Beyond the Secret Garden? England’s White and Pleasant Land

In their second article in a series looking at representations of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voices in children’s books, Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor venture into the fictional gardens and the countryside of children’s literature.

In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), sickly child Mary Lennox leaves India, depicted as a place of disease and danger, for her uncle’s English manor. Before departing, she stays with an English family in India. The children take an instant dislike to her and call her ‘Mistress Mary, quite contrary’ chanting a version of the 18th century nursery rhyme. At Misslethwaite Manor, Mary discovers a walled garden. As she cultivates the neglected garden, she cultivates herself and her cousin as well into healthfulness and cheerfulness. The garden, in short, civilises Mary.

Plenty has been said of the symbolism of gardens in children’s stories. They can be read as places of nurture, health and vitality, and of human mastery over nature. Connotations with Eden abound. And as Phillip Pullman points out in Daemon Voices, the garden is a place of safety; all the more so, presumably, when entrance is restricted to a few. British children’s books have grappled with the

idea of entrance into the garden, especially since the end of the Second World War.

In Lucy Boston’s A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961), both the titular stranger – an African lowlands gorilla – and the boy who cares about (and eventually for) him are outsiders marked by their skin as different and imprisoned in urban England. Hanno, the gorilla, is a ‘black-faced imp’ (34) kidnapped from Africa at a young age and locked up in the London Zoo, a place that leaves animals ‘degraded as in a slum’ (38). Ping, the boy, is a Chinese war refugee living in the International Relief Society’s Intermediate Hostel for Displaced Children, ‘with vistas of concrete inside and out’ (52). Like Hanno, Ping dreams at night of the forest from which he came, only to wake to the concrete jungle that is London. Both find temporary refuge in the English countryside home of Mrs. Oldknow, but neither is seen as belonging there. In the end, the authorities come to recapture Hanno, hiding in the gardens, but he charges at them and is shot. Ping tells Mrs. Oldknow that the gorilla charged on purpose: ‘That is how much he didn’t want to go back. I saw him choose’ (153). In post-war British children’s books, migrant characters were marked out as different, and in order to survive, often had to accept their assigned place in British society.

That societal place was almost exclusively the urban (and often slum) setting, even though many migrants had, like Ping or Hanno, come from rural or isolated natural settings. Locking BAME characters into urban settings also means certain plots, certain kinds of Britishness are denied them, since many of the ‘classic’ or canonical twentieth century stories – The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children, Winnie-the-Pooh, Swallows and Amazons, just to name a few – depend on the British countryside landscape to provide freedom and (ultimately safe) adventures for (white) child characters and readers. The countryside, in British children’s books, is a green and pleasant land indeed – but only if you are white, or accompanied by someone white.

These stereotypes are so entrenched in children’s books that David Almond, in his 2017 World Book Day offering, Island, can easily exploit them. The story is set off the coast of Northumberland (the least populated county in England), where Almond’s Syrian visitor to Lindisfarne, Hassan, stands out from the beginning. Seeing Hassan on the road, the main white character’s father says, ‘doesn’t look like he comes from here, does he?’ (8). Later, a white woman sees Hassan and instantly mentions a London stabbing. Hassan replies, ‘Do you think I am one of those people? Because of Syria and my skin’ (85). Almond uses the stereotype long established – that only white, English people belong to the English countryside – to question notions of belonging. But the white character, Louise, remains central in Almond’s story; she justifies Hassan’s presence to the islanders – and herself.

BAME authors often interrogate the proposition

characters only belong in urban spaces. Unlike Almond’s Hassan, Sita Brahmachari’s mixed race character Kite,

in Kite

that BAME Spirit

(2013), defends her own right to be in that most English of natural landscapes: the Lake District. Brahmachari begins the novel with a Wordsworth quotation, establishing quintessential Englishness,

12 Books for Keeps No.229 March 2018

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