Ashley Libben

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					Ashley Libben

Dr. Watson

British Literature III

May 16, 2005

                               Unlocking the Secrets of Childhood:

                            The Passions of Frances Hodgson Burnett

        Every spring I pilgrimaged to my rock on the hillside overlooking the fertile pastures and

serene creek. The rock, a mesmerizing mixture of pinks and crystal whiteness and sparkling gold,

became my throne. I would sit upon my rock watching the cows frolic in springtime celebration,

feel the warmth of the sun cradle me and listen to the wind whisper through the fresh, new grass.

Though behind me sat the rusting fuel tanks and pile of scrap metal, I was in my own secret world,

my secret garden. My enchantment with this place increased the first time I watched The Secret

Garden on video, and when I discovered that the enrapturing video came from a book, I was

ecstatic with the possibility of burying myself in the mysterious pages and world of Mary Lennox.

This love for the story grew into an adulthood curiosity and exploration of the author’s life. As a

result, Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of the world’s most famous children’s authors, combined

both her the experience of her tumultuous childhood and her passion for children to embrace both

the Romantic and Victorian spirits of her time within her books, most notably A Little Princess and

The Secret Garden.

        Indeed, the childhood of Frances Hodgson Burnett influenced her writings. As a very

young girl, Frances had a strong bond with her father, Edwin Hodgson. “[H]er father had a

successful business selling household furnishings and the family lived comfortably in suburbia”

(Burnett, Frances Hodgson, 1849-1924). In fact, “Hodgson’s General Furnishing Business”
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(Carpenter and Shirley 11) sales were strong enough to fund “a seven-room house on the outskirts”

(Carpenter and Shirley 12) of Manchester, England. Vivian Burnett, Frances’ youngest son, writes

that “affection and kindly appreciation . . . ruled in the Hodgson household” (Burnett, Vivian 1).

Edwin’s grandson described him as “a gentle, talented, even amusing person, who gave rather

more time to the nursery folk than was usual for a father of the mid-Victorian period” (Burnett,

Vivian 1). Frances’ affinity for the world of literature apparently sprung her father, as he was “a

bookish man” (Burnett, Vivian 12). From a young age, a strong relationship formed between

Frances’ doting father and the future author.

       The influence of the relationship between Frances and her father manifests itself in her

writings, particularly in A Little Princess. In the book, Sara Crewe, the heroine of the novel, and

her father maintain a very strong bond even in two different worlds. At the beginning of the story,

Frances writes that “[Sara’s] young, handsome, rich, petting father seemed to be the only relation

she had in the world. They had always played together and been fond of each other” (Burnett,

Frances 8). Even after he leaves her in London while he returns to India, they keep in constant

contact, and Sara continually quotes her father. After facing difficult times, Sara repeats her

father’s command that “[s]oldiers don’t complain” (“A Little Princess” 96). The strong bond

welded between them developed only through Frances’ own relationship with her father at a young,

impressionable age.

       With the intimacy and joys that come from the bond between a daughter and a father come

the solitude and sorrows when that bond breaks. Frances’ father passed away when she “was only

three” (Carpenter and Shirley 12), and though she had only known for a short time, the effects of

her father’s death resounded throughout her life. Despite her mother’s attempt to “bravely . . .
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become a woman of affairs,” . . . “his death proved to be only one of a series of catastrophes that

were to make all her efforts in vain” (Burnett, Vivian 4-5). The economic effect of the American

Civil War even reached as far as Manchester, England. Vivian Burnett records that “[w]hen

America plunged into a civil war, shipments of raw cotton became fewer and the price higher.

Distress of the most dire kind fell upon Manchester mill-owners and operators; there were no fine

houses being built, and no fine interior decorative materials being bought” (5). Without the former

head of the family, Edwin, to guide them and in lieu of a prosperous business, Frances’ mother was

forced to “[move] her family to a poorer neighborhood” (Carpenter and Shirley 12). The death and

sequential move forever haunted Frances’ life, branding her an orphan of sorts.

       The emotional and economic ramifications of her father’s death surface again in Frances’

works. Frances ruminated over the concept of being an orphan throughout her life, and the

evidence of it appears in the shape of Frances’ two most famous heroines: Mary Lennox and Sara

Crewe. Both were orphaned from a young, impressionable age and struggled to over come the

emptiness that accompanies the loss. Mary Lennox’s family lived in India because “[h]er father

had held a position under the English Government” (“The Secret Garden” 3). After cholera broke

out, Mary awoke to “[find] out that she had neither father nor mother left; that they had died and

been carried away in the night” (“The Secret Garden” 9). Although Mary Lennox began life anew

with her rich uncle, Sara Crewe, like Frances, had to face the looming economic complications of

orphaning. Sara’s father dies, leaving her “a beggar”and “a little pauper” with “no fortune” (“A

Little Princess” 78). Given Sara’s dire circumstances, Miss Minchin forces her to “work for [her]

living”(“A Little Princess” 88) and “sleep in the attic” (“A Little Princess” 89). Revealingly,

Frances records that,
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       “[t]he first night she spent in her attic was a thing Sara never forgot. During its passing, she
       lived through a wild, unchildlike woe of which she never spoke to any one about her. There
       was no one who would have understood. It was, indeed, well for her that she lay awake in
       the darkness her mind was forcibly distracted, now and then, by the strangeness of her
       surroundings. It was, perhaps, well for her that she was reminded by her small body of
       material things. If this had not been so, the anguish of her young mind might have been too
       great for a child to bear. But, really, while the night was passing she scarcely knew that she
       had a body at all or remembered any other thing than one. ‘My papa is dead!’ she kept
       whispering to herself. ‘My papa is dead!’ ” (“A Little Princess” 92)

Sara, however, is wrong. One person “would have understood” (“A Little Princess” 92): Frances

Hodgson Burnett. The death of her father remained with Frances reappearing in several of her

works and influencing many of the events of her lifetime.

       After the unfortunate death of her father and the subsequent financial ruin, Frances and her

family moved from their comfortable country home back into the city of Manchester (Burnett,

Frances, 1849-1924). The “house in the city [was] near the factories and mill workers,” and it was

here that Frances first learned to appreciate and love the poor, working class of England. In

Angelica Shirley Carpenter and Jean Shirley’s work, Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret

Garden, the biographers reveal,

        “[p]oor people were not nice, Frances was taught. They did not speak proper English. But
       Frances loved the Street children and the way they talked. She learned to imitate their
       Lancashire dialect. She watched the factory workers from her window, and made up stories
       about their lives.” (13)

Frances’ son Vivian agrees, saying, “she adored [the street children] and the dialect they spoke, and

would often stray into forbidden back streets to lure a dirty factory child into conversation.

Impressions were already being made that were later to bring important results” (17). These

important results are none other than the best-loved works of Frances.
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       Frances’ love and fascination of working, street children remained with her and helped to

paint the portrait of an endearing street child in A Little Princess. Becky, the unforgettable but

often mistaken housemaid of Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies appears to be

nothing more than “an ugly, stunted, worn-out little scullery drudge” (“A Little Princess” 51) who

“was so timid that if one chanced to speak to her it appeared as if her poor, frightened eyes would

jump out of her head” (“A Little Princess” 49). But, through the eyes of refined Sara Crewe, she

emotes generosity, selflessness and true class in the face of adversity. Sara sagely assures Becky

that, “we are just the same — I am only a little girl like you. It’s just an accident that I am not you,

and you are not me!” (“A Little Princess” 52) Although, Becky does not truly understand Sara’s

sentiment, Sara reflects Frances’ view that all children are valuable. And, it is through Frances’

writings that the children of America and the countryside of England see street children as more

than ignorant, dirty creatures.

       Although the move to the city helped to lessen the financial burden of the Hodgson family,

they once again were forced to move. This time, “Eliza Boond Hodgson chose to believe the

boasts of wealth and ease that her brother William Boond sent from his new home in the American

South” (Gerzina 3). Uprooting her family from “economically depressed Manchester to

war-ravaged Tennessee in the spring of 1865" (Gerzina 3) could not have been an easy decision for

Eliza, but it became one that forever changed and shaped the lives of her children. Frances, in

particular, felt the magnitude of this move, writing in her journal that,

       “[i]t seemed as if she must always have lived with the vast clear space of blue above her,
       with hundreds of miles of forests surrounding her, with hills on every side, with that view
       of a certain far-off purple mountain behind which the sun set after it had painted such
       splendors in the sky. To get up at sunrise and go out into the exquisite freshness and scent
       of the earth and leaves, to wander through the green aisles of tall, broad-leaved, dew-wet
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       Indian corn, whose field sloped upward behind the house to the chestnut tree which stood
       just outside the rail fence one climbed over on the side of the hill, to climb the hill and
       wander into the woods where one gathered things, and sniffed the air like some little wild
       animal, to inhale the odor of warm pines and cedars and fresh damp mould, and pungent
       aromatic things in the tall ‘Sage grass,’ — . . . strange as it may seem, to do, to feel, to see
       and hear all this was somehow not new to her . . . In [Islington] Square, she had imagined
       — in the forests she began to feel.” (Burnett, Vivian 30-31)

The tenderness with which Frances speaks of her Tennessean home reflects her love for country

life. Frances’ exposure to raw, pristine nature, as noted in her journal, changed her outlook of life

as well as her writing.

       The effect of garden on Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden reflects the beautiful and

awesome scenery in Frances’ country home and its impact on her. Mary Lennox, who was born in

exotic India, travels to “Misselthwaite Manor” (“The Secret Garden” 25) where “a great climbing

stretch” (“The Secret Garden” 26) surrounded “the immensely long but lowbuilt house” (“The

Secret Garden” 24). After her exposure to the exhilarating outdoors, Mary stumbles upon “the

secret garden” (“The Secret Garden” 81) which she describes as

       “the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place any one could imagine. The high walls
       which shut it in were covered with the leafless stems of climbing roses which were so thick,
       that they were matted together. Mary Lennox knew they were roses because she had seen
       a great many roses in India. All the ground was covered with grass of a wintry brown and
       out of it grew clumps of bushes which were surely rose-bushes if they were alive. There
       were numbers of standard roses which had so spread their branches that they were like little
       trees. There were other trees in the garden, and one of the things which made the place look
       strangest and loveliest was that climbing roses had run all over them and swung down long
       tendrils which made light swaying curtains, and here and there they had caught at each
       other or at a far-reaching branch and had crept from one tree to another and made lovely
       bridges of themselves. There were neither leaves nor roses on them now and Mary did not
       know whether they were dead or alive, but their thin gray or brown branches and sprays
       looked like a sort of hazy mantle spreading over everything, walls, and trees, and even
       brown grass, where they had fallen from their fastenings and run along the ground. It was
       this hazy tangle from tree to tree which made it all look so mysterious.” (“The Secret
       Garden” 82-83)
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The immaculate detail in this passage echos the sensitive, lyrical lines of her above-mentioned

journal. Just as Frances matured in the lush hillsides of Tennessee, Mary Lennox blossoms from

“the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen” (“The Secret Garden” 3) into a kind, caring young

woman. A childhood spent in nature, according to Frances, enabled a child to be sensitive, curious

and content in life.

        This belief held by Frances grew into a mission in life. In 1893, Frances published her

autobiography entitled The One I Knew Best of All: A Memory in the Mind of a Child; “the work is

also a study of childhood in general: following Wordsworth’s Prelude the book suggests the

advantages of a rural over an urban upbringing for the natural development of a child” (Burnett,

Frances Hodgson, 1849-1924). Just as Wordsworth proclaimed, “[t]hanks to the means which

Nature deigned to employ” (Wordsworth 313), Frances wrote that

        “[v]isionary though it may seem to some, my own belief would be that a child whose
        earliest consciousness of sound was a consciousness of musical rhythm in the words lulling
        him to sleep or peacefulness might be led into fair places because life had begun for him
        with harmony and mysteriously melodious things.” (Gerzina 161)

These “harmony and mysteriously melodious things” are part of every human being; they are the

spirit and vivacity of nature and children in nature. Frances’ biography posted LION online, a

literary website, reads,

        “using her own childhood experience of the contrasting cultures of Manchester and
        Tennessee as an example she demonstrates that not only does the child have a natural
        affinity with nature, but nature is the great tutor, disciplining the ‘small person’ and
        nurturing their spiritual and emotional health. Burnett’s reference throughout to the child
        as a ‘small person’ relates to her conviction that children have the well-developed emotions
        and moral sensibilities of adults.” (Burnett, Frances Hodgson, 1849-1924)

Frances’ views on childhood, controversial as they may have been, resonate with readers of

Romantic and Victorian literature. Her thoughts are simple and articulate and appeal to the natural
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tendencies of people by describing her own childhood as well as proposing a retrospective look at

raising children.

       Frances’ passion for children drove her career as well. Frances was a born writer; from “the

nursery, she made up thrilling stories” (Carpenter and Shirley 13). As an adult, she continued to

write, and her first works, adult novels, “were set in Lancashire and represent a significant

contribution to the development of British and American realist fiction[, and] . . . they were

compared, largely favourably, by the critics to the social and political novels of Benjamin Disraeli,

Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë” (Burnett, Frances Hodgson, 1849-1924). With such

critical acclaim, Frances could have written adult novels and had a fairly successful career;

however, Frances never forgot her roots, making up stories in that nursery (Carpenter and Shirley

13) and “composing stories to entertain her own sons” (Burnett, Frances Hodgson, 1849-1924).

She instead turned to writing children’s stories; her first, Little Lord Fauntleroy, she based on her

son, Vivian. The book was “a masterpiece of popular fiction” that “quickly became a best-seller in

English and was soon translated into more than a dozen languages” (Burnett, Frances Hodgon,

1849-1924). Her future endeavors in children’s literature all succeeded, making “the wealthiest

writer in Britain or America” (Krull 64). Because of her passion for children, Frances chose to

write books for children rather than for adults. This choice proved to be a lucrative business

decision as well as a satisfying career move; her love for children both drove her and provided for


       Frances’ own childhood, developed in both the city and the country, and her strong passion

for children compounded to make a formidable force: a children’s author who would touch the

lives of children for ages to come. Her writings impact my own life: my strange fascination with
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old, ornamental keys, like the one used to unlock the garden, my love for the tv verison of A Little

Princess, directed by Carol Wiseman, my desire to someday discover a secret place or item buried

by past generations and my acute admiration and appreciation of nature. She was a woman who

never truly gave up on childhood, a woman who understood the power of the experiences of

childhood, a woman who lived life to the fullest extent. An inspiration for all, Frances Hodgson

Burnett, the little girl who loved make up her own little stories and the woman who had a passion

for children, will continue to reach future generations through her thrilling adventures and

endearing characters. And, although she may have been ‘a small person’ in an adult’s body, her

tales will lead children on adventures and pilgrimages to rocks and help them to think their own

‘imagines’ for generations to come.
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                                          Works Cited

“Burnett, Frances Hodgson, 1849-1924" Literature Online. 2001. 2 May 2005.


Burnett, Frances Hodgson. A Little Princess. New York: Yearling, 1975.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. New York: Harper Trophy, 1987.

Burnett, Vivian. The Romantick Lady. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927.

Carpenter, Angelica Shirley, and Jean Shirley. Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond The Secret

       Garden. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1990.

Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of

       The Secret Garden. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2004.

Krull, Kathleen. Lives of the Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and What the Neighbors Thought).

       San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

Wordsworth, William. “The Prelude.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. 2nd

       ed. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 2000. 305-383.

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