“Heidi” & “The Secret Garden”

Talking About Cultural Differences (from TALL, Teaching and Learning About Literature)

“We must be cured . . . by a cure of the ground / Or a cure of ourselves.” — Wallace Stevens, “The Rock”

Identifying the differences between particular cultures is a difficult and tricky business. To do this, a social scientist might design an experiment where individuals from different cultures are given an identical task or problem to solve. The different ways these individuals go about their task (and the different solutions they design) may, then, permit the social scientist to draw some conclusion about differences between cultures.

Literary critics, unfortunately, do not have the same opportunities. While social scientists can organize life in an a priori fashion and create an experiment, literary critics work after the fact and with “given” materials that they have had no hand in organizing. Nonetheless, on rare occasions, literary critics may sometimes encounter a situation that resembles that kind of experiment which a social scientist might design. When given that special opportunity, literary critics, too, might then hazard some observations about cultural differences.

Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden provide just that kind of opportunity. Both books are well known and, it is possible to argue, representative of their cultures: Heidi taking place in the Swiss Alps, The Secret Garden in the English countryside. Moreover, both novels are remarkably similar, taking up identical tasks and solving similar problems. But their methods of doing so and the solutions they devise are subtly different, and in those differences we may find intimations of the differences between Anglo-American and German-Swiss cultures.

1. The Same Story, Twice Told

The resemblances between Spyri’s and Burnett’s novels are so extensive that it seems clear that Burnett must have read Heidi (published in 1881, first appearing in English translation in 1884) before writing The Secret Garden (1911). Still, while making use of Spyri’s novel, Burnett altered the story in her own manner.

To compare the two books, we might begin by noting the extensive similarities. Their female protagonists, Spyri’s Heidi and Burnett’s Mary Lennox, are both orphans. Both girls are aided by misanthropic and paternal adults who are transformed by the child and made more congenial: Heidi’s grandfather and Mary’s friend, the gardener Ben Weatherstaff. Both girls suffer sleep disorders. Both girls are taken into homes of the well-to-do and make nocturnal explorations of these mysterious places: the Sesemann mansion in Frankfurt and Mary’s uncle’s mansion, Misselthwaite Manor. And both girls grow healthy out-of-doors and in curative places (the Alps and the Secret Garden) where they thrive on exercise and on a diet of fresh milk and fresh air.

Heidi and Mary also have a friend in a youth who might be described as the “Nature Boy.” Heidi’s friend Peter is goatherd and comes from a poor but supportive and maternal household. Mary’s friend Dickon is always seen in the company of the woodland animals he has made into his pets; and he, too, comes from a poor but supportive and maternal household.

Both novels also present a third child. Spyri’s Clara Sesemann and Burnett’s Colin Craven are both hypochondriacs who have lost the use of their legs. Both have also lost their mothers and been left in the care of housekeepers and physicians because their fathers are often traveling and away.

“Heidi,” illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

These resemblances should begin to suggest the wide similarities between the two novels. These echoes are even more striking in a pivotal scene in both books: when Clara steps from her wheelchair and walks, and when Colin steps from his wheelchair and does the same. On both occasions, the children have left the confinement of their homes (the Sesemann mansion / Misselthwaite Manor) and come to the out-of-doors (the Alps / the Secret Garden). When they try their first steps, both children are encouraged by and in the company of their female companion (Heidi / Mary), their male companion or the “Nature Boy” (Peter / Dickon), and the formerly misanthropic adult male who has since been redeemed (Heidi’s grandfather / Ben Weatherstaff). Moreover, this event is followed by a reunion of both children with their prodigal fathers (Mr. Sesemann / Mr. Craven), who now see that their offspring can walk.

2. Two Different Cures

Having acknowledged their similarities, we should now note the subtle differences between the two books. Heidi’s problem, her melancholia in Frankfurt, arises because she is homesick. Her mental state is improved when Clara’s grandmother teaches her to pray, but she is essentially cured when she returns to the Alps. Mary suffers from a similar melancholia in The Secret Garden, but it is not caused by homesickness; instead, Burnett explains that Mary’s problem is the result of having a mind “full of disagreeable thoughts.” Mary’s remedy, consequently, is different. While Mary does improve by working out-of-doors in the garden, Burnett explains that she is essentially cured when “beautiful thoughts began to push out the old, hideous ones.”

Fresh air or positive thinking

Both books, in other words, identify two kinds of cures, but in Heidi the emphasis falls on transformative places and in The Secret Garden on transformative thinking. This explains the subtle difference between the scene where Clara steps from her wheelchair and walks and the scene where Colin does the same. Spyri essentially suggests that Clara’s relocation to the Alps is what prompts her recovery. While the invalid Colin does get better when he goes outdoors and spends time in the Secret Garden, Burnett explains his problems are essentially solved when he learns to “push [negative thoughts] out by putting in an agreeable, determinedly courageous one.”

Cures in Spyri’s book, in other words, are essentially geographical, while in Burnett’s novel they are essentially mental. To say this differently: when faced with problems, a modern-day Heidi or Clara might go to some alpine spa and exercise in their leotards, while a modern-day Mary or Colin might enroll in a seminar on positive thinking.

Spyri, then, advocates the Alps as a loco remedium (remedy by place) — and in this regard, we might add, Spyri is more Swiss than Pietist. We might say the opposite about Burnett. Burnett advocates positive thinking as a mens remedium (remedy of the mind) — and, in that regard, she might be described as more Christian Scientist than Anglo-American.

Indeed, one of the secrets behind The Secret Garden is Burnett’s secret advocacy of the tenets of the Church of Christian Science, a religious sect which was started by Mary Baker Eddy and her book Science and Health (1875) and that emphasizes the remedial power of positive thinking. Throughout her novel, Burnett’s characters are constantly encouraging and optimistic, and their transformations are primarily the result of a mental regimen where bad thoughts are excluded and positive thoughts put in their place; in fact, like a good member of the Church, Colin even adds that the efficacy of this technique is verifiable by “scientific experiment.” But Burnett disguises the source of these beliefs and presents her message in a secular fashion: instead of using the familiar terms of Christian Science (“God” or “Divine Mind”), Burnett’s characters refer to “Magic.” In Burnett’s novel, “Magic” is an animating spirit in the world and can be harnessed through a regimen of positive thinking to bring about mental health.

Looked at in a cultural fashion, we might add that The Secret Garden offers an alternative to Germanic, problem-centered psychotherapy; in its place, the novel endorses a kind of fervid cheerfulness, an Anglo-American and quasi-religious advocacy of positive thinking. Spyri’s novel, on the other hand, is a book that must please the Swiss Board of Tourism. Heidi offers a patriotic endorsement of the curative power of the Alps, almost suggesting that they are a secular alternative to the flatlands of Fatima and Lourdes.

This essay originally appeared in TALL, Teaching and Learning Literature (March/April 1996). I discuss “The Secret Garden” more extensively in my study Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story. And I can’t pass without observing that my maternal grandmother, Blanche Muehlebach, was German Swiss and might have talked about the differences between the two books as “zauberberg” and “zaubergeist.”

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14. November 2016 by
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