Introducing Children's Literature: From Romanticism to Postmodernism

By Deborah Cogan Thacker; Jean Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 9

Romanticism vs. Empire inThe Secret Garden

Literary and historical discussion of British imperialism in writing for children from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century concentrates upon those texts that embody the values conducive to promoting the expansion and support of the empire (see for example Eldridge 1996 and Richards 1989). The focus falls upon the adventure stories for boys and domestic fiction for girls. Adventure stories for boys, typified by Ballantyne's Coral Island (1857) and Henty's Clive of India (1884) represent models of patriotic, imperialist adventurers, who are certain of their actions, and unquestioning of their values. A similarly pro-imperialist position emerges in the critical discussion of domestic fiction for girls, demonstrating the production of a model of femininity compliant with the values of British imperialism (Richards 1989). The anti-imperialist position, which becomes more evident at the turn of the century, is readily examined by critics through Rudyard Kipling's adventure story, Kim (1901), which is set in India under British rule. In the genre of domestic fiction of the fin de siècle, Frances Hodgson Burnett is also arguing an anti-imperialist position. Both The Secret Garden, published in 1911 and A Little Princess, published in 1905, take British imperialism in India as their context.

In The Secret Garden Burnett initially positions her protagonist, Mary Lennox, as the innocent victim of British imperialism. She does this by constructing the character and childhood experiences of Mary as negative projections against an idealised model of the Romantic child, which is initially implied, rather than stated in the text. The Romantic child would be expected to have a quality of innocence; to be imaginative and playful, and also to display an intuitive relationship with nature. The embodiment of these

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