One of my all-time favourite children’s authors is Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘A Little Princess’.
She was born on 24 November 1849, in Cheetham, near Manchester in the UK. Her father died when she was only three and after struggling along for some time, her poverty-stricken mother emigrated to the US when Frances was 16, settling in Tennessee. Frances began writing and publishing stories at the age of 19 to help earn money for her family.
She became friends with a lame boy called Swan Burnett who lived across the street and introduced him to all the books she most loved. Soon she was earning enough money from her writing to move her family into a bigger house and to travel to Europe. She returned to the US to marry her childhood sweetheart, Swan Burnett, and then they lived in Paris for a few years (lucky thing!) She had two sons, Lionel and Vivian.
Her first novel ‘That Lass o’ Lowries’ was published in the UK and UK in 1877 and she went on to write several more novels for adults. After meeting Louis May Alcott, she decided to try her hand at writing for children and ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ was published in 1886 (people mock her for this book today, but it was hugely popular at the time and prompted a fashion for little boys to wear velvet suits with lace collars and long hair, which is how she liked to dress her own sons).
Life was not all sweet, however. Frances’s marriage was in trouble, and then her eldest son contracted tuberculosis. His death plunged her into depression, but she continued to write, publishing numerous books for adults with titles like ‘A Lady of Quality’ (1896) and ‘The Making of a Marchioness’ (1901). Her eventual divorce from her husband caused a scandal.
At this time she turned away from her traditional faith in the Church of England to embrace Spiritualism. She lived separately from her husband and became involved with a handsome younger man who had ambitions as an actor.
In 1905 she published ‘A Little Princess’, which I absolutely adored as a child and read many times. A few of my favourite quotes:
“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”
“How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it is certain that they do understand. Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul.”
“If nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that–warm things, kind things, sweet things–help and comfort and laughter–and sometimes gay, kind laughter is the best help of all.”
From 1898 to 1907, Frances lived in England at Great Maytham, an old country house which had been damaged by fire and let half in ruins. One day, aided by a robin, she found the old walled garden dating from 1721 sadly overgrown and neglected. She had the garden restored, planting hundreds of roses, set up a table and chair in the gazebo, and – dressed always in a white dress and large hat – wrote a number of books in her secret garden’s peace and tranquillity.
Her younger lover Stephen Townsend came to live with her there, scandalising the vicar, and so in February 1900 she married him. The marriage was very unhappy and Frances suffered depression and illness. Two years later, she divorced him.
Frances was inspired to write her most famous book ‘The Secret Garden’ by her own discovery of the forgotten garden at Great Maytham, though much of it was written at another grand country manor house, Buile Hill Park.
The book’s working title was ‘Mistress Mary’, referring to the English nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. It was first serialised in The American Magazine from autumn 1910, then published in the summer of 1911 by Frederick A. Stokes in New York, and by Heinemann in London. The 1911 edition was illustrated by M.B.Kork.
It is one of my own all-time favourite books. I have read it dozens of times. I think my own love of flower, plants and gardens (especially secret gardens) was inspired by this book. I particularly love the sense of joyousness in the book, and the feeling that magic and miracles can happen if you just believe hard enough. Some quotes:
“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun–which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone’s eyes.” ― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
“I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us” ― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden