Within the English canon of literary fairy-tales -- what German literary critics would refer to as a "marchen," or a conscious attempt to write imaginative literature, with some level of artistry, for children -- both The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll seem to have withstood the test of time, and attained a level of canonicity. Yet to call these books mere fairy tales -- no matter how literary -- is to underestimate the influence that adult literary genres have upon the composition of children's classics. The simple fact is that, although the Alice and The Secret Garden are obviously children's books with child protagonists, each one manages to take a genre more obviously intended for adult readers and try to make it viable for young readers. In the case of The Secret Garden, the books affinities to Gothic are fairly well signposted, although the title itself gives a good sense of Burnett's transformations of Gothic motifs into a more obvious fairy tale setting: real Gothic novels are certainly full of secret locations, but they tend to be oubliettes or torture-chambers rather than gardens. Lewis Carroll presents a remarkably different case indeed -- the Alice books are as far away from the world of Gothic novels as it is possible to get, but in terms of literary genre they are generally regarded as "nonsense" writing, due in part to their author's primary career as the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, mathematician and logician at Christ Church College, Oxford. But it is my contention that beneath the nonsense one can discern elements of different literary genres -- primarily pastoral, as Sir William Empson argued in a famous essay on the Alice books, but also a keen satire on the idea of literature as morally improving or educational. Yet I hope to conclude by demonstrating that the two books share a similarity of purpose in approaching young readers.
Burnett's The Secret Garden may have a child protagonist, but it begins with a coolly unflattering portrait of little Mary Lennox, whom "everybody said…was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen," with a "sour expression" and a "yellow…face" after years of illness (Burnett 2). Mary is orphaned in a cholera epidemic and sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven at his home Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. The Gothic elements are introduced almost immediately, though: Basil tells her that her uncle "lives in a great, big, desolate old house in the country and no one goes near him. He's so cross he won't let them, and they wouldn't come if he would let them. He's a hunchback, and he's horrid" (Burnett 12). All of these elements -- the reclusive figure, the remote house -- are familiar to readers of novels with a Gothic flavor. Mary's own reading is more along the lines of fairy tales, but we are led to believe that she herself is an avid reader, and draws the connections between her reading and real life. When Mrs. Medlock gives Mary further advance information about her uncle Archibald, Mrs. Medlock emphasizes that her uncle withdrew into solitude after the death of his wife -- hearing about this protracted period of grief and mourning, Mary responds with "Oh! did she die!" she exclaimed, quite without meaning to. She had just remembered a French fairy story she had once read called "Riquet a la Houppe." It had been about a poor hunchback and a beautiful princess and it had made her suddenly sorry for Mr. Archibald Craven. (Burnett 20)
Shortly afterward Mary has occasion once again to note that the backstory she is given for her uncle Archibald, with his deformity and his intractable grief for his dead wife, seems to her like the stuff of fiction: "It sounded like something in a book and it did not make Mary feel cheerful" (Burnett 20). The simple fact is that Mary's more Gothicized expectations both will and will not be satisfied: there are secrets in store for Mary at Misslethwaite, but the great majority of the book is devoted to the hearty peasants who live around the Manor and mostly spout vitalist-sounding nonsense in impenetrable Yorkshire dialects, replete with heavy regional vocabulary, such as the word for natural vitality -- "wick" -- which is taught to Mary by the local peasant Dickon, and which becomes important to the central motifs in the novel of the rebirth of the actual garden and the restoration to health and happiness of Mary's uncle Archibald and her cousin Colin. Yet the actual treatment of Dickon reeks of quaint rural stereotypes -- he is full of rustic virtue and wisdom about plants and animals, to the extent that Mary herself describes him as an "angel" -- although she concedes that calling him an angel is
"rather funny to say," Mary admitted frankly, "because his nose does turn up and he has a big mouth and his clothes have patches all over them and he talks broad Yorkshire, but -- but if an angel did come to Yorkshire and lived on the moor -- if there was a Yorkshire angel -- I believe he'd understand the green things and know how to make them grow and he would know how to talk to the wild creatures as Dickon does and they'd know he was friends for sure." (Burnett 236).
This shows the way in which Burnett domesticates and sentimentalizes the potentially Gothic direction which the basic narrative of The Secret Garden might have taken -- no demons haunt the manor, merely a "Yorkshire angel." We are apprised early on that Mary is a reader so that we might expect an atmosphere of secrecy and Gothic menace -- instead we get an atmosphere of secrecy dissolved in the sunny optimism of wholesome rustic savants.
It is easy to find Burnett's manner and message to be slightly cloying in comparison with Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which may have preceeded Burnett's novel by almost a half-century, but which feels vastly fresher in many ways. As I noted in my introduction, Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are usually regarded as "nonsense" writing. Yet it is important to note that most of what is called "nonsense" is in fact a deliberate parody of highly moralistic "educational" reading for children -- most of Carroll's rhymes are parodies of improving hymns for children written by Isaac Watts among others, so that Watts's "Against Idleness and Mischief" (which begins "how doth the little busy bee / improve each shining hour!") is matched by the corresponding poem about the crocodile in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll's verse is pretty much the polar opposite in terms of both the type of animal described and the moral derived from the description. Underlying the world of talking animals (and moral burdens evaded) here lurk profound affinities to the genre of pastoral, as Sir William Empson first noted in his chapter on the Alice books in his study Some Versions of Pastoral. Empson entitles his essay "The Child as Swain" because he is eager to stress the overwhelmingly romantic view of childhood in the Alice books, and links it to the child-like sexlessness of Carroll's worldview. But there is arguably more fear operating in Alice than in Mary Lennox: Empson instead stresses the "cool courage" of Alice as a protagonist in the two books (Bloom 4), in the face of such menace as the Queen's constant calls for beheading.
In attempting to educate young readers as to how to read certain aspects of adult books before the fact of adulthood, Carroll and Burnett may both eschew didacticism in favor of a genuinely interesting story, but that does not mean they are insensible of the frequently didactic aims of fairy tales, by giving young readers…