Marta McDowell gives us us a view of Frances Eliza Hodgson’s whole life, but the focus is on her book The Secret Garden and the gardens she created. When Unearthing the Secret Garden by Marta McDowell showed up in my mailbox I was thrown back into the past. My family moved from a Vermont farm to an apartment in Stamford, Connecticut. I entered the John J. Ryle elementary school and fell in love with my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Lupinachi, who read to us every day after lunch. My favorite story was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and I have never forgotten Mary, Colin and Dickon who discovered a secret, and untended garden. Now Marta McDowell has brought us Unearthing the Secret Garden – The Plants & Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in the outskirts of Manchester, England in November 1849. The family considered themselves fairly well-to-do but her father died in 1853 and life became more and more difficult. Even so, Frances did well in school, and loved to write her own stories. Right from the beginning the stories included parks and gardens, and forests. Sometimes she found green mysteries. Islington Square was near a vacant mansion and behind the building was a green wall and a door. When Framces learned the mansion was going to be demolished she opened that door and was amazed by the garden with its remnants of beauty. That event was later to inspire her to write The Secret Garden, but along the way she made beautiful gardens of her own.
McDowell brings us from Frances’ childhood and the beginnings of her travels. The first big trip with her family in 1865 was to Tennessee. She loved the woodlands and the flowers that she saw, but she did not like living in a shabby home. So began her writings in 1868 for Godey’s Ladies Book, and she became a regular contributor to other magazines. She was 19 years old.
The family, mother and siblings moved about because of their money difficulties. In 1870, her mother died and her siblings scattered and soon married. Frances married Swan Burnett, after spending 18 months travelling to Manchester, London and Paris. She gave birth to two sons, Lionel in 1874 and Vivian in 1876. She continued writing every day.
McDowell brings us to Frances’ books, and her gardens. Everywhere they lived there was at least a small garden. In 1898 she bought Maytham Hall in Kent, England. She always spent the beginning of the day writing, but time was spent in the garden every day. Matham Hall became her first big garden. It was the garden that later inspired The Secret Garden, “a story about transformation.”
The book has a number of images of Mary, and Ben Weatherstaff the gardener, as well as the sickly Colon and Dickon who also likes working in the garden. Over the years many editions of the story were printed, with many visions of how the characters looked.
Frances left Matham Hall in England for Manhasset, Long Island (1909-1920). But Frances was a woman with a lot of energy and a dislike of the cold. She also bought a house in Bermuda in 1912. Here she spent the winters she had the choice of many different different flowers in this new garden.
The final section of the book is Further Garden Writings touches on her work in magazines. Also included is an amazing record she kept of her flowers, fruits and trees. The eight pages of information of each plant include common name, scientific name, and to where and when planted.
I am stunned by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s energies, and skills in the garden, and with pen and paper in her office where she wrote. Marta McDowell gives me a view of her amazing life – and a desire to read The Secret Garden all over again.
Marta McDowell has written other fascinating books about those who have been passionate in their gardens including All The President’s Gardens, The World of Laura Ingall’s Wilder; and Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life; and Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.