Top critical review
If you must get this book, get the one with the Tasha Tudor illustrations
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on June 12, 2010
I tried to attach this review to an edition of this book with Tasha Tudor's illustrations, but unfortunately my review somehow ended up in a group of reviews of the DVD of one of the movie adaptations through some glitch. Therefore, I'm reposting my review here so it will actually attach to the book it is meant for.
First, let me say that I am a huge fan of Tasha Tudor's lovely illustrations for both "The Secret Garden" and "A Little Princess". To me, the Tudor editions are really the classic evocations of these books, and it's even a bit irksome to see editions with other illustrations when there are so many other wonderful stories for those talented folks to work on. Therefore, if you're going to buy an edition of "The Secret Garden," I'd say the Tudor-illustrated edition, preferably in hardback with the lovely dust jacket, is the one to get.
Having said that, I'll admit I have had mixed feelings about this story both as a child and as an adult. In a nutshell, it's the story of a spoiled, ill-mannered little British girl named Mary who is being raised in India in late Victorian times. After her entire family dies in an epidemic, Mary is shipped off to live in a remote castle-mansion in the English countryside, where the climate (cold) and the accents (such as that of the Scottish maid) are foreign to her, and no one pays any attention to her. Exploring on her own, Mary discovers a "secret" walled garden and works to restore it with the help of a gardener and a local country boy named Dickon, who tames animals as well as being a whiz with growing things. Mary also discovers she has an "invalid" cousin, Colin, around her own age, who sequesters himself in his bedroom. Colin and Mary both have disagreeable personalities at the beginning because they've been ignored and neglected by the adults in their lives, but as time goes by and they spend more time outdoors in the garden, playing with animals and the like, they help each other develop into nicer and more physically healthy children.
If this sounds like a very old-fashioned Victorian story, it more or less is. Each time I've tried to read it (several times from about age 12, when a popular movie version was out, up through adulthood) I find the beginning pretty exciting, what with Mary suddenly losing her family and being shipped off to a strange place, but then it bogs down in the middle. The kids never do much except mess around in the countryside and think introspective thoughts; there are no big "adventures" to speak of. Unlike "A Little Princess," you don't have the hero/ heroine vs. evil villains plot aspect; it's basically a book about some children fighting the demons in themselves. The neglectful adults, such as Mary's uncle, are not particularly demonized nor are they abusive; one gets the impression that they just don't quite know how to handle raising the kids, which again is very Victorian given that the raising of children was often handed off to nannies or servants.
I am sure there are children and adults who would just love this book, especially all the descriptions of cute animal tricks and flowers coming to life, as well as the whole "children thoughtfully overcoming the mistakes of adults in their lives" theme, but I am equally sure there are folks who, like me, would prefer a story with a little more going on in it, such as "A Little Princess" (or even something wackier like "Alice in Wonderland"). The idea that kids who are physically or perhaps mentally/spiritually ill to some degree just need to run around in the sunshine and have pleasant manners and it all goes away is also a bit disturbing. Despite the nice illustrations (in the Tudor edition) and the charming animal antics, it's just not my type of book.