What are we talking about today?

I'll get back to theme days once I find a groove of posting regularly. In the meantime, most of my posts are about some variation of books, bikes, buses, or Broadway. Plus bits about writing, nonprofits, and grief from time to time.

This blog is mostly lighthearted and pretty silly. It's not about the terrible things happening in the world, but please know that I'm not ignoring those things. I just generally don't write about them here.

13 December 2016

A Girl I Hardly Knew: Book Lennoxes v Musical Lennoxes

What's better than re-reading a beloved childhood book and discovering it's even better than you remember? Re-reading said book because you're about to see the musical based on it for the first time ever. I had so many tears on this re-read. Happy tears, unlike the torrents of agony I experienced at the musical.

Playbill & bookmark. Best of both worlds!
Playbill signed by the actors who played Mary, Colin,
Martha, Dickon, and Ben. The rest either didn't
come out stage door or ran away in a hurry when they
saw us. And the signatures got smudged. :(
The coolest thing about listening to The Secret Garden cast album and then re-reading the book? I could see how many lines in the show are lifted straight from Ms. Burnett's pages. Fantastic.

My only caveat before I hide a whole bunch of spoilers under the jump: this book was published in 1911. Mary moved from India to England. Many of the folks she met in Yorkshire had never seen a nonwhite person in their lives. Therefore, there are some blatantly racist statements in this book, and if your kids are going to read it, please please please be prepared to talk to them about that and don't let those statements stand unchallenged. It's definitely not okay for kids to come away from reading this book thinking those attitudes are acceptable.

Here goes. (BTW: I'm not a literary analysis person. For that you need an English major. This is just me stringing some thoughts together.)

Quick note before we begin: I'm using character names from the musical throughout this post. Captain Albert and Rose Lennox are Mary's parents; Archibald and Lily Craven are Colin's parents. Only one of the parents makes it out of the first chapter (or the first scene of the musical) alive. Both kids are 10 years old. Albert and Lily are brother and sister in the book; in the musical, it's Rose and Lily who are sisters.

It's made very clear from the moment that we meet both Mary and Colin that neither of them has ever heard the word "No" in their lives. Frances Burnett could not be more explicit that these are two spoiled brats who terrorize everyone around them, Mary going to far as to slap her caregivers without repercussions when she wasn't getting her way fast enough. These are not pleasant children.

I'm pretty sure this is the cover that my
childhood copy of the book had.
Image source: Goodreads.
However. While in Colin's case it's a bit murky due to his circumstances, for Mary the blame is laid directly at her parents' feet. Except not quite-- it's blamed on Rose. This is probably another product-of-her-time thing, but Ms. Burnett blames Rose for Mary's behaviour while giving no indication that Albert is any more interested in his daughter than Rose is.

This imbalance is only compounded by a couple of other things we know about Albert. He has no "onscreen" time at all in the book; Mary at least sees Rose from near enough to stare and overhear her conversation a day or two before she dies. And then there's Colin himself: Mary may be the one with Lily's eyes in the musical, but in the book it's Colin who has that distinction. And yet, when Mary meets Colin and sees in his eyes the aunt she's only seen in pictures, she doesn't notice any resemblance to her own father. Of course, Lily and Albert may not have looked enough alike for Colin to remind Mary of her father, but it does seem that if Mary had any thought of her father at all in those first few months after he died, this probably would have been the time to mention, "Hey, my cousin looks a bit like Dad."

As it is, as far as we know Book Mary left her parents behind and gave them hardly any thought again, being as they were practically strangers. Basically, there's nothing likeable about the little we know about the Book Lennoxes, and they also disappear from the reader's ken in a hurry.

It's not so clearly spelled out that the Musical Lennoxes suck at parenting, but we get a couple glimpses in the first few minutes. Albert and Rose are having an argument about why Rose should have left and taken Mary with her to escape the cholera epidemic, Rose complains that Mary just stares at her when they're together (maybe because she never sees you?), and they storm off still clearly annoyed with one another. And then, lo and behold, Albert shows a tiny bit of affection toward his kid while he's still alive, when he pats her on the head on the way out the door. Giving the kid a hug would have killed you, dude? Although I guess that ship had already sailed, because...

Albert and Rose drop dead moments later and turn into ghosts, and that's when we get the real hint that the Lennoxes would never have been awarded Parents of the Year. At the beginning of the song "There's a Girl," Rose and Albert are standing in front of the other ghosts, who direct this song toward them in such a way that the lines, "Won't her mother come, come wake her up to play? Won't her father say, 'Here's a rose for you?'" come across as an accusation. Maybe it's because they've died and left their daughter all alone in the world, but it seems much more likely the other ghosts are saying, of course Albert and Rose won't do those things; they never did in the 10 years they had with their little girl, so why should their death change anything? These are people who would have known full well how little time Papa and Mama Lennox spent with Mary, and the looks of "Oh no, what have we done?" on Albert and Rose's faces at these lines more or less confirm that. As does Mary's first request when she's found alive--she doesn't ask for father or mother; she wants to know where Ayah is.

But maybe I'm just hearing an accusation because I read the book. In any case, Albert and Rose barely leave Mary's side for the entire rest of the show, giving her more attention in death than they did in life, which is where their bit of redemption comes in. When Mary sings "I Heard Someone Crying," her first two guesses are that she heard her mother and father crying out for her. Even so, she gives no real signs of grief for the parents she barely knew.

And things don't get a lot better for Rose, unfortunately (seriously, why is everything Rose's fault?)--in a flashback, she tries to dissuade Lily from marrying Archibald, calls him a "miserable cripple," suggests that he might pass his condition on to any children Lily would have, then declares she'll never see Lily again if Lily goes ahead with her marriage. The full measure of Rose's awfulness is really revealed here, when she begs Lily to think about her children. But when their time came to be mothers, Lily died after giving birth to her son and couldn't be there for him; Rose, on the other hand, chose to be an absent mother.

Little bit of Rose/Lily angst in this video. Right at the beginning.

But maybe Rose's redemption is more subtle. Mary has a picture of Lily that's been sitting on her dresser her whole life, and she carries it with her to England to ask Archie, "Is this my Aunt Lily in this picture?" Did Rose put the picture in Mary's room because she couldn't bear to think about how she'd treated her sister? Did Rose avoid Mary so much because Mary has Lily's hazel eyes? Was this the only way Rose could cope, when suddenly the only family she had left on earth were a husband in the British Army and a daughter who looked like the sister she had snubbed and lost--did Rose get through the pain by putting the picture in her daughter's room and then avoiding both daughter and picture, hoping Mary would connect the dots on her own?

If Rose lived those last 10 years of her life filled with bitter regret, unable to stand the sight of her child, maybe she's doing the same as Archie but from the other way round. Maybe instead of shutting herself off from the world, she shut away any reminders of what she had lost and then threw herself into her role of a proper officer's wife. Maybe feeling nothing became such a habit that it was a relief to her spirit to finally find redemption and healing in following Mary to England, being reunited with her sister at long last, and doing what she could to set things right. After all, it was the ghosts who protected Mary's carriage on the journey to the house, who led Mary to Colin's room, who showed her the way through the maze to the garden door, who danced through "Come Spirit, Come Charm" to encourage Colin to stand. Rose is at last being the mother she'd never been, waiting around to see Mary happy with Archie and Colin before she would go to her own eternal rest.

Being a silent and unseen guiding force is a much better ending for the Lennoxes than Mary forgetting them altogether (and is an incredible visual onstage). I do have to wonder, when Colin in the book starts speaking of Magic and the forces at work in the garden--are Lily, Rose, and Albert really as gone as they seem? Or are they the unseen forces at work there, too, off the page but as present as they can be? Maybe the Book Lennoxes are also still looking for their redemption, but they just never got quite close enough to grab the pen.

Post title is from the song "A Girl in the Valley." One more Secret Garden post tomorrow and then I'll move on.


Jennie Townsend said...

In my books i find children who don't know "no" to be hilarious however in life that's a different story. By far the best book i ever read. I read it at least once a year.

Su said...

Mary & Colin are interesting in that way because their brattiness isn't really comic relief. It's just a character trait that they grow out of over the course of the book. Of course, that's probably also a time period thing-- I can't imagine an adult in 1911 thinking a spoiled kid was funny, fictional or not.