Frances Hodgson Burnett was born Frances Eliza Hodgson in Manchester, England, on November 24, 1849. Her father's work as a silversmith and master of decorative arts kept the Hodgsons in relative affluence until his death in 1854. The consequent decline in the family's fortunes only worsened in the ensuing years, as all of Manchester found itself suffering a severe depression brought about by the American Civil War. The Hodgsons, facing impoverishment in England, immigrated to America in 1865. There, they traveled to New Market, a small town near Knoxville, Tennessee, in search of a moneyed American uncle who had promised to support them. That help never materialized, however, and the family was forced to take shelter in an abandoned log cabin.
The move from industrial Manchester to rural America greatly affected young Frances, who was then only fifteen. Though she had always been captivated by storytelling, it was only in America that Burnett began to seriously consider writing in order to supplement her family's meager income. The cover letter she sent with her first published story, which appeared in Godey's Lady's Book, described her goal most succinctly: "My object is remuneration." She received remuneration: thirty-five dollars, which was, in 1868, a nearly princely sum. She became the family's chief means of support, writing five or six stories a month at a time when it was exceedingly rare for a woman to have a career.
Burnett was one of the most commercially successful and widely-read authors of her day. Her book Little Lord Fauntleroy was possibly responsible for keeping a generation of boys wearing ruffles and mauve velvet knee breeches. Her other novels (including The Little Princess) were wildly successful, but none was more instantly beloved than The Secret Garden, which was heralded as a classic upon its publication in 1909.
In The Secret Garden, the events of Mary Lennox's early childhood mirror those of Burnett's own. Both Mary and Burnett experienced the death of their parents followed by a reversal of fortune, as well as a great sense of dislocation upon being taken from the country of their birth to one utterly foreign to them. The novel is not merely autobiographical. It was written while Burnett was very much under the influence of the ideas of the New Thought, theosophy, and Christian Science movements, which were enjoying their greatest popularity at the turn of the twentieth century. Burnett's idiosyncratic fusion of these philosophies held that the Christian god was a kind of unified mind or spirit, with whom any person might commune; this spirit was held to be present everywhere, and especially in nature. Proponents of the New Thought also extolled the power of positive thinking (the fervent contemplation of what one hopes will happen), and held it to be a form of communion with the divine spirit. One could ostensibly cure oneself of illness through this kind of magical thinking, or change the character of one's fortunes.
Such ideas had a profound influence upon the writing of The Secret Garden—particularly as the inspiration for what Colin and Mary call "Magic." It is, of course, also visible in Burnett's depiction of the landscape (as represented by the garden and the moor) as having healing or restorative properties. Burnett wrote the novel shortly after returning to England in 1898, where she had rented a country house and absorbed herself in her passion for gardening. At that time, a walled-in rose garden served as her outdoor workroom, and was the place where she wrote the better part of The Secret Garden. At the time of her death, on October 29, 1924, in Long Island, New York, she had published more than forty books.
Take a Study Break!