Protagonist Mary Lennox, "as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived," is nine years old when she wakes one morning in India to an empty house, forgotten by all in the chaos of a cholera epidemic that has killed her pretty young mother, British army captain father, and most of their servants. The novel charts Mary’s removal to England and her physical, psychological, and moral development on the Yorkshire estate of her widowed uncle Archibald Craven, a reputed "hunchback." As part of her own maturation, Mary catalyzes growth and healing in (and between) her mildly spinally disfigured uncle and his "invalid" son Colin.

The secret garden of the title is Mary’s aunt Lilias’s creation. It has been virtually abandoned since the accident that resulted in Colin’s premature birth and Lilias’s death. Colin himself, while overprotected by the servants, is ignored by his depressed father and hidden in the estate. Mary discovers and rehabilitates both the secret garden and her secret cousin with the help of the working-class Sowerby family, including the servant Martha, her brother Dickon (a boy in tune with nature), and their mother Susan. Archibald, travelling across Europe to escape his sadness, is called back to the garden by a dream of his dead wife and returns to find Colin healthy and walking.


Burnett draws repeatedly on ideas about the integration of physical, mental, moral, and spiritual health, using the garden as a figure for a regeneration that cuts across all of these. Through its representations of illness and disability in Mary, Archibald, and Colin, the novel reiterates the message that bodily illness is the product of insufficient contact with nature, self-absorption, and the poor parenting that results in faulty moral and physical health. For example, when Mary's mind

"filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids,with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his "creatures," there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired."
(p. 262)

Her cousin is similarly constrained:

"So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness and his detestation of people who looked at him and reflected hourly on humps and early death, he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing of the sunshine and the spring and also did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it." (p. 262)

The association between India, cholera, and Mary’s lack of vigor suggests a colonialist stereotype of South Asia as an unhealthy place. The novel also implies a critique of the British Raj (rule in India) as a situation producing an unhealthy sense of human hierarchy and entitlement, a symptom of both Mary and Colin’s sicknesses. The novel also poses a trenchant critique of medicalization as a constructor of illnesses; one of the things of which Mary “cures” Colin is his internalized sense of his own importance as invalid and potential hysteric. The novel’s popularity makes it an important contributor, along with Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and others, to the "take up thy bed and walk" school of cultural representations of disablement, all suggesting an inherent suspicion that some disabilities and illnesses are psychosomatic and thus false.


FIrst published in 1911.


Signet Classics

Place Published

New York



Page Count