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Mary is sent to live with an English clergyman and his family in the period immediately following the death of her parents. Her misfortune has done little to change her worldview, however, and she instantly despises the clergyman's five children and the poverty of the family's circumstances. They, for their part, are quite frank in their dislike for her, and she finds herself ostracized by the other children. They delight in making fun of her, and, upon finding her playing at gardening, give her a mocking nickname borrowed from a nursery rhyme: "Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary."
Basil, the favorite among the children, informs Mary that she is to be sent to England to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven. As she has heard of neither England nor her uncle, this comes as something of a surprise to her. It is also from Basil that Mary begins to hear the peculiar rumors that surround her uncle: it is said that he is a hunchback and hermit who lives in a mysterious, rambling old house in the middle of nowhere. Though Mary roundly spurns Basil and his story, she is preoccupied by what he has told her. A few days later, she does indeed set sail for England, in the care of an officer's wife who is on her way to leave her own children in a boarding school.
In London, Mary is handed over to Archibald Craven's housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. The pair loathe each other on sight—a turn of events that is quite common for Mary, whose plain face and bitter disposition seem to impress everyone unfavorably. It is in Mrs. Medlock's company that Mary first begins to feel lonely.
Mrs. Medlock and her charge take a train to Yorkshire, the site of Misselthwaite Manor. Mrs. Medlock passes the journey by telling Mary dismal stories about the house and its master. Archibald Craven is indeed a hunchback, and a widower; the death of his lovely wife had been, for him, the end of any possibility of happiness. Most of his house's hundred rooms are now kept locked and shuttered. To Mary, her uncle's story seems like a fairytale, or "like something in a book." As she contemplates this, it begins to rain, and Mary is lulled to sleep.
When Mary awakes, the train has arrived in Yorkshire. She and Mrs. Medlock board a carriage there, which takes them through a village and over Missel Moor, until they finally reach the manor. There, the travelers are greeted by Mr. Pitcher, her uncle's manservant, who tells them that Mr. Craven does not wish to see them. Medlock shuts Mary up in a room by herself, and reminds her again that she is not to explore the house or its grounds, as Mr. Craven "won't have it." Mary's contrariness reaches new levels of intensity.
This second chapter further details Mary's friendlessness and its causes. Both the clergyman's family and Mrs. Medlock dislike her on sight; her ugliness and sour disposition seem incapable of inspiring any other response. Mary is made doubly sour by her growing sense of dislocation and loneliness: when Basil tells her that she is going home, Mary replies "Where is home?" Absolutely dispossessed of everything that she has ever known, Mary begins to reflect upon her lot, and realizes that she has never really belonged anywhere, nor to anyone. Mary's newfound capacity for self-examination provides her with several important insights in the ensuing chapters.
The book reinforces its condemnation of parental neglect in two ways in this chapter: through the voice of the clergyman, and in the person of the woman who accompanies Mary on her trip back to England. This woman is only traveling back to England to leave her own children in a boarding-school; the novel thereby suggests that abandonment and neglect are common among English parents in India. The clergyman alone recognizes that Mary's bitterness is the product of her mother's neglect, saying that Mary's "scarcely ever looked at her," and so Mary inherited neither her beauty nor her charm.
Mary, for her part, amply returns the enmity that is heaped upon her, though hers is predicated, in some measure, upon class: that is, she despises the family and Mrs. Medlock for being poorer than she. She is contemptuous of the clergyman's crowded, untidy bungalow, his children's patched clothes, and of Mrs. Medlock's "common face" and "common fine bonnet." "Common," here, means low-class, or vulgar; it constitutes a very strong epithet indeed in a country as fanatically class-conscious as England.
The precarious position of servants with regard to their employers is again suggested in this chapter, in that Mrs. Medlock must miss her niece's wedding in order to pick up Mary. This is "the only way in which she could keep [her position]... to do at once what Mr. Archibald Craven told her to do...[and] never dare even to ask a question." Servants, in England as in India, are permitted no freedoms.
The story of Archibald Craven, as related to Mary by Basil and Mrs. Medlock, impresses her as having a number of fairy-tale characteristics. Not least among these is the great house in which he lives, comprised of a hundred locked rooms; this, coupled with the description of him as a widower and "hunchback," makes him seem like an English Bluebeard. Mary's life has, by Chapter II, been given over entirely to fairy-tale: she is being sent to live with her fantastical uncle in his fantastical house; furthermore, as Medlock relates his story, it begins to rain, making the entire scene quite "like something in a book."
The hundred locked rooms of Misselthwaite Manor provide another instance of the motif of secrets that animates the novel. Mary, upon her arrival at Misselthwaite, is positioned as yet another of those secrets: like her parents, her uncle does not wish "to see what he doesn't want to see," and so Mary is buried in one of the Manor's distant rooms.
Mary earns the much-despised nickname of "Mistress Mary Quite Contrary" by engaging in the activity that will later prove to be her salvation: gardening. The omniscient narrator seems to approve of this nickname, as it will henceforth often refer to Mary in this manner, and concludes this chapter by doing so.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Secret Garden!