Wednesday 11 January 2012: Nature and nurture
This is the best of the shots I took during tonight's performance of The Secret Garden at our small local theatre. It was a production by a touring company, Angel Exit from Dorset. I was keen to see it as the book, a children's classic written 100 years ago, was a favourite of mine and it remains vivid in my memory.
For those who don't know it, it's the story 10 year-old Mary Lennox, the imperious but neglected only child of Indian colonialists. One day she finds the dinner table abandoned in mid-meal and the servants gone - cholera has struck the household and her parents are dead. She is shipped back to the bleak Yorkshire home of an uncle she has never met. Left to her own devices she initially stamps her foot and rejects the friendly overtures of the servants. Things start to change when she discovers a walled garden that has been shut up for ten years. At the same time she meets a local boy, Dickon, who introduces her to the natural world and together they start to tend the neglected garden. Mary then discovers that the nocturnal wailing she's been hearing is made by a bed-ridden boy, her cousin Colin, who's convinced he's crippled and shortly to die. Mary and Dickon encourage him to take an interest in the world outside and manage to get him to the secret garden. Together they work to resuscitate the garden and as the plants grow and blossom so do the two damaged children. Turns out the garden was created by Colin's mother and shut up in sorrow when she died. His father, Mary's uncle, returns from his travels to find that his son has recovered and the garden is alive again.
The plot sounds sentimental but there is a gratifying realism about the writing, in particular the disagreeable nature of the two cousins and the way in which their emotional trauma is healed through companionship and contact with the natural world. Additionally, the servants are depicted as real people with their own homes and families, poorer materially than the family in the big house but richer in other ways. Mary herself is feisty girl whose determination overcomes obstacles and refuses to confirm Colin in his sick role. The way in which the regrowth of the neglected garden symbolizes the psychological regeneration of the emotionally crippled family is very modern. (The author Frances Hodgson Burnett was a Christian Scientist so no champion of medical explanations.)
I used to think that this story was about puberty and sexual awakening but I now understand it to be about nurturance: the crucial importance for everyone, of whatever age, to be nurtured and to nurture. The process is two-way and may involve family, friends, carers, pets or plants. There has been discussion on a number of blips about the value of companion animals in giving and receiving love. For others it may be a garden or the natural world to which we give attention and from which we receive gratification.
In the news recently have been two groups of people, the elderly and those with learning disabilities, that have been found to have suffered neglect and even outright cruelty at the hands of their designated carers. Those employed to look after such very dependent people are, more often than not, poorly trained and underpaid, they receive little recognition and their work is increasingly undermined by cuts to jobs and services that support what they do. If they are expected to look after for the most needy without receiving sufficient financial and moral support you have to wonder where their nurturance is coming from. We can't all have secret gardens.
This production is touring over much of the country until April and I can thoroughly recommend it. The cast of only 5 play not only all the human roles but trees, animals, furniture, buildings and vehicles as well as doing the singing, narrating and scene-changing. Incredible!