Frances Hodgson Burnetts 1909 “The Secret Garden” is one of the best loved childrens stories of all time. As with most childrens stories it is based on the fairy tale motif.
No one really knows the exact origin of fairy tales, in fact they seem to have originated in that timeless realm of their subjects (Harischandra Pp). J.R.R. Tolkien describes the realm of fairy tales as “wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there … beauty that is an enchantment … there it is dangerous … To ask too many questions, lest the gate should be shut and the keys be lost” (Tolkien pp). Fairy tales generally have elements of good and evil, often portrayed by evil stepmothers and fairy godmothers, and usually a fair maiden as the protagonist. Burnett modernized the fairy tale motif in “The Secret Garden.” Rather than the female being rescued by the male, here it is the female who rescues the male.
The main protagonist in Burnetts story is Mary Lennox. She has been sent to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven, at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England. Mary was said to be the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen, “little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression …
her hair was yellow and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another” (Burnett pp). Her parents found her too tiresome and hideous to spend time with, so Mary was cared for by an Indian servant until her parents died during a cholera outbreak. She was then sent to the Cravens. However, the Craven household is not any more loving than her own was. Marys uncle cannot bear to look at his son because he reminds him of his wife, who died shortly after Colins birth. Thus, Colin, like Mary was, is looked after by servants and rarely sees his father.
Two protagonists, one female and one male, who have near identical backgrounds, Mary and Colin are the Cinderellas of Burnetts tale. Both are unloved, both are sickly, both are lonely, and both, like Cinderella, are transformed by magic. Burnett use of magic come in the form of nature. It is a red-breasted robin that shows Mary the hidden key to the secret garden. The garden belonged to Colins mother and at her death.