Children's Literature Review

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La faute de l'abbé Mouret is the story of an ascetic young priest, Serge Mouret, who so resists the powers of life that he falls ill with a serious fever. He recovers when a sixteen-year-old girl called Albine takes him out in the spring into a wild and long since closed garden, Paradou. Albine, an orphan, has made this garden her own; she lives in part of an old castle on the fringe of Paradou, where she is being cared for by a male relative. She and Mouret fall in love, and their affair culminates when they make love to each other under a huge tree in the garden. But Zola's romance ends in tragedy. Mouret regrets his fall and abandons Albine, who smothers herself by means of flowers and plants from the garden. The story ends with her funeral, at which Mouret officiates.

The novel is a tale of paradise; behind Serge and Albine we can glimpse Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. The Virgin Mary also plays an important role. Since childhood, Mouret has loved the Holy Virgin even more than he loves God and Jesus. He has also learned to connect her with the Garden of Eden. Zola makes a point of stressing the similarities between Albine and St. Mary (French ed. 103, 105, 320, 346), just as Burnett's garden is related to the biblical garden and Burnett's Mary has the same name as the Holy Virgin, who is traditionally symbolized by the closed Garden of Eden (see Gunther 163, 166; Beretta 28).

But there are more specific similarities between the two novels than that both are based on the tale of Paradise. Both focus on a wild and abandoned garden that an orphan girl has made her own. Near each garden lives a young man who is stricken with mental illness caused by a cultural environment that obstructs everything that is healthy and natural, although Mouret's counterpart, Colin, has been affected not by an ascetic religion but by an aristocratic culture afraid of fresh air that has kept him in bed for years. Each young man is brought back to life and health by a girl who is allied with the life-giving forces of nature; in both novels she opens the windows in the young man's room, lets the fresh air in, and takes the convalescent into the garden, where everything is life, growth, and procreation. The garden makes him healthy and strong again, but the recovery is accomplished by the sacrifice of the girl. Abandoned by the recovered Serge, Zola's Albine commits suicide. Mary does not take her own life, but she too is abandoned and apparently forgotten by the recovered Colin in the last pages of The Secret Garden, even though it is thanks to her that he has achieved health. Finally, in both novels the reclamation of the young man and the discarding of the girl take place against a backdrop of seasonal change. At the end of The Secret Garden, when no one so much as speaks Mary's name, it is no longer spring but autumn, just as it is autumn when Zola's Albine smothers herself. The autumnal colors here signal death, decay, and tragedy--despite The Secret Garden's apparently happy ending.

Reading Burnett's novel in conjunction with La faute de l'abbé Mouret, in other words, sheds new light on the text. That Mary is put aside at last does not necessarily mean that Burnett takes Colin's side and, as Keyser writes, defends "patriarchal authority." The end of The Secret Garden is in fact deeply ambiguous. On the one hand Mary stands out as a tragic victim, abandoned and forgotten by the person she has brought back to life. On the other hand, the final pages of Burnett's novel also contain positive signals, the elements that make us believe that the author takes Colin's side. Even if it is sad that Mary is forgotten (as is Dickon, for that matter), laughter, joy, and magic still remain. "Master Colin" now exhibits a demeanor that many of the onlookers have never seen in him, "his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter" (306). Both the garden and Misselthwaite Manor have awakened from their former torpor. Life and procreation continue; significantly, Mrs. Sowerby has gone to help a woman deliver a baby. But the cruel cycle of nature does not care about individuals. They must sometimes be sacrificed--and disappear.

Zola's novel also makes this point. Albine's funeral is interrupted by Mouret's retarded sister, Désirée, who, with a resounding laugh, exclaims, "The cow had a calf" (300).5 These are the last words of the novel. Life goes on; the powers of birth and procreation do not expire because Albine is being lowered into her grave. "One leaves, another comes" ("Un s'en va, un autre arrive!"), Désirée bursts out after the butcher slaughters her pig (294; French ed. 400). Joy and sorrow, life and death are indissolubly associated with each other; new life is being brought forth from mulch and decomposition even while other life is necessarily ending in annihilation. Such is the way of the world, at once joyful and cruel.

Another important similarity between Burnett's work and Zola's is that in both novels the garden is connected with a story that functions as a background to the first: long ago a man and a beloved woman lived together in the garden in divine happiness. When this happiness was destroyed because of the woman's sudden death, the man closed the park and let the garden run wild. In Zola's novel this event happened about a hundred years earlier, while in The Secret Garden only ten years have passed since the garden was closed. In both tales the death of the woman is associated with a special tree, reminiscent of the tree associated with Adam and Eve and their lost happiness. In Burnett's novel Mrs. Craven used to sit on a branch of this tree, but the branch broke and when she fell down she was so severely hurt that she died. The associations with the biblical Fall are obvious. In La faute de l'abbé Mouret the connection between the death of the woman and the tree is more abstract. "It was the joy of sitting there that killed her," Albine thinks (138). The tree has, she continues, "a charming shadow that kills you" (my translation).6 But in both novels the spirit of the dead woman remains in the garden. Her sad departure can be said to presage Albine's death and Mary's final exclusion from the narrative.

Death, however, is not the point of either story. In both works the garden represents life, growth, and generation. Both also pay tribute to those powers in nature that make all living creatures--human beings, animals, and plants--breed and give birth to progeny. Zola's naturalistic and provocative depictions of human instincts are famous. For him man is a part of nature; men and women are attracted to each other by the same instincts that also bring other living creatures together. Thus he likes to depict plants and animals as human while simultaneously stressing the naturally determined and animalistic aspects of human beings. In La faute de l'abbé Mouret, which is at once naturalistic and romantic in a fairytale way, the differences between people and animals are minimal. Everything in this novel propagates with violent intensity. The landscape is filled with passion and yearning. The powers of nature are so strong that they threaten to conquer even the church where Abbé Mouret holds his services; the vigorous plants are forcing their way through the windows, and the sparrows are flying in all directions under the vaults.

What the novel calls "the great act of love" (26)--in French, "grand labeur d'amour" (42)--has its center in the wild garden where Albine presides. Here everything is heat, procreation, and breeding; every living creature is yearning to give birth to new life. The procreation culminates when Albine and Serge meet under the huge tree of life:

All this swarming life trembled as if giving birth. An insect was conceiving under each leaf, a family was growing in each tuft of grass. In the air, flies clung to each other, unable to wait until landing to be impregnated. The invisible parts of life which inhabit matter, the atoms of matter themselves, loved, copulated, gave a sensual quiver to the soil, and made the park a huge fornication.(186)7

This intense atmosphere also seduces Albine and Serge; the narrator comments, "The necessity of procreation surrounded them, and they yielded to the demands of the garden" (186).8

Procreation is also at the center of Burnett's novel, but she is not as open as Zola. A female author writing for the young could not use the same sexual discourse as the famous French naturalist. But for all their differences, there are obvious similarities between the two narratives. Both Zola and Burnett pay tribute to the earth. It is from rich and fertile soil that new life is born. Albine awakes in Serge "the passion of the earth," and "He learned to love her by looking to see how the grass loves" (257).9 Even Désirée has close connections to the earth, as it is "the earth which made Désirée drowsy when she lay on her back" (236).10 In The Secret Garden "th' good rich earth" and its lifegiving force are still more in the foreground. Even back in India Mary sets plants, and in the secret garden she spends most of her time digging in the earth. The importance of earth is also stressed in the chapter called "Might I have a bit of earth?", in which Mary asks Mr. Craven for a plot "To plant seeds in--to make things grow--to see them come alive" (121), and we learn at the same time that Colin's deceased mother, the spirit of the garden, "loved the earth and everything that grows" (121). Furthermore, in both novels the earth is animated; while Zola talks about "the breath" of the earth--"La respiration même de la terre" (338)--Burnett has her children sniff "its warm springtime breathing" (161).

The sun, too, plays an important role. In La faute de l'abbé Mouret the sun (as so often in Zola) is the lifegiving male principle; embracing the naked earth, the sun gives birth to new life (French ed. 231). From the first chapter onward, the sun is seen as the main opponent of Roman Catholicism's negative attitude toward life. When at the end of the chapter the sun is forcing its way into the church, even the Christ figure quivers "with the vitality of new sap, as if death had been conquered by earth's eternal youth" (12).11 Ultimately it is also the rising sun that makes Serge recover and gives him new life: "He was being born in the sun, in this pure bath of light inundating him" (116).12

The sun is of equal importance in The Secret Garden. Burnett, too, pays tribute to "the strange unchanging majesty of the rising sun" (217). If anyone can get Colin "just soaked through wi' sunshine" he will recover, Dickon thinks (188). The sun transforms everything with its warmth, even the originally sad and contrary Mary (63). Like Zola, Burnett personifies the sun and depicts it as male. It is when "he" has risen in the morning that everything awakes to new life and the world is born anew (159). But while Zola uses the sun to honor virility, Burnett extols its motherly and lifegiving warmth. When the sunlight warms the earth, "things will be stirrin' down below in the dark" (64). It is the warmth of the sun that gets the green points to "push up and up and up" (157). Furthermore, Burnett stresses more than Zola does that the sun is not alone in infusing life into things; in her feminine discourse, the rain is also of great importance. It is when "th' sun shines on th' rain an' th' rain falls on th' sunshine" that spring starts (95).

In both discourses the sun and the procreative force are accompanied by hilarity and the joy of living. Zola's novel bubbles with laughter. Everything that lives and multiplies laughs: the plants, the animals, the lustful girls in the village of Artaud, indeed the whole paradisiac garden (French ed. 242). Désirée continually emits ringing bursts of laughter, and one of Albine's most characteristic features is her merriment. In contrast, the serious Mouret, with his negative attitude to life, does not laugh--until Albine helps him out into the sunshine in the garden. Paradou then joins in Albine's laughter, which sounds like the song of a bird: "It was an endless laugh, cooing in the throat, resounding, triumphant music, celebrating the pleasures of awakening. Everything laughed in this laugh of a woman being born to beauty and to love, roses, scented wood, all Paradou laughed" (123).13

Laughter plays a similar role in The Secret Garden. The dead Mrs. Craven had eyes that "was always laughin'" (164). As in La faute de l'abbé Mouret, hilarity and joy are associated with life and procreation. When the sun warms it, the earth becomes cheerful (64). The surly Mary reacts in the same way when she begins to weed the garden, helping plants to new life; "without knowing it she was smiling down on to the grass and the pale green points all the time" (81). When in the chapter entitled "Nest Building" Mary walks out into the secret garden very early one spring morning, the sunshine, the smells, and the twitter of the birds make her almost ecstatic: "She clasped her hands for pure joy and looked up in the sky and it was so blue and pink and pearly and white and flooded with springtime light that she felt as if she must flute and sing aloud herself and knew that thrushes and robins and skylarks could not possibly help it" (158). Dickon, similarly, reports of himself and the moor that "When th' sun did jump up, th' moor went mad for joy, an' I was in the midst of th' heather, an' I run like mad myself, shoutin' an' singin'" (160). Mary and Dickon also laugh for joy when, in the next moment, warm and tousled and with poppy-red cheeks, they help the green points sprout up through the earth.

Though Burnett primarily focuses on roses and robins, she describes reproduction with an intensity that is not far from Zola's. She writes about seeds that are put in fertile earth and about "swelling leaf-buds" (161). She describes sensually (and in language full of sexual connotations) the roses that climb up the walls of the garden and unfold in long garlands, "falling in cascades--they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair fresh leaves, and buds--and buds--tiny first but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air" (240). And she uses hyperbole and metaphor in the same way that Zola does; notice, for example, how fast the buds swell and burst in the passage above. Like the French author, she tries to give the impression of something huge, overwhelming, and phallic: "Iris and white lilies rose out of the grass in sheaves, and the green alcoves filled themselves with amazing armies of the blue and white flower lances of tall delphiniums or columbines or campanulas" (240).

Burnett also writes about animal reproduction. But her animals are nicer and more idealized than Zola's; in The Secret Garden there are no nasty-smelling rabbits and no cruel hens pecking out each other's bowels. Rather, in Burnett's novel the avatars of animal reproduction are the spring songbirds, who are made human in so emphatic a way that the reader understands that Burnett is not only thinking of animals but also of human beings. The focus is especially on the male robin, which first goes "mate-huntin'" and then is "settin' up housekeepin'." He returns throughout the novel, serving functions that range from helping Mary to find the garden key to witnessing Colin learning to walk, an event that we see through his eyes. Through him, Burnett's convinced acceptance of the reproductive instinct becomes clear.

From the first, the robin is portrayed as human; indeed, with his "red waistcoat," he is one of the principal male characters. He is very fond of Mary. "Dang me if he hasn't took a fancy to thee," says Ben Weatherstaff (41).14 For her part, Mary talks to him from the beginning "just as if she were speaking to a person" (41). Indeed, much as the cock Alexandre courts Désirée in Zola's novel, the robin courts Mary, "Makin' up to th' women folk just for vanity an' flightiness," as the sour Ben Weatherstaff puts it (92). Once the robin finds a mate of his own kind, the reproductive work of these animals accompanies the children's activities in the garden.

Like Zola, Burnett stresses the kinship of animals and human beings, emphasizing that children are animals with such vigor as to strain against the bonds of her genre. Over and over again the children in The Secret Garden are compared to nest-building birds. Mary is likened to a missel thrush, and her secret garden is called "the nest of the missel thrush" (chapter 11). She soon shares her nest with Dickon, who draws for her a picture of a missel thrush in her nest (123). Mary later suggests that she and Colin play missel thrushes in the garden. Imagine that we in secret went into the garden, she says, "and pretended that--that we were missel thrushes and it was our nest, and if we played there almost every day and dug and dug and planted seeds and made it all come alive--" (134). In the context of La faute de l'abbé Mouret, where Albine in a similar way tempts the sick Serge to come with her into the garden, Mary's hesitation about what to play is full of ambiguous meaning. Since Albine and Serge did not, as we have seen, play missel thrushes but rather Adam and Eve in Paradise, Mary's hesitation permits a gap in which the reader may momentarily contemplate this less innocent possibility for Mary and Colin.

A further ambiguity is that Dickon, who charms both Mary and Colin, is called an "animal charmer" (157)--while at the same time, he is like an animal himself. Like Désirée, Mouret's innocent and bestial sister, he is a kind of elemental being; while Désirée is compared to the mother-goddess Cybele (French ed. 71), the "wood fairy" Dickon with his flute is similar to Pan (113, xxv). The tip of Dickon's nose moves like the tip of the nose of a rabbit, and he knows the language of birds. He himself thinks that he perhaps is "a bird, or a fox, or a rabbit, or a squirrel, or even a beetle, an' I don't know it" (101). As Colin does, Dickon stresses the similarities between human beings and animals; "Us is near bein' wild things ourselves," he says to the robin (167). He also feels related to such animals as otters, badgers, and water-rats. "They're same as us," he emphasizes, "only they have to build their homes every year" (207). Finally, the male robin, contemplating Mary, Colin, and Dickon over the eggs in his nest, certifies "that in the garden there was nothing which was not quite like themselves" (267). This emphasis on the animal in the children sounds ambiguous in this context, since in the light of the mate hunting and reproduction of the birds, the "nest-building" of the two children takes on a special meaning; it is a matter not only of establishing a safe and protected zone of one's own, but also of experiencing love and attraction. Again and again the narrator stresses how "beautiful" Mary finds Dickon (114). Her feelings are reciprocated. "I likes thee wonderful, an' so does th' robin, I do believe!" Dickon says (112). In this context we also have to notice that Dickon's name in vulgar English has sexual connotations.15

The sexual connotations of the children's nesting are also stressed. Nesting is explicitly associated with the magic that makes everything propagate. Especially striking is the scene in which Dickon and Mary are discussing whether one kisses people in the same way as flowers. Mary rejects this idea, arguing that "Flowers are so different" (160). But Dickon, who firmly denies the difference, gets the last word: "I've kissed my mother many a time that way" (161). Flowers and people are not so different after all.

The discussion about kissing takes place while the two children are eagerly running from one part of the garden to another, looking at all the wonders taking place "until Mistress Mary's hair was as tumbled as Dickon's and her cheeks were almost as poppy red as his" (161). Their collaboration in the intense reproduction of the garden makes them merry, warm, and excited; they experience all the "joy of earth" that abounds in the garden. The context gives not only their physical excitement but also the "swelling leaf-buds" of the roses sexual implications. The scene ends with Dickon's emphasizing the eternal and natural in the propagation of the birds: "It's a part o' th' springtime, this nest-buildin' is," he says. "I warrant it's been goin' on in th' same way every year since th' world was begun" (162).16

But of course The Secret Garden is not only about reproduction and propagation. Burnett puts children and nurturing powers in the center. The depiction of the reproduction of the robins ends in an impassioned tribute to "the immense, tender, terrible, heart-breaking beauty and solemnity of Eggs" (267). The whole garden knows "that if an Egg were taken away or hurt the whole world would whirl round and crash through space and come to an end" (267).

In keeping with this sense of cosmic importance, the tribute to propagation has religious overtones. The children sing thanksgiving hymns to "th' Big Good Thing" that "set th' seeds swellin' an' th' sun shinin'" (284). It is stressed that they are honoring not the Christian God but a life giving force that could have many names. Colin speaks about "Magic"; Mrs. Sowerby calls it "th' Joy Maker" (285). Moreover, the garden is described as a sanctuary. The children gather under a special tree that is "a sort of temple" (246); here Colin, who functions as the High Priest of their little community, gives a chanting sermon on Magic. When Colin's father enters the garden in the last chapter, even he imagines that he is "in an embowered temple of gold" (303).

When Albine and Serge in Zola's novel explore the wild garden, they experience similar feelings. They walk in under the trees "religiously, with something like awe, as the faithful enter a high church" (157).17 The trees form a huge sanctuary with naves, side aisles, pillars, and archs where religious silence reigns. As the lovers sit down under the mysterious tree, the religious associations return. The huge "tree of life" rises in "a temple of silence and half-light; there was nothing but green, no bit of sky, no sign of the pale horizon, nothing but a rotunda draped all around with the soft silk of leaves, hung with the satiny silk of moss" (182).18 It is here that the Fall of Albine and Serge takes place.

In Burnett's discourse, magic accordingly also becomes a moral power. When first Mary and later Colin have been caught up into the work of rebirth of the garden, they are changed: they become not only stronger and merrier but also less selfish, less spoiled, and more disposed to care about other living creatures. They also get more strong willed and more disposed to "positive thinking," as Jerry Griswold puts it (200). Above all, their nurturing powers awake. Affectionately, the children help the new shoots out of the mould and learn from Dickon how to take care of the abandoned animals and give suck to the lamb. The unhappy Mr. Craven, too, undergoes a transformation. Like Mary's mother, at the beginning of the novel he is criticized for being selfish and not caring about his own child. Indeed, "He cares about nobody," Mrs. Medlock says (16). He has forgotten his home and his duties, has let his soul "fill itself with blackness and [has] refused obstinately to allow any rift of light to pierce through" (290). But when the garden is restored, Mr. Craven too in a mysterious way is given new life--and becomes able to love his abandoned son.

Here Burnett differs significantly from Zola. In Zola the acceptance of the powers of life does not make people better; they only get merrier, more vigorous, and better equipped for the struggle for life. Neither can we find in La faute de l'abbé Mouret the same affectionate care for the young as in The Secret Garden. In Zola's novel it doesn't matter if some nestlings die; we all know that there will be new ones all the time. Désirée herself is a master at butchering: "No one was more adept than she at cutting off a goose's head with one stroke or at slitting a hen's throat with a pair of scissors. Her love of animals had no difficulty accepting this massacre. It was necessary, she said; it made room for babies growing up. And she was very gay" (187).19

Nevertheless, motherhood and nurturing powers are important also in La faute de l'abbé Mouret. I have noted that the novel ends with a delivery, as Désirée's cow gives birth to a calf, and it is to Désirée that childbirth and nurturing are chiefly connected here. She nurtures her animals "with maternal tenderness" and knows their language better than she knows the language of human beings (47; the French reads "avec des attendrissements maternels" [74]). She even sleeps covered with her animals. To be surrounded by reproduction gives her an almost sexual satisfaction:

Something in her rejoiced when the hens brooded; she laughed like a beautiful girl receiving a compliment as she carried her female rabbits to the males; she experienced the happiness of pregnancy in milking her goat. Nothing could be healthier. ... The peace of a beautiful beast always shone in her clear gaze empty of all thought; she was happy to see her little world multiply; she felt her own body grow as if she herself had been impregnated. She was so identified with all these mothers that it seemed she was the common mother, the natural mother dropping generative liquid from her fingers without any unhealthy tremor.(48)20

Dickon, Désirée's counterpart in The Secret Garden, is likewise surrounded by animals that he affectionately nurtures. It is emphasized that his animals are orphans. As Bixler has pointed out, Burnett is unprejudiced enough to have even males represent the nurturing, maternal powers ("Gardens" 213). Not only Mary but also Colin learns to feed Dickon's lamb from a bottle. Dickon also resembles Désirée in spending his life far away from education and civilization. It is said of Mouret's sister that it was "her weak mind which made her like animals" (47--in French, "sa pauvreté d'esprit qui la rapprocha des animaux" [74]). Dickon is not portrayed as mentally retarded; his closeness to nature is instead indicated by his class and his Yorkshire dialect. Like Zola, Burnett associates healthiness and naturalness with the working classes. When Mary and Colin are brought to a new life and are getting healthy and strong, they both begin to use the same broad dialect as Dickon. The dialect in fact becomes the very sign of their transformation.

But if Désirée and Dickon have their roots in the earth, there is also a maternal figure in The Secret Garden who represents the more supernatural side of motherhood. This is Dickon's and Martha's mother, Mrs. Sowerby. From the beginning portrayed as an affectionate and considerate mother to her twelve children, when she suddenly appears in the garden in the last chapter of the novel there is something emblematic and mythic about her. She is said to be like "a softly coloured illustration in one of Colin's books," and she has "wonderful affectionate eyes which seemed to take everything in--all of them, even Ben Weatherstaff and the 'creatures' and every flower that was in bloom" (281). Dickon's comment on her apparition emphasizes the iconic in her image: "It's Mother--that's who it is!" And Mary and Colin, both orphans, immediately seek her:

Each of them kept looking up at her comfortable rosy face, secretly curious about the delightful feeling she gave them--a sort of warm, supported feeling. It seemed as if she understood them as Dickon understood his "creatures." She stooped over the flowers and talked to them as if they were children.(284)

This first mother then teaches the children about the power that sets the seeds swelling and the sun shining and that "goes on makin' worlds by th' million--worlds like us" (284). She is like Colin's own mother, the equally mythical Mrs. Craven, who also "loved the earth and things that grow" (121), and the chapter ends with Mrs. Sowerby's saying to Colin that his own mother is in the garden. Ultimately Mrs. Craven's motherliness gets a new lease on life when the children make the garden flower, at the same time that the garden and its maternal magic cause the children to be reborn.

Here we arrive at the second intertext to which I seek to draw attention, since in its portrayal of mythic motherhood in a sexualized setting, Burnett's novel comes very close to British sex manuals of the late nineteenth century. In these works, too, as Nelson has recently pointed out, sexuality was often discussed "via botany or ornithology" ("Guidance" 112), just as we have seen it discussed in The Secret Garden. Nelson distinguishes "professionalist" sex manuals, aimed especially at educators or physicians, from "maternalist" manuals aimed at children themselves. The latter type of book had titles such as Baby Buds and The Human Flower, like The Secret Garden, it sought to appeal "to children's sense of community with other beings" (112) and idealized the mother, whom its authors considered best suited to give children their sex education. Like Susan Sowerby, the Victorian mother was often seen, as the nineteenth-century journalist Andrew Halliday put it in 1865, as "the mainspring of all nature, the fountain of all pure love" (qtd. in Nelson, "Guidance" 100); she could therefore, the maternalists argued, "discuss sex with an authority [that] fathers [or other adult males] lacked" (100). For mothers, sex was often considered to be something holy, connected with altruism, selflessness, and self-sacrificing purity. Accordingly, maternalists reasoned that if mothers controlled the discourse of sexuality they could "re-create masculinity as nurturing and ... maternal" (102), just as Burnett represents Dickon. This stance did not mean that the maternalists wanted to eradicate sexuality. "On the contrary," Nelson writes, "even manuals aimed at children note that women may enjoy sex" (100).

The maternalists (who included many men) idealized boys like Dickon for their frankness, their love for their mothers, their purity, their tenderness toward weaker beings. Ultimately these sex educators hoped to transform society by leveraging the filial piety of the Dickons of the world into a greater voice for women within public life (Nelson, "Guidance" 101). Ronny Ambjörnsson's book on a Swedish maternalist of the 1890s, Ellen Key, is characteristically called Samhällsmodern, "The Public Mother," a goal of which Burnett, a strong feminist, presumably approved.

In its political similarities to late-Victorian sex manuals for children, The Secret Garden finally diverges from La faute de l'abbé Mouret. Desirée is no holy angel in the house making children altruistic and spiritual by giving them sex education. That the principal characters in Burnett's classic are two abandoned children highlights parental affection (or its lack) in a way that is not the case in Zola's novel. Even so, while La faute de l'abbé Mouret is primarily about the twenty-five-year-old Serge Mouret's fight against his sexuality, children play an important role here as well. Albine is only six years older than Mary and Colin. Moreover, the sexually inexperienced Serge is portrayed as a child who does not want to be a grown-up. "Make me five years old" ("Faites que j'aie cinq ans"), he entreats the Holy Virgin (96; French ed. 136). What is more, when Serge recovers from his illness, he is reborn in an almost literal sense, transformed into "a poor thing born the day before" (112).21 He is compared to a plant in the spring; Albine is said to help him push up through the mould (French ed. 177). Like a child, he has to learn how to walk. What follows is the story of his developing into full masculinity; the process culminates with his making love to Albine beneath the big tree. But before that we have been told a lot about mornings of childish play and merry frolics by two young persons set free in the garden of Paradou (see especially French ed. 204ff.).

Readers of both works will notice that the merry rambles of Albine and Serge in Paradou bear a close resemblance to Mary and Dickon's investigation of their secret garden. Similarly, the stress on the likeness of the children to mate-hunting and procreating animals creates expectations that they too will be hit by the irresistible power of love. But this does not happen. While Mary finds Dickon beautiful and they are apparently attracted to each other, their relationship does not develop into a romance. Nor does the text say anything about love between Mary and Colin when they in their turn play nest-building missel thrushes. They too are obviously attracted to each other, but nothing is said about how their relationship proceeds.

Thus The Secret Garden is a text full of gaps and unfinished events. The title has a double meaning; the novel is itself a garden full of secrets. These mysteries are often connected with hidden intertexts, which like Zola's La faute de l'abbé Mouret function as keys to its inner recesses. Its complexity gives the novel an almost modernist touch; Burnett's use of mythical references (especially the tale of Paradise) resembles the method that modernist pioneers such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce were just about to develop.

To sum up, then, Burnett was in many ways governed by a juvenile literary discourse. Yet she has also considerably widened this discourse, not only by writing an ambiguous and open text but also by challenging the rules of children's literature. In The Secret Garden she contested the traditional view of how a heroine in a children's book should behave: Mary is strong and obstinate and sometimes disobeys the grown-ups. Some of the males, as we have seen, also have unconventional traits. Even today, men are not usually depicted as caring and nurturing. But The Secret Garden is provocative also in other ways. For example, Burnett breaks the rule that a children's book should have an unequivocally happy ending. And most provoking of all, by allowing Zola's La faute de l'abbé Mouret to peep out through the cracks in the text and by using the imagery and ideology of Victorian sex-education manuals, Burnett challenges the taboo that prohibited sex in novels for children. It was no accident that Lawrence drew upon The Secret Garden when he extolled sexual love in Lady Chatterley's Lover. Clearly, he realized the subversive potential of this unusual work.


1. Adrian Gunther, too, denies that The Secret Garden defends what Keyser calls "patriarchal authority." Gunther claims that the novel pays tribute to a female value system, "one in which the real power may lie in standing aside and letting someone else win" (160). Gunther regards Colin as a basically unpleasant character who "remains intrinsically self-centered up to the very last line" (160).

2. Mary is said to have resemblances to heroines who divide their attention between "an eroticized lower-class male and attenuated upper-class male" (56); besides Lady Chatterley, Bixler also mentions Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

3. Burnett arrived in Paris in the early spring of 1875 and stayed for more than a year. During her stay she also wrote "Esmeralda," a short story that became a successful play in 1881. Interestingly enough, a critic writing in The Times found similarities between Esmeralda and Zola's works: the play was said to possess "a distinct value as what M. Zola calls a document humain" (qtd. in Thwaite 78).

4. Information about the English translations can be found in The British Library General Catalogue. It should be added that Burnett probably could read Zola's novel in French. She visited France at least six times between 1875 and 1899 (Thwaite 46, 196, 248), and during one of her early long stays she reported that she took "unlimited" French lessons (Thwaite 78).

5. I use Sandy Petrey's translation of the novel. Zola writes, "La vache a fait une veau!" (406).

6. "C'est la joie de s'être assise là qui l'a tuée. L'arbre a une ombre dont le charme fait mourir" (193). Petrey does not translate the last sentence; "charme" in French, as in English, refers to both magic and attractiveness.

7. "Toute cette vie pullulante avait un frisson d'enfantement. Sous chaque feuille, un insecte concevait, dans chaque touffe d'herbe, une famille poussait: des mouches volantes, collées l'une à l'autre, n'attendaient pas de s'être posées pour se féconder. Les parcelles de vie invisibles qui peuplent la matière, les atomes de la matière euxmêmes, aimaient, s'accouplaient, donnaient au sol un branle voluptueux, faisaient du parc une grande fornication" (255).

8. "La fatalité de la génération les entourait. Ils cédèrent aux exigences du jardin" (255).

9. "Elle lui donnait la passion de la terre. Il apprenait à l'aimer, en regardant comment s'aiment les herbes" (349).

10. The sexual purport is lost in the translation. The original reads: "C'était la terre qui assouvissait Désirée" (324).

11. "[P]renait un frisson de sève, comme si la mort était vaincue par l'éternelle jeunesse de la terre" (22).

12. "Il naissait dans le soleil, dans ce bain pur de lumière qui l'inondait" (165).

13. "C'était un rire sans fin, un roucoulement de gorge, une musique sonnante, triomphante, célébrant la volupté du réveil. Tout riait, dans ce rire de femme naissant à la beauté et à l'amour, les roses, le bois odorant, le Paradou entier" (174).

14. As the watchman of the divine garden, Ben is the counterpart to Zola's Jeanbernat.

15. Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English notes that "Dick" as a synonym for penis appears circa 1880.

16. Birds of spring also accompany the events in Zola's novel. Albine is again and again compared to a bird, and at the beginning of La faute de l'abbé Mouret she gives Désirée the nest of a thrush with young birds in it. The latter nurtures the nestlings and speaks to them in a language that they seem to understand, just as Dickon does in The Secret Garden. Nevertheless, they are dead at the end of the novel (French ed. 90, 318). Their death presages that of Albine.

17. In French, "religieusement, avec une pointe de terreur sacrée, comme on entre sous la voûte d'une église" (218).

18. The original speaks "d'un tabernacle de silence et de demi-jour; il n'y avait là qu'une verdure, sans un coin de ciel, sans une échappée d'horizon, qu'une rotonde, drapée partout de la soie attendrie des feuilles, tendue à la terre du velours satiné des mousses" (251).

19. "Personne comme elle ne tranchait la tête d'une oie d'un seul coup de hachette, ou n'ouvrait le gosier d'une poule avec une paire de cieaux. Son amour des bêtes acceptait très gaillardement ce massacre. C'était nécessaire, disait-elle; ça faisait de la place aux petits qui poussaient. Et elle était très gaie" (399).

20. "Quelque chose d'elle se contentait dans la ponte des poules; elle portait ses lapines au mâle, avec des rires de belle fille calmée; elle éprouvait des bonheurs de femme grosse à traire sa chèvre. Rien n'était plus sain. ... Elle gardait sa tranquillité de belle bête, son regard clair, vide de pensées, heureuse de voir son petit monde se multiplier, ressentent un agrandissement de son propre corps, fécondée, identifiée à ce point avec toutes ces mères, qu'elle était comme la mère commune, la mère naturelle, laissant tomber de ses doigts, sans un frisson, une sueur d'engendrement" (75).

21. Or as Zola's apt phrase has it, "à la vie végétative d'un pauvre être né de la veille" (160).

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