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.
- Wait - it was about *what*?