Over Dickon’s Dead Body? Virility/Masculinity in The Secret Garden

Like countless lovers of literature, I couldn’t tell you just how many times I’ve read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s /The Secret Garden/, but this semester I get to experience the joy of teaching it for the first time, and as always, the greatest pleasure I get from teaching old favorites is rediscovering them along with students who are reading them for the first time.

I’m teaching the novel in a course on 20th Century British Literature, subtitled British Literature and the Body, and yesterday, a seemingly predictable discussion of nature symbolism as metonymic  of the female womb/female genitalia took a rather unexpected turn when one of my students–a male, not surprisingly–pointed out that the garden might be Mary’s, and the land–Misselthwaite Manor and its grounds–might be Colin’s, but Dickon is the first to really plant anything in the garden; he is the one who knows the land intimately and how best to cultivate it; he is the one who sows the seeds. This comment invited an investigation of the contrast between Dickon and Colin and the notion that Dickon is the more masculine of the two; he is, of course, an obvious rival for Mary’s affection–as indicated by Colin’s fierce jealousy–but Burnett scholars have quite exhaustively commented upon the fact that the final third of the novel focuses almost entirely on Colin’s transformation from effeminate invalid to healthy boy-man (see for instance Danielle E. Price, “Cultivating Mary: the Victorian Secret Garden” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26, no.1  (2001); Anna Krugovoy Silver, “Domesticating Bronte’s Moors: Motherhood in The Secret Garden,” The Lion and the Unicorn 21, no.2 (1997).

Two of the novel’s adaptations–the 1993 Warner Adaptation and the 1987 Hallmark adaptation–clearly recognize Dickon’s threat to Colin’s burgeoning masculinity; in the Warner adaptation, Dickon, in knight-in-shining-armor fashion, appears in a scene at Colin’s window on horseback, calling to Mary to come outside, which Mary does; compared with the weak, whining Colin, confined to his couch, Dickon is the embodiment of ideal victorian masculinity.
The Hallmark adaptation ends following World War I; Colin has received a shrapnel wound in the leg and appears leaning on a cane; Dickon, Ben Weatherstaff reveals, has been killed. Colin’s limp and his cane naturally suggest impotence–underscored by the frustration in his tone when he questions Mary about her refusal to respond to not one, but two proposals of marriage.

I’ve always read this scene as a revision of the text that responds to the argument that the novel’s conclusion, by marginalizing Mary and making Colin the narrative focus, problematizes a feminist interpretation of the narrative. The focus in this final scene is largely on Mary and Mary’s agency. This reading, of course, conveniently overlooks Dickon because he is (physically) absent, though like Mrs. Craven, his spirit is allocated a pervasive presence.

Both Colin and Dickon are heros; Colin’s symbolic impotence might also be interpreted as a necessary rite of passage to legitimate his manhood; no longer a poor, pitiful, wining creature, he is a brave defender of the empire. When Mary expresses concern about his release from the hospital, he replies gallantly, “Do you think I’d let a little shrapnel stop me?”, wearing his battle wound as a badge of courage.
Dickon, on the other hand, has died; Colin might be wounded, but Dickon’s entire body–his life–is the ultimate sacrifice and call to heroism. Is Dickon then the braver, stronger, and ultimately more masculine man? Had he lived, would Mary have  chosen him? She gives every indication that she loves Colin and wants to Mary him, but she speaks so tenderly of Dickon and his memory that one can’t help wondering if she had secretly prefered him at some time.

Yet we don’t know how Dickon dies, precisely, nor how Colin is wounded, but the fact that Dickon’s death occurs in a forest–a place with “green, growing things” in Mary’s words–suggests a place of peace far-removed from the bloodstained battlefield where Colin is presumably shot. Limp notwithstanding, Colin still cuts a rather striking pose in this final scene; his battle has been one of personhood as well as patriotism. He has faught not just for his country, but for his manhood, and he has won both. In the end, Colin, not Dickon, gets the girl. Despite the textual evidence–however minimal–Dickon is only a perceived, not an actual threat to Colin simply because he has no design on Mary. Mary is arguably marginalized in the novel, but if she is, so is Dickon. Neither of them receive any credit in the final hour for restoring Colin to health and longevity, but Dickon most certainly doesn’t expect it. He simply fades into the foliage from which he emerged, leaving in his wake a  trail of roses and the lingering love that is his gift.


On a side note: in the 1987 adaptation, the adult Colin Craven is played by a very young Colin Firth, who I think admirably captures the interpretation of Colin as sexually frustrated hero.

Think about it!

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