Analyse the representation of space and its effects in Frances Hodgeson Burnett's, The Secret Garden.

Unlike reality, space within the novel has limits. All that happens and exists in the novel does so within the defined limits created by the author. Therefore, attention must be paid to the spaces in which the narrative takes place, because it has been created specifically for that action, and therefore can have a direct effect on those actions. It is evident that space will be an important theme and force in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, The Secret Garden, because the title is an enclosed space which will represent more than a natural place of growth, but device for conveying Hodgson Burnett’s ideas on class and gender. Both the garden and Mary are similarly sick in their visual appearance, with emphasis placed on their unnatural or even lifeless colouring. The vines in the garden have become ‘matted together’ (p.93) and browned, and Mary is described as having ‘thin light hair…and her face was yellow’ (p.1).  On a physical level the garden is space of growth which Mary can emulate to aid her own growth, but as a psychological space, the secret garden appears to be a representation of the ailments of those who step within its space. This creates a pastoral mirror which sparks the beginning of Mary’s physical and mental healing. Therefore, as spring comes, accompanied by growth in the garden, so too does the change begin in Mary. Even by the end of her first visit, Mary starts to change for the better; her yellow skin gains the glow of ‘red cheeks’ and ‘bright eyes’, (p.98). As well as her health, Mary’s attitude improves with time spent within the healing space of the garden; she asks questions, learns to dress herself, and loses her contrary nature. As these changes develop, the language used to describe Mary’s actions becomes closer to the language of nature; at one point ‘she flew across the grass’ (p.190) in the garden, an act which is much closer to the robin than that of the lazy and complacent child from the beginning of the novel. Such a drastic change gives the impression that the space within the garden is more than just an inanimate place within four walls, but a sentient being. This is a concept which Phyllis Bixler explores in her essay on The Secret Garden, calling the garden ‘the books title “character”’[1]. Bixler considers the garden part of the network of mothers who aid Mary’s development, thus making the garden a feminine space. The changes which Mary, and also Colin go through allow them to fit into their appropriate gender roles, thus revealing Hodgson Burnett’s motive for the space was one of social adjustment. Both Colin and Dickon are other children who enter the garden, and this provides an opportunity to examine how the space within the garden functions as a character. The most obvious change which we observe is Colin’s development from a cripple, to one who can boldly walk back to his house with his father. Colin’s drastic change forms a stark comparison to the lack of change which Dickon goes through. Dickon is much closer to nature and therefore seems less at odds with the secret garden. This can be seen when you compare his entrance with Colin’s. Dickon is described as walking around the garden ‘softly, even more lightly than Mary walked’ (p.124) and he will only talk in a whisper. Contrastingly Colin ‘covers his eyes with his hands’ (p.259) and cries out with delight when he finally sees the garden. These two actions inhibit his ability to perceive the space whilst also disturbing its peaceful tranquillity. Unlike Dickon, Colin seems to want to gain control of the garden rather than to just experience it. These differences would imply that the purpose of the garden is bringing all the children closer to nature. However, I personally believe that the purpose of this space is more closely linked to their class and gender. Dickon is of a lower class and therefore has less social expectation and his softer nature gives him a genderless persona, thus explaining his lack of change in the garden. Colin’s is physically weak and lacks the mental capacity to assume his role as the head of an estate, such as Misselthwaite Manor. Mary’s contrary nature and lack of empathy would not be befitting for a woman of her class and is something which she would need to outgrow to fit into society. All of these aims are achieved by the end of the novel. Mary becomes so caring and quiet that she is barely mentioned in the final chapter. The only time her name comes up is when Colin tells his father what she thought and how her thoughts were false ‘Mary thought that [it was dead] at first …But it came alive’ (p.362), showing that he has fully assumed the dominance of his gender. The final scene and final words focus entirely on ‘Master Colin’ (p.364) who has assumed his titular role and regained a relationship with his father. The changes which each of the three children experience shows that the aim of the space created within the garden was to allow the children to grow and adapt into their respective roles which they need when they leave the garden.  
[1] Phyllis Bixler, “Garden, Houses, and Nurturant Power in The Secret Garden”, Romanticism and Children’s Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, (University of Georgia P., 1991), pp. 208-223, p. 209.

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