Beyond the Secret Garden: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett by Ann Thwaite

Republished and updated to coincide with the release this year (delayed because of lockdown) of another film adaptation of her famous ‘The Secret Garden’ starring Colin Firth and Julie Walters. This edition also begins with an excellent foreword by Jacqueline Wilson.

As a biography Ann Thwaite has been very thorough. She gives immense insight into the life and world of a young Frances and then her adulthood as a very wealthy and famous feted literary figure in both America and England. However, as the book went along I grew less and less enchanted, although doubly intrigued as to her motives, as an author who spent a lifetime immersed in creating stories, thinking that she too became part of her own fictionalised fantasy world.

Born in Manchester, when her father died her mother and other siblings moved to the poorer part of Salford as Mrs Hodgson tried to carry on the business of selling upper class hardware (such as candelabras) to the newly rich textile factory owners of the north. Frances was always aware of life around her and the immense hardships, although she seemed to couch them in romantic terms. The tragic death of a fellow school pupil Alfie Burns and being taken to touch his laid out dead body brought to her mind the images of ill health, poverty and loneliness which often thread through her writing.

Times began to be even tougher in the ‘shadow of the wear in America’ affecting raw cotton shipments and unemployment rose rapidly. At one point 338 cotton mills disappeared as did the owners with their money. Mrs Hodgson sold the business but was left with little to support her large family so took up the invitation to visit her brother William Boond. Frances and the family sailed from Liverpool in May 1865, just after President Lincoln’s death. It was to be a voyage across the Atlantic she took many times over the years – but searching for what?

Frances tried to supplement the family income with teaching but this was little so she thought of writing little stories for magazines. When her mother died in 1870 the urgency for money fell on Frances’ shoulders. She had to be the main breadwinner.

There is a trail of men entranced by Frances who was quite a flirt. Often this helped her career as with Richard Watson Gilder the Editor of Scribner’s Monthly where many of her stories were published. She became noticed in literary circles (this was the time of Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Henry James). In her love however, life she made some questionable choices. Her first husband was a family friend, Swan Burnett and had two sons who she adored. But I feel that she very soon tired of him and wanted to pursue her own career.

Her work was selling well, especially her first adult novel That Lass o’ Lowrie’s, and there were often stage adaptations which made more money. Yet she always seemed to struggle with finance. One aspect might be her love of travel, renting marvellous apartments and houses in which to live often across Europe and in Bermuda! Enter her ‘business manager’ poor Stephen Townesend. She was blown over by his wonderful eyes, he more so of her growing fame and money I think. Would he be her saviour – a knight in shining armour on a white charger?

For the late 19th century Frances led a life of often shocking sexual scandal. Whilst the journalists adored her at the start following her fame with ardour, later her waning stardom against other rising stars of literature and theatre, alongside rehashing old stories alongside a time of Oscar Wilde, made her a target for many harsh headlines.

Her two sons were her pride and joy. Tragedy fell upon her and left her with only Vivian who it was always considered was the role model for Little Lord Fauntleroy. I never liked the story as a child but then watched a 1995 adaptation with George Baker and a very blonde precocious American actor as the main star. It’s a schmaltzy tale but I had to admit to a few tears… it was a huge hit around the world. The President loved it. Gladstone loved it. And of course the new style of velvet suits with lace collars for boys began a fashion style equally loved by mothers and hated by their sons.  Stranger still, in the early stage plays and films (including the famous one with Mary Pickford) the role of the young Fauntleroy was always played by a girl! Her son Vivian has had to deal with being ‘the real Fauntleroy’ ever since, especially when it became known the term of ‘Dearest’ for their mother was exactly as portrayed in the book.

Frances wanted to be a Fairy Godmother in life. She often helped with charity and her wonderful work helping in Rolvenden. But somehow, I feel her need for children over -rode her tangible role as a real mother. She also often tried to treat men as children. When they wanted none of it their rebukes could be cruel, as with family and friends when she always felt she was in the right. I felt equally sad and angry with her on many occasions during this book.  She was, however, an important author in the struggle for Copyright for writers and, thanks to her, the ability to just take someone’s work but not acknowledge (and pay) for it was put into law.

She always hankered for life back in England but always on her terms. Being Lady Bountiful to the poor and Lady of the Manor when she bought Maytham Hall in Rolvenden Kent.  It is thought that The Secret Garden was based on the rose garden there where Frances could sit and write. Really, there were a whole raft of small green spaces from her childhood to which she had escaped which may have influenced the book.  You can visit Maytham Hall through the National Garden Scheme, immerse yourself in the flowers and secrets and try to find a friendly Robin bird, so why destroy a good selling story!? Frances would have approved.

As a personal read I found it totally fascinating as I knew very little about Frances Burnett. It’s well researched but it was an awful shame there were no photographs included to bring to life a little of all the characters mentioned. On the back of reading it I’m intrigued to delve into some of Burnett’s adult novels but shall save The Secret Garden and the pile of her many children’s books for my new grandchild!

Biographies are not always a choice for book groups but maybe watching the new film and having read her famous children’s books when young, or to their own children, many may be encouraged to take on a broader reading about Burnett herself.

Frances Burnett and her Sons

Frances Burnett and her Sons

Reviewed by Philipa Coughlan
Personal read     4/5
Group read        3/5

Published in August 2020 by Duckworth an imprint of Duckworth Books Group Ltd
ISBN  978-0-7156-5418-7

(originally published as Waiting for the Party by Secker & Warburg in 1974)