The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

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This was not the book I intended to read this week, I normally have a rough plan for the next two or three weeks, but when my friend Anna said she had just read and enjoyed a Catalan translation I was inspired to get my copy off the shelf. This is my original childhood copy from 1975 and was published in Purnell’s ‘de luxe classic’ series, yes they do spell de luxe that way it’s not an error on my part. I still have half a dozen matching volumes such as Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood etc. and I know that there were at least thirty five titles in the set. Other than when I’ve moved house these books have probably not come off the shelves they have been hibernating on for forty years, so it was good to actually open one and read it again for the first time since the 1970’s.

There are eight colour plates along with numerous black and white drawings through the book but the plates are not well placed as they often precede the text they refer to and several effectively work as spoilers for the plot, especially the frontispiece as that not only gives away the existence of Colin but also his true medical condition before you even start reading. The plates and drawings are all by Jenny Thorne although my original impression that two different artists had worked on the book as she employs quite a different style for the two sets. Confusingly there is another illustrator called Jenny Thorne working in Cambridge, which is the one a Google search will bring up, although she has only been working over the last ten years.

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On to the story itself, it is basically a morality tale about two spoiled brats who gradually through the book learn to have some thought about the people around them and was originally published in 1911. Mary had been brought up in India where she was used to Indian servants who did whatever she wanted them to, until at the age of nine the household was struck down by cholera, her parents died, and those servants who survived fled leaving Mary alone in the house. The fact that nobody thought about her is used to underline what a thoroughly unpleasant child she had become. Discovered a day or so later she was sent to England to stay with her uncle and only known relative, a recluse who lived in a huge house surrounded by moorland in Yorkshire.

Archibald Craven accepted his responsibility to take the child in but was not interested in her, in fact he spent very little time at Misselthwaite Manor, preferring to travel ever since his wife had died ten years ago. It was a strange and secretive house with a hundred rooms that had been shut up for years, two of which were made ready for Mary to live in but she was told not to go in the others. There was a large series of gardens surrounding the manor but also a ‘secret garden’ one that had been locked ever since Mrs Craven had died there when a tree seat had collapsed and she had hit her head. Mary became determined to find a way in to the garden, but there was another secret, an even bigger one than the garden and that was Colin, the Craven’s son, who turns out to be an even more spoiled horrible child than Mary was. The slowly developing friendship between the two of them, the rescuing of the garden and the rehabilitation of the children into ones you would actually want to meet through the following months are the main themes of the book. The growth of the garden as it is finally being nurtured is a constant metaphor for the emotional growth of the children helped along by the down to earth Dickon

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The use of the Yorkshire dialect is very important in the book, it becomes a language that bonds the children together and is roughly phonetically written so that you can see the development of it’s use. Mary first hears Martha the housemaid using it but it is not until she meets Martha’s brother Dickon that she really embraces the dialect herself. This is the passage with Mary talking to Dickon just before she introduces Colin to the local sound.

“Just listen to them birds—th’ world seems full of ’em—all whistlin’ an’ pipin’,” he said. “Look at ’em dartin’ about, an’ hearken at ’em callin’ to each other. Come springtime seems like as if all th’ world’s callin’. The leaves is uncurlin’ so you can see ’em—an’, my word, th’ nice smells there is about!” sniffing with his happy turned-up nose. “An’ that poor lad lyin’ shut up an’ seein’ so little that he gets to thinkin’ o’ things as sets him screamin’. Eh! my! we mun get him out here—we mun get him watchin’ an listenin’ an’ sniffin’ up th’ air an’ get him just soaked through wi’ sunshine. An’ we munnot lose no time about it.”

When he was very much interested he often spoke quite broad Yorkshire though at other times he tried to modify his dialect so that Mary could better understand. But she loved his broad Yorkshire and had in fact been trying to learn to speak it herself. So she spoke a little now.

“Aye, that we mun,” she said. “I’ll tell thee what us’ll do first,” she proceeded, and Dickon grinned, because when the little wench tried to twist her tongue into speaking Yorkshire it amused him very much. “He’s took a graidely fancy to thee. He wants to see thee and he wants to see Soot an’ Captain. When I go back to the house to talk to him I’ll ax him if tha’ canna’ come an’ see him tomorrow mornin’—an’ bring tha’ creatures wi’ thee—an’ then—in a bit, when there’s more leaves out, an’ happen a bud or two, we’ll get him to come out an’ tha’ shall push him in his chair an’ we’ll bring him here an’ show him everything.”

When she stopped she was quite proud of herself. She had never made a long speech in Yorkshire before and she had remembered very well.

“Tha’ mun talk a bit o’ Yorkshire like that to Mester Colin,” Dickon chuckled. “Tha’ll make him laugh an’ there’s nowt as good for ill folk as laughin’ is. Mother says she believes as half a hour’s good laugh every mornin’ ’ud cure a chap as was makin’ ready for typhus fever.”

However this got me wondering how the Catalan translation worked, was there an equivalent dialectic variation in Catalonia? Apparently there was, Anna told me that they had used Valencian, presumably all translations of the book have to find a regional dialect and impose that on Yorkshire for the structure of the book to make any sense as you have to know when they are speaking ‘standard’ English and when they have switched to dialect.

I’m glad I was prompted to read the book again it wa reet graidely.

Link to Anna’s review in Catalan

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