The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett・1911


Mary Lennox was born in India to wealthy British parents, her father being a commander in the English army.  Mary’s parents were distant and had little to do with her; because of this, her upbringing was left to the family’s Indian servants.  As a result of the nature of her upbringing, Mary was a bratty, contrary, and sickly little girl who had been terribly spoiled and was used to getting her way.

An outbreak of the cholera swept through the Lennox’s bungalow, and Mary was the only survivor because no one had looked for her, and she was, therefore, not exposed.  After Mary was discovered by two men who had come to survey the fatalities of the epidemic, she is shipped off to England to live with her mysterious Uncle Archibald, who lives in Misselthwaite Manor, a vast Yorkshire mansion in the middle of a moor.  Archibald, still crippled with grief over the death of his wife, remains secluded, thus leaving Mary frightened and lonely in this new, foreign place.  Martha, the chatty maidservant, tells Mary the story of a secret garden that was closed up after the death of Archibald’s wife; Mary decides to find and revive the garden.

Along the way, she meets a variety of friends who not only help Mary find and unlock the garden, but also transform her into a curious child brimming with enthusiasm and spirit; amongst the friends she comes across, she meets her cousin, Colin, who has been similarly bratty and spoiled and, because of a physically crippling condition, is permanently confined to bed.  With the help of Mary and her friends, Colin undergoes similarly dramatic change and, aided by his new friends and the garden, is healed physically and spiritually.  Mary and Colin ultimately reveal the miracle of Colin’s recovery to Archibald, which serves to then heal Archibald of his grief and makes apparent the spread of love and healing in the novel.


“Is it so very bad?  Oh, is it?”  Mary heard her [mother] say…

“Awfully, Mrs. Lennox.  you ought to have gone up to the hills two weeks ago.”

The Mem Sahib wrung her hands.

“Oh, I know I ought!” she cried.  “I only stayed to go to that silly dinner party.  What a fool I was!”

At that very moment… a loud sound of wailing broke out from the servants’ quarters… The wailing grew wilder and wilder…

“Some one has died,” [said] the boy officer.  “You did not say it had broken out among your servants.”

“I did not know!” the Mem Sahib cried.  (Burnett, 9)

The Epidemic: Cholera

In Burnett’s novel, the cholera sweeps through Mary’s life in a way that is very stereotypical of public understanding of epidemics: one person gets sick, the disease rapidly spreads, and, before one can fully understand what is happening, an entire population is decimated.  Indeed, in the specific context of the novel’s plot, Mary’s Ayah falls sick, panic spreads, Mary’s Ayah dies, and then, amidst mass hysteria, everyone else (save for Mary) in the surrounding bungalows fall ill and die.

The cholera had broken out in its most fatal form and people were dying like flies.  The Ayah had been taken ill in the night, and it was because she had just died that the servants had wailed in the huts.  Before the next day three other servants were dead and others had run away in terror.  There was panic on every side, and dying people in all the bungalows.

During the confusion and bewilderment of the second day Mary hid herself in the nursery and was forgotten by everyone… She only knew that people were ill and that she heard mysterious and frightening sounds.  (Burnett, 10)

In a way that historically contributes to cholera’s rapid spread, many infected individuals fail to develop symptoms altogether, and additionally, cholera has a notably short incubation period of only a few hours or days.  The primary method by which people become infected is through the direct or indirect contamination of food or water from fecal matter or vomit of those with cholera.  India has historically been a country in which cholera is especially virulent and widespread.  Indeed, in terms of cholera’s scope in India, cholera has been proven to have “been endemic in India since ancient times” (“Cholera”).

The bacterium that causes cholera, Vibrio cholerae, was not discovered until 1883 by German scientist Robert Koch (“Cholera”).  Additionally, it was in 1893 that an initial “Cholera vaccine trial [was] conducted in Agra, India” (Lahariya, 495).  Such dates, of course, are, in relation to the novel’s 1911 publication, quite close, which indicates the relevancy of cholera to the cultural realities of the society in which Burnett wrote.  Indeed, the proximity of these dates and the book’s publication demonstrate that Cholera was a disease that was very much in the public eye and of great public concern.

Furthermore, it is apparent that Burnett was writing to and for the times in which she published, for cholera was increasingly relevant to the late 19th and early 20th centuries; even though cholera most explicitly effected the population of India, the ramifications of such epidemics were acutely felt in Europe, and, more specifically, England, as a result of England’s dominant colonial military presence in India.  There was an infamously lethal outbreak of the Cholera (one that was coupled with plague) in India from 1896-1907 (Lahariya, 494), which was an important enough event to potentially have influenced Burnett as she wrote The Secret Garden.


Everyone was too panic-stricken to think of a little girl no one was fond of.  When people had the cholera it seemed that they remembered nothing but themselves.  But if everyone had got well again, surely some one would remember and come to look for her.

But no one came, and as [Mary] lay waiting the house seemed to grow more and more silent…

She heard footsteps in the compound, and then on the veranda.  They were men’s footsteps, and the men entered the bungalow and talked in low voices… “What desolation!”

…Mary was standing in the middle of the nursery when they opened the door a few minutes later…  [The first man who came in] cried out.  “There is a child here!  A child alone!  In a place like this!  Mercy on us!”

…”I am Mary Lennox,” the little girl said, drawing herself up stiffly… “I fell asleep when everyone had the cholera and I have only just wakened up.  Why does nobody come?”…

“Poor little kid!” he said.  “There is nobody left to come.”

It was in that strange way that Mary found out that she had neither father nor mother left; that they had died and been carried away in the night… That was why the place was so quiet.  It was true that there was no one in the bungalow.  (Burnett, 11-12)


For a further brief analysis, refer to Introduction and Abstract.


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