Christmas Guest Post: Harry & The Secret Garden

Josh Harvey, a good friend in Lexington, Virginia, sent me a Christmas gift this afternoon that he said I could share with the HogPro All-Pros here though it is only notes of an idea. In brief, there is suggestive evidence in the seven book canon that Ms. Rowling was heavily influenced by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Here are Mr. Harvey’s notes for your reflection, comment, correction, and amendment:

[I have been reading “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett to prepare for a musical production of same and I] wonder if there is more than just some incidental influence between Garden and Potter. Here are six points of correspondence:

Firstly, the book is about magic (all kinds of great quotes about it). Secondly, it was one of the greatest British-American crossover children’s books ever–in fact my edition from the Barnes and Noble Classics line mentions several times that its success (with its other predecessors by FHB) could be comparable only to the Harry Potter series in terms of their popularity.

Thirdly, it is based on theosophical ideas which would be influenced or overlapping with much of alchemy (this and point #1 are basically the same, I guess). Fourthly, it features a main character named Colin Craven, which very well could have a nod in a certain other “Colin Creavy”. Fifthly, it features the search for a secret inner-chamber which has a bird leading the protagonist to a key–obviously a universal sort of symbolism, but so reminiscent of HP1’s flying keys [and the Chamber of Secrets].

Sixthly (and most importantly), the dead mother’s name is “Lillias” and there are MULTIPLE references to her eyes and Collin’s resemblance by them. Of course, this is also sort of archetypal, but… are few from pages I dog-eared:

pg. 108: “Mary got up, much mystified, and found the cord. When she pulled it the silk curtain ran back on rings and when it ran back it uncovered a picture. It was the picture of a girl with a laughing face. She had bright hair tied up with a blue ribbon and her gay, lovely eyes were exactly like Colin’s unhappy ones, agate gray and looking twice as big as they really were because of the black lashes all round them.”

pg. 127: “When [Mary] described the small ivory-white face and the strange black-rimmed eyes Dickon shook his head. ‘Them’s just like his mother’s eyes, only hers was always laughin’, they say,’ he said. ‘They say as Mester Craven can’t bear to see him when he’s awake an’ it’s because his eyes is so like his mother’s an’ yet looks so different in his miserable bit of a face.'”

pg. 171: “A wheeled chair with luxurious cushions and robes which came toward [Ben Weatherstaff] looking rather like some sort of State Coach because a young Rajah leaned back in it with royal command in his great black-rimmed eyes and a thin white hand extended haughtily toward him….’Do you know who I am?’ demanded the Rajah….’Who tha’ art?’ [Ben] said. ‘Aye, that I do–wi’ tha’ mother’s eyes starin’ at me out o’ tha’ face.'”

pg. 206: “But when Colin held forth under his tree [lecturing about Magic] old Ben fixed devouring eyes on him and kept them there. He looked him over with critical affection. It was not so much the lecture which interested him as the legs which looked straighter and stronger each day, the boyish head which held itself up so well, the once sharp chin and hollow cheeks which had filled and rounded out the eyes which had begun to hold the light he remembered in another pair.” [Ben was the gardner, you will remember, of Lily’s garden before–and somewhat after–her death; sort of the secret-keeper, if you will].

pg. 210 [on the arrival of Susan Sowerby, the 5th business of the book and surrogate “magical” mother to both Mary and Colin, into the secret garden]: “‘Are you surprised that I am so well?’ [Colin] asked. [Ms. Sowerby] put her hand on his shoulder and smiled the mist out of her eyes. ‘Aye, that I am!’ she said; ‘but th’art so like thy mother tha’ made my heart jump.'”

pg. 223-225 [on the arrival of Archibald Craven to Misselthwaite and the accidental discovery of the well Colin and the secret garden]: “Mr. Craven had extended them just in time to save him from falling as a result of his unseeing dash against him, and when he held him away to look at him in amazement at his being there he truly gasped for breath. He was a tall boy and a handsome one. He was glowing with life and his running had sent splendid color leaping into his face. He threw the thick hair back from his forehead and lifted a pair of strange gray eyes–eyes full of boyish laughter and rimmed with black lashes like a fringe. It was the eyes which made Mr. Craven gasp for breath.”

Lastly, the style and tone of “Secret Garden” in terms of writing style is the closest to HP I have read in awhile; perhaps it is the Victorian influence (not to mention how many times FHB, like JKR, uses the word “imperiously” to describe a character).

Not trying to make anything out of nothing, just thinking and typing,that’s all. It would be nice and great to make the eyes into something great, classic, and archetypal (they are), and lofty (like your wonderful Dante theory) but, being a children’s classic about magic and dead parents (one of whom is named “Lily”, no less), I wonder if there is something greater to the connection.

[And there is this from an old Rowling interview before the movies were made:]

“Q: What plans are being made for Harry Potter, the movie?

A [Rowling]: It’s in the very early stages. Summer of 2001 is the target date. I have script approval, and I’m in close contact with the writer. Among the things that swayed me to Warner Bros. were the movies The Little Princess and The Secret Garden. . . . They treated the books with respect and made changes where it absolutely made sense.”

That seems to imply a fairly thorough knowledge of both the book and the subsequent movie….

[I understand that scholarship demands that this sort of thing be written up more formally] to be taken seriously…. but, I am just sharing ideas, so [all your readers] can discuss it in its rougher form. I love “Secret Garden” now–doing the musical in May, so, just doing my back-up work for that and thinking about HP at the same time. JTH.

Thank you, Josh! Any Secret Garden lovers and readers out there want to make the leap and argue that the eyes of Lily Potter are more Burnett than Dante? Bring it on!

Happy New Year and a Joyous Noel to you all…


  1. Great points, Josh! I don’t know the Dante well enough (read: at all!) to make any legitimate counter argument or evaluative comparison, but I did read The Secret Garden, and I remember those passages.

    There are, I think, perhaps a few other similarities – more of a subtle influence than a deliberate infusion of elements, but some. Burnett’s book begins with a trip to another home, that of an uncle, brother-in-law of Mary’s father, who, with her mother, died suddenly (albeit of cholera). She’s found in essentially a ruined house, and sent away to a relative who has no relationship with her. Harry’s a rather more likable character at first, because Mary’s sour and spoiled (at first), but there are definite similarities. Misselthwaite Manor is a somewhat intimidating, unwelcoming place, but as she probes the secret areas (hidden, locked away from most) she finds a hidden world (perhaps this is akin to the magical world – Mary’s Diagon Alley?). The garden also is her hidden world, but becomes her home (Mary’s Hogwarts).

    And now, for a poor attempt at identifying the alchemical stages….

    Nigredo: Everyone Mary knows dies, her mother never loved her anyway, she comes to a dark, foreboding place, no friends, and she’s a rather spoiled person who’s not going to be any more (this is a good thing, but kind of tough to deal with).
    Albedo: discovering the garden, discovering Colin, struggling with both, being discovered, etc.
    Rubedo: the garden flowers, Colin walks again, and Mr. Craven finds joy = Mary has a family, is happy, etc.

    anyway, I started writing this a while ago, and then it was time for dessert (since some of us gregorians seem to have a feast this day)

    Merry Christmas for those celebrating it today!

  2. See the Penguin Group Reading Guide for an introduction to the themes and to Burnett’s beliefs!

  3. Has been a great while since I’ve read the book. I remember Dickon, though, in the same way you do, John, kind of fey like, in tune more with nature & animals than anyone else.

    I loved the poem, though, at the beginning, or nursery rhyme more actually. “There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. And when she was good she was very good but when she was bad she was horrid!” ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Just from reading the Wikipedia synopsis (I haven’t read the book since 1995 though I will be next week!), especially the comments there in ‘Major Themes,’ it seems the author of Secret Garden was a Christian Scientist and Theosophist. That would explain, I think, the positive thinking and personal responsibility thrust of the book, not to mention the physical healing of Colin as he accepts both. More important, the symbolism of the Rose Garden, the hidden place and neglected heart of the Manor, would be the Rosicrucian esoteric Christian doctrine of the eye of the heart as the creative point of reality.

    I’m not sure I’d say the narrative scaffolding is an explicitly alchemical structure without more pointed references to the process (the three point story arc of fallen setting, transformation, climax/revelation is not necessarily alchemical per se) which I’ll be looking for in my next reading. The pair of contraries in Dickon, who, I seem to recall, is something like a wood nymph in his mysterious comings and goings (or am I thinking of Little White Horse‘s Robin?), and Mary is suggestive of male/female paired reagents working on lead to make gold of Colin. His transformation from invalid to spirited young man and joy of his father is the centerpiece in a book of resurrections or life coming from death.

    Anyone with more information on Burnett and her ‘New Thought” beliefs, please speak up! I suspect, with the eyes, these connections Josh and Nzie have made are a link to an important influence on Rowling.

  5. I love The Secret Garden, and I would be willing to bet a certain amount of money that JKR would be familiar with the book.

    Similarities? Well, Colin’s got his mother’s eyes, and it is a major plot element: people love him at first sight because they loved her and he has her eyes. And the man who loved his mother the most – his father – has all but abandoned him because he cost his mother her life. Sort of, kind of like Harry and Snape. And it is a tale of an orphan. An orphan and a semi-orphan, if you count Colin. And it is the tale of an orphan who discovers a place which allows her to transcend her previous dreary existence and make a more meaningful, almost magical new life.

    But to my mind – and maybe I have to think about this some more – the similarities are fairly superficial and the differences are deeper reaching.

    For one thing, the magic – or Magic as the children call it – is a natural thing, not a point your wand and zap your enemy kind of thing. It’s what makes Mary – a fairly sullen lass to start out with – find happiness and purpose as she sets about weeding the rose bushes in the garden. It’s what makes Colin want to drink his milk and check out the garden and leave his wheel-chair. And it’s what makes his father find some happiness with his son after years of mourning his wife’s death. In other words, it’s about the healing power of – well, of something which is completely natural, as opposed to supernatural.

    For another thing, The Secret Garden is not a quest tale, it’s not about a voyage of discovery and triumph over evil, or about the power of love and sacrifice. The hero – which would be Mary, not Colin – overcomes first her own inability to engage with the world, and then Colin’s fear of the world. The garden – with its weed-choked rose bushes – is the device by which they accomplish their tasks. They are both healed and become – normal children. Quite a different story line than Harry’s, I think.

  6. John, I’ve already got too many things to read! I’ve been seeking out Goudge’s book & trying to find Edith Nesbit’s stuff. Now you want me to read The Secret Garden! Besides which I’m now working my way through GOF, Deathly Hallows Lectures, Travis’ book, Villaluz’s Sleeping Dragons book, & listening to The Hobbit on audiobook. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. RRocker, given that Burnett is a Christian Scientist/Theosophist, the natural/supernatural distinction you make is probably not relevant. Even more than to an esoteric or sacramental Christian, to a Theosophist or Eddy devotee the natural world is suffused with grace and creative energy (call it ‘mind’). Conventional (‘devotional’) Christians think of them as borderline pantheists. I don’t want to go there, figuratively speaking, but the Magic of the garden is more like Harry’s world except in practical operations than you seem to want to allow. Both are essentially love and Word-powered.

    I like your distinction about this being Mary’s story and about it not being a heroic tale or quest. Could we think of it as Hermione’s story with a fey Ron (call him ‘Robin’ as Goudge does, perhaps as a hat tip to the bird that shows Mary the key to the Garden)? And what about the gothic elements of the story? It’s not a castle but it is a Manor house, and it comes with plenty of secrets, more than a hint of Magic and the supernatural, and the necessary reunion after telling dream contact…

    RevGeorge, let’s re-read this and see what else we find. I think with Goudge (Oxford Platonist a la Sayers, Lewis, and Tolkien), Burnett may be our tie down influence on Rowling for magical Christian story with heavy esoteric trappings.

    Thanks to you, Josh, again, for sharing this catch!

  8. I did just get a gift card for Amazon in the mail today. How convenient! Guess I’ll buy it since I have no idea where my copy of Secret Garden is. Probably in my & my wife’s dungeon of books in the basement. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. RevGeorge: Oh, c’mon, just read the first chapter. I did and it was great. Two things jump right out.

    The reason this book didn’t sell very well compared to the author’s previous blockbusters (Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Little Princess) is because the opening seems to promise a re-telling of those other two stories. And, mirabile dictu, it is a combination of them with a splash of Captains Courageous. Burnett is a formula writer and stories about an orphan with parents dead in India making her way and the magically virtuous boy-urchin work for her (and us).

    The other thing is that this lady can tell a story. From the little touches (the serpent in the house of cholera looking up at her as it escapes) to the melodramatic vignettes (mother distraught about the cholera, soldier finding the abandoned girl, etc.), I really do want to know what happens to this little pig, I mean ‘girl.’

    Anybody else have a chance to read the first chapter? It’s online at Gutenberg here if you haven’t got a copy with you. Lemmeno what you think.

  10. FYI, the Norton Annotated Edition of Secret Garden is selling at Amazon for only $7, an 80% discount from the cover price.

  11. OK, I want to know how you can switch between the Eye and the Man, at will. And how come you answer as the former at times, and the latter at other times? Is it strictly alternating? Or is there a deeper message?

    Yeah, Theosophists are a little freaky, although fairly benign. There are points in The Secret Garden where I can see Burnett jump on her soapbox and start holding forth in the voice of Mary an/or Dickon. Speaking of which, where would he figure in the parallels? He seems the most evolved, closest to his Spiritual Nature. St. Francis of Assisi of the moors.

    I can see why SG was less popular than Burnett’s other two well-known books. There is a lot of preaching. Personally, I don’t mind the preaching. The metaphor of the garden – and gardening – as a healing force is both charming and very powerful.

  12. Dickon, heavy on magic, playfulness, Yorkshire accent, and love of the outdoors, is a Dumbledore/Hagrid cross.

  13. I adore The Secret Garden! In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle (award-winning author of the Time Quintet series, among others) identifies The Secret Garden as a Christian work that succeeds because of the subtlety of the delivery of its message. She notes: “Mary’s journey into love is, in fact, her journey into Christ, though this is never said, and does not need to be said.”

  14. From The Secret Garden, Chapter 13, in which chapter Mary Lennox discovers Colin Craven — and he shows her something:

    “I am going to let you look at something,” he said. “Do you see that rose-colored silk curtain hanging on the wall over the mantel-piece?”

    Mary had not noticed it before, but she looked up and saw it. It was a curtain of soft silk hanging over what seemed to be some picture.

    “Yes,” she answered.

    “There is a cord hanging from it,” said Colin. “Go and pull it.”

    Mary got up, much mystified, and found the cord. When she pulled it the silk curtain ran back on rings and when it ran back it uncovered a picture. It was the picture of a girl with a laughing face. She had bright hair tied up with a blue ribbon and her gay, lovely eyes were exactly like Colin’s unhappy ones, agate gray and looking twice as big as they really were because of the black lashes all round them.

    “She is my mother,” said Colin complainingly. “I don’t see why she died. Sometimes I hate her for doing it.”

    “How queer!” said Mary.

    “If she had lived I believe I should not have been ill always,” he grumbled. “I dare say I should have lived, too. And my father would not have hated to look at me. I dare say I should have had a strong back. Draw the curtain again.”

    Mary did as she was told and returned to her footstool.

    “She is much prettier than you,” she said, “but her eyes are just like yours–at least they are the same shape and color. Why is the curtain drawn over her?”

    He moved uncomfortably.

    “I made them do it,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t like to see her looking at me. She smiles too much when I am ill and miserable. Besides, she is mine and I don’t want everyone to see her.” There were a few moments of silence and then Mary spoke….

    ‘Colin Craven’ is hard to miss in the assonant ‘Colin Creavy.’ The mother’s eyes, too, are pretty solid connection with the Potter saga. And the mother’s picture under a silk curtain in a “queer house” driving the son mad? Are you sirius serious?

    I’m half-way through a hurried re-reading of The Secret Garden and astonished at the familiar story echoes reminding me of Harry Potter and, even more, Little White Horse, which with boy named ‘Robin’ rather than ‘Dickon’ (a nod to Dickens, along with the Bronte sisters? How many times will she have the weather ‘wuthering’ before a major revelation?) seems only a slight recasting.

    Please share your favorite story-point echoes and thematic points. If I understood Amy H. correctly and the L’Engle quotation, the Magic being logos is a big bridge connecting Burnett and Rowling.

  15. I just bought a copy at Barnes and Noble – one of their classics on the sale shelf. I haven’t read it for a long time and the copy that was in the house left with youngest daughter when she moved out.

    So, I’ve now read the first two chapters. I noticed that the isolation that Mary feels is similar to the isolation that Harry felt at the Dursleys. But the difference is that Mary realizes that her parents didn’t want her and proved it by ignoring her even while they were still alive, relegating her to the servants. Harry on the other hand, knew he wasn’t wanted by his aunt and uncle who took him when his parents died. It has to have been a very different feeling; not being wanted by your own parents is far worse than not being wanted by an aunt and uncle. And of course, later Harry learns that his parents did love and want him very much – so that’s always going to be a contrast between the two.

    Both, however, after the death of the parents are sent to live with relatives who live some place other than near the child’s home. So there will be no opportunity for either child to discover anything about the parents without the information coming from the now custodial relative. So both Mary and Harry have lost that direct connection and that control.

    As far as personality though, the two are opposites. Mary is disagreeable because she has been ignored and indulged by the servants for the first, what, six years of her life. Harry turn out to be quite agreeable to everyone (except the Dursleys) after he has been ignored but certainly never indulged.

    I’ll come back when I’ve read a few more chapters.


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