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Frances Hodgson Burnett and the Occult

By Carol Faulkner

On Oct. 12, 1913, the New York Times featured an article on “Mrs. Burnett and the Occult.” “Mrs. Burnett” was Frances Hodgson Burnett, the beloved author of Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) and The Secret Garden (1911), among many other novels. Born in England in 1849, Frances and her family immigrated to Tennessee after the Civil War, where she began writing to support her family, and where she met and married her husband Swan M. Burnett, an aspiring eye doctor. After she became famous, she split her time between Europe and the U.S. Last month, after reading The Secret Garden to my daughter, I became interested in Burnett’s religious views. As a parent, rereading classic children’s literature can be rewarding, surprising, and disturbing. While the religion in The Secret Garden washed over me as a child, it caught my attention as an adult. And, despite the Britishness of her childen’s novels, I found out that Burnett’s religious experience was as much American as it was English.

For those of you who have not read The Secret Garden, or have not read it for many years, it is the story of an orphaned girl named Mary, who moves from India to live with her rich uncle in Yorkshire (I will not go into the racial assumptions of the novel, as that is a separate and much bigger topic). She is an ugly, unlikeable, and, as a result, lonely child. While rambling around her uncle’s mansion, she meets her cousin Colin, an equally unlikeable invalid. When Mary befriends him, sharing her discovery of his dead mother’s locked and abandoned garden, and introducing him to the Yorkshire lad Dickon, who helps her bring the garden back to life, he decides to get well. Yes, that it where the book got interesting (at least for a religious historian). Colin embraces the power of nature, and something he calls magic, to will himself into good health. This boy, formerly on his deathbed, announces that he will live forever. The narrator informs readers that “One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts–just mere thoughts–are as powerful as electric batteries–as good for one as sunlight is or as bad for one as poison.”

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(H/T Sarah Veale)

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