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Gender and genre in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s «The Secret Garden»

Par Marion Boucher : Monitrice - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Clifford Armion le 22/06/2009

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Questions of genre and gender lie at the heart of ((The Secret Garden)), which plays on different cultural and literary influences, and questions the ideological and social context in which it is inscribed.


"If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden." Mary's last sentence in the film adaptation of The Secret Garden recalls the main metaphor of Burnett's book, and gives broader significance to the garden, thus endowing Burnett's story with a universal and atemporal dimension, and contributing to its lasting popularity. Today, the story of The Secret Garden is mostly known in France thanks to the 1993 Warner Bros film, directed by Agnieszka Holland. However, the book is considered a classic of children's literature in England and America, and as such, it is part of Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage.

In the opening pages of the novel, the heroine's parents die of cholera in India and the orphan is sent to England to live with her uncle. The latter lives in a mysterious manor in the middle of the Yorkshire moors. Mary, who is left alone most of the time, decides to explore the place and discover its secrets.

Questions of genre and gender lie at the heart of the book, which plays on different cultural and literary influences, and questions the ideological and social context in which it is inscribed.

When The Secret Garden was published in 1911, British society was entering a time of considerable industrial change and therefore of spectacular social upheavals which were to lead to unexpected cultural consequences. Such changes inevitably raised crucial questions concerning the notion of a British nation, but also concerning the distribution of gender roles.

It was a time when both the words "feminism" and "homosexuality" came into use, redefining accepted ideas of masculinity and femininity. Women and homosexuals were perceived as threats to society because of the Victorian cultural reticence about sex and desire (Showalter, 1991, 3).

The nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth saw the explosion of the number of published works thanks to technical progress in the publishing industry, paralleled by a profusion of genres and subgenres, including children's literature. However, the rapidly growing success of the genre triggered questions about what sort of books were proper for children to read. A division between books for boys and books for girls occurred in the nineteenth century, in accordance with the separate syllabuses that were designed depending on sex and class. Adventure or school stories were addressed to boys, while girls were prone to read tedious stories about self-sacrificing heroines (Reynolds, 1990, 51 and 100), designed to keep them in the position and function of domestic "angels" (The phrase comes from Coventry Patmore's poem The Angel in The House, 1854-1856).

As girls tended to read their brothers' books, finding them more attractive and entertaining, a third category of stories appeared in juvenile fiction: books for both girls and boys, among which E. Nesbit's stories, Mrs. Ewing's, and Burnett's The Secret Garden are sometimes classified by literary critics (Reynolds, 1990, 94). I will study the genre of The Secret Garden under the light of gendered issues as I think that genre and gender were inevitably linked in the literature of the time. By 'genre,' I mean the classification of literary works on the basis of their content, form, or technique; by 'gender,' I understand the categorisation between the "feminine" and the "masculine" as cultural and ideological products and the attributes and roles assigned to them. I want to analyse the nature and the implications of the relation between genre - a term referring to a set of formal criteria and literary conventions - and gender - a term which I take to refer to sexual identity as a social construction, different from biological sex (Butler, 1999: preface x and xi).

The philosophical and cultural implications of the construction of identity and sexual identity, together with the way literature takes part in such a construction, will be the main focus of this article.

In order to understand how The Secret Garden engages with the production of girlhood and boyhood as gendered identities, I want first to contextualise the book within the tradition of juvenile literature and of ideological discourses about the child in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I then propose to analyse Burnett's aesthetic of inversion, showing that she does not hesitate to cross the frontiers between genders in The Secret Garden by subverting the traditional portrayal of the masculine hero and of the female protagonist and by playing on the concepts of femininity and masculinity.

Finally, I intend to question the interaction between reading and identity, the relationship between the notion of sexual difference inscribed in juvenile fiction and its sectors directed at young readers of different sexes.

1. The tradition of juvenile literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The decline of the British Empire, Britain's shifting status in global dominance and the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, ending a long reign of relative stability, all contributed to a feeling of insecurity in British society. It is within this context that the nostalgia for a Golden Age flourished in England and that the creation of myths of childhood came back into fashion.

The vision of children as good and innocent was inherited from the Romantics. The "regressive desire for a pre-industrial, rural world and the identification of the child with purity, [with] a pre-sexual life, [and] moral simplicity" (Wullschläger, 1995, 17), which are already present in Christian thought, find an echo in the writing of Blake and Wordsworth, whose poetry deals with childhood innocence; respectively in "The Little Black Boy" and "Infant Sorrow". Thanks to his imaginative life, the child was thought to have the ability to perceive things invisible to adults and to have access to a visionary simplicity denied to grown-ups because of the child's nearness to birth, to innocence, and therefore to a lost paradise. Henry Vaughan's conclusion to "The Retreat" harped on the very same idea: "Oh how I long to travell back/ And tread again that ancient track!" (Carpenter, 1985, 8). The heavenly dimension of infancy was even more clearly put forward by Thomas Traherne's "The Approach":

He in our Childhood with us walks,
And with our thoughts mysteriously he talks...
Oh lord, I wonder at thy love
Why did my infancy so early move.. (Carpenter, 1985, 9)

And again in Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads":

Oh dearest, dearest boy! My heart
For better lore would seldom yearn,
Could I but teach the hundredth path
Of what from thee I learn. (Carpenter, 1985, 9)

Nineteenth-century and twentieth-century novelists took up this sentimental idealisation of childhood, using the child as an instrument of salvation of the adult. Such is the case in Dickens's Great Expectations with Pip facilitating the redemption of the convict Magwitch, or in Little Lord Fauntleroy, where the old selfish earl of Dorincourt benefits from the influence of his good-hearted grandson Cedric: the "child brings out the good in the selfish old man simply by assuming that his grandfather in good" (Butler and Rotert, 1984, 203-203).

Other idealised images of childhood were to be found in paintings, the most famous example being John Everett Millais's portrait of his grandson entitled Bubbles (1886). This painting was also the sign of an evolution in the representation of children towards a focus on their particular needs (it was first entitled A Child's World), instead of portraying them as adult miniatures (Wullschläger, 1995, 12-13).

"The Romantic view of childhood as a privileged and seminal state, connected with both spiritual redemption and the natural world, was [also] inherited from [...] Rousseau's concept of [the 'Noble Savage']" (Wullschläger, 1995, 17). In Emile (1762), Rousseau associates the child with Nature, suggesting that the child should therefore be maintained in such an environment to preserve his purity. In that sense, the garden came to signify "a place of safety beyond social corruption or sexual awakening, especially in relation to cultural fears of lower class contamination" (McCulloch, 2004, 151). The transformation of two sickly children into healthy and happy ones in The Secret Garden is indeed presented as being the result of outdoor activities:

The fact was that the fresh wind from the moor had begun to blow the cobwebs out of her young brain and to waken her up a little. She stayed out of doors nearly all day, and when she sat down to her supper at night she felt hungry and drowsy and comfortable. (47-48)

"Historically, the impact of childhood innocence coincide[d] with the centrality of the nuclear family as a buffer against an increasingly industrialised capitalist society" (McCulloch, 2004, 3). The Secret Garden also reflects a change of perception in girls' education and occupation from staying in the house to working outside. Horticulture was then presented as a feminine activity, which secured women against the risk of becoming unwomanly or of competing with men for work. Queen Victoria set an example of cosy family gatherings and promoted the enjoyment of homely pleasures. In fact, family values were put to the forth in a period of turmoil, which translated into the search for social and sexual stability, by fear of the decline of religious belief, and of the dangers of amorality and social anarchy (Wullschläger, 1995, 14-15).

These problematics are deeply at work in The Secret Garden, since Burnett simultaneously conforms to and undermines the patriarchal literary standards regarding childhood. I shall see how Burnett is adapting and re-positioning the characteristics inherited from a well-established tradition of juvenile and adult literature.

2. "Am I queer?"; "I don't want to be queer"

Butler is for "opening up possibilities," claiming that rather than being a fixed attribute in a person, gender should be seen as a fluid variable which shifts and changes in different contexts and at different times (Butler, 1999, viii). The idea of a free-floating identity, not connected to an essence, but instead to a performance, is one of the key notions in "queer theory" that will be useful to our reading of The Secret Garden. I intend to use a broad definition of the term "queer" as something which puts into question the principle of identity, the idea of a subject identical to him/herself, and of an individual set into place because of its belonging to a sexual, social or ethnic group (Tomiche and Zoberman, 2007, 125).

Early Victorian gender prescriptions traditionally defined women, physically and intellectually, as:

the weaker sex. [...] From the 1860's, to this social construct the Darwinian theory of 'survival of the fittest' added a pseudo-scientific dimension which placed men higher on the evolutionary ladder. (Marsh, V&A Museum website).

The political context of the late nineteenth century led to the fear of women's emancipation and of regression and degeneration; it brought about sexual scandals, a change in the discourse on sexuality, body and disease, and a feeling of cultural insecurity. All this resulted in a longing for strict boundaries around the definitions of gender, race, class, nationality and a will to fix women and men in their separate spheres (Showalter, 1991, 4):

The harmony, not to say identity, of interests and views which belong or should belong to the family institution, is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband...The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator (Declaration from "Justice Bradley," quoted in Murfin and Rays, 1998, 119-120).

Burnett's status as a divorced woman writer sustaining her family was clearly challenging the views advocated at the time.

She also subverts the traditional categorization of gender in The Secret Garden by giving "masculine" attributes to the heroine and by feminising male protagonists.

Burnett moves away from the tradition of the beautiful child that was very popular in juvenile fiction, one she had used before in Little Lord Fauntleroy for instance. Mary is described as a plain little girl, whose appearance does not create any feeling of sympathy for her. The narrator's comment that "she was not a self-sacrificing person" (155), shows that she is the opposite of the ideal Victorian girl.

Mary has a sick cousin, Colin, who scares all the servants because of his tyrannical character. Nevertheless, they always indulge him every whim because they think that he is dying (" 'Everyone is obliged to do what pleases me' [...] 'It makes me ill to be angry. No one believes I shall live to grow up' " [122]). But at one point, a reversal takes place in the novel as Mary is seen in a dominating position towards Colin: " 'I'll warrant she teaches him that the whole orange does not belong to him' " (195) the housekeeper declares, noticing that Mary has some influence on her cousin; "There was a great deal of joking about the unpopular young recluse who, as the cook said, 'had found his master, and good for him' " (186). It should be noted that the term "master," which is of the masculine gender, refers to Mary and that the use of the verb to teach conjures up an idea of superiority. The heroine's discovery of two secrets (the existence of Colin and the garden), thanks to her adventurous explorations of the gardens and the manor at night, is at the heart of the plot of The Secret Garden and it is why the book acquires some characteristics of boys' adventure stories. It is worth noting here that boys were expected to conform to a certain definition of masculinity and that school or adventure stories, along with public schools, were the vehicle for an ideology implying that boys had to be trained to become the future heroes of the Empire. Here, Mary is mostly playing outdoors, while Colin is bedridden and passive. We might add that even if the pattern of girls' stories - consisting in the succession of adventure, illness and the reappearance of the father in the end, who comes back to solve the problems created by an absent or dysfunctional mother -, is present in The Secret Garden, it applies to Colin rather than to Mary.

Colin's illness is the main element that contributes to the feminisation of his character: "The man who does not know sick women does not know women" (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979, 45). Women writers have often used illness to feminise or humanise the leading man, making him aware of his interdependence and of his need for care. I am thinking here of Robert Moore who is subjected to a tyrannical nurse in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley (1849), or of the crippled and tamed Rochester at the end of Jane Eyre (1847). Male protagonists are feminised in The Secret Garden by the same method. It seems that men are ill in The Secret Garden, whereas women are in good health. Mary's father "had always been busy and ill himself" (7); Mr Craven is a hunchback and after the death of his wife, " 'th' doctors thought he'd have to be put in a' sylum' " (132).

Colin is presented as a frail sick hysterical child, with a "sharp, delicate face the color of ivory" (118). Hysteria was thought to be a female pathology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first volume of his History of Sexuality Foucault analysed this "hysterization of women's bodies":

A hysterization of women's bodies: a threefold process whereby the feminine body was analyzed - qualified and disqualified - as being thoroughly saturated with sexuality; whereby it was integrated into the sphere of medical practices, by reason of a pathology intrinsic to it [...]: the Mother, with her negative image of "nervous woman," constituted the most visible form of this hysterization. (Foucault, 1990, 104).

"Hyster" is the Greek word for womb, the organ that was supposed to cause this emotional disturbance. Burnett does not hesitate to write about Colin that "he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac" (262), echoing what she wrote in a letter to her sister Edith, about her second husband Stephen Townesend: "He is like some spiteful hysterical woman. He will work up scenes. He will not let things alone" (Thwaite, 1974, 191). The term is used several times in the novel ("hysterical hidden fear" [162]; "hysterical" [177]; "hysterics" [160]), and Colin has regular "tantrums." Colin also suffers from other diseases of maladjustment to the physical and social environment that particularly concerned women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: anorexia and agoraphobia (In the first part of the novel, he refuses to eat and is afraid of going out and of exposing himself to other people's gaze: " 'I have been taken to places at the seaside, but I won't stay because people stare at me' " [121]).

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar explain that in order to become the ideal slim, pale and passive woman, girls "killed" themselves into art objects (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979, 44). It is in this light that Colin's portrait should be read: "Colin looked rather like a picture himself" (134). His resemblance to the portrait of his dead mother, who was a beautiful, fragile Victorian "angel," corroborates the identification of the male child with what were considered feminine qualities, due to the cult of female invalidism that flourished in the nineteenth century.

It seems, therefore, that Mary is rather on the side of action; she is the "doer" and the "discoverer," while Colin's only power is to give orders to his servants. Burnett thus subverts the roles commonly attributed to men and women, as prescribed by John Ruskin, for instance, in the second part of Sesame and Lilies, "Of Queens' Gardens":

The man's power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation, and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest [...] But the woman's power is for rule, not for battle, - and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision [...] She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise - wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fail from his side. (Ruskin, 2002, 77-78)

Contrary to what was aimed at in dominant discourses of the time on gender roles, the "feminine" and the "masculine" are presented as permeable categories in The Secret Garden. The question of desire comes into play as well and it further complicates the distribution of gendered identities.

We have seen that Colin is a feminised character and that it is achieved mainly through his description as a hysterical being. In the 1890s, male hysteria became the topic of scientific interest in Europe, in the context of a homosexual panic. The term "queer" is omnipresent in the text. It is mainly used to refer to something odd, unconventional, unusual, which is the first meaning of the word (OED). However, the adjective evolved into meaning homosexual and one cannot ignore this possibility when reflecting upon gender issues in The Secret Garden. When the book was published in 1911, the term was already starting to gain its implication of sexual deviance (especially that of homosexual and/or effeminate males), which was already known in the late 19th century: " 'Am I queer?' "; 'I don't want to be queer' " (218-219), Colin declares.

In this vein, René Girard, in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, analyses novelistic masterpieces to stress the existence of the phenomenon of "triangular desire" everywhere. He asserts that the idea of free choice is "a romantic illusion"; his main contention is that we only choose objects that are already desired by someone else, whom Girard calls "the mediator." The relationship between the subject and the object is not therefore direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, mediator, and object. The mediator then transforms into a rival and becomes an obstacle to the possession of the object, whose value increases as the rivalry grows. This theory is useful for our analysis of The Secret Garden since a complex pattern of desire and jealousy is progressively set up among the members of the trio made up of Mary, Colin and Dickon. In turn, Dickon and Mary are the objects of Colin's desire. As Mary tells him about Dickon's gifts with animals and plants, she triggers his interest for the Yorkshire boy: " 'He's a sort of animal charmer and I am a boy animal' " (144), he says to Mary. She is the mediator of Colin's desire for Dickon: "She was only repeating what Dickon had told her, but she caught Colin's fancy" (185). But as soon as Colin feels Mary's preference for Dickon, the previous object of desire turns into a rival: " 'I won't let that boy come here if you go and stay with him instead of coming to talk to me' " (158).

Eve Sedgwick's thesis in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire gives us a further insight into the text. By "homosocial," she means the "social bonds between persons of the same sex" (1985, 1). She explains that the boundary between homosociality and homosexuality is blurred and takes up Girard's idea of triangular desire, by arguing that when men desire women, often the ultimate object of the desire is not the woman desired, but rather other men (1985, 21). The rivalry with Dickon for Mary's love is as strong as Colin's feelings for Mary in this triangle made of " 'two lads an' a little lass just lookin' on at th' springtime' " (153).

Desire often manifests itself in the act of gazing. When Colin first sees Dickon, there is an insistence in the text on the notion of looking: "Colin slowly sat up and stared and stared - as he had stared when he first saw Mary" (188). When Colin declares: " 'I wish you were my mother - as well as Dickon's' " (260), what he desires is not so much to have Mrs Sowerby as a mother as to have Dickon as a brother; and we might see brotherhood as an aspect of homosocialism, according to Sedgwick's definition. The limit between identification and desire is very thin. Dickon acts also as a manly role model for Colin, who wants to be as strong as him: "Dickon stood up on the grass and slowly went through a carefully practical but simple series of muscle exercises. Colin watched them with widening eyes" (239). In the film, we witness Colin imitating Dickon's gestures, which leads us to mention the role of performance in creating and maintaining an identity. Butler argues that gender is not what one is but what one does; it is an act that is rehearsed and performed.

Burnett's book might be read as an attempt at resisting essentialism and sexual and gender normativity. She proposes a critical approach on the construction of a normative "straight" ideology. I intend to discuss the central notions of metamorphosis and transformation in The Secret Garden. I will be mainly concerned with studying the passage from childhood to maturity, both for the female and male protagonists, and its consequences on the gendering of the reader.

3. The gendering of the reader

Simone de Beauvoir's famous sentence in Le Deuxième Sexe, which translates into English as "one is not born a woman, one becomes one," exemplifies the fact that gender is an aspect of identity which is gradually acquired. How are language and text formative in producing conceptions of childhood, femininity and motherhood in The Secret Garden?

On a first level of reading, The Secret Garden is the story of two sick children, who recover by passing time outside and especially by playing in the garden. A remarkable move from bad health to good health is described in the book. The term of rebirth is quite suitable to qualify Colin's transformation. He learns to eat again, and to walk. Many clues given in the text invite us to watch the children's transformation in parallel with that of the garden. It is made clear that the garden was dormant in winter and that the children start to blossom in spring, along with the flowers: "[...] the secret garden was coming alive and two children were coming alive with it [...]" (262).

If for Colin, this metamorphosis implies a move from absence to presence and from being invisible to being visible; things are not so straightforward as far as Mary is concerned: "But the big breaths of rough fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes when she did not know anything about it" (44-45). On the one hand, this transformation is presented as something positive for the heroine, but, on the other hand, one might argue that there is more than a physical change - what is taking place is the replacing of an unconventional heroine by one who corresponds more to society and literary standards about beautiful little girls: "she actually looked almost pretty for a moment" (46), "Mary had seen herself in the glass sometimes lately when she had realized that she looked quite a different creature from the child she had seen when she arrived from India. This child looked nicer. Even Martha had seen a change in her" (143). At the beginning of the novel, it is indicated indeed that Mary is not a self-conscious girl: "Mary was not vain and as she had never thought much of her looks she was not greatly disturbed" (88). But, the examples given above hint at Mary's new awareness of her physical appearance, and later on, we learn that she would be pleased to be as beautiful as her mother and looked at with admiration by people. This triggers interrogations about the weight of conventional representations of women and preconceived ideas about beauty. The problem is that through the examples of Mrs. Lennox and Mrs. Craven, sexuality and womanhood are associated with death.

The end of the book brings about the silencing of the heroine, who becomes invisible. It seems that Mary is growing into a "perfect woman," according to Victorian and Edwardian standards. Conduct books such as Mrs. Beeton's, advocated the idea that it was part of women's duties to perform the task of a sick-nurse. From a selfish child, Mary develops into a more generous person, who devotes her time and attention to her cousin. It should be noted that it is Colin who has the privilege to tell the whole story about the discovery of the garden and their secret activities within it to his father (274-275). In the first part of the novel, it was Mary who was assigned the role of story-teller, so my contention is that this shift should be construed as a disempowerment, and a silencing of the heroine. It is as if the move towards womanhood signified a fall from power and independence.

On a second level of reading, it is strongly suggested that gendered identities are culturally determined and that entering adulthood means entering the patriarchal order as well, where it seems impossible to avoid the dominant ideology. Colin's movement from inside to outside, from invalidity to strength, is doubled by another one from being "queer" to "straight." In addition to highlighting the significance of the recurrence and the different possible meanings of the term "queer," it is worth underlining the insistence upon the word straight in the description of Colin's transformation: "Colin was standing upright - upright - as straight as an arrow and looking strangely tall - his head thrown back and his strange eyes flashing lightning"; " 'He's as straight as I am!' cried Dickon. 'He's as straight as any lad i' Yorkshire!' " (209); "He stood straighter and straighter and looked Ben Weatherstaff in the face"; "It seemed as if he could not take his eyes from thin straight Colin standing on his feet with his head thrown back" (210; emphasis added). "Straight" is the antonym of "queer," both in the sense of a direct line, opposed to a crooked one, and in the sense, commonly used today, of heterosexual versus homosexual. An underlying discourse on sexuality and gender might be detected in The Secret Garden, which reveals the mutability of gendered identities. Colin's character successively has feminine and masculine attributes. It is close to the modern phenomenon of "transgender" and what is called FTM (female to male). The phrase "Now that I am a real boy" (246), clearly sets a demarcation line between a before and an after in the novel.

What are the implications of the ambivalent representation of masculine and feminine identities as far as the reception of The Secret Garden is concerned?

Children learn to perceive themselves and their cultural roles through fiction, and reading has implications on the acquisition of sexual identity. The concept of focalisation is crucial to the analysis of subjectivity and ideology in narrative fictions. Stephens contends in Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction, that "children's fiction belongs firmly within the domain of cultural practices which exist for the purpose of socializing their target audience," and explains that "[b]ecause ideology is thus present as an implicit secondary meaning [...] fiction must be regarded as a special site for ideological effect, with a potentially powerful capacity for shaping audience attitudes" (Stephens, 1992, 8).

The story is focalised through Mary, who also embodies the figure of the reader in the text. When Mrs. Medlock tells her about Mr. And Mrs. Craven's story, Mary's reaction might be read as an indirect comment on the mechanism of reading and the reader's propensity to identify with or to side with a character:

"Oh! did she die!," she exclaimed, quite without meaning to. She had just remembered a French fairy story she had once read called 'Riquet à la Houppe.' It had been about a poor hunchback and a beautiful princess and it had made her suddenly sorry for Mr. Archibald Craven. (20)

Burnett might provide the reader with a pattern of reading, showing Mary's capacity to see correspondences between reality and fiction, life and books. What is interesting is that Riquet à la Houppe is also a story of internal and external metamorphosis (the princess becomes intelligent and Riquet turns into a beautiful prince). The complexity of the phenomenon of empathy and the categorization of characters into heroes and villains that is often made by the reader are also hinted at: "[...] and just as suddenly as she had begun to be rather sorry for Mr. Archibald Craven she began to cease to be sorry and to think he was unpleasant enough to deserve all that had happened to him" (21); "Mary was most attracted by the mother and Dickon. When Martha told stories of what 'mother' said or did they always sounded comfortable" (52).

In the course of the story, Mary is also used to voice the reader's possible doubts and interrogations concerning the way the plot is developing: "Why had Mr. Archibald Craven buried the key? If he had liked his wife so much why did he hate her garden?" (38). Despite the distancing effected by the use of the third person, the reader is led to identify with Mary.

But what is even more interesting in The Secret Garden is that the position of the little girl is not the only subject position available for the reader. The predominance of dialogue and the strong presence of Yorkshire dialect is another authorial strategy that is used by Burnett, along with narrative points of view, to construct subject positions and inscribe ideological assumptions. Stephens comments on children's books which aim at "constructing a variety of subject positions for readers [...] to contribute towards a positive self-concept for children from minority groups, and to contribute to the social and personal development of all children by effacing notions of racial, class or gender superiority." One means to achieve this, he continues, is "to depict social groups, values and customs without focalizing them through the perspective of a 'majority culture' " (Stephens, 1992, 51). The main focaliser of the story, Mary, belongs indeed to both child and female groups, which are minor groups in society.

I have shown that an inversion between what are considered as feminine and masculine qualities is at work in The Secret Garden. However, even if Burnett overcomes the hierarchy between male and female by showing that a boy can have feminine attributes and vice versa, it seems that she is still dependent on a binary system of thought.

I shall move to the examination of two other characters, who are as central as Mary and Colin: Dickon and Colin's mother, for they enable the writer to move beyond binary oppositions. I intend to use Derridian theory to attempt to study Dickon and Mrs. Craven as two figures of "the feminine" that open the space of simultaneity. In Éperons les styles de Nietzsche, Derrida writes: "Ce qui à la vérité ne se laisse pas prendre est - féminin, ce qu'il ne faut pas s'empresser de traduire par la féminité, la fémini de la femme, la sexuali féminine et autres fétiches essentialisants [...]" (Derrida, 1978, 43), "Il n'y a donc pas de vérité en soi de la différence sexuelle en soi, de l'homme ou de la femme en soi, toute l'ontologie au contraire présuppose, recèle cette indécidabilité dont elle est l'effet d'arraisonnement, d'appropriation, d'identification, de vérification d'identité" (Derrida, 1978, 84). The character of Dickon might be read in this light: he stands for virility and strength, but also for protection and maternity (he takes care of baby animals whose mother is dead, and feeds them). He is both at the centre of and in the margins of the story, both on the side of masculinity and femininity; he is the mother, the father, the brother and the lover at the same time: "[ce qui abolit] les notions de centre et de non-centre, d'origine et de fin, de présence et d'absence, de propre et d'impropre, etc [...] est ce qui caractérise le mieux le 'féminin' " (Regard, 2002, 134-135). Colin's mother is both absent and present, a source of suffering and healing and on the side of life and death, of Eros and Thanatos. She died while giving birth and her "ghost" is evoked in the book: " 'You are so like her now [...] that sometimes I think perhaps you are her ghost made into a boy' " (250). She is both female and male, adult and child.

Bettelheim's ideas are helpful at this stage as they enable a solution to the problem of the apparent binarism inherent in the presentation of the child protagonists. Bettelheim argues that a child is formed and informed by tales, for they provide an externalisation of children's inner complex reality. He takes the example of the tale Three Little Pigs to illustrate how disparate aspects of a personality are projected into different figures and contends that "the different characters in a story may be functioning as different aspects of the self (male/female, good/bad...) and through the processes of splitting and displacement emotions can be clarified and personality integration facilitated" (Bettelheim, 1976, 44 and 226). What if Mary and Colin were the same person at different stages of the development of the self? The text works to construct them as doubles: the same syntactic structures are used by both children (" 'I am Colin Craven' "; " 'I am Mary Lennox' "[119]), and we find sentences such as "[h]e was too much like herself" (123). The categories of masculinity and femininity seem to have become redundant, which shows the mobility of the boundary between male and female.

I have considered the historical, cultural, and ideological context of the book, and related it to the range of influences that one might explore in The Secret Garden. The central image of the novel, the garden, clearly relates to Rousseauist ideas about the beneficial effects of educating children in a natural environment in order to preserve their purity and innocence. The Romantics were also instrumental in creating the ideal image of childhood, as a state of edenic bliss. Borrowing from these beliefs, which permeated Victorian ideology, Burnett turns the secret garden into a paradise, secluded and protected from the exterior world.

Undoubtedly such aspects inform part of the text, but its subversive dimension cannot fail to attract our attention. I have intended to show that Burnett crosses gender, social, and literary boundaries to deconstruct the male establishment and to invest it with a new meaning. What surfaces in The Secret Garden is rather an emphasis on what was considered as abnormal, according to Victorian and Edwardian standards - an unattractive, bold and adventurous heroine, a sick, hysterical feminised boy, servants and lower class characters who are given central narratorial positions...

And yet, it seems that in the end, the strength of the patriarchal order still prevails. Foster and Simons remark that:

[a]t the end of Burnett's novel when the secrets of the garden and of Colin's renewed vigour are made available to a wider audience and become common currency, the children lose their power and return to a family and community environment which supports the prevailing hegemonic structure. (Foster and Simmons, 1995, 174)

I only partially agree with this interpretation. I strongly believe that the end of the novel offers different subject positions to the characters, depending on their class and sex. It is true that the move towards adulthood, and out of the garden implies a move into the patriarchal order, but it has different implications for Mary and Colin. If, for Mary, it is actually a loss of power, for Colin, it is a gain. The limits of the possibility to reverse hierarchies are indeed exposed at the end of the novel, which invites us to re-read The Secret Garden, looking for Burnett's narratological strategies to counter the prevailing ideology. Through focalisation, dialogue, and what we have called figures of "the feminine," Burnett manages to suspend all definitive interpretations of the text. Contrary to what has been said by critics, it seems that the covert message of The Secret Garden precisely resides in its apparently incoherent end, and in its very ambiguity. There is considerable validity in this reading of the book:

While, however, the central action of the narrative might appear to celebrate female achievement, the novel does contain contradictory messages which warn against too simple a reading. Indeed the equivocal representation of gender in The Secret Garden fluctuates between an endorsement of transgressive strategies and a return to conventional norms: like the transference between potentially conflicting narrative genres, this functions as a destabilizing device. (Foster and Simmons, 1995, 179)

Références bibliographiques

BETTELHEIM, Bruno. 1976. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. London: Thames and Hudson.

BURNETT, Frances Hodgson. 1995 (1911). The Secret Garden. London: Penguin Popular Classics.

BUTLER, Judith. 1999 (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

BUTLER, Francelia, and Richard Rotert, eds. 1984. Reflections on Literature for Children. Hamden, Connecticut: Library Professional Publications.

CARPENTER, Humphrey. 1985. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature. London: George Allen and Unwin.

DERRIDA, Jacques. 1978. Éperons les styles de Nietzsche. Paris: Flammarion.

FOSTER, Shirley, and Judy Simons. 1995. What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of "Classic" Stories for Girls. Basingstoke: MacMillan Press.

FOUCAULT, Michel. 1990 (1976). The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

GILBERT, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. 1979. The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

MARSH, Jan. Gender Ideology and Separate Spheres. Victoria and Albert Museum Website. Consulted on 23 March 2008 <http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_styles/19thcentury/gender_health/gender_ideology/index.html>.

MCCULLOCH, Fiona. 2004. The Fictional Role of Childhood in Victorian and Early Twentieth-Century Children's Literature, vol. 7. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

REGARD, Frédéric. 2002. L'Écriture féminine en Angleterre. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

REYNOLDS, Kimberley. 1990 (1910). Girls Only? Gender and Popular Children's Fiction in Britain, 1880-1910. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

RUSKIN, John. 2002 (1865). Sesame and Lilies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

SEDGWICK, Eve. 1985. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press.

SHOWALTER, Elaine. 1991. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the 'Fin de Siècle.' London: Bloomsburry Publishing.

STEPHENS, John. 1992. Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction. Harlow, Essex: Longman.

TOMICHE, Anne and Pierre Zoberman. 2007. Littérature et identités sexuelles. Paris: Société Française de Littérature Générale et Comparée.

THWAITE, Ann. 1974. Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1849-1924. London: Secker and Warburg.

WULLSCHLAGER, Jackie. 1995. Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne. London: Methuen.


DVD: The Secret Garden, dir. Agnieszka Holland. Warner Bros Family Entertainment, 1993.

Extrait pour la classe


The passage is to be found a few pages before the end of the novel. It describes the moment of reunion between father and son. Mr. Craven has come back from his trip and discovers the children playing in the secret garden. How is this scene of climax dealt with by F.H. Burnett?

  • To which extent is Colin's metamorphosis completed here?
  • The first paragraph might be analysed as the depiction of Colin's (re)birth, what are the mechanisms at work?
  • What are the elements participating in the idea of confused identity?
  • What can we say about Mary's presence?


And then the moment came, the uncontrollable moment when the sounds forgot to hush themselves. The feet ran faster and faster they were nearing the garden door there was quick strong young breathing and a wild outbreak of laughing shouts which could not be contained and the door in the wall was flung wide open, the sheet of ivy swinging back, and a boy burst through it at full speed and, without seeing the outsider, dashed almost into his arms.

Mr. Craven had extended them just in time to save him from falling as a result of his unseeing dash against him, and when he held him away to look at him in amazement at his being there he truly gasped for breath.

He was a tall boy and a handsome one. He was glowing with life and his running had sent splendid color leaping to his face. He threw the thick hair back from his forehead and lifted a pair of strange gray eyes eyes full of boyish laughter and rimmed with black lashes like a fringe. It was the eyes which made Mr. Craven gasp for breath.

"Who - What? Who!" he stammered.

This was not what Colin had expected - this was not what he had planned. He had never thought of such a meeting. And yet to come dashing out - winning a race - perhaps it was even better. He drew himself up to his very tallest. Mary, who had been running with him and had dashed through the door too, believed that he managed to make himself look taller than he had ever looked before.

"Father," he said, "I'm Colin. You can't believe it. I scarcely can myself. I'm Colin."

The Secret Garden, F.H. Burnett, 1995 (1911), Penguin Popular Classics, p.273


Pour citer cette ressource :

Marion Boucher, "Gender and genre in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s «The Secret Garden»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2009. Consulté le 14/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/litterature-jeunesse/gender-and-genre-in-frances-hodgson-burnett-s-the-secret-garden-