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

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

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Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
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Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

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