The Secret Garden

Min­neso­ta has expe­ri­enced an inter­minable win­ter this year and some­where in the midst of it I treat­ed myself to what I thought was a new­ly illus­trat­ed vol­ume of The Secret Gar­den by Frances Hodg­son Bur­nett. Illus­trat­ed by Robert Ing­pen, and in 2010, so not real­ly new. It’s gor­geous. It has lift­ed my spir­its through sev­er­al snow­storms in March and April.

I’ve always loved this book — I still have my own bat­tered mint-to-spring-green paper­back, which has a few pen­cil sketch­es at the begin­ning of chap­ter done by Tasha Tudor. This “new” vol­ume glo­ries in art, how­ev­er — pic­tures to go along with the sto­ry, as well as chap­ter open­ings bedecked with a botan­i­cal draw­ing of flow­ers from York­shire Eng­land where the sto­ry takes place — such a treat.

I remem­ber read­ing this book to my kids when they were at just the age to take in the mag­ic of all that hap­pens in the secret gar­den, and what I remem­ber about read­ing it aloud was that I “trans­lat­ed” the York­shire dialect, which I could not pro­nounce with­out it being a ter­rif­ic dis­trac­tion, into my plain Amer­i­can Eng­lish. I could “hear” it myself in my head, but I couldn’t repro­duce it. Occa­sion­al­ly I’d stop and try to deliv­er a line, but it was to everyone’s relief when I just went back to “trans­lat­ing” as we read. I don’t think it hurt the sto­ry — there’s lots of talk about the York­shire way of talk­ing, and we read all that.

We read it all. Includ­ing the racist ele­ments. Of which there are rather a lot. Mary Lennox’s atti­tude toward and lan­guage regard­ing the “natives,” “blacks,” and “dark­ies,” in India, where her sto­ry begins, is rep­re­hen­si­ble. I remem­ber stum­bling when I read them out loud. I’d stop and we’d talk about how that way of talk­ing about peo­ple was so ugly and wrong…but wasn’t known to be at the time … which was ter­ri­ble, too. I’d wrap up the dis­cus­sion para­phras­ing Maya Angelou with a “when we know bet­ter, we must do bet­ter” max­im. Which I believe in whole­heart­ed­ly. Espe­cial­ly when it is hard to do.

Now that books are being banned and “revised” for lan­guage used before we “knew bet­ter,” I find myself think­ing about this a lot. (See “As Clas­sic Nov­els Get Revised for Today’s Read­ers, a Debate About Where To Draw The Line” in the New York Times). I read a lot of books from my child­hood to my kids — all my beloved vol­umes. Many, if not most, have lan­guage in them I didn’t want my kids to use or think in. But I can’t think of a time (which doesn’t mean there wasn’t, of course) when I changed the words of the author — except when a dialect not my own would’ve been mocked by me read­ing it, as in The Secret Gar­den. I won­der how dif­fer­ent my chang­ing the dialect is from chang­ing dat­ed and offen­sive language…?

I don’t have an answer to these things … Some of our clas­sics have not aged well in spots or in their entire­ty. Fig­ur­ing out how best to address that is fraught on many lev­els. But I do know this: I trea­sure the dis­cus­sions I had with my kids over books as much, if not more, than the actu­al read­ing of the books. Even when the dis­cus­sions are uncom­fort­able, I’m glad to have had a con­tex­tu­al rea­son to have them.

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10 months ago

Thank you for shar­ing these thoughts! I found them very relevant.

Norma Gaffron
Norma Gaffron
Reply to  Amy
10 months ago

Times do change, and we change with them. I, too, loved THE SECRET GARDEN. You have inspired me to hunt through my over­laden shelves and read it again.

Karen Henry Clark
Karen Henry Clark
9 months ago

I think your con­ver­sa­tions with them were valu­able. I think kids learn ear­ly on about the dif­fer­ence between kind­ness and mean­ness by the tone in what they hear. And they even­tu­al­ly see that times change for the better.