The Secret Garden and Frances Hodgson Burnett

By GRETCHEN H. GERZINA for D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company

Few people realize that The Secret Garden, the book that most readers associate with Frances Hodgson Burnett, was only one of the 53 novels she wrote and published, and that most of her books were for adults, not children. Although she had a lifetime love for children and gardens, she would be amazed to know that this book, which began as a magazine serial late in her life, is the one for which she is most remembered today— even though it was one that was closest to her heart.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s love affair with gardens began when she was a small child living in Manchester, England. In 1852, when she was just three, her family moved to St. Luke’s Terrace, which backed onto fields owned by the Earl of Derby, leading Frances to recall it later in life as the “back garden of Eden.” She remembered it as a place of gardens and perpetual summer, where a small child could daydream beneath the trees and beside the flowers, ignoring the industrial city that surrounded this suburb of light and air. There were farms and country cottages close by and she became friendly with a family of market gardeners who kept pigs. Just a year later, however, her father, Edwin Hodgson, died, and his widow and five children embarked upon a decade of moving house, each time to a slightly less desirable neighborhood. Each move took Burnett further and further away from gardens, until in 1865, her mother decided to make the riskiest move of all: to join her rogue of a brother, who boasted of his accomplishments in America, in the American South during the last months of the Civil War. There the Hodgson family found itself ensconced in an unexpected place: a log cabin in a very small town outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. There, but for the generosity of their neighbors, they would have starved.

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Their financial difficulties were quite real, but young Fanny (a name she quickly abandoned) found Tennessee a true Garden of Eden after the pollution of Manchester and the smuts that floated down like snow from its factory chimneys.

She had read in the back of ladies’ magazines that they paid money for stories and, having invented them for her friends back in England, she thought she might take a chance at being paid to write. The first story she sent came back with comments, but instead of revising she mailed it again to another magazine. The editor was puzzled and surprised to find an accomplished work with an English setting coming out of Tennessee; was she English or American? That evening she sat down and wrote a second one for him. Both stories were accepted immediately, and with the check that arrived she launched a career that saw her eventually become America’s highest-paid woman writer. She was only 18 and none of her work was ever rejected.

By 1886, Frances had married a Tennessee doctor, had two sons and had written the blockbuster novel Little Lord Fauntleroy—her 18th novel, which made her hugely famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Now as Frances Hodgson Burnett she had money of her own, and bought, in cash, a 17-room house in Washington, D.C. From the moment of its first appearance as a serial in Saint Nicholas Magazine to its publication as a book a year later in 1886, Fauntleroy became a household name. Largely forgotten or ridiculed today, it was the Harry Potter of its day. The image of a sturdy and very masculine little boy in a velveteen jacket shot around the world and was to haunt her son Vivian, from whose photograph it was taken, for the rest of his days. The story—and the plays and films it spawned—started a fashion craze that mothers loved and boys hated, as they were forced into wide lace collars and long curls, probably not helped when girls were always given the stage and film role.

Even though writing was how she had to make her living, it also enabled her to travel, buy beautiful clothes and furnish houses in England and America. However, Burnett was not only a writer of novels and stories, she was also a producer of plays. Thirteen of her works appeared in West End theaters in London and on Broadway, generally written and produced by her. Prescient enough to understand the increasing role of movies, she later built clauses guaranteeing her the film rights to her books. It’s fascinating, therefore, that The Secret Garden did not become a stage musical or a popular film until late in the twentieth century, although apparently a now-lost film was made in 1919, five years before Burnett’s death.

 

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Although writing and gardening could not shield her from life’s tragedies, they did help her get through some of her life’s greatest sorrows. When her 16-yearold son Lionel tragically died of tuberculosis in her arms in Paris in 1890, she had his casket covered in violets. When her second marriage ended—a marriage that she was probably blackmailed into by a young English doctor and aspiring actor ten years her junior—she and her sister Edith retreated to a house that would become Frances’s most cherished home: Maytham Hall, in Rolvenden, Kent, which she first leased after her divorce from her American husband.

Rumors always surrounded her and there were plenty of reasons for her wanting to escape. From the time that Little Lord Fauntleroy first made her famous, she was constantly in the press and in the public eye. She crossed the Atlantic 33 times in her lifetime, and whenever one of the ships she traveled on docked, she was met by a crowd of newspaper and magazine reporters who wanted to know about her difficult health, her latest book and her love life. When she filed for divorce, her lawyer made sure she was safely on board a ship heading for England before serving the papers. Gardens were, for her, a retreat.

At Maytham, she had set up an outdoor study, with a table and chair under the trees near the rose garden, and wrote each morning in the company of a robin that grew tame, the later inspiration for Mary Lennox’s robin in The Secret Garden, which was, in fact, written in America. When she moved back to America for good she built a beautiful house with spacious gardens in Plandome on Long Island, and next door built a cottage for her surviving son Vivian and his family. As she grew older she spent her winters in Bermuda with her sister Edith and kept a full-time gardener.

Burnett claimed that The Secret Garden was the first children’s story to appear in an adult magazine. The first installment made its appearance in The American Magazine late in 1910. She wrote to her friend Ella Hepworth Dixon after the story’s serial publication that “it was our Rose Garden as it would have been locked up for years and years and years—and some hungry children had found it. You cannot think how everyone loves that story. People write to me with a sort of passion of it.”

The Secret Garden begins and ends in gardens, one a garden of death in India, and the other a garden of revitalization and resurrection in England. Burnett believed to the end of her own life in the healing and resurrecting power of gardens. The last chapter of The Secret Garden is called “In the Garden,” and the last thing that Burnett wrote, on her deathbed, was a magazine article by the same name. As in The Secret Garden, she always saw gardens as places of healing and return to health.

After she died, the little article was republished as a book, with watercolor pictures and photographs of her own gardens at Plandome. It ends with the words that have come to symbolize her other life’s work: “As long as one has a garden one has a future,” she wrote, “and as long as one has a future one is alive.”


Artwork by Becky Kelley.

This article originally appeared in ASIDES, the production program and publication of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Visit ShakespeareTheatre.org/Asides to learn more.

Click here to read more about and purchase tickets to The Secret Garden.

Q & A: An Interview with Secret Garden Dialect Coach Lisa Nathans

We chatted with Lisa Nathans, the voice/text and dialect coach for The Secret Garden, to find out more about what a dialect coach does and what are some challenging aspects of the dialects in the show. Read more below!

Continue reading “Q & A: An Interview with Secret Garden Dialect Coach Lisa Nathans”

Marsha Norman: Cultivator of a Theatrical Garden

By HANNAH HESSEL RATNER, Audience Enrichment Manager at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company

Marsha Norman is on a mission. The award-winning playwright’s career has covered Broadway, Hollywood and numerous theatres worldwide. Her accolades include a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award® and, in 2016, the Dramatists Guild Career Achievement Award. She has co-directed the playwriting program at Julliard for nearly a quarter of a century. And at this point in her career she is determined to tell the story of women.

Continue reading “Marsha Norman: Cultivator of a Theatrical Garden”

Whodunit?

By ALBERT EVANS, 5th Avenue Artistic Associate

A cloud obscures the moon. A window shatters. A woman screams. Silence. Then…a car speeds away.

There has been a murder!

Never fear: the Great Detective is on the case, aided by a faithful but slightly befuddled companion.

Through the Detective’s keen powers of deduction and extensive knowledge of ceramics, pipe tobaccos, etc., the time has come to pin the crime on the perpetrator. All the suspects are brought together in one room to answer the question on everyone’s mind—

WHODUNIT?

Continue reading “Whodunit?”

Behind the Curtain: Rising Star Project Rehearsal

We’re lucky to be part of an amazing group of students participating in Rising Star Project: The Pajama Game. Everyone from acting students to administration students have been collaborating to ensure that the project runs smoothly and that the outcome is unforgettable for all of us. We are so excited to show you what we’ve been working on. We can’t wait to see you come and support this product on which we’ve all been working so hard. — Marketing Students Eliana Coe and Yvonne Mmata Continue reading “Behind the Curtain: Rising Star Project Rehearsal”

Creating Common Ground: Reflections on the First Day of Rising Star Project’s Empowering Young Artists Initiative (EYAI)

about-rspIn 1996, August Wilson famously stated: “We can meet on the common ground of the American theater.” He also insisted that “we must develop the ground together.”

These are the words that I can’t help but recall as I sit on the floor of our rehearsal studio surrounded by 19 young performers— the inaugural cohort of the Empowering Young Artists Initiative (EYAI)—as they meet together for the first time. Continue reading “Creating Common Ground: Reflections on the First Day of Rising Star Project’s Empowering Young Artists Initiative (EYAI)”

The Seven-and-a-Half Cent Solution: The Birth of the Labor Movement in America

By Gretchen Douma, Arts Writer

In 1955, The Pajama Game took home the Tony Award for Best Musical. Who would have thought that a musical humorously focusing on the labor troubles at a pajama factory would have been such a success?

But consider this. That same year, the two most powerful unions in the United States merged. The American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886 and the Committee for Industrial Organization, founded in 1935 joined forces to become the AFL-CIO, working to expand the country’s union movement and to more effectively champion workers’ rights. So maybe a musical about labor relations was a concept whose time had come. Continue reading “The Seven-and-a-Half Cent Solution: The Birth of the Labor Movement in America”

Fostering and Supporting New Works with NextFest

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This past October, The 5th presented NextFest, its second annual Festival for New Works. Eleven new projects were introduced during the three week festival, at varying levels of evolution, from cold table reads and writing intensives to week-long workshops complete with writers, actors and creative members working together to revise and improve new musicals. Continue reading “Fostering and Supporting New Works with NextFest”

Rising Star Project Orientation: Students From Across the State Gather!

In early December, the 2016/17 Rising Star Project cohort came together for the first time. This orientation was a chance for the teens to meet and to begin learning what it takes to put up a musical at The 5th. This year’s cohort will include over 90 students who will be mentored by 5th Avenue staff and who will also mount an all-teen production of The Pajama Game on our stage in March 2017 (after the professional production closes).

This year’s Rising Star Project brings students together from as far away as Yakima and Marysville and as near as Rainier Valley and West Seattle.

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Orientation included a tour of the historic venue where the students will be working and learning in the coming months. Continue reading “Rising Star Project Orientation: Students From Across the State Gather!”

What Are We Thankful For?

As we enter into the holiday season, our Education Department shares what they are thankful for.


We are thankful for you! Now, more than ever, we are reminded of the power of musical theater to unite communities, give voice to the voiceless, allow us to feel empathy for others and to share our stories with the world. We are grateful for our wonderful community of students, teachers, parents, schools and community partners who support our education programs and inspire us each day. From the Education Department of The 5th Avenue Theatre, we wish you a joyous holiday!

Continue reading “What Are We Thankful For?”