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

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

A radio programme I listen to regularly is BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read”, it’s a book programme with a difference as rather than focusing on new works the presenter and her two guests each choose a book they like; they then read all three and finally meet up in the studio to discuss them. The last episode in June had novelist Nicci Gerrard pick an odd sounding book, but the title seemed familiar to me and sure enough it is on my shelves. Now from the discussion I have a slight idea as to what happens and it sounds intriguing, from the summary on the radio shows website we get.

Nicci’s favourite is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel which takes a surprising turn halfway through and provokes a debate about the merits of sleeping in ditches

What’s not to like with a precis like that so here I go. My copy is the 1937 first Penguin Books edition, the first ever edition was by Chatto and Windus in 1926. It’s still in print although now as a Virago Modern Classic.

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The book tells the story of Laura Willowes, known to her nieces and nephews as Aunt Lolly and starts with the death of her father leading her to move in with one of her brothers and his wife in London. We then take a step back and learn about her childhood growing up in Somerset; her mother had died when she was in her teens and by the time her father died she was twenty eight, still a spinster and showing no signs of being interested in marriage. The Somerset family home would go to her other brother, James, and his wife and Lolly looks to settle into the role of the maiden aunt to both couples children. Life in the London home of Henry, Caroline and their two girls was undoubtedly respectable as befitting the late Victorian period, but also full of dull routine. So it continued for many years, through the Edwardian period and up to the First World War with even that failing to disturb Lolly’s routine much.

All begins to change in the winter of 1921 when Lolly whilst out shopping has ‘a revelation’, she is now forty seven and she needs a complete change out of London and back to the countryside. She buys a guidebook and map and announces that evening at a family get together that as the children are all grown up, she isn’t needed any more so she is moving to Great Mop in the Chilterns. Upon this apparently random decision the book pivots.

There are hints soon after she arrives about what is going on in the village, groups of villagers standing around in groups late in the evening, the fact that the place is strangely quiet after that. But she soon fits in to village life however without feeling that she is fully accepted. The arrival of her, now grown up, nephew further upsets her hopes of fitting in by his decision to also move to Great Mop.  But one evening Lolly finds a kitten in her room at her lodgings and suddenly her landlady wants to go for a walk late that evening and takes her to a remote field where most of the rest of the villagers can be found dancing and enjoying a witches sabbath.

Lolly realises that she also is a witch and that must have been what drew her to the village with the help of Satan who appears to her in the guise of a gamekeeper and also a gardener during the rest of the book. Now you can read the book as a mystical adventure but it really is a feminist novel about a woman finding herself and escaping her fusty background. She gets her independence from the family to whom she will always be just dependable old Aunt Lolly and realises just what she can become. In the last twenty or so pages where she is discussing this with Satan you could, apart from the setting obviously, be reading from works by the great feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’ll finish with an extract where Lolly is describing the position of women at the time which gives a good example of the quality of the writing as well.

women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. I see them wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members and blacksmiths. and small farmers and puritans…
Well there they are, there they are, child rearing, home-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking in the way men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing that all women hate is to be thought dull. And on Sundays they put on plain stuff gowns and starched white coverings on their heads and necks – the Puritan ones did – and walked across the fields to chapel. and listened to the sermon. Sin and Grace and God and the – (she stopped herself just in time) and St Paul. All men’s things like politics and mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair. And on the way back they listened to more talk. Talk about the sermon, or war, or cock-fighting; and when they got back there were the potatoes to be cooked for dinner. It sounds very petty to complain about, but I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down.