My childhood copy of The Secret Garden is unusually pristine for one of my books though I read it many times. Two of us must have worked hard to keep it that way; the book was my mother’s before it was mine. Next to the flowery, rabbity bookplate I stuck inside, you can see the inscription to my mother, Ann, from her sister, Martha: “One of my favorite books to one of my favorite sisters. Love, Mart.” My mother was the youngest of four girls, Martha the oldest; my middle name is Martha, after her. She died in 1967, when the small regional airplane she was taking to visit her boyfriend crashed. She was eighteen, my mother eleven.
The inscription—the handwriting of a person to whom I’m related, but who has always been, for me, unreachable, unknowable—wrapped an additional layer of mystery around this book about mystery. I wonder if that’s part of why I loved the story so much. On every rereading, I was transfixed by Mary’s discovery of the garden. Here was a whole secret world she could claim, made special by its separateness from ordinary life. I read and imagined myself finding what she finds, holding my breath, opening that door:
It was the lock of the door which had been closed ten years and she put her hand in her pocket, drew out the key and found it fitted the keyhole. She put the key in and turned it. It took two hands to do it, but it did turn [...]
Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight.
She was standing inside the secret garden.
There are really two hidden spaces in the novel, the garden and also the secret bedroom where the master’s sickly son, Colin, is lodged. This second, darker mystery was as magnetic to me as the first: the idea of a whole hidden person. The question of what happens, finally, when that hidden person is found.Continue Reading