If you had the key to my storage unit in Northern California, you would be able to gain entry and discover many boxes, mostly of books. If you happened to rummage through the right container, however, you might feel curious enough to open a small dark box, about the size of your palm, made in Poland, which houses several tiny items I have no intention of ever giving away.
In fact, you might find an important keepsake from my visit to France Hodgson Burnett’s home in England.
This item is a smooth, round, dark acorn picked up from the ground under one of the massive trees planted near the entrance to Burnett’s British home, Great Maytham Hall. A home which inspired the writing of one of my favorite childhood books, The Secret Garden. Yes, I had permission from the host of my class’s visit to the great estate to pocket the acorn. I was 22, beginning a Master’s program in Children’s Literature in England, and I was delighted that I would have something tangible by which I could remember my own special Secret Garden “visit.”
That acorn traveled with me from the U.K. back to California, and then across America to the East Coast for several years, and then back to California yet again.
Whenever I take it out, to touch its smooth and shiny exterior, I’m taken back to that morning when I encountered Great Maytham Hall for the first time. Occasionally I wonder whether touching it frequently might spark my own creativity or instantaneously transport me to the grounds of Great Maytham Hall itself.)
Frances Hodgson Burnett lived at Great Maytham Hall between 1898 and 1907. Though it’s quite different than Misselthwaite Manor, it’s certain that this place inspired Burnett’s writing of her classic book. There she basked in the beauty of the natural world within the estate’s gardens, and befriended a robin. In fact, one of the gardens at this house inspired the actual Secret Garden in the book.
You can imagine my delight that those of us embarking on the graduate program in children’s literature at The University of Roehampton were taken to this particular place at the start of the term.
Tea and coffee were waiting for our group of fifteen or so avid students of children’s literature, and the estate’s caretakers gave us permission to wander the grounds in the early fall sunshine.
Before stepping out of the grand house and into the back garden with the others, I stood for a moment with my still warm cup of tea. I looked through the open French doors, wondering what it would have been like had Frances Hodgson Burnett been alive, and perhaps waiting to meet our group. I imagined how it would have felt to wake up each day and know that (weather cooperating) I might sit and write in the garden, expecting a certain robin to show up for a chat (there’s a lovely true story about Burnett and the robin she befriended called “My Robin.” It’s actually in my annotated edition of the book.).
It was magical to view an area of the garden where we were told Burnett had spent time writing her story. You can imagine our awe and wonder at that fact. An immediate hush fell over the group, the only sound the cheerful chirping of the birds. Though Burnett was no longer there, I’m certain that many of us were picturing her, peacefully writing stories that would delight readers for generations.
“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”
I remember that day as a day of dreams coming true—seeing up close the place where the writer of several of my favorite childhood books (I also loved A Little Princess) lived and wrote. We were a group of graduate students embarking on our own journey of discovery into the great world of children’s literature, and a trip to Great Maytham Hall was the perfect start to this adventure!
It was a magical day, to say the least. And this is really how I felt. (Also a tap to Wendy Darling who helped push me to write this post.)
Burnett appreciated and loved the natural world, and I could understand how the beauty of her walled garden at Great Maytham Hall inspired her. As I thought about it more, I realized that she and L.M. Montgomery were similar in that both were in love with the beauty of the natural world and an appreciation of this beauty is reflected in their books. Perhaps that’s one reason why both women are two of my favorite authors.
“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”
“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever.”
I’ll save my thoughts on the actual book for my next post, but I hope you’ve enjoyed a glimpse of this bookish journey I can never forget. Of course, thank you to ladies over at The Midnight Garden Classic Middle Grade Read-along for reminding me how much I love this book!