Do characters need to be likable? When people read, they often want to see themselves reflected and the stories of their own lives retold, presented as valid and worthwhile. This is one of the reasons why representation is so important. A woman may wish to see another woman like herself presented as a fully developed character with strengths, flaws, and depth. Or a person of a certain ethnicity, or possessing a certain disability, may wish to see a character like them presented free of lazy stereotypes. And to an extent, that’s often an author’s wish too. As an author, you want people to relate to (and often like) your characters that you work so hard to create and refine. Especially if it’s your protagonist.
But what happens when an author goes out of their way to make their protagonist as unlikable and unrelatable as possible? And even goes so far as to encourage the reader to develop a strong distaste for the protagonist?
This isn’t really an unusual idea for modern literature (in fact some authors make a habit of it…I’m looking at you, Kurt Vonnegut…or maybe that’s just me). Take Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, whose comeuppance I waited for in vain. Classic literature does it fairly often as a type of moralization (Jane Austen’s Lady Susan comes to mind – the reader is supposed to judge the character’s poor ethics, and soundly. Or Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff and Catherine who rush headlong into destruction.) But I find that one classic children’s book stands apart in its presentation of an unlikable protagonist, and moreover the treatment of its author in egging the reader on to despise the character. That book is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
I first read The Secret Garden when I was the age of the intended audience. Being rather narrow-minded I think I disliked half of the protagonists I encountered in any books, so Mary Lennox did not stand out to me. It wasn’t until I re-read the novel many years (and movie versions) later that I was really struck with how ruthless Burnett is in her descriptions of Mary’s character, habits, and even appearance.
And it’s fair censure. Mary Lennox is a little jerk.
The first paragraph of the book inspires the reader to dislike not only Mary, but the entire Lennox family: “…Everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too” (Burnett 9). We’re then treated to a physical description of Mary (always a treat if, like me, you require a clear mental image of characters). It would be one thing if only her appearance was criticized, but Burnett is quick to add that Mary has a “sour expression” (9). Basically, Mary’s disagreeable nature is at least as much to blame for her appearance as the fact that she had “always been ill one way or another” (Burnett 9).
Of course, Mary is just a child of nine. While the book treats Mary as a fully realized person with a lot of autonomy (one of the reasons I think it speaks so well to children…they do not like to be condescended to, not even in literature) who is responsible in large part for her own development, Burnett clearly lets us know that Mary’s parents are in no way absolved of their part in this. Mr. and Mrs. Lennox are but ephemeral figures in the story. They perish early in from a cholera epidemic that sweeps the British colony in India where they live with their daughter, but that doesn’t stop us from getting a vivid picture of just how absent they were from Mary’s life. Her mother was beautiful (unlike Mary), but selfish, “[caring] only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people” (Burnett 9). The father is even more absent, barring a few mentions of how busy he was. Mary’s mother did not even want a child, and there’s a strong implication that she was also carrying on an affair with a young officer.
So, model parents. We can’t really blame Mary, and it’s harder to blame her as adults who understand the full implications of her parents’ responsibility. But, luckily, children are a lot less forgiving of circumstances. And the child reader will not excuse Mary’s behavior on the basis of bad parenting – nor should they. Burnett treats children as thinking beings fully capable of making judgments. One rather relates to Basil, the little boy whose home Mary is initially sent to after her parents’ deaths. He tries to befriend Mary who nearly bites his head off, and Basil responds by making her an object of childlike scorn.
Here’s the thing, though (and lest you think I’m being harsh, and excusing “bullying”) – Mary is secretly not unrelatable at all. In fact, the further one gets into the story, the more you see that she is actually just like anyone else. The only reason she’s such an unbearable brat is that she’s taken the normal amount of pride and selfishness that any of us has, and due in part to a deeply passionate nature and her lack of a good example, lets it all hang out in a horrifying display. Most people go to a lot of trouble to hide their inner garbage. Mary’s is written all over her face, to the point that it literally makes her ugly. Her first inclination is to hate people and things. She is cynical as hell.
But I love her. Even in her worst brat moments, there’s always a part of her attitude that calls to something deep within us all, even as we condemn her behavior. Maybe that’s what makes her so fun to dislike at first. She hates everyone, even the people who take her in at her uncle’s creepy manor in the English moors; but to be honest, they’re typical adults: fond of scandalized gossip, and prone to talking crap about children right in front of them, as if they’re deaf or stupid.
And when Misselthewaite Manor and its many mysteries begin to make Mary blossom like the flowers in the hidden garden she discovers, one can’t help but to suddenly relate to Mary. It’s a strange feeling, reading this story, and evidence of how masterfully Burnett develops her protagonist. One minute you’re despising Mary, practically sick of how apathetic and ungrateful she is, and the next you’re digging up the secrets of the manor alongside her, egging her on when her brash, rebellious personality clashes with the status quo of Misselthewaite.
Nothing displays the change in Mary so much as her relationship with her cousin Colin, which I deem the deeper and more interesting of the two friendships Mary develops with boys in the book (the other friendship is with the mercurial, extremely likeable Dickon – Dickon is almost a fantastical creature, but Colin is painfully real). Mary tends to immediately build rapport with those disagreeable types who are most like her, like the gruff old gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and Colin Craven is very much like her. Or at least, how Mary was. Colin’s lived an even more sheltered existence; while Mary was ignored by her parents and left to her own devices, Colin has been hidden away by his grief-stricken, widowed father, and believed to be severely disabled (and, in typical early-1900s fashion, treated like a pariah and barely spoken of except in horrified whispers). So naturally, he’s angry, self-centered, and hates everyone. Like Mary, his attitude is justified to an extent, but he’s still responsible for his behavior.
When Mary discovers Colin, she has no sympathy for him whatsoever. He treats her as he treats everyone – as if she is at his every beck and call. That works with his father’s weary, frightened servants, but not Mary Lennox. Inclined to befriend her cousin, Mary is thwarted at first by Colin’s awful behavior. She tires of his “woe is me” outlook on life, and his willingness to just accept the dire fate predicted by his doctor and everyone else – which is very unlike Mary, who refuses to listen to anyone’s judgment but her own. And when Colin tries to reduce her to the level of a servant, by throwing a fit when she doesn’t appear at his bidding, what follows are several of the best clashes of wills in any children’s book, and which firmly embed Mary in the reader’s goodwill:
“You are a selfish thing!” cried Colin.
“What are you?” said Mary. “Selfish people always say that. Anyone is selfish who doesn’t do what they want. You’re more selfish than I am. You’re the most selfish boy I ever saw.”
…“I’m not as selfish as you, because I’m always ill, and I’m sure there is a lump coming on my back,” he said. “And I am going to die besides.”
“You’re not!” contradicted Mary unsympathetically.
…“I’m not?” he cried. “I am! You know I am! Everybody says so.”
“I don’t believe it!” said Mary sourly. “You just say that to make people sorry. I believe you’re proud of it. I don’t believe it! If you were a nice boy it might be true–but you’re too nasty!” (Burnett 165-166)
And my favorite line, during Colin’s worst tantrum:
His face looked dreadful, white and red and swollen, and he was gasping and choking; but savage little Mary did not care an atom.
“If you scream another scream,” she said, “I’ll scream too–and I can scream louder than you can, and I’ll frighten you, I’ll frighten you!” (Burnett 172)
Then she goes on to insult Colin’s boyish masculinity by accusing him of having hysterics. It’s a harsh couple of encounters, wherein Mary uses her obstinacy and passion to shock poor Colin into proper respect for others, while all the adults in the story cower before the boy, and at the same time ignore his humanity by treating him as if he’s no better than already dead. They at once infantilize Colin and dehumanize him. Mary does neither. She doesn’t know any better, and probably wouldn’t care even if she did.
It’s really astonishing to see how the child cast of The Secret Garden develop not only without, but in spite of, the adults around them. Of course, there are many good people Mary encounters, like Dickon’s mother and sister, and the initially cool inhabitants of Misselthewaite do warm up once Mary, and the reader, gets to know them. Even Mr. Craven, Colin’s father, isn’t as bad as the ogre he seems to be at first. But the adults don’t remember how to be warm anymore. The entire estate is so imprisoned by the past that it has lost the ability to flourish.
But children are different. Far from being impressionable bits of clay entirely formed by the world around them, the children in this book are world-shakers. Mary becomes the catalyst by which not only the secret rose garden, but the entirety of the estate eventually relearns how to blossom. It’s no accident that the book ends with a scene of grown-up shock at all the amazing things that have been going on right under their noses.
Mary is like Misselthewaite Manor, in many ways imposing and dark. There’s a deep vein of sarcasm running through Mary even to the end, and one gets the impression that she’ll grow to be a woman who will truly shake up early twentieth-century England. But she also has a passion and beauty inside, which had been long hidden and needed sunshine and a little kindness (together with mystery as fresh and cold as the winds of the moor) in order to be revealed.
We begin with someone who embodies the very worst in children and in ourselves, selfishness and cynicism that we loathe in others for the very reason that we relate to it too well for comfort. But it’s because of that that Mary ends up being one of the best literary figures a little girl can encounter. Classic children’s literature is the richer for Mary Lennox, who represents the disagreeable cynic in many of us.
- Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1987.
Melissa Gonnella is primarily a graphic artist, but has always been obsessed with the need to have a story behind her art, and thus at a very young age began writing stories to accompany her art. She attended the School of Visual Arts in NYC and earned her degree in illustration, continuing to build her art on stories.
She currently lives in central Maine with her daughter and husband in an old Victorian house, where she is certain she can hear Colin Craven wailing on a nightly basis. These days it’s hard to find time to work on art and stories, but with a steady diet of Earl Grey tea and inspiring books and film she’s starting to find her motivation once more.