A small person's paradise. Frances Hodgson Burnett is best remembered for The Secret Garden, but she was also a prolific author of novels and plays for adults. A S Byatt on a writer whose remarkable life was spent recreating her own mythologised childhood

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Gretchen Gerzina <em>Chatto & Windus, 359pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0701168927

Gretchen Gerzina begins her biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1925 with the commissioning of a fountain in New York's Central Park depicting Mary and Dickon from The Secret Garden. She points out that Burnett is now remembered for that book - and to a lesser extent for her other children's books, including A Little Princess - but that at the time of her death (in 1924) she was famous as the author of large numbers of novels and plays for adults, as well as for children, on tough and daring subjects. The Secret Garden was not particularly singled out for admiration. Gerzina's subtitle is "the unpredictable life of the author of The Secret Garden". The life was indeed both unpredictable and truly amazing, breaking stereotype after stereotype of both British and American 19th-century expectations.

She was born in 1849, in middle-class Manchester, descending from middle-class comfort to "shabby-genteel" on her father's death. In 1865 her mother emigrated with her sons and daughters to rustic Tennessee, where they lived in rural poverty until Frances began to write stories at the age of 17. The extraordinary energy and determination of her work is clear from the very beginning - she wrote tale after tale, serial after serial, graduating from romance to her first great success, That Lass o' Lowrie's, a Lancashire tale with a strong working-class heroine.

In 1873, she married for the first time - Swan Burnett, who became a maker of surgical instruments - and they moved to Washington, DC. She had two sons, Lionel and Vivian. Lionel died at 16, sickening in solitude in Atlantic City while his mother worked and socialised in England, rushing back when it was made clear to her that he was dying. Vivian lived and went to Harvard. It was he who had worn the real velvet Lord Fauntleroy suit, which his mother made herself and then unwisely publicised, and he could never shake off the association. The Burnetts were divorced in 1898, and Frances married - apparently under some coercion - her lover, the doctor-turned-actor Stephen Townesend, who was given to fits of rage and hysteria. She lived in Park Lane in London, mixed with the upper classes, and became a friend of Henry James as well as a lady of the manor, in Maytham Hall overlooking the English Channel. There she made gardens and wrote, and was, according to Gerzina, at her happiest.

She was, Gerzina suggests, perhaps the first truly transatlantic writer, often writing her best English tales in Washington and New York, and her best American stories in her English country house as though the distance created both nostalgia and clear vision. She is a splendid example of how British society was neither as rigidly stratified nor as dominated by stultifying conventions as writers have liked to show it. Energy - in her case, phenomenal energy - and talent made mobility possible. American openness helped, but America had its conventions too and she managed both by submitting to neither. She was always the breadwinner (both her husbands tried to manage the business side of her work, neither very successfully) and she paid for the stress with occasional nervous collapses. But her life is in the large a story of opening possibilities.

What was she like? She seems to have been, and to have needed to see herself, as warm-hearted and generous on the grand scale. Both her marriages seem to have been made more because the men insisted they needed her and because they appealed to her sympathies than because she was attracted to them or loved them - though the early days of her relationship with Townesend are glimpsed only through careful secrecy. Having been the providing eldest sister, she spent her life giving, to children in particular, making parties, collecting gifts for impoverished immigrants from the passengers in first class on transatlantic liners, keeping lovely dolls' houses for visiting children and, after Lionel's death, visiting sick children in hospitals. Like many writers, perhaps particularly like good children's writers, she appears to have been living out the life of her mythicised childhood self, referred to in her autobiography, The One I Knew Best of All, as "the Small Person", growing up in the "Back Garden of Eden", who "does today exactly the kind of thing she would have done in nursery days if life could then have called her up to confront the conditions it now presents". The Small Person is steely and doughty, and she loves things that she didn't have - extravagant dresses, banquets, exotic holidays. And inventing stories.

It is in her relations with her sons that she can be accused of being unthinking or unfeeling. Lionel's letters to her as he becomes sicker are frightening to read - at least partly because he was clearly an imaginative and considerate boy, who needed her and could not say how much (though we must remember that someone had made it possible for him to grow up wise and considerate). Burnett nursed him through the end of his illness, and subsequently spoiled Vivian, and carried on a desperate correspondence with her dead son. She perhaps left her children for such long periods because she did not love their father (and was having a good time across the Atlantic with others). But she also had a genuine furious determination to make their lives infinitely better than the Small Person's had been - to give them civilisation and leisure, and acquaintances and prospects of which her brothers and she could not have dreamed. Middle-class women in those days left their children in the care of others for long periods even if they were not writing books and plays and earning a living. In later life, she found a sickly consolation in the Christian Science theories of Mary Baker Eddy and believed in a paradise garden where she would be reunited with Lionel.

Gerzina believes that the Secret Garden, which was modelled on Burnett's own garden at Maytham Hall, is an image for these beliefs - among the rescued roses, she suggests, the sick boy rising from a wheelchair and walking to his grieving father is Lionel come back. I think the effect is rather the opposite - Colin's illness in The Secret Garden is hysterical and psychological, caused by his mother's death and a lack of love - and it has made him whingeing and nasty. Mary too is unloved and cross and unpleasant, and what readers come back to again and again in this potent tale is the irony and realism with which these not-so-nice children are presented, and the way they save each other. Colin has nothing at all in common with the real Lionel, or with the idealised dead son. The writer is tougher than the woman.

Burnett's children's books have lasted because of an unfakeable quality of precise realism and observation - combined with an equally unfakeable hopefulness about the human condition. Burnett once observed that children like things - that was why she kept her doll's houses full of delicate models of life. That was why she took such care with the details both of Sara Crewe's possessions as a little rich girl (which another Victorian moralist might have sneered at) and with the things that she has, and the food that she has not, in her days as a slave in the attic. Little Lord Fauntleroy, a not-rich American boy suddenly confronted with English aristocratic possessions and customs, retains a grave curiosity about all this as well as a belief that people can be reasonable and kind which, despite the sentiment, are both oddly convincing. There is none of the sentimentality in Dickon, the country boy who understands creatures and plants, that there is in J M Barrie's eternal children.

Where Gerzina's biography is tantalising and to me disappointing is in the absence of any real opportunity to imagine Burnett's oeuvre for adults. Gerzina summarises many plots - melodramas about powerful masculine women, marital comedies, social romances - but she does not quote, and we are left with no real idea of how well Burnett wrote, or why these once-lauded books have vanished completely. This is now a convention in biographical publishing. Even if someone is writing a biography of a genius with words, the editors reduce, or cut, quotation and analysis. In the case of major writers this distorts our perception of what they cared most about. We get sex, but not language. In the case of Burnett, we get a wonderful story full of twists and turns (with the sex veiled, as in those days it had to be). But the work which energised and exhausted her, changed her life and used her time, remains more shadowy than it need be.

A S Byatt's most recent book is Little Black Book of Stories (Chatto & Windus)