When Frances Hodgson Burnett first wrote ‘The Secret Garden’, it wasn’t particularly popular. Much more successful was her previous book for children, ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’. However, now, you would be hard pressed to find a bookshop that did not have at least one copy of ‘The Secret Garden’ on its shelves, whereas I don’t believe many bookstores would have ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’.
The life of a book is an interesting one. Most books don’t survive past their fifth birthday, and a book that is still in print ten years after its original publishing date is a rare one. Books of course do occasionally have a second wind of success, and come back on bookshop shelves, but most books fade into obscurity, only to be found in second hand bookstores. The fact that Frances Hodgson Burnett still has three books readily available in bookshops – ‘The Little Princess’ being the third one – is a testament to her wonderful writing and the way she connects with generations of children. This, however, does still not explain why ‘The Secret Garden’ is far more popular now than ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’.
I have not read ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ yet (it is in ‘1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up’, so I will be reading it at some point), so I cannot pass judgement on it. Perhaps, however, the story and the ideas within it rang truer to the author’s audience when it was alive, and now ‘The Secret Garden’ contains themes, ideas and truths that evoke more strongly with us now. In fact, if you think about it, ‘The Secret Garden’ contains messages that are really important in an age when we are trying to instil environmentally-friendly values in the generation who are yet to inherit the world. The idea of ‘good fresh air’ and green gardens changing people for the better, and angels being, like Dikon, people who are at one with nature, are ideas that I am sure many schools are trying to teach their students.
Perhaps, however, the reason ‘The Secret Garden’ has not faded into obscurity is because of the main character, Mary. Who has not felt plain, and sour, and unlovable at some point? Who does not want to be convinced that all their worst characteristics can be wiped away, if only they were in the right environment to do so? Or even, that their worst parts of themselves can be helpful, like when Mary out-tantrums Colin?
‘The Secret Garden’ was first published in 1910. I find it very interesting to think about which children’s books that are published now will still be around in 100 years time. Will it be those that were most popular – will children be reading ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘The Diary of a Wimpy Kid’? Or are those books only so popular because they speak to who we are now, not in the future?