Return to the Secret Garden by Holly Webb
Children’s Authors Rock
Revisiting classics can certainly be a tricky business so I’m always a little cautious that an author will not get the importance of doing a good job. Luckily for us though, children’s authors are always (always!) avid fans of other children’s books and therefore totally get that when they take on a classic, they carry with them the hearts of many.
I should have known that Holly Webb would treat Return to the Secret Garden with the appropriate sensitivity and attention to detail. Like Kate Saunders, whose Five Children on the Western Front is my favourite book so far this year, she pulls her characters into a more recent and therefore plausible past. With Saunders, our five friends were reunited with us on the brink of the First World War; for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, Webb takes us to 1939 where Misselthwaite Manor is providing a home for a group of evacuees who are orphans from London.
We are straight away swept up with young Emmie, who is far from delighted with her new situation. Emmie has not had a great life. She has no family to speak of, just her teachers and the other children at the orphanage, but having adopted a stray cat in London- Lucy- and grown very fond of it, she is naturally devastated to have to leave her hundreds of miles behind in now dangerous surroundings. My heart went out to Emmie as she struggled not to worry about her dear friend all alone.
Just as she feels at her most alone though, she finds an old diary, one that belonged to a Miss Mary Lennox, began in January 1910. Mary writes about a wonderful secret garden. Emmie understands the importance of secrets: Lucy was her secret for a very long time before she was tempted into the orphanage by the possibility of more food. Having read Mary’s tantalising description of the garden, she sets out to find it and in the early morning dew is rewarded with roses, sunshine, heavily scented lilies and chubby bees. The garden however is now unlocked so anyone can wander in should they choose to, but in Emmie’s eyes it’s all hers, for now anyway.
Webb cleverly juxtaposes the time of Emmie’s first visit to the garden with Mary’s. Whereas Mary first visited in January, Emmie is here on a lazy late summer’s morning. Such a brilliant move, and such a good way of marking Emmie’s adventure as linked but of a different time. Webb is adept at lightly adding these sort of metaphorical touches throughout her writing, like extra secrets for the reader.
As the garden has changed over the years, so have the original characters. Remember, this is only 1939 and our old friends Mary, Colin and Dickon were children in 1910, so you should be expecting to meet them during the course of the story. The First World War has been part of their lifetimes and Webb made the decision for its effect on them to be long-lasting and life-altering. I think she really had to do this, because this is the truth of that particular war; this is what it did. It seems that no-one was left undamaged by it, and much as we wish these three were left alone, in our hearts we know it would have touched them.
Read and I think you’ll agree that Mary, Colin and Dickon somehow feel right for their time, whether you feel happy with their outcomes or not. And here they are, on the verge of the bloodiest conflict in history with all the memories of the earlier war still lingering and a house full of strangers. Maybe this isn’t a time for secrets, but one for pulling together, sharing and helping out. Times have certainly changed.
Return to the Secret Garden is a book to be cherished. It is a beautiful object to hold and look at, with the roots of a story we most of us know as well as any. Webb’s new characters fit neatly into Misselthwaite Manor, and going from busy London to the solitude of Yorkshire it feels rather like we’re all time travelling together.
I would utterly recommend it to anyone who loved The Secret Garden, as long as they can cope with seeing the original children all grown up. A gorgeous Christmas present for children and adults alike, for teachers and librarians, or anyone who ever wondered what might have happened next…
GGGG Return to the Secret Garden is propagated to perfection. A glorious read.