Another writer I've been re-reading recently is novelist and academic Alison Lurie (1926-2020), whose essays on children's literature I sometimes love and sometimes argue with, but always find interesting. Here, for example, is a passage from "Enchanted Forests and Secret Gardens: Nature in Children's Literature," published in Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classic from Cinderella to Harry Potter:
"When I was seven years old, my family moved to the country, and my perception of the world entirely altered. I had been used to regular, ordered spaces: labeled city and suburban streets and apartment buildings and parks with flat rectangular lawns and beds of bright 'Do Not Touch' flowers behind wire fencing. Suddenly I found myself in a landscape of thrilling disorder, variety, and surprise.
"As the child of modern, enlightened parents I had been told that many of the most interesting characters in my favorite stories were not real: there were no witches or fairies or dragons or giants. It had been easy for me to believe this; clearly, there was no room for them in a New York City apartment building. But the house we moved to was deep in the country, surrounded by fields and woods, and there were cows in the meadow across the road. Well, I thought, if there were cows, which I'd seen before only in pictures, why shouldn't there be fairies and elves in the woods behind our house? Why shouldn't there be a troll stamping and fuming in the loud, mossy darkness under the bridge that crossed the brook? There might even be one or two small hissing and smoking dragons -- the size of teakettles, as my favorite children's author, E. Nesbit, described them -- in the impenetrable thicket of blackberry briars and skunk cabbage beyond our garden.
"No longer a rationalist, I began to believe in what my storybooks said. Suddenly I saw the landscape as full of mystery and possibility -- as essentially alive. After all, this was not surprising: it was the way most people saw the natural world for thousands of years, and it was the way it was portrayed in the stories I loved best."
One of those stories was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924):
"Consciously or unconsciously, many of the authors of classic children's books are pantheists. For them nature is divine, and full of power to inspire and heal. But while for some nature must be sought in the enchanted forest, for others the magical location is a garden. In their books, to go into a garden is often the equivalent of attending a Sunday service, and gardening itself may become a kind of religious act.
"For Frances Hodgson Burnett, nature was intrinsically healing. She herself was a dedicated gardener, the author of a how-to book about her own garden on Long Island. In her famous children's story The Secret Garden (1911) two extremely neurotic, unattractive, and self-centered children are transformed by a combination of fresh air, do-it-yourself psychology, and, most of all, the discovery and restoration of a long-abandoned rose garden.
"When we meet Mary Lennox in India, she is a sickly, disagreeable child whose selfish, beautiful mother never had any interest in her. No one has ever loved her and and she loves no one. But even then, to amuse herself, she plays at gardening, sticking scarlet hibiscus flowers into the bare earth. Later, after both her parents are dead, she is sent home to England, and then to Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors, which she hates at first sight. Things begin to improve when she is send outdoors to play:
" '...the big breaths of fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes....'
"Eventually Mary discovers the secret garden of the title. For years, like Mary herself, it has been confined and neglected. Then, as winter turns to spring, she begins to restore it, to weed and water and prune and plant, and in the process is herself restored to happiness and health. Later she is assisted in her task by a local boy, Dickon, and by her cousin Colin, who has spent most of his years indoors. Colin's mother died when he was born, and he has been brought up to believe that he is a crippled invalid. Yet he too is transformed and restored to health in the garden.
"Sometimes in children's books the power of nature is embodied in a character, and Dickon in The Secret Garden is the most famous of these characters. Though he is only twelve years old, rough and uneducated, he is a kind of rural Pan, who spends most of his time, winter and summer, out on the moor. He can charm birds and animals by playing on his pipe, and knows all about plants -- his sister says he 'can make a flower grow out of a brick walk...he just whispers things out o' th' ground.' It is Dickon who teaches Mary and Colin how to bring the secret garden back to life and he is the first to declare that nature has spiritual powers; he calls it Magic.
" 'Everything is made out of Magic,' [Colin says] 'leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us.' "
Indeed it is.
The passage about is quoted from Boys and Girls Forever by Alison Lurie (Vintage, 2004). All rights to the art and text in this post are reserved by Inga Moore and the Alison Lurie estate.