But, strange as it seemed to him, there were minutes — sometimes half-hours — when, without his knowing why, the black burden seemed to lift itself again and he knew he was a living man and not a dead one. Slowly — slowly — for no reason that he knew of — he was “coming alive” with the garden.
—The Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) left an indelible mark on children’s literature, providing a path to the secret garden in all of us that is often lost in adulthood. But her own childhood was far from idyllic. Frances’ widowed mother Eliza moved with her five children from England to Knoxville, TN in 1865 where her brother had earlier moved and was struggling to keep a dry goods store going. He next moved Eliza and the children to New Market, where he had a cabin.
This was a dramatic shift for the Hodgson family. Frances had been born in Cheetham Hill, outside of Manchester. In late 1849 Manchester was a thriving textile center fueled by the success of the cotton mills. Edwin and Eliza Hodgson had a successful home furnishings business, providing customers with such products as chandeliers, ironwork, and brass door fittings.
But it all changed dramatically in 1854 when Edwin died at age 38 of a stroke. Eliza tried to keep the business going but the start of the Civil War in the United States affected cotton imports and the textile industry experienced a tremendous rate of unemployment.
And so the Hodgsons were hurled from upper middle class comfort in Manchester to hard scrabble poverty in New Market, now often going to bed hungry. And yet the move from industrial England to rural America was for young Frances a journey to the green, natural world that would become a central theme in many of her later works, including ‘The Secret Garden.’
The move would also prove instrumental in Frances’ development as a writer. Although she had always been obsessed with storytelling and often amused her schoolmates by acting out tales of adventure and romance, the financial strain of the emigration caused her to turn to writing as a means of supplementing the family’s income.
The Hodgson’s neighbors were Dr. John and Lydia Burnett and their son Swan, whose great-grandfather was Adam Peck, the earliest settler of what would become Jefferson City. Frances and Swan would spend much time together and would begin a relationship that would lead to marriage in 1873.
Frances Burnett’s first published story, “Miss Carruthers’ Engagement,” appeared in a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1868. Her paper and postage-stamps for the venture had to be earned by picking and selling wild grapes. She began to write five or six stories each month, for $10 apiece and supported her family by writing. As stories began to be published in Harper’s, Atlantic, Scribner’s Monthly, and Peterson’s Ladies’ Magazine, she earned enough money to move her family back to Knoxville in 1869.
After the death of her mother in 1872, the family became increasingly dependent on Frances’ writing income. She accelerated her career as a popular writer. Swan, whom she married the following year, was preparing to specialize in the treatment of the eye and ear. He wished to further his specialty by studying in Europe, and Frances financed his wish, once again becoming responsible for the bulk of her family’s income. After the birth of their first son Lionel on September 20, 1874 in Knoxville, they left Tennessee, never to return.
Over the course of her life, Burnett wrote more than forty books, for both adults and children. While her adult novels are considered to be quite sentimental, her children’s books have withstood the fickleness of literary fashions. ‘The Secret Garden,’ the story of how Mary Lennox and her friends find independence as they tend their garden, has been described as one of the most satisfying children’s books ever written.