The Secret Garden is a classic children's novel of twenty-seven chapters by the British-born American author Frances Hodgson Burnett. The story was first serialized in The American Magazine beginning in November 1910. It was first published in book form in August 1911.
The novel's protagonist is a young English girl named Mary Lennox who grows up in Colonial India ignored by her busy parents and terribly spoiled by native servants. When she becomes orphaned by an outbreak of cholera, the selfish and disagreeable Mary is sent back to England to live with her reclusive uncle, Mr. Archibald Craven. At Mr. Craven's large Yorkshire estate, Mary is left to herself attended only by a good-natured maid named Martha. When Martha mentions a walled garden which has been locked since the death of Mr. Craven's wife ten years ago, Mary becomes intrigued and begins to explore the grounds in search of the forbidden garden.
The Secret Garden is the best-remembered work by Frances Hodgson Burnett today. The story has been adapted to other media many times.
Mary Lennox is an English girl living in Colonial India due to her father's work in the British government. She is about nine years old. Mary's mother is a beautiful socialite who shows no interest in her sickly and plain-looking daughter. Mary, therefore, is kept out of sight and tended to only by Indian servants who cater to her every whim. Unloved, undisciplined, and unsocialized, Mary has grown quite spoiled and disagreeable.
One morning, Mary wakes in her nursery and finds the whole house deserted. An epidemic of cholera sweeping through the region had reached the household the previous day, killing her parents as well as most of the servants overnight. The rest of the servants fled, forgetting about the sleeping child. Mary is soon found by British officers and sent back to England to live with her uncle, Mr. Archibald Craven.
Mary is met by Mr. Craven's housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, in London. During the long train ride to Yorkshire, where Mr. Craven's estate Misselthwaite Manor is located, Mrs. Medlock tells Mary about her uncle and the manor house. According to Mrs. Medlock, the house which is on the edge of the moor is six hundred years old, gloomy, and has nearly a hundred rooms most of which are locked. Mrs. Medlock tells Mary that Mr. Craven will not have much to do with her because he is mostly away. She also says Mr. Craven has a crooked back, and he has become quite reclusive after his beloved wife died.
They arrive at Misselthwaite Manor at night and Mary is taken directly to her rooms upstairs. The following morning, Mary wakes to the sound of a young housemaid raking the cinders in the fireplace. The housemaid, Martha, is a talkative young country girl and does not behave like a "proper" maid. Mary, who only knows the servile Indian servants, is surprised at Martha's casual manners. When Martha accidentally insults Mary with her ignorance of India, Mary becomes so upset that she begins to cry uncontrollably. Martha feels sorry for the lonely, out-of-place girl and tries to calm her down. While helping her dress, Martha tells Mary about her large family, especially about her twelve-year-old brother Dickon who loves animals and has tamed a wild pony on the moor. After breakfast, surprised to see her lack of appetite, Martha encourages Mary to go outside and explore the gardens. She then mentions that one of the gardens is locked. She says Mr. Craven locked it up and buried the key ten years ago after his wife died suddenly.
Intrigued by the locked garden, Mary goes through the great gardens and continues into the kitchen gardens which are separated by walls with doors in them. She sees no one in the gardens but for one old surly-looking gardener. Going through several more gardens still looking for a locked one, Mary comes to an orchard. A wall extends beyond the orchard, and on the other side of the wall are treetops. A bird sitting on top of a tree begins to sing to Mary. For the first time in her life, Mary experiences a pleasant feeling.
Mary goes back to the kitchen garden and tells the old gardener about the bird. The man unexpectedly smiles and begins to whistle. Magically, the bird comes flying to them. The old man explains that the bird is a robin and that it came out of the other garden when it was a fledgling. He took care of it until it grew strong enough to fly back. The bird comes when called because, with the rest of the nest having flown away, he is lonely. Mary suddenly realizes that she is lonely too. The gardener, whose name is Ben Weatherstaff, tells Mary that he is also lonely except when the robin, his only friend, is with him. Mary tells Ben that she has never had any friends. She then asks the robin if he will be her friend. She says it so nicely that it reminds Ben of the way Dickon talks to animals. When Mary begins to ask questions about the other garden, however, Ben's manners change suddenly. The old gardener tells her to mind her own business then walks away.
After a few days of spending time outdoors, Mary begins to develop an appetite. She continues to look for the locked garden, walking along the ivy-covered wall in search of a door. She learns from Martha that the garden had been Mrs. Craven's, and that Mr. and Mrs. Craven used to spend a lot of time tending to it themselves. But one day a branch of a tree on which Mrs. Craven was sitting broke, and she died from her injury. As they are talking about the accident, Mary hears a sound of a child crying somewhere. Martha tells her it is just the wind on the moor or the scullery maid with a toothache.
Other than Martha waiting on her and Mrs. Medlock occasionally checking on her, Mary is left to herself. One rainy day, having nothing to do, Mary decides to explore the house even though she had been told to stay in her rooms. She goes down long corridors and begins to try some doors. Some of the doors open, and she explores the rooms. After a while, having grown tired, Mary decides to turn back. Unfortunately, she becomes lost among the many corridors. As she wanders, she hears the sound of crying again. Her hand touches the tapestry nearby, and she is startled to find a door opening behind it leading to a hidden corridor. Mrs. Medlock comes down the corridor and sees Mary. She scolds Mary for poking around and drags her back to her room.
A couple of days later, with Martha away visiting her family on her day off, Mary feels lonely and goes outside right after breakfast. It is a beautiful day, and she finds Ben in a good mood talking about the coming of spring. Mary wonders if the trees and flowers in the locked garden are all dead. She walks to the wall and hears the robin singing for her. The bird lets her come very close, then hops around on the ground looking for a worm in a hole dug up by a dog. Looking down, Mary sees an old key in the soil. She picks it up and puts it in her pocket.
The following morning, Martha returns with a gift for Mary from her mother; a skipping rope. Martha says her mother bought the rope with some of Martha's wages. Mary has never seen a skipping rope before. Martha shows her how to use it. Mary is excited and begins to practice right away. Realizing that the rope was bought with Martha's money which is badly needed by her large family, Mary thanks Martha for the gift. It is something she had never done before in her spoiled life.
Mary goes skipping all around the gardens. Ben is surprised to see her acting like a normal child. Mary goes to her wall and asks the robin to show her where the door is. At that moment, a gust of wind blows aside some loose ivy trails revealing a door knob underneath. Mary pulls aside the ivy and finds the lock. The key fits and the door opens. Mary goes inside and closes the door behind her. She is inside the Secret Garden.
High walls are covered with climbing roses which are leafless and matted. There are many rose bushes and trees covered with more climbing roses, but nothing looks alive. Walking around the paths and alcoves, however, Mary spots some green points coming out of the soil in some flower beds. She begins to clear out weeds around the shoots and finds she enjoys it very much. She spends so much time that she is a little late in returning to the house for her meal.
Martha is delighted to see Mary come back with red cheeks and a big appetite. Mary, who knows nothing about gardening or English plants, asks Martha about the bulbs. She is careful not to mention the Secret Garden, but she tells Martha she wishes she had a spade to try making a little garden. Martha tells her to write a letter to Dickon to ask him to buy a gardening tool set and some flower seeds in the village. They send the letter and some of Mary's spending money with the butcher's boy.
Mary continues to work in the Secret Garden. She also begins to develop a friendship with Ben Weatherstaff and the robin. A week later, as she is skipping along the long walk that goes around the garden wall, she hears a low whistling sound from outside the gate that opens into the wood. She goes through the gate and finds a boy sitting under a tree playing a wooden pipe. A squirrel, a pheasant, and two rabbits are watching and listening. Dickon introduces himself to Mary and gives her the gardening tools and seeds he bought. Mary feels quite at ease with him right away. Dickon volunteers to help Mary plant the seeds. After a momentary panic, Mary decides to trust Dickon with her secret.
Once inside the garden, Dickon shows Mary that some of the dead-looking roses are actually alive. He then shows her how to use the tools. Dickon is surprised to see the good work Mary had done on her own. He also notes that, although the garden had been locked up for ten years, it seems almost like some pruning was done not too long ago. He promises to come back and help her with the garden.
Mary trusts Dickon, but she still will not tell Martha about the garden. Believing that Mary still needs a plot of land where she can plant the seeds, Martha advises Mary to ask Ben Weatherstaff for help. She says that Mr. Craven lets Ben do whatever he wants to because Mrs. Craven used to like the gardener. Martha then tells Mary that Mr. Craven has returned, and that her mother stopped him in the village and spoke to him about Mary. Shortly, Mrs. Medlock comes to take Mary to Mr. Craven.
Mary sees that Mr. Craven is not really a hunchback as she was lead to believe. He just has crooked shoulders. Although he looks to be unhappy, he is actually not bad-looking. Mr. Craven tells her that he had forgotten to get her a nurse or a governess. Mary begs him not to get her a governess until she gets stronger from playing outdoors. Mr. Craven tells her that he was advised by Mrs. Sowerby, Martha's mother, to let her play. He then asks Mary if she wants toys or books. Mary asks for "a bit of earth" to garden. Mr. Craven is somehow affected by her eager request. Remarking that she reminds him of someone, he tells Mary that she can take any bit of earth and make it come alive. He then informs her that he will be away all summer.
The weather turns that night and Mary is awakened by the sound of heavy rain and wind. As she lies awake, she hears the sound of crying again. She decides to go explore. She manages to find the passageway behind the tapestry. She can hear the crying clearly. She walks up to the door and opens it. Inside, she sees a boy crying fretfully on his bed. The boy stares at Mary, frightened that she may be a ghost. Mary is also a little frightened, but she assures him that she is not a ghost. The boy introduces himself as Colin Craven, Mr. Craven's son. Mary introduces herself and tells him that Mr. Craven is her uncle. Mary had not known Mr. Craven had a son, and no one had told Colin about Mary.
Colin tells Mary that the servants are not allowed to talk about him because he does not like people to see him and talk about him. He says he is ill and will not live long, but if he did, he may become a hunchback like his father. Colin says his father does not want to see him because his mother died when he was born. Although he is not locked up, Colin explains that he stays in his room because it tires him too much when they take him outside. Colin then asks Mary a lot of questions about her and about India. He is especially interested when Mary mentions the locked garden. He tells her that he will order the servants, who are obliged to please him, to open the garden. Mary does not want to tell Colin that she has already found the garden. Instead, she convinces him it will be better if they kept it a secret. Colin then decides he will also keep it a secret that he has met Mary. He will send his nurse out of the room and have Martha fetch Mary whenever he wants to see her. Mary stays and sings to Colin until he falls asleep.
The following afternoon, Mary tells Martha about her encounter with Colin. Martha cannot believe what she is hearing. She says Colin is extremely difficult and prone to throwing tantrums, and she is afraid she will lose her job if she is suspected of telling Mary about him. Mary assures her that Colin will not get her into trouble. She then asks Martha about Colin's condition. Martha says Colin has always been told he is fragile and his back is weak, but her mother believes the boy is weak and sickly only because he stays indoors and does not get any fresh air.
Martha is called away by the bell. She returns shortly quite puzzled. Colin has sent the nurse away and asked for Mary. Mary goes with Martha to see Colin. Colin speaks to Martha haughtily, reminding Mary of an Indian rajah. She remarks how different he is from Dickon. Mary then tells Colin about Dickon and the animals on the moor he charms. Colin becomes interested, but he says he will never see anything on the moor because he is going to die. Mary does not like the way Colin keeps talking about dying and how he believes everyone wants him to die. Colin even says that his doctor, Dr. Craven, also wants him to die because Dr. Craven will inherit Misselthwaite if Colin is dead.
Mary thinks it will help Colin if he stops talking about dying, so she begins to talk about Dickon and living things. After a while, both Colin and Mary herself begin to cheer up, and soon they find themselves laughing over nothings. Dr. Craven and Mrs. Medlock walk into the room and are stunned to see the children laughing. Colin, unfazed, introduces his cousin Mary. He tells Dr. Craven that he is glad Mary heard him crying and came to find him. Dr. Craven tells Colin not to forget that he is ill and too much excitement is not good for him. Colin says to the doctor that he likes Mary because she helps him forget about his illness. Dr. Craven looks puzzled and unhappy as he leaves his patient.
The rainy weather continues for a week and Mary spends a lot of time with Colin. Although Mary still has not trusted Colin with the secret of the locked garden, she becomes more and more convinced that he will benefit from going outside and spending time in the garden with Dickon. On the first sunny morning, she rushes out to the garden early and finds Dickon already there with Soot the crow and Captain the fox cub. It is a warm spring morning. The crocuses are in bloom, leaf buds are seen swelling on rose branches, and the robin is building a nest. Mary tells Dickon about Colin. Dickon agrees it will do Colin some good to come out to the garden for fresh air, see things growing, and forget about dying.
They have so much to do in the garden that Mary returns to the house late. After her meal, she tells Martha she cannot see Colin then hurries back outside. After doing more work in the afternoon, Mary returns to her room to find Martha waiting. Martha tells Mary that Colin almost had a tantrum when she told him Mary could not come. Mary goes to see Colin. Colin is in his bed in a sour mood. When Mary tells him she was working in the garden with Dickon, Colin threatens to send Dickon away. They begin to fight. Since they had both been spoiled and had never met anyone as selfish as they are themselves, it turns into a big fight. Mary walks out in a temper, having decided not to tell Colin about the Secret Garden.
Mary is awakened in the middle of the night by the awful sound of Colin having his tantrum. The nurse comes running into her room and tells her to go calm Colin down before he does himself harm. Still in a bed temper, Mary storms into Colin's room. She shouts at Colin to stop and tells him that everyone hates him and wishes he would scream himself to death. Startled, Colin stops screaming. He continues to cry and shake, however, and tells her that he felt a lump on his back and believes he is about to die. Mary orders the nurse to show her his back. Taking a close look at Colin's thin bony back, Mary declares it free of lumps. The nurse, who had not known about Colin's fears, finally understands the situation. She assures Colin that he has no lumps and will live if he will get some fresh air. Both Colin and Mary have now calmed down. Colin says he will go outside if Dickon will come push his wheelchair. Mary sends the nurse away and speaks to Colin until he falls asleep.
In the morning, Mary stops by Colin's room before going out to the garden. Dickon is already there with Soot and Captain, and he has also brought two squirrels called Nut and Shell, and a moor pony named Jump. Mary speaks to Dickon about Colin. Dickon says they must bring him out to the garden as soon as possible. Mary goes back to Colin and tells him that Dickon will come see him with his creatures the following morning. She then finally tells Colin that she has found the door to the Secret Garden — and that she had actually gotten inside weeks ago.
Dr. Craven arrives in the afternoon and is completely perplexed at the change in his patient. He is shocked and worried to hear Colin is planning to go outside with Mary. When he learns Dickon will be pushing the wheelchair, however, Dr. Craven agrees to the plan. He leaves without prescribing any medication, and Colin is able to relax and get a good night's sleep.
In the morning, Dickon comes to Colin's room with his animals including a newborn lamb he found a few days ago. Colin stares in awe. Dickon places the lamb on Colin's lap and begins to feed it from a bottle. Dickon tells them how he found the lamb motherless on the moor, then they all look at pictures in a gardening book and talk about going out to the garden.
They make careful plans over the next week. They discuss what route they should take in order to make sure no one will suspect they are taking Colin to the Secret Garden. Once the plan is agreed upon, Colin calls the head gardener to his room. He tells the man that he will be going out at two o'clock, and to make sure no one is near the long walk by the garden walls until he is done.
After lunch, the nurse gets Colin ready to go outside. A strong footman then carries Colin downstairs and puts him in his wheelchair. With Dickon pushing the chair and Mary walking alongside, they go along the deserted paths. Colin grows more and more excited as they approach the hidden door. He covers his eyes with his hands till he is pushed inside the garden. Then he looks all around the garden and cries out in joy declaring that he shall get well and live forever. Mary and Dickon do some work in the garden and show Colin around. Watching the robin carry food to his mate in the nest, Colin decides they should have tea in the garden. Mary goes back to the house to order a tea basket then Dickon helps bring it to the garden.
After the wonderful picnic, they are enjoying the beautiful late afternoon when Colin looks up and sees a man standing on a ladder and glaring down at them over the wall. It is Ben Weatherstaff. Outraged to see the children inside the forbidden garden, Ben shakes his fists and yells at Mary. He stops yelling and his jaw drops, however, when he sees Colin. Ben recognizes Colin's eyes, which are just like his mother's, and identifies him as "the crippled child". Angered at being called a cripple, Colin musters the strength to stand up straight with Dickon's help. Ben, overjoyed to see that Colin does not have a crooked back at all, begins to cry. Mary goes out and brings Ben into the garden. Colin tells Ben to keep it a secret that they come in to the garden. Ben reveals that he used to come into the garden over the wall until his rheumatism became too much for him. He says Colin's mother asked him to take care of her roses if she ever became ill or went away. After she died, despite the order to keep out of the garden, he kept following her original order. Ben goes to the greenhouse and brings back a rose in a pot, and they all help Colin plant it in the Secret Garden.
In the following months, Mary and Dickon bring Colin out to the garden every morning except when it rains. Colin begins to believe there is some magic in the garden which will help him grow strong. He learns to walk slowly but decides to keep it a secret. Although he begins to look much healthier and his spirit is high, he still pretends to be weak and ill-tempered because he is afraid the doctor will write to his father before he is ready to surprise him. Both Colin and Mary have a good time with the play-acting, but they have trouble trying not to eat too much. They now have a healthy appetite, but they are afraid the servants will suspect something if they keep eating. Mrs. Sowerby, hearing about the dilemma, gives Dickon fresh milk and buns to give them. Mary and Colin are both so grateful that they send her some of their spending money to buy things. Soon Dickon begins roasting potatoes and eggs to add to their feast. He also teaches Colin and Mary some muscle-building exercises. Colin grows stronger and gains weight, and he begins to look like the portrait of his mother that hangs in his room.
One day, Mrs. Sowerby pays them a surprise visit in the garden. Seeing Colin so healthy and looking very much like his mother, Mrs. Sowerby begins to tear up. Colin asks her if his resemblance to his mother will make his father like him. She assures him it will, then says Mr. Craven must come home soon. She also says to Mary that she must be beginning to look like her pretty mother too. Colin and Mary have a wonderful time showing Mrs. Sowerby around the garden and talking with her. Before she leaves them, Colin tells her he wishes she was his mother. Mrs. Sowerby hugs him and tells him that his own mother is in the garden.
In the meanwhile, Mr. Craven had been wandering around Europe morosely, seeking out remote and quiet places. One day in the Austrian Tyrol, he sits down by a stream and spots some lovely forget-me-nots. As he looks at them, he finds himself beginning to feel differently, as if something has awakened in him. For the first time in ten years, he feels alive. He will later learn that, at that same moment, Colin entered the Secret Garden and declared he would live forever. Although darkness returns to Mr. Craven and he continues to wander, he is slowly changing as Colin does. He begins to sleep better and grow stronger. One night, he has a happy dream and hears his wife calling to him. In the dream, he calls back to her and asks where she is. She replies "in the garden!" In the morning, he finds a letter from Mrs. Sowerby advising him to come home. He returns to Yorkshire a few days later.
Instead of going to his rooms as he normally does, Mr. Craven goes into the library. He summons Mrs. Medlock to inquire about his son. Mrs. Medlock tells him about the peculiar things that have been happening. Mr. Craven asks where Colin is. Mrs. Medlock says "in the garden." Mr. Craven walks out of the room. He goes outside and slowly walks towards the locked garden feeling as if he is somehow being drawn there. He approaches the hidden door with the intention to look for the key. He hears sounds from inside the garden, like the running feet and laughter of children.
As Mr. Craven stands there wondering if he is dreaming, the door bursts open and a boy comes running out, almost colliding with him. Mr. Craven looks at the tall, handsome boy with familiar eyes and gasps. Although this was not the reunion he had planned, Colin quickly recovers himself and tells his father that he is now well. All Mr. Craven can do is repeat "in the garden!" as his wife said to him in his dream. The children lead him into the garden and tell him about everything that had transpired. Afterwards, Colin tells his father that he will walk back with him to the house. Ben Weatherstaff goes to the house ahead of them just to make sure he is in the servants' hall with Mrs. Medlock to see her reaction.
Mrs. Medlock shrieks when she sees Mr. Craven and Colin walking back to the house together. Other servants come running, and they all watch in awe as the happy father and healthy son come walking side by side.
The 1919 silent film The Secret Garden is now believed to be lost.
The 1949 MGM film The Secret Garden starring Margaret O'Brien as Mary is filmed mostly in black-and-white but features three garden scenes in Technicolor. In the film, young Dean Stockwell plays Colin and Elsa Lanchester plays Martha.
The 1993 widely-acclaimed American-British movie adaptation of The Secret Garden stars Kate Maberly as Mary, Andrew Knott as Dickon, and Heydon Prowse as Colin. John Lynch plays the part of Archibald Craven, and Maggie Smith, in the role of Mrs. Medlock, was nominated for the BAFTA award.
A British movie adaptation with Colin Firth as Archibald Craven and Julie Walters as Mrs. Medlock was made available for online streaming in the United States on August 7, 2020. It was released theatrically in the United Kingdom on October 23, 2020.
Television adaptations of The Secret Garden include the 1975 BBC serial which was adapted, produced, and directed by Dorothea Brooking, the 1987 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie with Derek Jacobi in the role of Archibald Craven, and a 39-part animated television series Anime Himitsu no Hanazono (アニメひみつの花園) which aired on NHK in Japan from April 1991 to March 1992. The American television anthology series ABC Weekend Special also aired an animated adaptation based on The Secret Garden in November 1994, with Derek Jacobi voicing the part of Archibald Craven.
A musical based on the novel and with music by Lucy Simon and lyrics by Marsha Norman opened on Broadway on April 25, 1991 and played for 709 performances.
- Sound files of public domain audiobook of The Secret Garden from LibriVox: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16, Chapter 17, Chapter 18, Chapter 19, Chapter 20, Chapter 21, Chapter 22, Chapter 23, Chapter 24, Chapter 25, Chapter 26, Chapter 27
- Text of The Secret Garden on Wikisource.
- Free public domain audiobook of The Secret Garden from Librivox.
- The Broadway production of The Secret Garden is talked about in the Broadway Podcast Network's Behind the Curtain - Broadway's Living Legends episode with Alison Fraser.