had been a part of the garden open for anyone to visit the story would not have been the same. The children find some agency in their lives for the first time, and some control over a space that is theirs alone.
For anyone moving to a new home and seeing their new garden for the first time, you are confronted with the living past of the place and the choices of the previous inhabitant, and this is certainly true of the Secret Garden. Locked up and neglected for many years, the garden has run riot and been left to itself. I’m a bit reluctant to use the word ‘neglected’ because it implies something negative and destructive - in this instance the neglect has enhanced some of the gardens own natural beauty – the structure of the garden is still there, as is the case with so many old gardens, but it is overlayed by something natural and wild. In the same way, the children who discover it are allowed to run wild in the garden, and it is testament to what positive power gardens have for the development of children as they too flourish untended, alone in the garden.
This is one of those wonderful stories where children are the masters of their own world. In their day to day lives Mary Lennox has been orphaned and sent to live in a strange, unfamiliar house, and Colin is bed-bound and ignored by his father. The Secret Garden becomes the place where they discover some kind of meaningful significance and joy in life. As with Narnia, going through the gate to the Secret Garden transforms them, and gives them the space to grow as the garden grows around them. The fact that it’s a walled garden heightens that sense of a place away from the 'real' world. For many of us, including me, that is one of the things I love most about a garden – the sense of seclusion, of a place separate from the modern and busy world, somewhere to slow down, to relax, to contemplate, and ideally somewhere private. In the book the author has created the ultimate sanctuary for these children, and an ideal imaginative escape for any young reader.
It is also, of course about the healing power of a garden, and this is something I know very well. The Secret Garden has the power to restore Colin to health again after years of supposed illness. There are many ways of interpreting the effect this garden has - some may believe the garden is imbued with a supernatural kind of magic. I believe it simply speaks of the very real power that gardens and nature have to revive and restore us all. Having cared for both my parents with Alzheimers at my childhood home, I know very well the restorative powers of a garden, and just how important a garden can be for respite and relaxation. Even as my mum began to forget so many things, she would still revert to something automatic when she was in the garden, and would be pulling up weeds without thinking, tending to that place she loved. We enjoyed many, many cups of tea and coffee in the garden whenever the weather allowed. Being in the house was often full of stress and worry, highlighting the problems of their condition, but being in the garden was a tonic for us all, allowing us just to sit, to be, to feel at one with something greater than ourselves. Being the in the garden meant leaving chores and caring responsibilities behind and letting the garden care for all of us instead, if only for a short while.
The Secret Garden, we discover, was created by Colins mother. It transpires that this was where she lost her life, and this is the reason the garden was locked away as it became such a painful reminder of her. Although Colin’s father tries to bury the memory of his wife by locking up the garden, her memory - like nature - cannot be repressed. Traces of her garden remain even after 10 years, and there is the feeling that her spirit lingers in the garden, drawing the children to her even after all these years. This idea that people live on through the gardens they plant is also one very close to my heart. Unlike inanimate objects and trinkets that are passed down to us, plants are living breathing things, chosen, planted and nurtured by someone who cared for them. Being in the garden is a way for Colin to be close to his mother. When my father died after years of dementia, I felt closest to him when I was in his garden. When I had to leave that garden behind, it was important to me to take cuttings and plants with me so they could keep growing in my own garden, and when I see them grow and flower here now it’s like a little piece of the place, and the people who planted them, are still with me.
The garden designer in me can't help but comment on the fact that a hidden area of a garden creates interest and intrigue, drawing you into the space. If you can't see the whole garden at once it forces you to interact and explore - just what the children do in the story. Having gateways or arbors leading to somewhere different adds a whole new element to a garden. If you can see a pretty gate you want to go through it, an old door surrounded by ivy seems to invite you to open it. So even as grownups we can understand the delight of discovering a new and secret space that is all our own. Who wouldn't want a little piece of garden tucked away somewhere just for them?!
The Secret Garden, like my own art, was inspired by a Kent garden – Great Maytham Hall, near Rolvenden. Supposedly aided by a robin herself, Frances Hodgson Burnett discovered an ivy covered gate, and peered through to discover a neglected and overgrown garden within. The seed of a story was planted, of a hidden garden waiting to be discovered. She set to work restoring the garden, planting it with roses, and this is where she would sit under a gazebo to write many of her stories. While the garden fell into neglect during the second world war when it was re-planted with cabbages and potatoes, her garden lives on in the minds of all who read her wonderful story.
I have to confess to being slightly torn as to whether or not I want to watch the new film, as it is one of those stories that conjures up such strong imagery of one’s own in the reading of it, but it is wonderful that such a timeless classic endures. For children to understand the power of gardens and the joy of gardening is important however it is portrayed. Especially at a time like the present during Covid, where gardens have come to mean so much more to so many of us.
You might like these links to other Forgotten Gardens of the UK...
Belsay Hall, Northumberland - a ravine which was dug to mine sandstone for building the house of Charles Monck in 1817, is now a feature of the garden.
Hackfall Wood, North Yorkshire - created in the 17th century by William Aislabie of Studley Royal, this garden fell into decline during WW2. Many of its gothic garden building remain in a semi-derelict state.
Harlebury Castle, Worcestershire - The residence of the Bishop of Worcester from the 13th century until 2007, Hartlebury Castle’s mysterious gardens were shut up, overgrown and neglected for many years before restoration.
Penjerrick Garden, Cornwall - A self-styled ‘true jungle garden’ was planted in the 1840s by Robert Were Fox
Lyveden, New Bield, Northamptonshire - This half-completed lodge and garden have survived virtually untouched since 1605, recently restored.
Myddleton House, London - Created by planstman EA Bowles over several decades, parts of the garden were lost after his death in 1954.
Rivington Terraced Gardens, Lancashire - Created by Thomas Mawson for Sir William Lever, the pagodas and pavilions that once stood on the shores of the Japanese lake have long gone, but this remarkable place is still rich in atmosphere.
Belhus Woods Country Park, Essex - Visited by Queen Elizabeth I in 1578, Luftwaffe bombs damaged the house during the Second World War and, soon after, it was bulldozed. Now a country park owned by Essex council, you can wander its woodlands.
Valleyfield Woodland Park, Fife - Designed by Humphry Repton for Sir Robert Preston in 1802. The land was bought in 1904 by the East Fife Coal Company who later abandoned the mansion, which was demolished in 1941. The remains of the walled flower garden, ornamental canal, ice house, beech avenue and ha-ha can still be seen as part of woodland walk.
Destow Gardens, Wales - A labyrinth of underground gardens, hidden in tunnels and grottoes, was created by Henry Oakley in 1895 to house his collection of ferns and tropical plants. The tunnels were filled in after the Second World War, and restoration began in 2000, after their rediscovery.