Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924), English author and playwright wrote The Secret Garden (1911);
“If tha’ goes round that way tha’ll come to th’ gardens,” she said, pointing to a gate in a wall of shrubbery. “There’s lots o’ flowers in summer-time, but there’s nothin’ bloomin’ now.” She seemed to hesitate a second before she added, “One of th’ gardens is locked up. No one has been in it for ten years.”
“Why?” asked Mary in spite of herself. Here was another locked door added to the hundred in the strange house.
Mary Lennox starts out as a spoiled, self-centred child. When she finds the key to a secret garden she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and helps many others including her sickly cousin Colin open the door to happiness. While it was initially written for children The Secret Garden was soon being read by an audience of all ages in North America and Europe. During her lifetime Burnett was a financially successful writer, often supporting the rest of her family with her earnings. Not an easy task when Victorian values looked down on a woman who sought independence in a realm dominated by men. Many female writers of the time including Louisa May Alcott used pseudonyms (A. N. Barnard) or published anonymously at first until their works stood up to scrutiny and they gained respect as writers. At times compared to such authors as Charlotte Bronte and Henry James, many of Burnett’s stories have proven to transcend the bounds of time and changing generations of readers. While much of her adult fiction is not read anymore due to over-sentimentality, many of her works are still in print. They have been translated to dozens of languages and inspired other authors’ writings and television and feature film adaptations.
Frances Eliza Hodgson was born on 24 November 1849 in Manchester, England, the third child of five born to Eliza Boond and Edwin Hodgson, who owned a successful interior decorating store. After his death in 1852, the decline of the economy in Manchester and Eliza’s failed attempt to maintain the business, she decided to move her family to America. They settled near Knoxville, Tennessee in 1865.
Their once prosperous English household was now reduced to much more humble circumstances. In order to assist financially, Frances drew on her creative disposition and natural love of telling stories, put pen to paper and started writing stories. “Miss Carruthers’ Engagement” and “Hearts and Diamonds” appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1868. After her mother’s death the burden to financially support her five siblings increased, but she was soon earning a regular income from her writing. In September of 1873 she married doctor Swann Burnett. They would have two sons, Lionel and Vivian. After travelling in Europe for a number of months they were back in America, first in Washington, D. C. then New York City.
In 1879 Burnett had the first of many stories published in St. Nicholas Magazine, the same publication some of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems appeared in the early 1900s. Other magazines that printed Burnett’s stories include Scribner’s Monthly and Harper’s Bazaar. She was soon working on novels including The Lass O’Lowries (1876), Haworth (1879), A Fair Barbarian (1881), a play co-authored with William Gillette Esmeralda (1881), Through One Administration (1883), and Sara Crewe (1888). Positive reviews of her work were appearing but it was not until her best-selling novel Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) that her reputation was set.
Burnett often suffered from various illnesses, possibly brought on by the pressures of her career and her being the main financial source for the family. When her son Lionel died of consumption in 1890 she was beset by depression. The White People (1920) was dedicated to him. She turned to Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Christian Science to assuage her grief, topics that would occur in her novels. Her marriage was not a happy one; they often spent much time apart and finally divorced in 1898. Burnett soon ensconced herself at her country home in England where she would get the inspiration for and write The Secret Garden, often writing outside in the garden. She also pursued her love of gardening and wrote other works including The One I Knew Best Of All (memoir, 1893), A Lady of Quality (1896), His Grace of Osmonde (1897), Emily Fox-Seton (1901), A Little Princess (revised version of Sara Crewe, 1905), and The Shuttle (1906).
In 1909 Burnett moved back to America and continued to write. Titles to follow were The Dawn of Tomorrow (1909), T. Tembarom (1913), The Lost Prince (1915), Robin (1922), and The Head of the House of Coombe (1922). Frances Hodgson Burnett died on 29 October in Plandom, New York and lies buried in the same cemetery where author Christopher Morley is buried, Roslyn Cemetery, Nassau County, New York State. Her son Vivian is by her side and a statue of Lionel stands nearby.
“Where, you tend a rose, my lad, A thistle cannot grow.”-The Secret Garden, Ch. 27
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.
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