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The magic of Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden has enchanted readers for more than a century. But few pay attention to the remarkabe life of its author. 

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The Secret Garden is one of those rare books with a title that is familiar to millions who often do not know who wrote it. But when its author Frances Hodgson Burnett died in 1924 no one realised it would be this novel that would keep her name alive.

Published in 1911, the book begins with the orphan Mary Lennox arriving unwelcome at the home of her widowed uncle on the Yorkshire moors. It is Mary’s growing friendship with Dickon, the local boy, and the entirely convincing transformation of the neglected garden and two unhappy children – Mary and her cousin Colin – that give the book its enduring appeal.

One of more than 50 books that Burnett published in her lifetime, it was not mentioned in the Times obituary, which praised her work in bringing about the 1911 Copyright Act and recalled the fact that in 1888, at the height of her fame, she had been presented with a magnificent diamond bracelet inscribed: “With the gratitude of British authors.” The Times considered that it was “chiefly, almost solely, because of Little Lord Fauntleroy that Mrs Hodgson Burnett’s name is known”.

Nearly a century after this claim was made, it seems extraordinary. In 2020, The Secret Garden is never missing from lists of the best children’s books of all time. It is now available in nearly 30 editions in ­English, and has been translated into dozens of languages. In conversations with friends of different generations, The Secret Garden comes up over and over again as a book they love. Now, a new adaptation ­produced by the makers of the Harry Potter and Paddington Bear films arrives in cinemas, with Colin Firth as Mary’s uncle, Mr Craven, and Julie Walters as Mrs Medlock, the housekeeper at Misselthwaite Manor.

I first read The Secret Garden when I was seven years old. Eighty years later there is a new edition of my biography of the author. I have vivid memories of previous film versions. The first was MGM’s 1949 film, black and white with the garden eventually in colour, starring Margaret O’Brien and Elsa Lanchester. I was 16, and it must have been my first experience of seeing an adaptation of a book I loved. In 1984, there was a satisfactory BBC television series and then, in 1993, there was the excellent and memorable film produced by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Maggie Smith as Mrs Medlock.

But the new adaptation – sold by distributors as a “fantasy drama” and “a new take on the beloved classic novel” – has little to do with The Secret Garden of my memory. The garden itself is certainly not the one that the two children created, the one that caused Colin to marvel: “Dickon and my cousin have worked and made it come alive.” The garden of the book is seriously rooted in reality; “the Magic” that Colin observes is the power of nature, and of the imagination.

The fantastical CGI of the new film bears no relation to Colin’s definition of Magic. Instead of opening the little green door hung with ivy, Colin, for his first visit to the garden, has to close his eyes and crash through a wall, as if he were on Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross, or at the back of a wardrobe, and would find himself in Hogwarts or Narnia.

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Of course, children may love this departure, and so I will forgive the directors if the new film encourages them (and their parents) to pick up the book and read on from that memorable first sentence: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.” It might even encourage interest in the writer herself.

I first began to investigate the life of Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1968. I was tired of being merely a wife who wrote and reviewed children’s books no one seemed to take much interest in, though I still believe it matters rather more what children read than what we read ourselves. I decided I wanted to write a biography. I had recently enjoyed the first biographies of both E Nesbit and Beatrix Potter. Frances Hodgson Burnett seemed to be waiting for me. Waiting for the Party, the first edition of my life of her, was published six years later, exactly 50 years after her death.

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Frances, as I must call her, as I do in my book, was the perfect choice of subject at the time. As a fledgling feminist, I wanted to write about a woman I could admire for her independence, her ­determination to lead a writer’s life ­unhindered by her gender in a 19th-century world that had very narrow ideas of how a woman should behave.

Frances was born in Manchester in 1849. All was well until her father died suddenly when she was three. Her mother – pregnant at the time with a fifth child – struggled to keep the family business going, affected as it was by the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War. In 1865 she finally accepted an invitation from her brother in Knoxville, Tennessee, encouraging her to bring her children – Frances was then 15 – to America for the chance of a better life.

In some moods, later on, Frances would remember “those awful starving days” in Tennessee. She was a great storyteller and had always written, but now she started to send her stories to popular magazines. “My object is remuneration,” she wrote to one editor. She was soon astonishingly successful. Indeed, for years she refused offers of marriage from Swan Burnett, then a young doctor with ambitions to be an eye ­specialist. In 1872, not yet 23, she could afford to travel alone (unheard of for a young woman) to see her friends and cousins in Manchester. She was away for 15 months, paying her way with the stories she sent back in the post.

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In 1873, rather reluctantly, she married Swan. Two years later, after the birth of her first child, Lionel, the young family moved to Paris. There, Frances, writing every day, managed to support the household, including a devoted African-American woman who cooked and kept Lionel out of the way, while Swan studied at the hospital. Peterson’s Magazine expected two stories a month in return for regular cheques. She was also writing her first novel, That Lass o’Lowrie’s, for Scribner’s Monthly in New York. The first instalment appeared in the magazine just before Vivian, her unintended second son, was born.

That Lass o’Lowrie’s went into a third edition only three weeks after the first. Frances was, at 25, already on her way. One American critic wrote: “We know of no more powerful work from a woman’s hand, not even excepting the best of George Eliot.”

It was in 1886 that Little Lord Fauntleroy turned Frances into a transatlantic celebrity, with crowds of fans waiting for her when her ships arrived and the newspapers making shocking headlines about her private life and an 1888 lawsuit over a pirated version of the play. The book made her extremely rich and changed her life. But happiness continued to elude her. She survived two failed marriages (divorcing Swan in 1898 and separating from her second husband, Stephen Townsend, in 1902). In 1890, Lionel died in Paris, the same city where he had played as a baby 15 years earlier.

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Frances had died nine years before I was born and long before I was starting my research, but there were still people alive who would remember her. I would track them down. I had no idea how long my research would take, how many books she had written, how many times she crossed the Atlantic (I later counted 33), how many houses and different countries she had lived in. I wonder now if I would ever have taken on the task if I had known.

My greatest pleasure as a biographer has always been reading a letter deposited in a library or found in a box in a family attic, which has never been read before by anyone but the person to whom it was addressed. With Frances, there were many hundreds of these. Wherever she travelled she wrote and recorded at length her impressions and emotions. There was always more, much more, material than I needed, but it all helped me to build up my picture of this remarkable woman.

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Constance Burnett, Frances’s daughter-in law, was still alive. I visited her and her daughter in Boston, Massachusetts – but at first they were not happy about my book. There was a great deal about Frances that her daughter-in-law felt was not fit for general consumption. Constance had herself written a brief life for children called Happily Ever After. I queried the title. Frances wanted life to be a fairy story. She wanted to make dreams come true – her own and other people’s – in her adult novels as well as her children’s books. But again and again, throughout her life, reality was a disappointment. I said I thought in many ways it had been a tragic life, and the younger Mrs Burnett, by then herself an old woman, nodded in agreement.

When the family accepted I really was contracted to write the book, they sent fat bundles of previously unpublished letters to me in England, many of them written by Frances to her son Vivian when she was living an impossible life with her second husband at Great Maytham Hall in Kent. It was in one of those that she told Vivian she had been “blackmailed” into this marriage. It was also in one of those letters that she told him of the hours she was spending in the walled garden with the friendly robin, beginning the book that would become The Secret Garden.

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Waiting for the Party was celebrated in a way none of my children’s books had been. Half of literary London came down to Penshurst Place in Kent when the book was launched. In one review, Elizabeth Jane Howard congratulated me on “finding someone so extraordinary and so neglected to write about”.

Had Frances died in the 1880s, before she wrote that bestseller Little Lord Fauntleroy, she might well be remembered as an ­important minor novelist. An article in 1883 listed Frances as one of the five ­American novelists “who hold the front rank today in general estimation”. One of the ­others was Henry James, whom Frances came to know well in her years in London and Kent. She shared with Elizabeth Gaskell a profound concern about “the seeming injustice of the inequalities of fortune”. Her belief in the equality of all ­human  beings (a belief not shared by many ­Victorian ­writers) is one reason why her children’s stories ­survive so convincingly, not as ­period ­pieces, but as living children’s literature.

Reviewers of my biography found many different ways of describing Frances Hodgson Burnett: well-intentioned, flamboyant, vain, tough, wilful, unwise, immensely generous, talented, hard-working, energetic, determined, luxury-loving, egotistical. She was at times all of these things. I found her vulnerable and sensitive as well, and ­indeed extraordinary. 

“Beyond the Secret Garden: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett” by Ann Thwaite is published by Duckworth

This article appears in the 30 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning