In 1908, Frances Hodgson Burnett, a writer once so poor she couldn’t afford paper and pens, built the home of her dreams on Long Island, a 17-room mansion with a grand pathway along the garden to the water.
A restless woman who crossed the Atlantic 33 times, heedless of scandal and convention, she then did something unexpected. She settled down to a quiet life in Plandome Manor, where she worked in her rose-packed garden and completed a book unappreciated at the time but later recognized as a classic, "The Secret Garden."
On Long Island also was where she found something she had been searching for all her life.
"It was the only home she ever had made for herself," said Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, author of a 2006 biography on Burnett. "I think it’s where she found peace."
How Burnett came to spend the last third of her life wandering "flower drunk" on the grounds of her Plandome Manor estate is revealed in Gerzina’s work "Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of The Secret Garden" (Rutgers University Press). It also demonstrates how she stands out among those being celebrated during Women’s History Month as someone ahead of her time when it came to female empowerment in a male-dominated society where modest decorum was demanded.
"I want to live as free as a wild bird," newspapers quoted Burnett as saying. "Free to go where I please and stay as long as I like. If people talk, it is they, not I, who are wicked."
A 'new woman'
The highest-paid and most famous writer of her time, Burnett worked like a steam engine, producing 52 novels and 13 plays, often driving herself to exhaustion. She became acclaimed in both countries, and news of her arrival drew flocks of reporters to meet her at the dock.
She made several fortunes and spent them quickly. ("My tastes and my purse are totally incompatible," she said. "They had grounds for divorce years ago.") She was a "new woman" whose two real-life divorces were considered scandalous — The Washington Post at the time attributed the cause to her "advanced ideas regarding the duties of a wife and rights of women."
She was no pushover. Outraged when a man in England created a play based on her book "Little Lord Fauntleroy" without paying her, she wrote her own stage version, then fought furiously for authors’ rights in a case that established new copyright laws in England. The outcome so astonished the grateful English literati, they threw her a banquet and gave her a diamond bracelet and a ring.
A financially comfortable family in Manchester, England, with a few servants, the Hodgson clan fell on hard times when young Frances’ father, Edwin Hodgson, died of a stroke in 1853. Her mother, Eliza, failed to keep the hardware business afloat and moved the family at the invitation of her brother, William Boond, to a small town near Knoxville, Tennessee. But Boond lost much of his business after the Civil War and couldn’t provide for his relatives. Eliza and her five red-haired children lived in a log cabin with so little income that neighbors took pity on them, bringing over food and firewood.
"She said they only survived that first winter because of the ‘graduating angels’ around them," said Keri Wilt, Frances’ great-great-granddaughter and a speaker and writer in Texas who has a podcast inspired by the lessons in "The Secret Garden."
Frances fell in love with the green lushness of Tennessee and began learning the speech patterns of the locals and Black residents in the racially diverse neighborhood. Her gift for mimicry came in handy when she used a Yorkshire dialect for some of the rough-hewed characters in "The Secret Garden." With her tales, she drew people like a magnet from an early age.
"She basically started telling stories when she began speaking," Wilt said. "She would start on the playground and if you wanted to hear the next chapter you had to find her at recess."
This was the talent that helped her family claw themselves out of poverty.
Improving her lot
Hearing that magazines paid for stories, the 19-year-old Frances decided to give it a try. Although there weren’t family funds to buy writing supplies, she learned that some Black girls in the area picked wild grapes and sold them in the city market to make money. Frances and her sisters did the same and asked their neighbors to make the sale for them, earning enough to purchase pen and paper.
To her surprise, her first short story was accepted by the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1869. Burnett quickly branched out to other magazines, churning out so much copy that by the next year she had earned enough to move the family to a better home in Knoxville. Soon, she was a full-time writer well-off enough to make a visit back to England and travel to Paris.
In 1873, Frances Hodgson married a doctor, Swan Burnett, who had been a neighbor in Tennessee. They had two children. The first, Lionel, was an active boy who Frances said sometimes came in from playing so dirty he was unrecognizable; he died of tuberculosis in 1890, sending her into a depression that lasted the rest of her life. Her second son, Vivian, was quieter and remained close to his mother until she died.
She divorced Swan and was pilloried in the press when two years later she married Stephen Townesend, a doctor and actor 10 years her junior, in 1900; the couple eventually divorced when he became abusive.
Burnett's first full-length book, "That Lass o’ Lowrie’s," was a success and others followed rapidly. They were hugely popular at the time. Critics compared her to Dickens in her sympathy for the lower classes and the novelist William Thackeray for her depth of characters.
'Not all gentle books'
By the time she and Swan moved to Washington, D.C., she was a well-known writer enjoying the city’s social vortex. "I daresay if I stayed here long enough I might have a boiled senator for dinner every day," she wrote.
Her prodigious output kept her afloat financially though she continued to spend extravagantly. Her fortunes changed for good with the publication of "Little Lord Fauntleroy" in 1886. The book, which played upon her frequent themes of class status and reversals of fortune, became a sensation. Its popularity and that of her other children’s fiction, such as "A Little Princess," published in 1905, surprised her since she considered herself more an adult fiction writer.
Her novel’s melodramatic touches might seem dated today, but Burnett broached serious topics, says Gerzina, a professor of English and the Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. There is a rape scene in one, a murder in another. Women are physically abused by husbands.
"They are not all gentle books," Gerzina said.
By the time Burnett moved to Long Island, she was financially secure and loved her new home, which she dubbed Fairseat. She became a U.S. citizen in 1905. "To live in the best suite of rooms in the best hotels in any part of Europe is strict economy in comparison to living in Plandome Park," she wrote in 1914.
It was in her writing study overlooking her gardens and Long Island Sound that she completed the work most associated with her name.
"The Secret Garden" centers on Mary Lennox, a spoiled, "disagreeable-looking child" who is orphaned and sent to live with her uncle in a spooky mansion in England. There she discovers a walled garden that she brings back to life while restoring the health of her uncle’s disabled son with help from a local boy, named Dickon, who charms animals and claims to talk to them.
The story has thrilled children for more than a century as an adventure tale with a touch of magic. It received lukewarm reviews, but became increasingly popular through the years and its recognition increased after its copyright expired in 1987. It has been reproduced on radio and television, in plays and in five movies.
Burnett’s great-great-granddaughter believes "The Secret Garden" was Burnett’s way of bringing Lionel back to life, at least on the literary page.
"It’s about dealing with grief and loss," Wilt said. "That no matter how locked up and withered and overgrown our lives are, they can be restored."
Gerzina, who went on to complete a biography of Burnett after she was asked to do an encyclopedia piece about her, remembers being given "The Secret Garden" on her 12th birthday by her mother and was immediately "enthralled."
"I mean, you have a girl in a garden coming into her own as a young woman and it has a mystery in it," she said.
The Children’s Room at Manhasset Public Library has a mural depicting the garden and the book remains one of the most popular in its collection, says archivist Antonia Mattheou. A mother once brought in her 10-year-old daughter to see the library’s original copy just to touch it. They asked her to put on gloves and she reached out.
"She was stunned," Mattheou said. "You should have seen the look on her face."
Although Burnett loved her garden at Great Maytham Hall, a grand estate in England she rented for years, it was managed by caretakers. At Plandome Manor she got serious.
"She was almost 50 by the time she stuck her hands in the dirt," said Wilt.
In a biography of his mother, who died at 74, Vivian wrote: "For one year in the side garden, she grew delphiniums of the most stately kind, gorgeous in their blues of every shade, and with them pink roses that foamed over the borders of their beds at the rush of June as if there were a wellspring of color beneath. It was a striking sight, beyond anything she had attained in England, and enough to make any gardener recklessly proud."
The home where she spent the last 17 years of her life burned a few years after her death in 1924. Only a few remnants remain, including the original stucco carriage house and some garden balustrades.
She is buried in Roslyn Cemetery next to her son Vivian and other relatives. A life-size statue of Lionel looks down on the stone. Burnett Fountain, a memorial based on characters from "Secret Garden," was erected in 1937 in Central Park; attendees at its dedication included the mayor and Burnett’s granddaughter.
Among Burnett’s last published works is "My Robin," a small book about the bird who had kept her company while she wrote in her garden at Great Maytham Hall. This was the robin in "The Secret Garden" that later showed Mary the key to its hidden entrance. The creature of magic and hope.
In the book’s preface, she mentions a reader who asked if she owned the bird. She replied: "I did not own the robin — he owned me — or perhaps we owned each other."
The real 'Fauntleroy'
Vivian Burnett, the shy, second son of Frances Hodgson Burnett, attained his own form of celebrity status in possibly the worst he could imagine – as a model for “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”
It began with Frances’ hit about an American lad informed he is the heir of a crusty English earl. To give the book illustrator an idea of what the main character, Cedric, looked like, Burnett sent him a picture of Vivian dressed in a costume leftover from a charity concert.
It was supposed to be a tale of a baseball-playing New York street kid who teaches his America-hating grandfather Yankee lessons about compassion and egalitarianism. But the representation of Vivian with his curled, shoulder-length hair, velvet suit and lace collar looked so androgenous that the role was sometimes played by women, including Mary Pickford, in movies and on stage.
The character became a mass marketing craze. Stores began selling Little Lord Fauntleroy playing cards, chocolates, toys and perfumes. Across the nation, mothers dressed their mortified sons in similar garb. A newspaper reported that an 8-year-old in Iowa forced into the attire became so incensed he burned down the family barn.
Even after Vivian graduated from Harvard University with honors, worked as a reporter, started a publishing firm and became an avid boater, he could not shake the image.
“I try to get away from it,” he once said, “but I can’t.”
After moving to a home next to his mother in Plandome Manor, he helped care for her until she died. A few years later while sailing on the sound, he rescued two couples from an overturned craft and loaded them onto his own boat. On the way back to shore, he died of a heart attack.
Even though by then he was a father, writer, businessman and an outdoorsman, none of it mattered.
The 1937 New York Times headline read: “Original ‘Fauntleroy’ Dies in Boat After Helping Rescue 4 in Sound.”
— James Kindall
Title photo: Frances Hodgson Burnett, circa 1900, was a restless woman who crossed the Atlantic 33 times, heedless of scandal and convention. | Alamy Stock Photo
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