Arts & Culture

The Southern Secrets of The Secret Garden

How Bermuda, the hills of Tennessee, and a whole lot of pluck inspired one of the greatest children’s books of all time

Photo: Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library

Frances Hodgson Burnett posing in the shade of her rose arch with a basket of delphinium.

Although The Secret Garden was published more than a century ago, in 1911, the classic children’s book—and its multiple film and television adaptations—continues to captivate readers young and old. “There’s something about The Secret Garden that strikes a chord deep within us, because I think a lot of people share that experience of awakening, either in their garden, or outside,” says Marta McDowell, the author of the fascinating and recently published book Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants & Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett

photo: M. L. Kirk
The cover of the first American edition of The Secret Garden, illustrated by M. L. Kirk.

And even though the author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, was born in England and set most of her novel there, she drew inspiration for her writing life from the plants and landscapes she encountered throughout her travels—including to Bermuda, where she tended a garden later in life, and in the American South, where she found her footing as a young writer.

photo: Suzie Gibbons
An English bluebell wood.
photo: Rob Cardillo
Frances loved delphiniums.

Frances Hodgson was born in 1849 near Manchester, England, and her father died unexpectedly just four years later. In 1865, Hodgson’s widowed mother moved the family closer to her own brother in East Tennessee near Knoxville. “Kind neighbors stopped in with extra food to help these genteel, impoverished Englishwomen transplanted to the Tennessee hills,” McDowell writes in her book.

Although the family barely scraped by financially, the time was creatively abundant for the teenaged Frances, who later remembered climbing hills and wandering woods “where one gathered things, and sniffed the air like some little wild animal,” who inhaled “the odor of warm pines and cedars and fresh damp mould, and pungent aromatic things in the tall ‘Sage grass.’”

illustration: Charles Robinson
Mary Lennox uncovers the hidden door to the garden, illustrated by Charles Robinson for the first London edition of The Secret Garden.
illustration: M. L. Kirk
At Ben Weatherstaff’s suggestion, Dickon sings the Doxology, a traditional hymn of praise, to express thanks for the garden and Colin’s return to health, illustrated by M. L. Kirk.
illustration: J. Scott Williams
Mary steps through the green door, illustrated by J. Scott Williams for the serialized launch of The Secret Garden in American Magazine.

Just past a sassafras thicket near her home, wild grapevines crowned a meadow. “She called this wooded glen her Bower,” McDowell says. “She needed a space for writing, so she carved her own spot out in the woods. With the grapevines growing over it, it had the fort-like feeling of a secret garden. It was here that Frances moved into adulthood, learned the importance of her own space, and really began to write.”

Frances collected wild grapes from the Bower, and with her two sisters sold them at the local market to pay for paper and postage to mail her stories to editors. By 1868, Godey’s Lady’s Book published her story “Hearts and Diamonds.” At age nineteen, from her grape glen in the Tennessee hills, one of the world’s most beloved authors got her start.

photo: Suzie Gibbons
Great Maytham Hall near Kent, England.
photo: Suzie Gibbons
Roses arch over a door at Great Maytham Hall in homage to its most famous tenant.
photo: Suzie Gibbons
Old brick walls complement Maytham’s autumn foliage display.
photo: Suzie Gibbons
Roses climb at Maytham’s garden walls.

The rest of McDowell’s delightful book shares more secrets behind Frances’s writings, and her moves to England and throughout the United States—but one detail stands out. Frances herself was a late-blooming gardener. She only started gardening seriously when she was nearly fifty. “Like anyone who picks up an avocation later in life, you kind of always feel like you’re an amateur,” McDowell says. “Frances got a late start in gardening, but she always encouraged people to just try.”

photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston Photograph Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Frances posing with her sundial and roses in the garden that inspired The Secret Garden.
photo: Princeton University Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
Frances, always careful of her appearance in photographs, chose to wear afternoon dress and a rose-bedecked picture hat in the garden for her son Vivian’s camera rather than her usual gardening attire.

Her favorite getaway probably felt a bit like some of her childhood memories—Bermuda, the British island territory in the Atlantic, whose closest neighbor is the coast of North Carolina. In the early 1900s, Frances stayed each winter at a Bermudan bungalow called Clifton Heights.

At the charming cottage, with the help of a few local workers, she planted roses, pink and white petunias, red poppies, yellow coreopsis, and bright and bold crotons. She grew many varieties of hibiscus, the one flower she mentioned by name in the first chapter of The Secret Garden, which opens in India. “Now she could grow [hibiscus] in her own garden,” McDowell writes. “It seemed like a fairy dream.”

By this time a quite successful author working on The Secret Garden’s film rights, Frances became a bit plant obsessed. One funny tale from her time in Bermuda, as McDowell explains in the book: Frances faced a roadblock while trying to make her way home. When she sent her driver to check on the hold up, “he returned to inform her that the convoy was her plant order, making its way by heavy cartloads from the nursery to Clifton Heights.”

photo: Public Domain
The flower beds that Frances loved were packed with color, with the exception of “ugly magenta reds and pinks.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett gardened there for the last time in 1921 (she died in New York three years later), and according to Bermudan locals, some of the roses she planted still bloom at Clifton Heights—a private home—today. Her Bermuda garden was, for a decade, a fruitful place for the author to write and reset. “She made a practice of writing in the morning, sitting indoors at her desk with pen in hand while the garden tempted her,” McDowell writes of the perch where Frances sat overlooking dark green elephant ears, sunny marigolds, and ruby amaryllis. “Such dedication is the trial of every writer who gardens.”