Favorite Fictional Characters (#2)

The first of the Favorite Fictional Characters series is here:


Although most fictional characters may not seem to most readers like people we’d like to know, I came up with a list of a few dozen. Number two is also a creation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s: Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden.

I have to admit that the way Mary’s described in the first chapter or two of this book put me off, when I was seven or eight years old. That, and the dialect. If all those characters lived in England, why didn’t they speak English?

But eventually the library acquired an omnibus edition of A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and Little Lord Fauntleroy together, so eventually I borrowed the omnibus edition and read Burnett’s other two “classics.” Fauntleroy I could take or leave alone, but I was impressed by the way those two weepy little weeds, Mary and Colin, improve themselves by working on their garden. I came to suspect that they were based on the experience of some real children, somewhere, and that I would have enjoyed knowing those real children.

It seems as if Burnett wrote this story by imagining a character who starts out “quite contrary” to the way she appears at the end of the story. Children don’t usually like Mary at the beginning of the book. Understanding that she’s the sole survivor of a plague has to develop as children’s capacity for compassion develops. It is probably no use to tell a child under age ten that there are times when it reminds older people of sick, jaundiced, mean-mouthed Mary-at-the-beginning-of-the-book.

But Mary improves steadily throughout the story. She becomes healthier; she takes an interest in things outside herself; she learns respect for other people. She develops a spirituality that is, of course, childish–well, she is a child–yet sincere. She becomes a nurturer rather than a user of other people.

Around the turn of the century I read a grumpy feminist critic who claimed that The Secret Garden made an anti-girl statement by “subordinating” Mary’s healing process to Colin’s. I’ve never been able to read the story that way…possibly because I’d read Heidi before finishing The Secret Garden. In both stories we know that the sad, sickly orphan is maturing into a Real Heroine when she claims her power to help others as well as herself. Boys are supposed to be stronger than girls; Mary is strong enough to help Colin. Older children are supposed to be stronger than younger ones; Heidi is strong enough to help Clara.

Instead of being pushed into the pseudo-empowerment of a Teen Romance, both Mary and Heidi are allowed to experience compassion. I found this idea empowering, as a girl. I suspect that it’s why many book lovers say they preferred The Secret Garden to A Little Princess.

Here’s the Morguefile blog cat:


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