Film and lit crit about disability

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Wait - it was about *what*?
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elettaria wrote in crip_crit
This was one of those strange experiences you get when you reread a book as an adult that you haven't read since childhood. The book in question was Burnett's The Secret Garden. Like me, you may remember it vaguely as an uplifting Victorian tale about some bratty children who become nicer people through gardening.

Then you reread it as an adult, and you realise that it's about a particularly disturbing form of child abuse. Munchausen's by Proxy, also known as Fabricated or Induced Illness, occurs where a parent or caregiver causes or fakes illness in a child, usually because the parent/caregiver loves the reflected attention they get from doctors. It's nasty, has a very high death rate, and is notoriously hard to deal with, as no one likes to accuse someone of it.

If you've not read the book, or remember it only blurrily, here's what happens. Mary is an Anglo-Indian child (yep, race issues too), isolated from all but the servants who pamper her, who is unsurprisingly rather bratty as a result. She's described as "sickly", I think. When her parents die, she comes to England to be looked after in the house of an absentee uncle, Archibald Craven. Left mostly to her own devices, she starts to play in the gardens and makes friends with the gardener, as well as a young housemaid, Martha, and her family (there's a big Noble Working Classes theme going on here). She discovers the secret garden, which has been locked away ever since Craven's young wife tragically died in an accident there, and becomes healthier by learning to garden there, together with Dickon, Martha's brother.

After a while, she also discovers the house's other secret: that there is a child kept in a room, bedbound because he has been told that he is too ill to stand. She hears him crying, finds that the servants deny it, and eventually discovers the room and makes friends with the child, who is her cousin Colin. Colin is mainly portrayed as being even brattier than she is. This is where it gets particularly horrifying, in that the text goes along with the victim-blaming that is happening here. Someone has decided that Colin is going to "be a hunchback like his father", and even though there is no sign of this, and Craven's back condition hasn't stopped him travelling the world (shamefully neglecting his son, but this is somehow understandable because he's still grieving for his wife all these years later), the response has been to keep the child in one room, in bed, with the window covered. There's also a doctor relative who is mentioned as having encouraged this because he hopes that Colin will die, leaving the doctor relation as heir to the estate. The servants realise that something is not right, but they go along with the fiction that Colin is disabled, and complain about his bad temper and general behaviour. Even if they do accept what they've been told, that Colin is ill, they don't really believe it, and they go along with keeping it a secret. So I think a fair amount of blame goes to them.

Considering the appalling condition that child is being kept in, it's a wonder he's not worse. He's unable to walk due to muscle wastage, and emaciated due to poor appetite. He's almost entirely isolated, and bored out of his skull. He has fits of "hysterics", a word more often used to describe women, and indeed is rather feminised, with much stress on his beautiful eyes and eyelashes, just like his mother's. People say scornfully that he will probably scream himself to death one night, and imply "good riddance". He's obsessed with a fear of growing a lump on his back, and also terribly frightened because everyone has told him that he will die young. In reality, a child going through what is essentially torture of this sort would be a lot more screwed up, and I suspect would undergo heavy, lifelong damage to his mental and physical health.

Mary barges in, points out that she can out-tantrum him if necessary, and effectively starts to rehabilitate him, largely by making friends with this incredibly isolated child. Eventually she gets him out into the gardens, and they take him by wheelchair to the secret garden, where they teach him to walk and eventually run, play games and garden. (Oh, and pray.) The children have some fun with continuing the pretence that he's ill, now finding it amusing when he pretends to be weak and bad-tempered, and having to hide the increase in appetite caused by getting fresh air and exercise. Martha the housemaid is in on the secret, and smuggles in food from her saintly mother to help the deception, which apparently isn't a problem even though Martha's family is so poor it can barely feed itself. Eventually, Martha's mother, who is rather overdone as a paragon but oh well, has the sense to write to Craven to tell him to come home. The climax of the novel is when Craven wanders into the secret garden, as in a dream, and his healthy young son runs up to him. Story over, problem solved.

You do wonder why, if Martha knew about Colin, and Martha told her mother everything, nothing was done to help this shocking situation until it was pretty much resolved. You also wonder how an entire houseful of servants could go along with it. At one point one of them mentions that another doctor had been called in, and had said that there was nothing wrong with Colin and that he needed to have a normal life, but that he was shooed away by the relative who wanted to inherit. And then you wonder how it started, and who was driving it, because it seems to be something that's been done by a community rather than by one person, and no one you meet is actually that nasty. The relative who has supposedly been the most responsible, the doctor with an eye to the inheritance, is always offstage, and in fact I'm not even sure if he's named. So while Munchausen's by Proxy is a mental illness, there is no one in particular whom you can pinpoint as having it. It's as if they're all caught up in a self-sustaining system.

This diverts the blame onto the victim. I just googled "child abuse" with "the secret garden", and not only did nothing direct come up (am I really the first to notice this?), but Goodreads reviews were happily describing Colin as a "spoiled brat". The novel does show that creating illness in this way is a problem, but it normalises it to quite a weird extent. There is something utterly creepy about the way the children join in with the illness-faking, doing it deliberately now and as a game, and it's also very strange that Martha and her supposedly sensible family support them in this. The idea is that Colin's health will be a surprise for when Colin's father gets home, but since he's been away for many years and there's no reason to think he'll return, that's not much to go on. In some ways, it feels like the children are reclaiming the power that was lost, through adults inducing illness in Colin, by Colin and Mary faking illness to the adults but secretly growing healthier and healthier despite them. Perhaps the only thing you can do, in a situation where you have been forced into something this unnatural, is to make a pretence of going along with it, and reconcile yourself to it as best you can. But the really strange thing is that it's played for comedy.

So the boundary between real, though induced, illness, and faked illness, is hazy. I'm also uneasy about Colin's miraculous recovery. The novel seems to be telling us that he really is genuinely ill at the start, that this will happen if you keep a child in bed and deprive him of exercise, company, adequate food and so forth. But the cure seems a bit too easy. Colin's mental health improves almost instantly once Mary turns up, as if all she needed to do was read him the riot act and he would snap out of it. As I said, in reality you'd be in serious trouble if you went through that sort of abuse, in terms of mental illness. The novel is quite disapproving of Colin's unsurprising tendency to feel sorry for himself, and mocks him for it. The physical rehab is described as gradual, too, and maybe it really isn't that difficult to teach a child to walk at the age of ten when they have atrophied muscles, maybe it really is something that a pair of children could do. Maybe it's meant to be easier because this is a children's novel. But then who on earth writes a children's novel about Munchausen's by Proxy?!

Mary is also characterised in terms of illness and good health. Her life in India isn't as bad as Colin's, but it would still be enough to make social services step in if it happened in Britain today. She almost never sees her parents, and has never played with other children until she comes to England. When everyone dies from a cholera epidemic (so that illness is what gets the novel's action moving), no one even notices Mary for a few days, and she could easily have been left to starve. The novel begins with Mary's rehabilitation before moving on to Colin's. Both children, it tells us, need to learn how to be more independent, how to play outside and develop a good appetite for healthy food from all the fresh air and exercise. They also need to learn how to be less self-centred and to stop expecting servants to wait on them hand and foot, and how to interact with other people and generally become a normal, healthy child. The two aspects are wound together in a strange way, and also tied in with more subtle racial issues. Once Mary has started using a skipping rope that Martha's family has bought her - there is quite a lot of stress on how poor Martha's family is, and it's rather odd that everyone considers it acceptable for them to pour their limited resources into helping these poor little rich kids - Martha comments that she looks much better now, pink-cheeked instead of yellow, putting on weight healthily (this book is the only one I've ever seen where someone boasts happily of "getting fatter"), and also that she is generally being nicer now. I hadn't spotted that all the comments about Mary having "yellow" skin suggest strongly that she's Anglo-Indian, until a friend pointed it out. So being Indian, or at least living in India, is equated with being unhealthy too, and it's presented as a problem to be solved by good English food and exercise.

I'm still trying to put a finger on why this novel creeps me out, even while I enjoy it in some respects. Maybe it's because this is a really fucked-up situation to get a heartwarming story out of. Maybe it's because we're encouraged to scorn Colin when he's having a massive anxiety attack, and to be delighted when Mary tells him to put a sock in it. Maybe it's because with all the varied forms of manipulation related to illness in the novel, the one which is presented centre stage as the most repellent is an abused, neglected child, screaming for attention, who has been given every reason to scream.

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The servants believed that Colin was ill, They dislike him intensely but believe him to be an invalid, Ben and Martha are both amazed to find that his back is straight.

But yes, it's dark stuff. Mary left alone in a house where everyone had died or fled then packed off to a gloomy place where her guardian immediately flees abroad and leaves her in the care of servants. Mr Craven, himself disabled and believing that he had passed his spinal deformity to his Son. Experiencing guilt, grief and depression.

Colin, waited on hand and foot by servants but deprived of love and affection and misdiagnosed, either through illness or villainy. Refusing to be seen and " stared at" and getting weaker by the month as his limbs atrophy .

Don't cha just love a good wholesome children's story?



Edited at 2013-02-19 07:06 pm (UTC)

There's a bit where the servants (the housekeeper?) talk about the doctor who said there was nothing wrong with him, though, and I seem to recall a few comments about how the only thing wrong is that he screams himself sick. So they don't appear to be entirely convinced, at least not all of them. Plus they go along with keeping it secret, and keeping the child in conditions which are basically torture. There seems to be this idea that this is totally normal if someone is disabled. I remember reading a critique of What Katy Did, which points out that her loving family trap her in one room for several years after her accident, even though that really wasn't necessary, there were ways around it, and how no one in the book problematises this.

I'd forgotten the business with refusing to be looked at. Hmm, what's that about. Hating being objectified, and also being unable to interact with other people in a normal fashion? I've certainly noticed that there are huge issues around looking at people with disabilities, and blogged about it at some point. Didn't his father refuse to look at him after his mother's accident, and that's somehow become some sort of law?

Mary's guardian didn't flee abroad after her arrival, he'd already been there for years. She's packed off to a house which is theoretically only manned by servants, who aren't meant to count. At least the book is in favour of breaking down class barriers, even if it does slightly overdo the "working class people are wonderful and will cure rich people of being so unpleasant" thing. Otherwise she'd have been left in just as much isolation as before.

You do understand why Craven experiences guilt, grief, and depression after his traumatic bereavement, although letting it turn into massive child abuse is another thing. It seems to have happened between the gaps - perhaps Craven muttered something about "this child will be a hunchback, and arggh, he looks like his mother," and bolted, leaving the servants to think, "well, the master said he was going to be a hunchback, so I suppose he will"? But I still don't see how you get from a thoroughly active father, travelling the world, to assuming that a child should be kept in bed in a dark room. It's treating disability as so terrible that someone who is only suspected of it effectively gets binned.

I've just spotted that while the cholera epidemic is what starts the action off at the start of the book, Mrs Craven's fatal accident is the mainspring of the backstory. Both of those are tragic events which couldn't be helped. The following incidents, not so much.

And you're absolutely right about Ben being astonished to hear that Colin's back is straight. How on earth do you get a situation where a child with no spinal problems whatosever, where quite literally any child can see that, is attended by a number of servants who should also be able to see that, and yet the word is spread that he has a "crooked back"? It's as if it's some sort of strange self-sustaining myth, perhaps because no one involved wants to admit that they're all doing this to the child.

I am finding it really odd how many people think this is a lovely fluffy children's story about determination and friendship. Happily ignoring the horrible issues about child abuse, which aren't exactly hidden either.

Yep, Mrs Medcalfe believed that half of what ails Colin is temper and spite.



Difficult territory but here goes.

Victorian Children's literature is full of dead and dying children... because Victorian life was full of dead and dying children. So many things could lead to the death of a child and so many things could disable or kill young adults too.

And injury or illness which led to disability was very often the signal for a person to be confined to bed, often in a darkened room because the light bothered their eyes ( unsurprising if they lived in darkened rooms).

It seems horrific to us of course and it was pretty horrific but at the time this was genuinely believed to be the best approach

So many examples but think of Cousin Helen in the Katy Books. She came to teach Katy to bear pain cheerfully, look pretty in adversity and is honoured for being brave, looking dainty and giving up the love of her life so that he can marry another woman and have a family.

Beth in Little Women, heart damaged by a bout of Scarlet Fever... wastes quietly away as the angel of the house.

Jimmy in the Pollyanna books at least gets out in his wheelchair.

And then there's Tiny Tim!

All emblems of brave, patient suffering.


Another staple is the mother dying in childbirth ( such a terribly common fate ) leaving a child who is somehow blamed for the mother's death, resented by the father and raised by servants or older children or relatives or sent away to school ( Ermengarde in A Little Princess . Little Elizabeth in the Anne Books, Ebeneezer Scrooge)

So I'm not condoning for a second the behaviour of Mr Craven, I've seen interpretations of him being sure that the child would die and fearing to bond with a baby destined not to live but that's no excuse.

And yes. It's child abuse,

It's just that against the backdrop when the books were written, when children like Martha worked 6 and a half days a week with one trip home a month and other children worked in fields and farms and factories and where the mortality rate could be as high as 50% of children not surviving to adulthood and where disabled people often ended up in asylums or workhouses or hospitals for the "incurable"

And where poorer people with disabilities often eked out a living by begging ( as still happens in many places in the world today.

Where illness tended to be fatal and "cripples" were objects or charity, pity or horror or object lessons of saintly endurance.


In that context the reactions of servants and doctors and others may still not be forgivable but they become, perhaps, easier to understand.

But yes , it's not fluffy stuff and it sits very oddly on a shelf of books for children.

And injury or illness which led to disability was very often the signal for a person to be confined to bed, often in a darkened room because the light bothered their eyes ( unsurprising if they lived in darkened rooms).

Well, yes, apart from the slight problem in this case that the child wasn't actually ill. Also I'm not sure if this was the norm for long-term care, as opposed to for a passing illness.

Cousin Helen - that's what's so odd about confining Katy to her room. They have no problems carrying Cousin Helen about, or taking her to visit family. As for the business about Cousin Helen being praised for being dainty and bearing her pain bravely and so forth, so much is wrong with that approach that we'd be here for a while!

The Victorians had a strong concept of convalescence, as I recall, so I don't think there was necessarily the expectation that illness would be lifelong.

They're all good points you're making. In a way, that makes the continued popularity of the book more problematic. The book takes certain background things for granted which to some extent normalise the absolutely dire treatment of illness and disability. Modern readers don't see the background, they just see the way that it's been normalised, which leads to it feeling normalised for many of us as well. And then the abuse becomes invisible, and many people would probably strenuously deny it if you pointed it out. Colin is seen simply as an obnoxious child who becomes a nicer one. No one person takes the blame for what happened to him - and situations that bad don't just happen by accident - so that the blame somehow turns onto Colin, who is the most distressed by the situation and thus the hardest person involved to be around.

Confinement to a room or a sofa was common in middle or upper class households and of course medical care was not exactly advanced.

The trouble with Victorian convalescence was that it was often lifelong or ended in relapse and death or permanent invalid status. When we read now we can often " diagnose" TB , Rheumatic Fever, rheumatoid arthritis ,encephalitis, meningitis. MS ME. And of course a host of mental illnesses. As well as spinal,injuries caused by falling from horses etc. Oh and Fainting caused by tight lacing!

Falling into a decline.


Katy of course, having suffered a spinal concussion, was depressed... and no wonder! Her father and family had tried hard to get her to accept having the curtains opened and the room tidied and her hair brushed etc but it took Helen who had been through a similar post injury depression and come through it to persuade her to give it a go. Helen is portrayed as living a beautiful and useful life and oh my gosh you're right about the deeply problematic nature of this approach. See also Louisa's mother the "sweet invalid wife" of the same series of books!

Colin and Mary are both portrayed as obnoxious brats but I think the reader's sympathy, even in this age, is with them from the outset and that's how it's meant to be. What's missing is the condemnation of the adults for, at the very least, colluding in abusive behaviour.







Edited at 2013-02-19 09:14 pm (UTC)

The whole "saintly invalid" thing is another issue. Colin stands out in not being ludicrously virtuous, and also by being male, and maybe that's why the novel has remained popular.

Because as a general rule, people love to hate characters who are presented to us as paragons of virtue, and this happens with the disabled ones a lot. Melanie Wilkes, for instance. Most people fall into copying the protagonist of Gone With The Wind and cheerfully hate Melanie. I eventually decided to go against the grain, and found her rather interesting, especially with the massive lesbian subtext between her and Scarlett.

Then there's Richardson's Clarissa, whom a lot of readers have hated both then and now. Yes, she's presented as ridiculously charitable and industrious and beautiful and so forth, but she's not actually that simple, she's remarkably messed up - in particular by striving to be the perfect woman in a situation where that just isn't possible. And I would totally be up for a discussion of PTSD and anorexia in Clarissa if anyone here has read it. (Also with massive lesbian subtext, which I'm starting to think is a theme. Look at Fanny Price and Mary Crawford, for instance.)

A long, long time since I read Clarissa I fear.

Edited at 2013-02-21 06:00 pm (UTC)

And it's not one you can just nip through as a refresher one weekend, is it. Pity, it's fascinating. Clarissa's death has anorexia written all over it, and not particularly subtly either, yet for some reason the critics have fought shy of acknowledging this, and start wittering on about TB for no apparent reason. And Richardson seemed to have been obsessed with Stockholm Syndrome, it turns up in Pamela too.

Anyone up for Gone With The Wind, film version optional? I decided with the last reread not to read it again, the racism depressed me too much, but I could probably cope with discussing the disability stuff.

Maybe we could have a general discussion on the whole good woman/disability stereotype, there's plenty of material there.

Sounds good

Though I won't be able to join in much before the weekend I fear

Interesting quotation I've found here.

"What is the matter with him?" asked Mary.

"Nobody knows for sure and certain," said Martha. "Mr. Craven went off his head like when he was born. Th' doctors thought he'd have to be put in a 'sylum. It was because Mrs. Craven died like I told you. He wouldn't set eyes on th' baby. He just raved and said it'd be another hunchback like him and it'd better die."

"Is Colin a hunchback?" Mary asked. "He didn't look like one."

"He isn't yet," said Martha. "But he began all wrong. Mother said that there was enough trouble and raging in th' house to set any child wrong. They was afraid his back was weak an' they've always been takin' care of it -- keepin' him lyin' down and not lettin' him walk. Once they made him wear a brace but he fretted so he was downright ill. Then a big doctor came to see him an' made them take it off. He talked to th' other doctor quite rough -- in a polite way. He said there'd been too much medicine and too much lettin' him have his own way."

"I think he's a very spoiled boy," said Mary.

"He's th' worst young nowt as ever was!" said Martha. "I won't say as he hasn't been ill a good bit. He's had coughs an' colds that's nearly killed him two or three times. Once he had rheumatic fever an' once he had typhoid. Eh! Mrs. Medlock did get a fright then. He'd been out of his head an' she was talkin' to th' nurse, thinkin' he didn't know nothin', an' she said, `He'll die this time sure enough, an' best thing for him an' for everybody.' An' she looked at him an' there he was with his big eyes open, starin' at her as sensible as she was herself. She didn't know wha'd happen but he just stared at her an' says, `You give me some water an' stop talkin'.'"

"Do you think he will die?" asked Mary.

"Mother says there's no reason why any child should live that gets no fresh air an' doesn't do nothin' but lie on his back an' read picture-books an' take medicine. He's weak and hates th' trouble o' bein' taken out o' doors, an' he gets cold so easy he says it makes him ill."


Mrs Craven really does seem to have leapt out of childbed and gone into the secret garden to fall off a swing and die without pausing for breath, doesn't she. Interesting that Craven has had a nervous breakdown, and everyone is aware that he is raving and not in his right mind, and people then decide to follow the ravings while being quite aware that they're groundless.

Mrs Medlock saying, "He'll die this time sure enough, an' best thing for him an' for everybody," is absolutely appalling, especially in front of the child. Thinking that Colin wasn't able to understand isn't an excuse!

"enough trouble and raging in th' house to set any child wrong" is interesting too, and suggests that Craven hung around and threw fits of rage of his own before disappearing off on his travels.

Mrs Craven fell from the swing whilst pregnant, went into premature labour and died so likely Colin, born early, would have been lucky to survive at all. And that litany of childhood illness is quite alaming

Yes Mr Craven's nervous breakdown would have had a devastating impact

And don't forget, all of those servants depended on Craven for their livelihood and their housing. Going against your employers instructions/wishes and being dismissed without a reference was a quick path to the workhouse. Especially when those wishes are backed by medical advice... and that doctor rejected the advice of the London specialist

Edited at 2013-02-20 06:05 pm (UTC)

Oh, I know. But "I was only following orders" only gets you so far, you know? As I said in a comment below, Colin seems to have been regarded as an object rather than as a person by the servants. Whenever people talk about Colin being spoiled, all that's mentioned is books and toys.

Childhood illnesses were pretty bad back then, and I'm not sure how bad that particular list is in context. A friend of mine works with 18th century medical manuscripts, and they include phrases like, "He's had all the usual childhood diseases, such as smallpox..."

You can sort of see how things went wrong, but it still adds up to abuse, and a child being kept bedbound and socially isolated without adequate reason.

And more importantly, the text does state outright that Dr Craven is deliberately doing this to make sure that he inherits. Here's a line from when Mary is proposing taking Colin out for a spin in the gardens.

Dr. Craven felt rather alarmed. If this tiresome hysterical boy should chance to get well he himself would lose all chance of inheriting Misselthwaite; but he was not an unscrupulous man, though he was a weak one, and he did not intend to let him run into actual danger.

The "actual danger" appears to be the idea of a wheelchair trip in the gardens, which all things considered is less of a danger than being bedbound! Also you get the feeling that Dr Craven wouldn't mind at all if Colin wasted away until he died, as long as it was gradual and he didn't feel that he took active steps to cause death. Anyway, the scene proceeds as follows:

"Well, well," he said. "If it amuses you perhaps it won't do you any harm. Did you take your bromide last night, Colin?"

"No," Colin answered. "I wouldn't take it at first and after Mary made me quiet she talked me to sleep -- in a low voice -- about the spring creeping into a garden."

"That sounds soothing," said Dr. Craven, more perplexed than ever and glancing sideways at Mistress Mary sitting on her stool and looking down silently at the carpet. "You are evidently better, but you must remember -- "

"I don't want to remember," interrupted the Rajah, appearing again. "When I lie by myself and remember I begin to have pains everywhere and I think of things that make me begin to scream because I hate them so. If there was a doctor anywhere who could make you forget you were ill instead of remembering it I would have him brought here." And he waved a thin hand which ought really to have been covered with royal signet rings made of rubies. "It is because my cousin makes me forget that she makes me better."


Good observation there of how everyone fussing over Colin's illness has increased Colin's anxiety and self-absorption. Combined with comedy again, which is rather an odd moment for it.

The text seems rather ambivalent about Dr Craven, really. On the one hand, he's presented as desiring Colin to be too ill to inherit, although the extent to which he's actively causing that is unclear, and some of the harm may be unconscious. And there's clearly been an unfortunate combination of circumstances, but as I've said, you don't just end up with a child in this situation by accident, and we do have someone who is stated firmly to have a motive for causing it.

Dr Craven is set up as a bit of an opportunist but often portrayed in film versions as an out and out villain.

I think that he's simply weak and not averse to a nice inheritance but would not murder to get it

The other thing about following his orders - if Mr Craven had a complete nervous breakdown, to the point where he was almost locked up (and they'd hardly be quick off the mark with that for a man of his power - different if it were a woman of low status), you can't really see them saying, "Oh yes, the master was raving earlier, we had to restrain him. By the way, he's suggesting that the child should be a hunchback, in between wishing he could die and calling out to his dead wife and something incoherent about pigeons. The man's not talking any sense at all, and probably isn't really following what we're doing, he's thoroughly out of it, but do make sure that you keep the child in bed for the rest of his life."

Personally I reckon the most blame seems to be with Dr Craven, but it's all very fuzzy, isn't it. I think you get similar situations today when illness is somehow induced or fabricated in a child. Sometimes there'll be one person driving it forcefully, but at other times there's a whole web of errors and misunderstandings and minor mistakes that have added up to a dreadful situation. Having a complicated social structure, if that's the phrase I'm looking for, seems to be key. The buck gets passed to and fro, whether it's a house full of servants and the odd relative and doctor, or schools and social services instead, and no one person is taking all the responsibility or indeed doing enough to pay attention to the alarming whole rather than one small bit of it.

There's a strong feeling in this novel that it all went wrong after the boy's mother died, and that if she hadn't, none of this would have happened. Mary steps in more as a substitute sister, but she takes on the role of rehabilitating Colin, and eventually Susan Sowerby, the model mother, who has been dispensing wisdom throughout the novel from offstage, steps in and helps to put the family back together.

Thinking that Colin wasn't able to understand isn't an excuse!

No, it's not. But try making that argument today when able-bodied service workers talk about their clients in public, and 98 times out of 100, you'll get nothing but blank stares. And 1% of the time, you'll get told to mind your own business.

When I was at a summer camp for disabled kids (back in the 1970s) camp counselors would talk about things like kids having bowel movements while we were all seated around the table at dinner. But they were the grown-ups, and they were in charge, so a kid's protest didn't amount to much.

Also, re: "Enough trouble and raging..." it was once believed that parents' behavior and stress before birth could cause a child to be born sickly.

I agree, it's still a problem these days, and I've seen various issues of that nature in hospitals. The text has Mrs Medlock doing something like this at least twice, the other incident that I've found so far being her saying that Mr Craven's back problems started with a lump (again in Colin's hearing but not thinking that he was listening), and again has Colin fixating on it, becoming very anxious about the issue, and not telling anyone about the root of his fears. I think the text does recognise that this is irresponsible behaviour on Mrs Medlock's part, even if it is the sort of thing that goes on a lot. In fact, it strongly reminds me of a phenomenon which is far too prevalent these days, which is when people assume that someone with a disability is also stupid and/or deaf, and talk about them as if they are not there, or able to understand.

There's definitely the problem that the servants treat Colin as a nuisance, not as a person. Mary turns up and is also grouchy, peremptory and poorly-socialised, but Martha immediately approaches her, chatters with her, takes the trouble to find out her hopes and fears, buys her presents, makes suggestions, introduces to her to family, and develops a fondness for her. With Colin there's a massive gulf between him and the servants, and no one seems to try to comfort him at any point, let alone to find out why he's having massive anxiety attacks. Perhaps this is one reason why they focus on the way Colin orders everyone around so much - because it's probably the only way in which he actually gets to interact with other human beings. And this only form of human contact is regarded as a nuisance. You can see how the whole thing turned into a vicious circle, but still, in all those years, no one tried to make contact with the kid?

Textual Evidence That Mary Lennox Is English

Mary isn't a mixture of English and Indian. She's English but was raised in India until she was nine. The book makes that clear.

She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.

India was supposed to be a very unhealthy climate for young children. The offspring of British families stationed out there were generally sent off to school in England as quickly as possible; going to England at the age of seven or eight would not have been unusual. Mary is nine. Given her sickliness--her thinness and sallowness lead me to suspect that she's had several bouts of malaria--she really should have been sent back to England a year or two earlier. But her parents didn't think of this...which, in 1911, when this was published, would have been more evidence of their neglect.

Captain Lennox was my wife's brother

Colin's mother was the sister of Mary's father. She's described as having "bright hair tied up with a blue ribbon and her gay, lovely eyes were exactly like Colin's unhappy ones, agate gray and looking twice as big as they really were because of the black lashes all round them."

"Bright hair" is a common Victorian description of blond hair. Since Lily Lennox Craven was blonde and English, and since Mary Lennox is also blonde, it's unlikely that Captain Lennox was anything but English. (And the probability is that he, too, was blond and his daughter inherited her hair color from him.)

She had not wanted a little girl at all, and when Mary was born she handed her over to the care of an Ayah, who was made to understand that if she wished to please the Mem Sahib she must keep the child out of sight as much as possible.

"Mem Sahib" was the way that Indians commonly addressed British women who were married. An Indian or half-Indian woman would not have received such a title. Mary's mother, therefore, is English. This is supported by the fact that Mary is referred to by the Indian servants as "Missee Sahib." The title identifies Mary's race and therefore her social status. (Yes, these titles are racist...but they also indicate facts that would have been very much in evidence to British children in 1911.)

Her father had held a position under the English Government and had always been busy and ill himself, and her mother had been a great beauty who cared only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people.

Mary's father, Captain Lennox, is a member of the British government in India. That means that the story must begin no earlier than 1858, which was when the British Raj--their rule of India--began. Given the period, he can't be of Indian descent, either; Indians and British weren't even allowed to serve in the same army during this period. Since the Lennox bungalow is in a compound and has room for servants' quarters, a veranda, a large tree and a flowerbed, it's probably located in the country rather than Calcutta (the capital of the local British government), meaning that Captain Lennox worked for British government in one of the provinces. He was also most likely a member of the British army, given his title.

And finally, Martha Sowerby says that Mary isn't Indian--and she expected her to be. (Please note that she speaks of Indians as "blacks.")

When I heard you was comin' from India I thought you was a black too...I've never seen a black an' I was fair pleased to think I was goin' to see one close. When I come in to light your fire this mornin' I crep' up to your bed an' pulled th' cover back careful to look at you. An' there you was," disappointedly, "no more black than me--for all you're so yeller."

Mary's name is English. Her paternal aunt and cousin are English. Her mother bears a title given only to British women. Her father has a position which, at the time, only an British man could hold. The first page says that her skin is yellowish because of frequent illness. Martha states that Mary is not Indian but white--and is disappointed. (And Mary's racist response to that makes it clear Mary doesn't identify as Indian, either.)

The logical conclusion is that Mary is English.

That'll teach me to take the word of a friend for something! I must go back to her and ask what it was about the text that made her think that, and whether she'd examined it as closely as you have. I know that it's something that spoke to her because of her own family background. Thanks for going through that in all that detail.

I've been thinking about the associations of the colour yellow. So far I have:

1) Illness, e.g. jaundice.
2) Racial slur, particularly against Chinese people.
3) Cowardice. I don't think this one is still in circulation, though it was certainly current in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries. Exclusively directed against men, as far as I am aware, particularly in the context of soldiering. No idea where that one came from.

I wonder whether the first two are connected in some way? It's not wildly reasonable to call people "black" or "white" either, since on a literal level we're all shades of beige and brown, but it's closer to reality, in an exaggerated way, than referring to people as "yellow", and it's been kept on for general usage (problematic, but still around and accepted) in a way that "yellow" hasn't, that one is still solely regarded as an insult. (Similar situation with "red" for Native Americans.), Come to that, the third could be connected to the second as well. But anyway, there does seem to be an illness/race association going on, and as you pointed out, India (and other countries) was regarded as unhealthy for British children. No doubt with reason, but still, there are a lot of things they could have focused on, and there does seem to be a preoccupation with illness.

There's apparently a good reason for the preoccupation with illness. Colin seems to have been modeled on one of her sons, Lionel. While she was very compassionate to other people's children, especially sick children, she appears to have had some issues with her own:

Lionel died at 16, sickening in solitude in Atlantic City while his mother worked and socialised in England, rushing back when it was made clear to her that he was dying.

:::

It is in her relations with her sons that she can be accused of being unthinking or unfeeling. Lionel's letters to her as he becomes sicker are frightening to read - at least partly because he was clearly an imaginative and considerate boy, who needed her and could not say how much (though we must remember that someone had made it possible for him to grow up wise and considerate). Burnett nursed him through the end of his illness, and subsequently spoiled Vivian [her other son, the one who was the prototype for Little Lord Fauntleroy], and carried on a desperate correspondence with her dead son.


The Secret Garden was written at a time when she was staying at an estate known for its gardens (and she loved gardens) AND shortly after she'd come across the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. She seems to have found some consolation in these teachings.

One of her biographers, Gretchen Gerzina, hypothesized that Colin and his miraculous recovery was a portrayal
of Lionel as Burnett wished it could have been; A. S. Byatt points out that most of Colin's illness is psychological and that it's turned him "whinging and nasty."

I don't see why both can't be true. Burnett did take Lionel to various spas in Germany to help him and sought cures from a number of doctors. There just wasn't anything they could do; Lionel had tuberculosis. The treatment for that was hit or miss; it commonly involved lying in bed ALL THE TIME so as to conserve strength. Sanitariums often left the windows open all the time, too, even in the coldest weather, in order to help consumptives breathe. Sometimes patients in sanitariums recovered; more often they did not.

Burnett could have noticed Lionel's frequent pleas for her to come home (to, among other things, a husband that she no longer loved; Swan and Frances Burnett divorced in 1898) and felt that her sick son was whining...while still wanting his illness to be something he could easily recover from and for him to get better through a combination of "magic" and "scientific discoveries."

It does seem likely, though, that you're right, for Lionel's death hit her hard. She plunged into years of depression afterwards. She was writing not so much about child abuse as child neglect...and her own guilt. For Archibald Craven does exactly what she did--he travels all the time so as to avoid having to come home and face both a child's illness and the loss of love.


Oh, that makes so much more sense now. Take something that couldn't be helped and fantasise about "how would it have been if we had been able to cure him, magically, through the application of love and a fresh influence and pulling his damned socks up." Still, what she's describing does cross the line from neglect into abuse. Even in Victorian society, it wasn't normal to do this to a child who had no signs of physical illness, all the way to putting him in an iron brace.

Sadly, illness is bloody hard for a family to deal with, and even today, families struggle, to the point that many are absolutely crap and some are downright abusive. The less physically obvious an illness is, the worse this attitude seems to get.

I think in Victorian times it wouldn't be seen as child abuse, regardless of whether there was an actual illness or not.

Colin, like Anne from Pride and Prejudice, is one of those characters I latched onto as a sickly-but-not-yet-disabled child/teen and I had a very strong kneejerk negative reaction when I first encountered people saying they were totally healthy and just needed to get over themselves (rather than genuinely sick, just not as much as everyone thought) But as you point out it's much more complicated than that! I assumed Mary must be ethnically Indian as a kid, I remember thinking the book was pretty progressive for it's day as a result, lol.

Hmmm. I do not think I would enjoy this book on a reread.

It was a strange mix of "oh yes, lovely gardening stuff" and "WTF?!"

Does Anne in P&P ever appear onstage, or is she only discussed by other characters? Austen seemed to have quite a short fuse where potential malingering was concerned. Mary Musgrove in Persuasion is a very bitchy portrayal, for instance. (And to me, Mary Musgrove sounds like she has depression.) Although then she's all over Fanny Price, who appears to have ME, but doesn't manage to make her likable to that many readers. Mixed feelings, evidently. I read somewhere that Austen's mother was a hypochondriac or similar, and that while Austen was dying of Addison's Disease, she rested on an arrangement of three chairs while her mother hogged the sofa.

Anne does show up but has no lines. I think Austen got more sympathetic about illness as she got older and sicker herself.

You know, it's like we aren't even reading the same book!

I've always felt that Colin was neglected (which is itself a form of abuse), much as Mary was - certainly, there are adults around to make sure he is fed and clothed and the rest, but he has no emotional connection with any of them - but the impression I've always had is that the servants genuinely believe he is ill. Maybe not a cripple yet, but sickly and likely to die young, so only a truly unfeeling person (or one who didn't fear for her job) would contradict him. And I don't think he was imprisoned, especially - Martha, I think, talks about trying to take him outside on numerous occasions, or to the seaside, but he would scream himself sick, so they all gave up on it.

Also, I'm pretty sure it was Colin himself who refused to believe the doctor who said all he needed was fresh air and sunshine (and was in fact infuriated by the suggestion), and that without his father around (mentally or physically), the servants don't feel able to contradict the young master of the house. And fresh air was considered pretty suspect for invalids in some circles, for that matter. Also, it's Colin who says that he doubts the uncle has much interest in his recovery. The impression I get of Colin generally is that he identifies himself pretty strongly with his illness and frailty in the first part of the book - it's his identity, and while he doesn't like it, I think there is a certain resistance to any suggestion that there is nothing essentially wrong with him.

So, yes, I think the adults in this book have really dropped the ball, starting with Mr Craven and heading downhill from there. It's pretty serious neglect, stemming from clearly nobody paying Colin any real attention on any level other than the physical, which is inexcusable, but I wouldn't characterise it as Munchausen's by proxy.

Yes, but the thing is that he wasn't actually ill until everyone convinced him of it. At which point he's clearly internalised it, which is also very common with victims of MSBP. Some of them go on to fake illness as adults, even with the parents out of the picture. You don't get a child ending up bedbound when there is no physical cause unless something has gone really wrong.

I don't have a paper copy around, I listened to an audiobook this time as my eyes are dodgy, but I've just hunted down an etext and run a search for "doctor". This came up:

"Oh! just -- just a garden she used to like," Mary stammered. "Have you been here always?"

"Nearly always. Sometimes I have been taken to places at the seaside, but I won't stay because people stare at me. I used to wear an iron thing to keep my back straight, but a grand doctor came from London to see me and said it was stupid. He told them to take it off and keep me out in the fresh air. I hate fresh air and I don't want to go out."


Ye gods, an iron brace? That's pretty extreme, and I don't think the child could have been behind that. And if he was taken out in a wheelchair or an iron brace, no wonder people stared, and no wonder he felt crap about it, and you can see how the whole thing snowballed. As I said, he's ended up pretty messed up by the whole thing. Possibly the fresh air problem was due to wrapping Colin up warmly enough for a child who is being active outside, but not warmly enough for a child who's immobile, and he simply felt cold and decided that it was all a bad idea.

I've got to go now, but I'll just quote another line that caught my eye.

"Because when you were born the garden door was locked and the key was buried. And it has been locked for ten years."

Colin's mother died in an accident in the garden, but the entire narrative behaves as if she died in childbirth, and I think people tend to misremember it that she died in childbirth, for instance the way Craven behaves by blaming his child, as if the birth had killed his mother.

I'm aware that there's a long literary tradition of associating gardens with female sexuality, but I'm not sure that I even want to go there...

She fell whilst pregnant and died in childbirth.

Sadly iron braces were not uncommon for weak backs... horrid things

The less extreme version was the backboard.

I can't actually find any references to her falling while pregnant and dying in childbirth, even euphemistic ones. Could you show that bit? The most detailed account I've found is,

"An, she was just a bit of a girl an' there was an old tree with a branch bent like a seat on it. An' she made roses grow over it an' she used to sit there. But one day when she was sittin' there th' branch broke an' she fell on th' ground an' was hurt so bad that next day she died."

So it's not a swing either, it seems that we've all been misremembering that. It sounds like a relatively short distance to fall, but then a friend of mine had a traumatic brain injury from simply falling off a chair, so these things can happen.

Anyway, it seems that either Mrs Craven fell while pregnant, as you suggest, or shortly after giving birth, or else Burnett completely forgot that she'd made the character die in an accident when she later has Colin announce that his mother died when he was born. Authors do make continuity mistakes from time to time. Unless there's text that I'm missing, and I'm running keyword searches quite thoroughly, the text is simply too vague, and perhaps contradictory, to make a clear decision on that point. Burnett seems to conflate Mrs Craven with her garden anyway.

Pregnancy wasn't mentioned much in books of that time but the inference is that the broken branch, the fall , Colin's birth and Mrs Craven's death all occurred at the same time.

I sometimes conflate the book, the film and Noel Stretfield's rather lovely book " The Painted Garden" so apologies for sending you hunting for a concrete textual reference that isn't there

I did wonder if you were basing this off a film! I've done that myself a few times. Which one is it, and is it any good?

I think we can't assume that Colin was definitely premature therefore sickly therefore it was OK to keep him on permanent bedrest etc., but yes, either all of those events happened around the same time, or Burnett spent some of the time thinking that Mrs Craven died in a garden accident, some of it thinking that she died in childbirth, and simply didn't notice the inconsistency. Personally I reckon it's author error, because apart from the timing implied by comparing different passages, there is absolutely nothing to suggest a pregnancy accident, yet as you say, that's about the only solution that makes sense. There's usually some hint in a Victorian novel when a woman dies in childbed, and that hint is not "and then she fell off a tree branch". Melanie Wilkes dying of a miscarriage, for instance. You can just about pick up from the text that it's what's happening, but no one comes right out and says it. But I'm not too upset about keeping the details of this sort of thing out of children's books - it was pretty weird when Pratchett put a thirteen year old miscarrying after being beaten by her father into one of the Tiffany Aching books.

Alternatively, Mrs Craven was a proto-hippie who decided that the best way to give birth was naturally, outside, and in fact in a tree, and it all went horribly wrong.

(On the other hand, I can readily believe Colin not thriving very well as a baby due to general neglect and lack of breastfeeding. Or was a wet-nurse the norm for that sort of situation?)

Edited at 2013-02-21 06:36 pm (UTC)

Wet nurses wouldn't have been the norm in Yorkshire, in the cities wet nurses were often poor women whose own babies were farmed out
( and who often died, there's a lot of outrage recorded about the cost of keeping a rich woman's figure intact at the cost of a poor child's life) and there's no suggestion of Colin having a devoted childhood nurse who might have in some way fulfilled the role of a mother.

A baby would have been fed on "pap" and cow's milk in bottles which would not have been easy to sterilise. Chronic wind and pain would have been a given and this got eased with gripe... containing alcohol and often laudenum ( Opium)

So he'd have been sickly and lucky to have survived.

I love the idea of Mrs Craven as a proto hippy!

Ad I've seen several film versions... some better than others but I can't recall which is which,

Gripe water had alcohol and sometimes laudanum? I thought it was a blameless concoction made from fennel! Aromatherapy book, you have been lying to me!

I am now ogling gazing happily at James Marsters, and wondering whether it should be "hippy" or "hippie", so I think it's time to turn the laptop off and go to bed.

Just spotted this on the fresh air thing:

"I should not mind fresh air in a secret garden."

Burnett does seem to be persistently associating his fear of going out with being stared at or otherwise disempowered by the other people around him. The whole thing is remarkably perceptive in some ways, which makes it even more irritating when it's wrong wrong wrong in others.

The seclusion of the garden is absolutely key!

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