The Secret Garden

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  Oh dear.  I think someone got The Secret Garden mixed up with Jane Eyre, The Enchanted Wood, and I don’t know what else, unless I’ve somehow always missed the bits where Misselthwaite Manor burns down, the leaves in the garden magically die and come back to life depending on people’s moods, and the garden itself is about 100 acres of meadows, woodlands and tropical flowers with visions appearing all over it.  It was lovely to see the Bodnant Garden laburnum arch in flower, which I didn’t get to see this year due to lockdown, and I think the sunken temple bits were filmed at Fountains Abbey, but none of it bore any resemblance whatsoever to Lilias Craven’s small walled garden.  And how exactly could you keep something that size a secret?

Also, why on earth were we told that it was set in the year of Indian independence and Partition?  The book was published in 1911   Oh, I just need to point out that Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Cheetham Hill, and that her family had to sell their business because of the Cotton Famine, because everyone needs to know this.  She’d been dead for 23 years by 1947!   And cholera epidemics and delicate children being kept in their bedrooms all the time aren’t exactly very 1940s, are they?  On top of that, Ben the gardener was missed out completely, and we were told that Mary’s dad was lovely and that her mum was only narky because she was grieving for her sister.

I suppose it was quite an entertaining film.  And it looked gorgeous – the garden was absolutely stunning.  But it didn’t really have a lot to do with the book.  OK, the basic story was there – Mary was orphaned in India, went to live with her grumpy uncle in Yorkshire, made friends with Dickon and Martha, and persuaded Colin to get out and about.   But, if you’re looking for something that’s faithful to the book, this isn’t it.  I know that people have different ideas about whether or not films should follow the books on which they’re based, and maybe it doesn’t matter that much if people enjoy the film, but I would have preferred something rather more faithful to the book.

The garden was lovely, though …

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I’ve no idea why I’d never read this before.  I’m always 🙂 reminding people that Frances Hodgson Burnett was originally from Cheetham Hill, and that her family lost their money in the Cotton Famine; and I read “The Secret Garden” when I was 8.  Oh well, better late than never.  What a lovely book!  I was half-expecting it to be one of those awful Victorian stories in which the heroine’s either too good to be true or bursts into tears every five minutes, or both, but it isn’t like that at all.  Sara Crewe is very sweet, but in an appealing and believable way, and I genuinely liked her.  And, hooray, she’s best friends with the fat girl!   Being the fat girl at school is not easy, and (the unfortunately-named) Ermengarde is lacking in both friends and self-confidence until Sara turns up, but Sara genuinely isn’t bothered about what she looks like.  The book would be worth reading for that sub-plot alone, but it’s just a really nice book all round.

OK, the ending isn’t particularly realistic, but a) it’s a children’s book and b) the sudden rescue from poverty is very typical of Victorian books – think of how things turn out for Oliver Twist, or even for Jane Eyre.  Overall, I was very impressed with this.  And a book about trying to make the best of a difficult situation, using your imagination to help you cope if need be, is definitely not a bad thing to be reading as we head towards our eighth week of lockdown.  #BeMoreSaraCrewe – maybe that could be a good slogan for coping with it all!

Sara Crewe is the seven-year-old only child of a young widower living and working in India.  He brings her home to England and leaves her at a London boarding school run by a Miss Minchin – one of those small “seminary” type places, like the one Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley went to in Vanity Fair 65 years earlier (this was published in 1888).   As Captain Crewe is rolling in it, Sara is a “parlour boarder” – she gets her own suite of rooms and a maid to look after her, and wears much fancier clothes than anyone else.   I think Harriet Smith in Emma was also a parlour boarder, but we never actually see her in that setting, and it’s very interesting to think how this would have worked, with one pupil being so differentiated from the others.

Some of the girls are jealous, and sarcastically nickname Sara “Princess Sara”, but she’s so nice to everyone that it becomes a term of endearment.  She picks up all the waifs and strays – Ermengarde, a very young girl called Lottie, and the put-upon skivvy, Becky.  And she’s good at her lessons.  And Miss Minchin quite likes being able to show off by having this pupil who’s dripping in furs and jewels and so on.

Then, news comes that Captain Crewe has dropped dead, having first lost all his money, persuaded by an old friend to invest in a diamond mine which turned out to be a disaster.  So Sara is destitute, and apparently has no other relatives or family friends.  Miss Minchin can’t chuck her out on the street because it’d look bad, so Sara has to become a servant, living up in the attic in the room next to Becky’s, running errands (she doesn’t seem to do any actual cooking, cleaning, washing, etc!) and hardly getting anything too eat.  Miss Minchin is a Very Nasty Person.

Sara, who’s always been very imaginative – a bit like Anne Shirley was to be, later on – copes with it by pretending that she and Becky are prisoners in the Bastille, and, when Ermengarde sneaks up to visit and brings a hamper of goodies, pretending that they’re having a court banquet.  But Miss Minchin catches Ermengarde, and stops her and Lottie from seeing Sara 😦 .  It does all get a bit pantomime/fairy story-ish, with Miss Minchin as the wicked witch, when Sara gets nothing to eat on some days.  She (Sara) does find a coin in the street, and buys some buns with it … but gives most of them away to someone even worse off than she is.  But she keeps her spirits up, and is always unfailingly polite to everyone.

Then a man who’s recently returned from India, after a serious illness, moves in next door.  And, whaddaya know, he’s the friend who persuaded Sara’s dad to invest in the mines – and the mines are now producing loads of diamonds.  He feels terrible about everything that’s happened, and is desperate to find Sara so that he can become her legal guardian and give her all the zillions of pounds that are now hers.  Unfortunately, he thinks she was sent to school in Paris and has been adopted by a family who are now in Russia, so he sends his solicitor there to look for her.  Despite the size of Alexander III’s Russian Empire, the solicitor soon finds the girl they thought was Sara, only to find that she’s someone else.

Meanwhile, the man’s Indian manservant’s monkey (it’s a Victorian book, OK!) gets into Sara’s attic through a skylight.  The manservant rescues him, is very impressed by Sara, feels sorry for her, and reports back to his master.  From then on, he keeps sneaking through the skylight to light the fire and leave loads of food and other stuff for Sara, and they also have two parcels of fancy clothes delivered to her!   Eventually, of course, it comes out that Sara is the girl they’ve been looking for, her dad’s friend becomes her guardian and she goes to live with him, and Becky becomes her lady’s maid, hooray!  And, just to make sure that we don’t forget how nice she is, she insists on giving money to the woman at the bakery where she got the buns, so that buns can be provided for the needy.

All right, it’s a bit clichéd, but it really is a lovely book.  Sara isn’t sickly-sweet.  She isn’t too good to be true.  She gets angry with Miss Minchin, but realises that showing that isn’t going to help.  There’s never any mention of the need for obedience, or accepting the Lord’s will, or the School of Love, or anything like that.  She’s just a genuinely nice person who tries to cope with a very difficult situation as best she can.  And that’s something we’re all having to try to do at the moment. As I said, #BeMoreSaraCrewe – maybe that could be a good slogan for coping with lockdown!

 

Favourite Stories of Courageous Girls: inspiring heroines from classic children’s books

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This is definitely an eclectic selection of heroines – 24 of them in all.  They include Enid Blyton’s much-discussed George Kirrin and rarely-discussed Margery Fenworthy, a range of characters from older Girls’ Own books, from Jo March and Anne Shirley to Pollyanna and Rebecca Randall, and from Bobbie Waterbury to Mary Lennox; fairytale characters such as Gerda from The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid and Kate Crackernuts; Proserpina/Persephone from the Greek myth, girls from fantasy-eque novels – Alice and Dorothy – and, bizarrely considering that the title says “children’s books”, the wonderful Jane Eyre and the horribly irritating Catherine Earnshaw.  (Full list below!)

Whilst I’d certainly class, say, Bobbie and Gerda as courageous, I’m not really convinced about some of the others – Mary Lennox isn’t really courageous, and Catherine Earnshaw just needs a good slap!  Some of the extracts chosen seem rather odd as well – even if it was her one beauty, was having her hair cut really the bravest thing that Jo March ever did?!  A lot of authors are featured twice, which seems rather unimaginative, and I think some of the books were chosen more for being famous than for anything else.   And it’s just really a collection of extracts, with no discussion about why they’ve been chosen, and very little background information for readers who aren’t familiar with particular characters.  However, the Kindle version was going for 99p, and for 99p it was worth a read.

Full list of “courageous girls”, FYI (if anyone’s reading this!). The order of these felt as if someone’d drawn them out of a hat.  Maybe the idea was to provide contrasts between one girl and the next, but surely it would have better to have arranged them by genre, or maybe by publication date?  Anyway.  Here we are:

  1. Jo March from Little Women.  I’m OK with the choice of character, but not with the choice of extract,  Whilst I get that it was her one beauty and hair was a woman’s crowning glory, was Jo having her hair cut really braver than moving to New York on her own?
  2.  Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – again, a poor choice of extract. Instead of a scene with the Wicked Witch, it was just a scene with Dorothy meeting the rest of the gang.
  3. Gerda from The Snow Queen – rescuing Kay.  Go Gerda!  Although this story used to frighten me when it was serialised in Twinkle when I was about 6!
  4.  Bobbie Waterbury from The Railway Children.  Stopping the train with red flannel petticoats.  Absolutely iconic scene!!
  5. Jane Eyre.  Seeing as this is supposed to be about children’s books, they went for the Mr Brocklehurst bit.  I talk about this scene a lot, because I think it’s a brilliant example of how bullying religious Victorians could be.  Who’s the actual heroine of it – is it Jane or is it Helen Burns?   I think it’s probably both of them.
  6. Kate Crackernuts.  I don’t think I’d heard this story before.  It’s a Scottish fairytale – and it’s great, because Kate saves her sister, who’s been put under a spell, and sits up with a sick prince, whom she later marries, rather than a prince rescuing a girl which is what usually happens.  Quite a contrast to have a fairytale straight after the Jane Eyre/Mr Brocklehurst episode!
  7. Rebecca (Randall) of Sunnybrook Farm.  I’m not big on these preachy-type books, but Rebecca isn’t bad compared to the likes of Elsie Dinsmore and Cousin Helen Carr, and this is a nice scene in which she gets the better of a bully.
  8. George Kirrin from Five on a Treasure Island.  I read this book when I was only about 5 or 6, and the word “ingots” fascinated me.  I have no idea why!  George can be really annoying, but she can be really brave as well.  And, let’s face it, compared to Anne, she definitely seems like a heroine!
  9. White Chrysanthemum.  I didn’t know this one.  It’s a Japanese fairytale.  Kudos for the inclusion of stories from different cultures, but, as the heroine is rescued from bandits by her brother, I’m not sure why we’re meant to think she’s being courageous!
  10. Understood Betsy.  Another one I didn’t know, but it involves Betsy rescuing a girl from a pit, so, yep, that classes as courageous!
  11. Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The Queen of Hearts/”Off with her head” scene.  I would never have picked Alice as an example of a “courageous girl”, but, when you think about it, she really is very brave in this scene.  Hmm.  That’s one to think about.
  12. The Princess Who Loved Her Father Like Salt.  This is an Indian fairytale.  It’s a nice story, and, again, kudos for including stories from different cultures, but no-one really does anything very courageous.
  13. Sara Crewe from A Little Princess.  Sharing buns with a “little ravening London savage”.  I do find this book a bit sick-making, but I do also acknowledge that Sara is brave in the way she copes with the situation in which she finds herself, so, OK, fair enough.
  14.  The Phoenix and the Carpet.  Er, who is actually being brave here.  Is it Anthea?  No idea why this is in there!
  15.  The Seven Ravens.  Nice little fairytale in which a girl rescues her brothers, but very short.
  16. Pollyanna.  Again, I’m not big on preachy books, but I suppose she was brave to go to the home of scary-ish John Pendleton.  But would you really choose Pollyanna as an obvious example of a “courageous girl”?
  17. Anne (Shirley) of Green Gables.  The bit where she saves the baby with croup.  I’d say that that was more about being bright and keeping her head than being courageous, but, on the other hand, it was pretty brave for a young girl to give medical assistance like that.  And I love Anne!
  18. The Pomegranate Seeds – the Proserpina/Persephone story.  When I was 6, I had a nice shiny hardback book of Greek myths, and this one was my favourite!  But I’m not sure that Proserpina’s “brave” as such.  Still, I’ve always liked the story.
  19. Wuthering Heights.  WTF?  If it’d been Cathy junior, coping with evil Hindley, OK, but what is courageous about Catherine Linton?  She needs a good slap, if you ask me.  I think this was just included because it’s a very famous book, and that’s a lazy/sloppy way of doing things.  Not impressed!  How can Catherine Linton be called courageous?  She’s a nasty little madam!
  20. Emily of New Moon – in dispute with a nasty teacher.  I don’t mind Emily, but I’m not sure you’d say she was “courageous”.
  21. The Wise Princess – a fairytale, but one written in modern times.  Girl drowns trying to rescue baby.  Moral of the story is that she learnt how to be happy.  Er, no, me neither!
  22. Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden.  The bit where she meets Colin.  Like a lot of these girls, Mary has to learn to become a better person, but … I don’t know, is that “courageous”.  I suppose it is, in a way, but I’m not sure how meeting your cousin makes you an “inspiring heroine”.
  23. Margery Fenworthy from The O’Sullivan Twins at St Clare’s, rescuing another girl from a fire.  I’d half-forgotten about this – probably because Margery isn’t one of the major characters in the series.  It’s actually one of the most dramatic scenes in any of Enid Blyton’s school stories, though.  Poor old Margery – no-one ever talks about her.  I’m quite glad she’s been included here!
  24. The Little Mermaid.  Not the animated film!  The real story, in which she rescues a prince … although, weirdly, it didn’t include the actual ending, just said that she’d rescued him but he’d never know, and left it there.  That missed the whole point of the story!

In summary – it was a good idea for a book, but it just wasn’t very well-executed..  There’s been a big swing towards Disney princess stuff for young girls, and, whilst there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s important to have strong, courageous girls as role models as well.  But I think there are far better examples than some of these, and I’d have liked a bit more discussion and commentary on why these particular girls and these particular examples of their “courage” had been chosen.  Great idea.  Not such a great book.