8 Lovely Facts About The Secret Garden

When an orphan named Mary is left to explore a gothic mansion, she discovers a mysterious walled garden that has been locked for over a decade. With the help of a robin and a good-natured Yorkshire boy, she uncovers why the garden has been locked away, and how to bring it—and herself—back to life. Here’s more on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s book The Secret Garden.

1. THE SETTING WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL GARDEN.

In 1898, Burnett rented Great Maytham Hall in Kent, a Downton Abbey-style manor with a walled kitchen garden. When Burnett moved in, the ivy on the walls was so overgrown that she couldn’t find the door to the garden. Finally, like Mary in The Secret Garden, a robin sitting on a nearby branch showed her where it was. After that, Burnett threw herself into fixing up the neglected grounds, planting flower gardens, putting in rose bushes, and improving the views. She wrote In Connection with the DeWilloughby Claim in the gazebo. Henry James was a neighbor. 

Then, in 1908, the hall was sold and Burnett moved back to America. While there, her beloved English garden came back to her. Both it, and the robin, inspired The Secret Garden.

2. THE ORIGINAL TITLE WAS MISTRESS MARY.

Mary’s name comes from the English nursery rhyme: 

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

At the beginning of the book, Mary is an unlikable character, described as ugly, spoiled, and rude. The other children chant this nursery rhyme at her and call her “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary.” Burnett used Mistress Mary as a working title for the book but eventually settled on The Secret Garden instead.

3. THE SECRET GARDEN IS INFLUENCED BY CHRISTIAN SCIENCE.

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Burnett admired Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science teachings, which include the rejection of medicine in favor of prayer and positive thinking. These beliefs make their way into The Secret Garden through the character Colin, a sickly boy locked away in the mansion. It's even been proposed that the novel can be read "as a feminist, Christian Science revision of ... rest cure," which was a popular treatment involving "bed rest, social isolation, and force-feeding." The doctors in the book do Colin more harm than good with this method, and it’s Mary’s influence, as well as the influence of nature and good thoughts, that make Colin walk again. "When new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones, life began to come back to him, his blood ran healthily through his veins and strength poured into him like a flood," the book reads. Colin also says he wants to study “The Magic” when he’s older, which is commonly believed to stand for Christian Science theology

4. COLIN MAY HAVE BEEN BASED ON BURNETT'S DEAD SON.

In 1890, Burnett’s 16-year-old son, Lionel, died from tuberculosis, which devastated his mother. Some biographers think Burnett based the young Colin on Lionel. The ending, where Colin walks again in front of his father, is thought to be Burnett imagining her son restored to health. However, others disagree with this interpretation. "Colin has nothing at all in common with the real Lionel, or with the idealized dead son," the novelist A.S. Byatt once wrote. "The writer is tougher than the woman.” 

5. THE SECRET GARDEN WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED FOR ADULTS.

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In 1910, The Secret Garden appeared in serial format in The American Magazine, a publication aimed at adults. It was possibly the first children’s story to appear in an adult magazine before coming out as a book, which may have caused confusion about whether or not it was intended for kids. The book was published the following year in both England and America. (As a side note, Charles Robinson’s illustrations in the original British edition depict Mary with dark hair.)

6. IT WAS ONE OF BURNETT'S LEAST POPULAR BOOKS.

Perhaps because of the odd way the book was published, The Secret Garden was overlooked in Burnett’s lifetime. While it sold well and received good reviews, it didn’t compare in popularity to other works such as Little Lord Fauntleroy or The Little Princess. In fact, when Burnett died in 1924, The Secret Garden wasn’t even mentioned in her obituaries. It wasn’t until the 1940s, and the rise of scholarship around children’s literature, that people started calling The Secret Garden a classic.

7. SOME HAVE CRITICIZED THE SECRET GARDEN FOR COLONIALISM AND RACISM.

The Secret Garden is not without controversy. Mary’s parents are British colonizers, living in luxury in India until they’re killed by a cholera epidemic. Mary also expresses racist attitudes to the maid Martha. When Martha says she thought Mary would be black because she was from India, Mary bursts into tears and says, "You thought I was a native! … They are not people—they are servants who must salaam to you." Because of this, The Secret Garden is often listed as an example of racist classic literature. 

8. THE EXPIRED COPYRIGHT HAS LED TO MANY ADAPTATIONS.

The Secret Garden entered the public domain in 1987, which has allowed for many versions and adaptations of the story, including movies, TV, musicals, plays, coloring books, anime, cookbooks, radio shows, and free versions of the novel online. There’s even a YouTube show called "The Misselthwaite Archives," which is a modern retelling of the story. You can watch it here

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By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
11 Simple Facts About Henry David Thoreau
By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau declared his love of nature, simplicity, and independence. Although most people know about Thoreau’s time in Walden Woods, as well as his Transcendentalism, abolitionist views, and writing on civil disobedience, there’s a lot more to uncover about him. In honor of his birthday (he would’ve turned 201 years old today), here are 11 things you might not have known about Henry David Thoreau.

1. WE’RE PROBABLY MISPRONOUNCING HIS NAME.

Born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, David Henry Thoreau switched his first and middle names after graduating from Harvard. His legal name, though, was always David Henry. Although most people today pronounce Thoreau’s surname with the emphasis on the second syllable, he most likely pronounced it “THOR-oh.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son, Edward, wrote that the accent in Thoreau’s name was on the first syllable, and other friends called him “Mr. Thorough.”

2. HE INVENTED A MACHINE TO IMPROVE PENCILS.

In the 1820s, Thoreau’s father started manufacturing black-lead pencils. Between teaching students, surveying land, and working as a handyman, Thoreau made money by working for his family’s pencil business. After researching German techniques for making pencils, he invented a grinding machine that made better quality plumbago (a mixture of the lead, graphite, and clay inside a pencil). After his father died, Thoreau ran the family’s pencil company.

3. HE ACCIDENTALLY BURNED HUNDREDS OF ACRES OF WOODS.

In 1844, a year before moving into a house in Walden Woods, the 26-year-old Thoreau was cooking fish he had caught with a friend in the woods outside Concord. The grass around the fire ignited, and the flames burned between 100 and 300 acres of land, thanks to strong winds. Even years later, his neighbors disparagingly called him a rascal and a woods burner. In an 1850 journal entry, Thoreau described how the earth was “uncommonly dry”—there hadn’t been much rain—and how the fire “spread rapidly.” Although he initially felt guilty, he wrote that he soon realized that fire is natural, and lightning could have sparked a fire in the woods just as easily as his cooking accident did.

4. HIS HOUSE AT WALDEN POND LATER BECAME A PIGSTY.

After Thoreau left the home he built in Walden Woods in 1847, the structure went through multiple iterations. He sold the house to Emerson (it was on land that Emerson already owned), and Emerson sold it to his gardener. The gardener never moved in, so the house was empty until a farmer named James Clark bought it in 1849. Clark moved it to his nearby farm and used it to store grain. In 1868, the roof of the building was removed from the base and used to cover a pigsty. In 1875, the rest of the structure was used as a shed before its timber was used to fix Clark’s barn. Today, you can see replicas of Thoreau’s house near Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

5. HE AND HIS BROTHER WERE CAUGHT IN A LOVE TRIANGLE.

In 1839, Thoreau wrote in his journal about how he fell in love with Ellen Sewall, an 18-year-old from Cape Cod. In 1840, Thoreau’s older brother John proposed marriage to Sewall but was rejected. So, like any good brother, Thoreau wrote a letter to Sewall, proposing that she marry him instead. Sewall rejected him too, probably due to her family disapproving of the Thoreau family’s liberal views on Christianity.

Despite the aforementioned marriage proposal, some historians and biographers speculate that Thoreau was gay. He never married, reportedly preferred celibacy, and his journals reveal references to male bodies but no female ones.

6. DESPITE POPULAR MISCONCEPTION, HE WASN’T A LONER.

Historians have debunked the misconception that Thoreau was a selfish hermit who lived alone so he could stay away from other people. Rather than being a loner, Thoreau was an individualist who was close to his family members and lived with Emerson’s family (on and off) for years. To build his cabin in the woods, he got help from his friends including Emerson and Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott. During his stay in the woods, he frequently entertained guests, visited friends, and walked to the (nearby) town of Concord. At his funeral at Concord’s First Parish Church, a large group of friends attended to mourn and celebrate his life.

7. HE WAS A MINIMALIST.

Long before tiny houses were trendy, Thoreau wrote about the benefits of living a simple, minimalist lifestyle. In Walden, he wrote about giving up the luxuries of everyday life in order to quiet the mind and have time for thinking. “My greatest skill has been to want but little,” he wrote. Thoreau also related his love of simplicity to the craft of writing: “It is the fault of some excellent writers ... that they express themselves with too great fullness and detail. They give the most faithful, natural, and lifelike account of their sensations, mental and physical, but they lack moderation and sententiousness.”

8. HE TOOK COPIOUS NOTES.

Although he was a minimalist, Thoreau wrote an abundance of notes and ideas in his journals, essays, and letters. He jotted down his observations of nature, writing in detail about everything from how plant seeds spread across the land to the changing temperature of Walden Pond to animal behavior. In addition to his plethora of notes and environmental data, Thoreau also collected hundreds of plant specimens and birds’ eggs.

9. HE WAS PRAISED FOR HIS ORIGINALITY.

In 1862, newspapers widely reported the news of Thoreau’s death. Obituaries for the 44-year-old writer appeared in The Boston Transcript, The Boston Daily Advertiser, The Liberator, The Boston Journal, The New-York Daily Tribune, and The Salem Observer. The obituaries describe Thoreau as an “eccentric author” and “one of the most original thinkers our country has produced.”

10. HE DONATED HIS COLLECTIONS TO THE BOSTON SOCIETY OF NATURAL HISTORY.

After Thoreau’s death, the Boston Society of Natural History got a huge gift. Thoreau, a member, gave the society his collections of plants, Indian antiquities, and birds’ eggs and nests. The plants were pressed and numbered—there were more than 1000 species—and the Native American antiquities included stone weapons that Thoreau had found while walking in Concord.

11. DON HENLEY OF THE EAGLES IS A HUGE FAN.

As a big fan of both Thoreau and Transcendentalism, musician Don Henley of the Eagles started The Walden Woods Project in 1990 to stop 68 acres of Walden Woods from being turned into offices and condominiums. The project succeeded in saving the woods, and today The Walden Woods Project is a nonprofit organization that conserves Walden Woods, preserves Thoreau’s legacy, and manages an archive of Thoreau’s books, maps, letters, and manuscripts. In an interview with Preservation Magazine, Henley described the importance of preserving Walden Woods: “The pond and the woods that inspired the writing of Walden are historically significant not only because they were the setting for a great American classic, but also because Walden Woods was Henry David Thoreau's living laboratory, where he formulated his theory of forest succession, a precursor to contemporary ecological science.”

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Quentin Blake, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018
Matilda Illustrator Quentin Blake Is Auctioning Items From His Personal Collection of Drawings
Quentin Blake, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018
Quentin Blake, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018

When you think of Roald Dahl's classic books, chances are you're actually imagining Quentin Blake's work. Blake is the award-winning illustrator behind the signature imagery in beloved books like The BFG, Matilda, and The Twits. Now, Blake is auctioning off some of his drawings from his private collection through Christie's, giving the public a chance to own art intimately connected with these canonical children's books.

The illustrations on offer were completed by Blake over a period of some 40 years. They include preliminary studies, alternative versions of illustrations that made it into books like The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile (Blake's first collaboration with Dahl), and other related art. In addition to illustrations he drew for Dahl, there's artwork he created for his own books, for other authors, for hospitals (like the watercolor above, an alternative version of a drawing he made for the Rosie Birth Centre at Addenbrooke's Hospital, in Cambridge, UK), and for public exhibitions.

Below are just a few of the pieces available, currently ranging in starting bids from around $600 to more than $15,000.

A watercolor image of a witch dressed in black
"The Grand High Witch," 
an alternative illustration of the character from The Witches created for Blake's 2016 Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits project
Quentin Blake

A watercolor of a father with his arm around his son, holding a kite
"Danny and His Father," an alternative illustration of the characters from Danny the Champion of the World that Blake produced for his Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits
Quentin Blake

Four illustrations showing the BFG with his ears in different positions
“The BFG showing how he flaps his ears,” a preliminary drawing for the 1982 edition of The BFG
Quentin Blake

A watercolor of the BFG holding Sophie in the palm of his hand
“Sophie and the BFG,” an alternative illustration of the characters from The BFG created for the Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits
Quentin Blake

Take a look at the rest here before the auction ends on July 12. Proceeds from the auction will go to three nonprofits: The House of Illustration, Roald Dahl's Marvellous Children's Charity, and Survival International.

All images courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018

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