Few people realize that The Secret Garden, the book most readers associate with Frances Hodgson Burnett, was only one of 53 novels she wrote and published, and that most of her books were for adults, not children. Although she had a lifetime of love for children and gardens, she would be amazed to know that this book is the one for which she is most remembered today—even though it was one that was closest to her heart.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s love affair with gardens began when she was a small child living in Manchester, England. In 1852, when she was just three, her family moved to St. Luke’s Terrace, which backed onto fields owned by the Earl of Derby, leading Burnett to recall it later in life as the “back garden of Eden.” She remembered it as a place of gardens and perpetual summer, where a small child could daydream beneath the trees and beside the flowers, ignoring the industrial city that surrounded this suburb of light and air. There were farms and country cottages close by and she became friendly with a family of market gardeners who kept pigs. Just a year later, however, her father Edwin Hodgson died and his widow and five children embarked upon a decade of moving house, each time to a slightly less desirable neighborhood.
Each move took Burnett further and further away from gardens, until in 1865 her mother decided to make the riskiest move of all: to join her rogue of a brother, who boasted of his accomplishments in America, in the American South during the last months of the Civil War. There the Hodgson family found itself ensconced in an unexpected place: a log cabin in a very small town outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. There, but for the generosity of their neighbors, they would have starved. Their financial difficulties were quite real, but young Fanny (a name she quickly abandoned) found Tennessee a true Garden of Eden after the pollution of Manchester and the smuts that floated down like snow from its factory chimneys.
She had read in the back of ladies’ magazines that they paid money for stories and, having invented them for her friends back in England, she thought she might take a chance at being paid to write. The first story she sent came back with comments, but instead of revising she mailed it again to another magazine. The editor was puzzled and surprised to find an accomplished work with an English setting coming out of Tennessee; was she English or American? That evening she sat down and wrote a second one for him. Both stories were accepted immediately, and with the check that arrived she launched a career that saw her eventually become America’s highest-paid woman writer. She was only 18 and none of her work was ever rejected.
By 1886, Frances had married a Tennessee doctor, had two sons and had written the blockbuster novel Little Lord Fauntleroy—her 18th novel, which made her hugely famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Now as Frances Hodgson Burnett she had money of her own, and she bought, in cash, a 17-room house in Washington, D.C. From the moment of its first appearance as a serial in Saint Nicholas Magazine to its publication as a book a year later in 1886, Fauntleroy became a household name. Largely forgotten or ridiculed today, it was the Harry Potter of its day. The image of a sturdy and very masculine little boy in a velveteen jacket shot around the world and was to haunt her son Vivian, from whose photograph it was taken from, for the rest of his days. The story—and the plays and films it spawned—started a fashion craze that mothers loved and boys hated, as they were forced into wide lace collars and long curls, probably not helped when girls were always given the stage and film role.
Even though writing was how she made her living, it also enabled Burnett to travel, buy beautiful clothes and furnish houses in England and America. Not only a writer of novels and stories, however, Burnett also produced plays. Thirteen of her works appeared in London’s West End theatres and on Broadway, generally written and produced by her. Prescient enough to understand the increasing role of movies, she later built clauses guaranteeing her the film rights to her books. It’s fascinating, therefore, that The Secret Garden did not become a stage musical or a popular film until late in the 20th century, although apparently a now-lost film was made in 1919, five years before Burnett’s death.
Although writing and gardening could not shield her from life’s tragedies, they did help her get through some of her life’s greatest sorrows. When her 16-year-old son Lionel tragically died of tuberculosis in her arms in Paris in 1890, she had his casket covered in violets. When her second marriage ended—a marriage that she was probably blackmailed into by a young English doctor and aspiring actor ten years her junior—she and her sister Edith retreated to a house that would become Frances’s most cherished home: Maytham Hall, in Rolvenden, Kent, which she first leased after her divorce from her American husband.
Rumors always surrounded her and there were plenty of reasons for her wanting to escape. From the time that Little Lord Fauntleroy first made her famous, she was constantly in the press and in the public eye. She crossed the Atlantic 33 times in her lifetime, and whenever one of the ships she traveled on docked, she was met by a crowd of newspaper and magazine reporters who wanted to know about her difficult health, her latest book and her love life. When she filed for divorce, her lawyer made sure she was safely on board a ship heading for England before serving the papers. Gardens were, for her, a retreat.
At Maytham, she had set up an outdoor study, with a table and chair under the trees near the rose garden, and wrote each morning in the company of a robin that grew tame, the inspiration for Mary Lennox’s robin in The Secret Garden, which was later written in America. When she moved back to America for good she built a beautiful house with spacious gardens in Plandome on Long Island and next door built a cottage for her surviving son Vivian and his family. The photographs show a magnificent place, with expanses of roses sloping down to the Long Island Sound. As she grew older she spent her winters in Bermuda with her sister Edith and kept a full-time gardener.
Burnett claimed that The Secret Garden was the first children’s story to appear in an adult magazine. She wrote to her friend Ella Hepworth Dixon after the story’s serial publication that “it was our Rose Garden as it would have been locked up for years and years and years—and some hungry children had found it. You cannot think how everyone loves that story. People write to me with a sort of passion of it.”
The Secret Garden begins and ends in gardens, one a garden of death in India, and the other a garden of revitalization and resurrection in England. Burnett believed to the end of her own life in the healing and resurrecting power of gardens. The last chapter of The Secret Garden is called “In the Garden,” and the last thing that Burnett wrote, on her deathbed, was a magazine article by the same name. As in The Secret Garden, she always saw gardens as places of healing and return to health.
After she died, the little article was republished as a book with watercolor pictures and photographs of her own gardens at Plandome. It ends with the words that have come to symbolize her other life’s work: “As long as one has a garden one has a future,” she wrote, “and as long as one has a future one is alive.”
Excerpted from the full article published in the e-book Guide to the Season Plays 2016-17, available for purchase for Kindle or Nook.
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Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina is the author and editor of several books, including Mr. and Mrs. Prince, Carrington; Black London (a New York Times notable book); Black Victorians, Black Victoriana; Frances Hodgson Burnett; and others. She is the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography at Dartmouth College, where she also chairs the English Department, the first African-American woman to do so in the Ivy League. She has won grants from Fulbright and the National Endowment for Humanities and hosts The Book Show, a nationally syndicated weekly radio program that airs on 90 stations across the country, interviewing current authors of literary fiction, biography and history.