LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Real and Imagined Spaces: The Role of Ekphrasis in The Secret Garden

on April 11, 2013 12:51am

I read The Secret Garden for the first time two years ago, once on my own and then again shortly after with my little brother.  I had seen the film when I was little but had never read the actual book.  During the summer that I first read the book, I had just finished reading Jane Eyre and I could not help but see the many parallels between the two texts.  However, perhaps surprisingly, the one that stood out the most was the integral role that art and illustration play in both stories.  And not specifically physical illustrations on the pages, like the ones I’ve included hear by Inga Moore, but instead works of art and illustration that are describes via words throughout the novels.  This literary tool, usually used to describe a work of art or illustration with words, is known as ekphrasis coming from the Greek word meaning “description”.  Moreover, ekphrasis is, according to the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, an “intense pictorial description of an object…a virtuosic description of physical reality in order to evoke an image in the mind’s eye as intense as if the described object were actually before the reader” (252).

With ekphrasis in mind, we turn to The Secret Garden, where art and illustration play an important role in determining the real and imagined spaces that the characters, especially Mary and Colin, inhabit.  In a way, the descriptions and importance of paintings, mostly portraits, and illustrations work in a similar vein to windows and doors, as thresholds for the characters to go between.  As I read the text again for this class, I started paying more pointed attention to wear ekphrasis surfaces and kept a running list.  I’ll be giving some of these examples throughout this post, so let’s look at what role this actually plays; why is it important?  For both Mary and Colin, painted, imagined spaces serve as a form of reality for them.  Colin for example has never really left his room.  His windows are shut, and he has no access to the outside world, to “reality”.  Instead, he contents himself, or at least survives, by pouring over illustrated picture books, in which perhaps he imagines himself living out the fictional escapades of heroes within or at least taking strolls through beautiful landscapes.  He also has the portrait, often covered up, of his mother when she was a child.  She serves as his constant “human” companion, with his nurse and maid coming in and out every once in a while. Emphasizing the fact that Colin often lives in an imaginative world, is his first encounter with Mary in which he has a hard time believing that she is even real: ” ‘Who are you?,’ he said…’Are you a ghost?…You are real aren’t you?…I have such real dreams very often.  You might be one of them.’ (74). So for Colin, the imagined,dreamlike, painted space is his reality.

Dickon, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.  He is always out in the open, always out in the real world.  We can infer that he has little contact with paintings or illustrated texts.  However his imagination thrives off of reality.  In his wanderings through the real world out on the moors, instead of a dark, gloomy, stuffy room, he takes on a sort of mystical nature.  He talks with the animals, he plays a pipe, and has a magical quality.  So unlike Colin who has to use his imagination to create his reality, Dickon uses his reality to form his imagination.  And where does Mary stand in all of this? Mary seems to be the fusion of both worlds, of an imagined reality and a reality fed by imagination.  When she first comes to Misselthwaite Manor, Mary has interesting and somewhat intimate and gloomy encounters with the portraits around the house. For example when Mary first enters the home, Burnett provides us with this description: “The entrance door… opened into an enormous hall, which was so dimly lighted that the faces in the portraits on the wall and the figures in the suits of armor made Mary feel that she did not want to look at them.  As she stood on the stone floor she looked a very small, odd little black figure, and she felt as small and lost and odd as she looked” (15).  Right away, we get a sense that Mary has some sort of strange relation with the works of art in this home, they are given an animation, a real life-like quality, as if the faces in the portraits are real people, looking at and judging Mary.  These gloomy, old portraits seem to follow Mary everywhere, and as readers we get the sense that these portraits take on a realistic, human nature, they aren’t just paintings, they are these characters that fill the house.  Another important moment is the description of Mary wandering through the house passing “hundreds of rooms with closed doors” (33) that goes as follows: “There were doors and doors and there were pictures on the walls.  Sometimes they were pictures of dark, curious landscapes, but oftenest they were portraits of men and women in queer, grand costumes made of satin and velvet…She [Mary] walked slowly down this place and stared at the faces which also seemed to stare at her.  She felt as if they were wondering what a little girl from India was doing in their house….she always stopped to look at the children… There was a stiff, plain little girl rather like herself…’Where do you live now?’ said Mary aloud to her. ‘I wish you were here'” (33).  Thus, this moment may be the clearest one, where we witness Mary using these portraits as a reality to live in, she’s staring at them and they stare at her, she even tries to hold a conversation with one.  Thus this mirrors Colin’s attempts to use his imagination to create a reality.

However, as time passes, Mary starts to open up to the “real world” outside the walls of the manor.  She gets glimpses of it at first through the windows, which serve in a way to almost make illustrations or framed paintings out of the real world, since when she’s behind the window she’s not actually outside.  And much in the same way as Dickon, who seems to fuel his reality with imagination and whimsy, Mary starts to do the same.  For the first time she starts to form relationships with real people and in real spaces, not painted ones.  However, even when it comes to her garden, it is described in a very artistic and story like way, as  “some fairy place” (53), “a world of her own” (47), it’s almost like the garden is a painting or illustration that has finally come to life.  Interestingly enough, when Mary encounters Colin they have many interactions over illustrated picture books and they share a connection through their use of their imaginations to create reality.  And when Mary begins to describe the garden to Colin, before she reveals that’s she’s actually been in it, she is indeed painting a picture for him of the garden, a picture of words, almost like doubly layered ekphrasis (this scene is on page 79).

While there are many other examples, especially a really interesting one on page 159 with Dickon’s mother in which she’s described as “rather like a softly colored illustration in one of Colin’s books” emphasizing this interplay of the painted and real, I’ll stop there as it’s getting to be a bit of a long post.  But this topic is just a fascinating one for me; the way that reality and imagination, real and painted spaces all mingle with each other in the characters of Mary, Colin and Dickon.  As a final note, the specific illustrations I’ve chosen from Inga Moore’s illustrated edition of The Secret Garden, all incorporate paintings or illustrations within the illustration which makes me thing that Moore picked up on this theme and may have delighted in creating these pictures within pictures.

While this last image does not employ the picture within a picture theme, I’ve included because it a frame where we see all three characters, Mary, Colin, and Dickon, as they are abound to cross the threshold into the secret garden. Here we see the interaction of all three of these characters, and the interplay between reality and imagination.

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