LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Disability and The Secret Garden

on April 10, 2013 4:04pm

A motif prevalent in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is Mary and Colin’s disabilities in relation to their happiness. The novel subtly attributes Mary’s childhood sickness to her time in India saying, “her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.” India, clearly, is no place for an English child, though the text suggests that is India’s fault and not the colonial hold Britain has over the country. Colin has literally been stuck in a room for years so he is obviously always concerned with death and dying. Only when they discover the garden and can immerse themselves in the greatness of the nature of England can they really become happy again. One example is the classic children’s book Heidi by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. From what I remember about the character Clara is that she is spoiled and isolated and can only regain her ability to walk after Heidi befriends her and brightens up her life.

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This premise of disability in children’s literature is almost irresponsible because it assumes the notion that one can get over their disability based on sheer will and temperament. It also portrays to children that people with disabilities are irritating and reinforce the stigma against them. Characters with physical abnormalities are always depicted as villainous or crotchety and posed as characters the children should not want to emulate. Obviously the context of the time would explain why people with disabilities would be portrayed as such – they are useless in terms of working or getting married – something held to a high esteem. Characters like these would probably never be portrayed like this nowadays because these groups would feel incredibly marginalized.

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