June 24, 2021

(++++) GROWTH

The Secret Garden—Graphic Novel Adaptation. By Frances Hodgson Burnett. Adapted by Mariah Marsden. Illustrated by Hanna Luechtefeld. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     A bit of Bowdlerized Burnett whose fine Hanna Luechtefeld illustrations more than make up for the somewhat creaky Mariah Marsden simplification of the story, the new graphic novel based on The Secret Garden will be a fine introduction to the book for young, visually oriented readers today, even though it lacks the richness of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) was the dogmatic expurgator of Shakespeare, whose name and approach came to define the elimination of the “naughty bits” of classic literature throughout and after the 19th century. Today’s “naughty bits” are less about sexuality – there is none in The Secret Garden – and more about the notion that Europeans ever did anything beneficial, no matter how small, for non-Europeans in the era of colonialism. So Marsden dutifully removes from her adaptation the entire backstory that explains the personality of 10-year-old central character Mary Lennox. In the graphic novel, Mary is simply an orphan (reason unknown) with an unpleasant personality (reason unknown) who must be taken in by her uncle (reason unknown) and learn to live in a secluded house on the Yorkshire moors.

     Burnett explains and enriches Mary’s personality by showing her as the child of British colonists in India, where native servants took care of her needs and led to her becoming dependent, truculent and difficult – and where a cholera epidemic claimed her parents, forcing her uncle, through a sense of noblesse oblige, to take her in. Noblesse oblige, or even noblesse, being an unacceptable concept today, Marsden gives us Mary as a cardboard character whose transformation through her interactions with people and animals and gardens is less emotionally satisfying than in the original novel because she has no reason for being a spoiled brat except the exigencies of the story.

     Luechtefeld, though, makes much of Mary and the characters, both young and adult, with whom she interacts, and that is what makes the graphic novel so appealing. The greyness of the opening pages, the dullness of what non-grey colors appear, the overall sense of oppressiveness both of the manor house and of the surrounding countryside – all these come through very effectively through Luechtefeld’s art. When the earliest elements of Mary’s transformation begin – this happens when house servant Martha first talks about her brother, Dickon – the colors immediately lighten, and by the time there is a two-page, wordless illustration of the outdoors that Mary is barely starting to experience (the first of several very fine two-page wordless pictures), the art has completely taken over the story, and much of the tale can be followed without needing any words at all.

     The Secret Garden is, on many levels, a story about renewal, about a kind of “springtime of the soul” coming not only to Mary but also to her uncle and to her cousin, Colin. The garden itself, locked and inaccessible until a helpful and possibly magical bird shows Mary both the door and the key to unlock it, is both a place and a symbol – but Burnett never lays on the symbolism with too heavy a hand. The action centers in and around the garden, but in fact there is not very much action in The Secret Garden at all: this is mostly a book in which characters talk to each other, confront their own inner concerns and worries, reach out gingerly for help and support, and ultimately find a world that is much bigger and brighter than the cramped, dingy one they thought they inhabited – a final discovery beautifully communicated by a single-page end-of-book picture of the manor and environs, seen literally from a bird’s-eye view, without a single word presented on the page or needed on it.

     Like Burnett’s other major success, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), The Secret Garden is sensitive to children’s concerns without talking down to young readers – making them central characters in helping the adults around them become better than the adults have been on their own. Burnett’s underlying assumption is that young people are transformative figures for adults, and are quite capable of figuring out, on their own, what really matters in the world. Today, purveyors of books for children do not trust young people nearly as much as Burnett did, insisting that only one-dimensional character portrayals are appropriate and that the difficulties and complexities of the past are not acceptable for kids to learn about or learn from. Bowdler would be proud. But Shakespeare long outlasted him, and Burnett – thanks in part to the illustrative skill that Luechtefeld brings to this version of The Secret Garden – will last, too. Hopefully some young readers of this graphic novel will be inspired to track down the original and not only enjoy it but also learn from it.

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