The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett versus The Humming Room by Ellen Potter

The Humming Room
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published February 28th 2012 by Feiwel & Friends
Source: Personal Copy

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was first published in serial format before being collected as a novel in 1911. Though not initially popular, The Secret Garden rose in the ranks of literature for children in the past century and is now regarded as one of the most important works in the genre. It has been adapted several times for the cinema and the stage. It has also been translated into many different languages worldwide. (source)

Disclaimer: While the article below will assume that the reader is familiar with The Secret Garden, I will make some effort to clarify the synopsis. Be warned though, I will be talking about the story in its entirety so if you haven’t read the book, you will probably be spoiled.

The Secret Garden initially focuses on Mary Lennox, a precocious little girl who spends her early years in India where her parents live idyllic lives without much concern or care for their offspring. When cholera leads her parents to their deaths, Mary is sent to live with her uncle, her dead aunt’s husband, in Yorkshire, England. There she fights with the house staff, not knowing how to handle being so abruptly deposited in an environment and with people so unfamiliar to her. The only one who shows her any kindness is Martha Sowerby, a maid who works in Misselthwaite Manor (the mansion/estate owned by Mary’s uncle).

Mary rambles around the half-empty, shabby manor, hearing noises like someone crying until everyone gets tired of her being underfoot and sends her outside to play (my mom used to do that). There, she sees a robin disappear over a wall into a garden she cannot access because the door to it is locked. Her meanderings through the manor bring into her possession a key which lo behold, fits into the lock of the door to the garden. The garden, though not completely dead, is a wreck being left mostly untended. Or so Mary thinks.

With the help of Martha’s brother, Dicken, Mary revives the garden, working slowly to coax new blooms into life. Meanwhile, the nightly sobbing continues. Mary, finally weary of the noise, hunts down the source of the sobbing: a little boy, Colin, her cousin, who is confined to his bed, near death and unable to walk. They spark up a friendship and Mary finds out the truth behind the secret garden.

The garden belonged to her aunt who perished there after a branch in the tree she was sitting on broke. Her uncle, unable to deal with his grief and his child’s illness, has retreated so far into himself that he spends more time away from the manor and the ghosts that haunt it than in it. Mary engages with Colin, her cousin, and takes him out into the garden, letting him breathe the fresh air and come in contact with nature. Things happen, they get the garden to bloom, the uncle returns, Colin walks, and a happily ever after is achieved (or so one assumes).

So that, then, is very basically what The Secret Garden is all about.

Ellen Potter’s The Humming Room situates the secret garden in Clayton, New York, in a repurposed sanatorium on one of the islands that dot the river.

Mary Lennox becomes Roo Fanshow, a little girl whose young life has been full of lack and loss. While Mary, too, dealt with issues of parental neglect, Roo’s situation is more immediate and sobering. Mary, at least, had wealthy parents who, even if they didn’t have anything to do with her directly, ensured she was fed and clothed appropriately. Roo, on the other hand, has a father who is involved in drugs and no mother because she didn’t stick around after giving birth. We initially meet Roo when she is hiding under the trailer in which they live following the murder of her father and his girlfriend.

Roo spends some time following the death of her parent at a foster home where she is taunted by her foster siblings. Then she is picked up by Ms. Valentine, her uncle’s assistant (originally the housekeeper whose name I can’t remember but the 1993 movie cast Maggie Smith in her role) and taken to Cough Rock Island in Clayton, New York. Her uncle’s house used to be a sanatorium for children with tuberculosis, and the mostly rooms in the house still echo with their illness and despair. At the house, Roo meets Violet (Martha Sowerby in the original) who lives on Donkey Island and comes over to Cough Island to work.

Ellen Potter changes The Secret Garden in small but significant ways.

Some of the words used to describe Mary in the original are “troubled,” “sickly” and “unloved.” Roo, on the other hand, is just as, if not more, troubled than Mary but rather than sickly or troubled, I’d describe her as neglected. With a consistent supply of food, she fills out and there is a very beautiful scene in the book when Roo realizes the different ways she is changing–starting with her physical self.

I found the original to be strangely bereft of any care for Mary’s mental health considering she had lost both her parents and her home. Potter, too, does not spend too much time lingering over the trauma that Roo went through but she does not overlook it either. Roo’s grief, though unspoken, is very much present in her narrative for example, her grief is present in the way she notices that her uncle is physically similar to her dead father and  in her insistence on wearing the clothes she is familiar with. The adults present in The Humming Room too are aware of Roo’s history and act accordingly. They are kind to Roo in a way that the house staff in the original aren’t to Mary.

The biggest change Potter makes in the narrative and in her retelling of The Secret Garden is the insertion of a magical element to the story. In the original, Dicken is Martha’s brother who helps Mary get the garden back to life, a sort of fey being loved by all things natural. He is important but he is ultimately a secondary character who fades in significance when Colin takes center stage. In The Humming Room, Dicken is replaced by Jack who is (though this is never explicitly clarified) accepted as a fae river creature called The Faigne. He has a pet heron called Sir who contributes to his mystique. He wanders in and out of the story as it pleases him though he seems to be as charmed by Roo as she is by him. The attention does shift to Peter (Colin in the original) as it does in the original but only slightly and very briefly. Peter, though important to the narrative, is very much a side character in the novel.

The setting of the The Secret Garden, the wild and desolate moors of Yorkshire, is replaced by the mercurial St. Lawrence river, a setting that fits the tart tone of The Humming Room better.  The river is almost a character in its own right, especially when read as an extension to the fey Jack.

The secret garden in the original is described in lush terms and the whole relationship a person has to nature is explored in a lot of depth in the novel. In The Humming Room Potter elaborates further on this theme because nature is not just limited to the garden (which is an artificial construction to say the least) but also the surrounding islands, the growing plants, the birds that do not take care of their eggs, the river, the seasons and even the weather. Roo finds her identity in each of these things and places and her realization of her own self is a beautiful thing to read. In The Secret Garden I felt that the narrative was consumed a bit too much by adult problems. The shift in narrative focus from Mary to Colin, his dad, her aunt and her own mother detracted, in my opinion, from the story as a whole. This is not the case in The Humming Room. While the narrative threads of adult relationships are still importantPotter ensures that the story remains Roo’s. I appreciate this.

I found The Humming Room to successfully retell The Secret Garden while infusing the narrative with fresh and new elements that are sure to appeal to younger, modern, readers. I leave you with an excerpt:

There are no road signs to mark the tiny village of Limpette. It lies between two towns that you have never heard of. If you pass Ostrander’s goat farm, you’ve gone too far.

We wont stay long in Limpette. There’s not much of anything here for us, except the girl. And the girl was not much of anything either, not back then. Her name was Roo Fanshow and she was too small for her age. She had a narrow, bony face and a tight, dissatisfied mouth. Her rusty brown hair was shoulder length, with bangs that hung over her eyes. They were green eeyes. Green eyes are often very captivating, but Roo’s eyes were the spent, dull green of smoke at the end of a fireworks show.

In order to see her, we need to get down on all fours and squeeze through an opening in the vinyl apron that surrounds the bottom of her family’s mobile home. It’s a small opening, and we’ll have more trouble getting through than Roo did. She can slip through the narrowest gaps like a ferret. Like all good thieves, she understands space. Space can be a friend or an enemy, so you should always know how much of it your body needs. Roo, being tiny, needs very little, and she feels most comfortable in cramped areas, like this one.

Duck your head. There she is. Let’s begin.