Film and lit crit about disability

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Wait - it was about *what*?
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.

  • 1
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!

  • 1

Log in