The Children of the Empire: Anti-Imperialism in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden



Toth G (2003) The Children of the Empire: Anti-Imperialism in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. The AnaChronisT, 9, pp. 117-147.

"It is the child no one ever saw!" exclaims a British officer when he finds in a choleraridden Indian compound Mary Lennox, the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 novel The Secret Garden. These words refer to the actual character of Mary as much as the socio-political hierarchy of British imperialism. The little girl leads a life devoid of love, caring and sharing, while the Empire she lives in is ailed by the same malady: the cholera killing her parents stems from a blind authoritarian colonialism Mary must leave in order to have a chance for recovery. "She only knew that people were ill," and readers know little more when this one-sentence thesis is given to them at the out- set of a novel which aims to investigate the cure of Mary's illness and in the course of doing so possibly uncovers the root causes. This paper shows that while Frances Hodgson Burnett's work may be considered a piece of children's literature because it places in the centre the healing process of children from parental neglect, its strong linkage of this theme with images of the colonial socio-political hierarchy and master-servant relationships also makes it more than a harmless bedside reading. The Secret Garden's question of whether Mary Lennox and Colin Craven can be cured of their illness can by implication be extended to a literary understanding of contemporary British society, and the novel can thus be interpreted not only as a creed of Rousseauistic pedagogy but also as a critique of the psychology, society and politics of British imperialism.

British Empire; imperialism; anti-imperialism; children's literature; Frances Hodgson Burnett; health

The AnaChronisT: Volume 9

Publication date31/12/2003
Publication date online01/01/2003
PublisherEötvös Loránd University
Publisher URL

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Dr Gyorgy Toth

Dr Gyorgy Toth

Lecturer, History