Some thoughts about the new book about Frances Hodgson Burnett:
Are we keeping our garden too secret?
It’s gardening season, of course, and in local libraries and bookstores there’s a popular gift book called Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places that Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, by Marta McDowell, a gardening expert from the Garden State of New Jersey. It’s a sort of botanical biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote The Secret Garden, a literary classic that’s more about children than for children, except for those kids who are better than average readers.
McDowell’s new book is an almost-perfect gift, charming, vivid, graphically appealing, well written, and, where Knoxville enters the picture, suddenly rushed and vague. Knoxville is where the author lived for about a decade, where she became an adult, where she had her first child, and where she began her career as an author.
In some ways, that vagueness is not surprising. With researchers who have never been here, and maybe don’t want to visit, Knoxville lacks traction they need to tell a good story. When they mention Knoxville at all, biographers and historians seem to try to get Knoxville over with quickly, so they can move the reader quickly on to more interesting places.
Of course, Knoxville’s not in the index, and the whole “East Tennessee” section of the book is about five pages and maybe a dozen paragraphs long. The chapter heading suggests that her time in Tennessee ended in 1873; she did travel considerably, but had a house on Temperance Hill (now site of Green Elementary School) in the mid-1870s, and she was still living hereabouts into 1877.
In all, Burnett spent about 14 percent of her life in Tennessee, all of it in her formative youth. In the 250-page narrative part of this book, that formative period rates about two percent of the text.
We’re used to that kind of ratio. Name a famous person who became famous enough to deserve a biography, and chances are the Knoxville years are the slimmest part of the narrative. That math is comparable to books about Roy Acuff and Clarence Brown and Alex Haley. My theory is that it’s because we haven’t given the world enough to work with, to make it worth their while to think much about Knoxville. To be fair, they may worry about boring their readers. Maybe they think there aren’t enough details out there to keep the story lively.
The publisher might have done better than to include a slightly bizarre transatlantic map titled “Homes and Gardens of Frances Hodgson Burnett.” It includes only three, with shipping lanes helpfully marked in between them: New York, Kent in England, and Bermuda—that was where Burnett had a vacation home late in life, after she had written most of her stories and books, including The Secret Garden, so Bermuda wouldn’t have had much to do with inspiring the work that made her famous. Tennessee, where spent almost half of her youth, is not on the map at all. But then, neither is Washington, D.C., where she also lived, and Manchester, where she spent her early childhood. I bet it was a case of a publisher letting an art director get away with a wacky brainstorm, and not to be blamed on the author. Lots of charming books have illustrations dreamed up by art directors who didn’t even read the whole book.
The book is lushly illustrated, with dozens of illustrations and photographs, many of them in color, and several of them current shots of places she lived, in Maytham Hall in Kent or Bermuda. Of course, none are pictures of Tennessee.
Granted, the story is complicated. Although I’d tried to make sense of it, myself, most of what I know for certain about Burnett’s time in the Knoxville area has been proven by our colleague Paul F. Brown’s well-researched and fascinating two-part series published a couple of years ago by the Journal of East Tennessee History. (Links to Part 1 and Part 2).
Frances Hodgson was born in England, and spent much of her first 15 years in Manchester. There, near Islington Square, the little girl was fascinated by a walled garden abandoned but still striving behind a demolished house. Her widowed mother and siblings moved here in early 1865, as refugees from economic conditions in Manchester, to stay with Frances’s uncle William Boond, who’d been living here since the 1850s. Although Boond had a dry-goods business on Gay Street, he owned a place in New Market, where the Hodgsons spent their first American year. Over the years, New Market has been more aware of the author’s local associations than Knoxville has, largely thanks to a big commemorative festival there in 1955 that seems to have inspired the erection of a state historical plaque. New Market is certainly significant to her life. There young Fannie Hodgson met Swan Burnett, the aspiring physician who would become her husband and the father of both of her sons. Her first months in America, in 1865-1866, and her last months in Tennessee, in 1876-1877, were in New Market.
But in 1866, the Hodgsons moved much closer to Knoxville, to a small rental house Frances playfully called “Noah’s Ark,” because it appeared to be stranded on a hill overlooking the Clinton Pike. And there, according to her own recollections in The One I Knew the Best of All, she began her remarkable career as a professional author, and was so successful that she became her household’s main breadwinner—at age 18!
Local historians, including this one, have jumped to conclusions about where Noah’s Ark was. Because her writings make it clear Noah’s Ark was on the edge of the countryside, outside of town, we might imagine somewhere along the linear asphalt automobile market known as Clinton Highway. However, in 1866 Clinton Pike came all the way into town and intersected with what was then Asylum Avenue, later known as Western. The southern part of Clinton Pike was later renamed College Street, and that’s where they lived. Noah’s Ark, where young Fannie Hodgson began her astonishing career as an author, was on the patch of ground that became, about seven years later, the campus of Knoxville College.
When the Hodgsons lived there, the few residences at the foot of their hill was probably not yet known as Mechanicsville. The edge of it appears on an 1867 map of Knoxville that hangs on the wall at the McClung Collection. It shows the Knoxville the Hodgsons knew. Visible is the “rolling mill” along Second Creek that gave Mechanicsville its name—the nucleus of the Knoxville Iron Company that left us the popular relic known as Foundry.
McDowell includes a brief version of the story of “Aunt Cynthy’s girls,” told by Burnett herself. They were African American neighbors who helped her pick grapes and sell them in the market for money to buy stationery and postage for Frances’s first published stories.
If you read McDowell’s text, you’re almost certain to conclude that this key section took place somewhere in the New Market area. But Noah’s Ark was walking distance from downtown Knoxville.
Burnett traveled abroad extensively between 1872 and 1876, complicating the story a bit more, and spent her final months in East Tennessee, up to 1877, in her husband’s home of New Market. But in all, Frances Hodgson Burnett lived full-time in what’s now central Knoxville for eight years of her life. It was during that period that she began her career as a professional writer. It was also during that period that her mother died, leaving her parentless at age 20. And during that period that she first lived with her husband Dr. Swan Burnett, and bore their first child.
I picked up McDowell’s book, wondering if she’d come to a conclusion I wrote about in a column for Metro Pulse back in 2003. I had posited another distinction: that a particular spot in the forest around Noah’s Ark was an inspiration for The Secret Garden. She once described a place she called the Bower.
Burnett never wrote an autobiography, but she wrote an elaborate memoir called The One I Knew the Best of All, which covers her youth in England and her first four years in Tennessee. Because she uses a mystical fairy-tale tone with the narrative, she uses few proper names for either people or places. It has befuddled more than one scholar, but the patient reader will discern that when she says “the village” she’s referring to New Market, and when she says “the town,” she’s referring to Knoxville, especially during the period from 1866 to 1869.
During that period, the area we know today as Mechanicsville, originally a mill town for the Knoxville Iron Company, was outside of Knoxville’s city limits, and adjacent to forests and fields. Although Mechanicsville still has its beauty spots, it’s hard to picture it as rural today. What wasn’t even within Knoxville’s city limits in 1866 is now often regarded as “inner city.”
In The One I Knew the Best of All, a remarkable chapter called “The Dryad Days” includes her recollection of the melancholy walled garden outside of Manchester. But in the same chapter, they move to New Market and then to Knoxville, where she’s free to frolic like a sprite in the primeval forest. And she describes a clearing that she calls the Bower.
“About a hundred yards from the house was a little thicket which was the beginning of the woods. Sassafras, sumac, dogwood, and young pines and cedars grew in the midst of a thick undergrowth of blackberry vines and bushes. The slender but full-branched trees stood very close together, and a wild grapevine roofed them with a tangled abundance.
“When she found this place the Small Person hungered to get into the very heart of it and feel the leaves enclose her and the vine sway about her and catch with tendrils at her hair. But that was impossible then, because the briers and undergrowth were so thick as to be impenetrable. For some time it was a longing unattained.”
It was not a garden, of course, walled or otherwise, just a clearing in the dense woods. But it obviously served a similar purpose for the author that the “Secret Garden” did for her character Mary Lennox, at a comparable age. Fannie was about 15 when she discovered the Bower, although in her memoir she represented herself as if she were a bit younger, “in the first years of her teens”; Mary Lennox was 10 at the beginning of The Secret Garden.
For reasons of her own, the author of the memoir uses few proper names, either of people or places, a practice which is both charming and maddening. She refers to herself as “the Small Person.”
“The Small Person lived in it for two years after, and it was called ‘the Bower.’”
Anyone who’s done any thrashing around in underbrush in the summertime will recognize the sights, smells, and sounds of wild East Tennessee.
“The walls of the Bower were branches and bushes and lovely brambles, the ceiling was boughs bearing bravely the weight of the matted vine, the carpet of it was grass and pine needles and moss. One made one’s way to it through a narrow path cleared between blackberry and wild-rose briers, one entered as if through a gateway between two slender sentinel sassafras trees—and the air one breathed inside smelled of things subtly intoxicating—of warm pine and cedar and grapevine blossoms made hot by the sun.
“The Small Person was never quite sober when she lay full length on the grass and pine needles on a summer day and closed her eyes, dilating her little nostrils to inhale and sniff slowly the breathing of these strange sweet things. She was not aware that she was intoxicated, she only thought she was exquisitely happy and uplifted by a strange, still joy—better than anything else in life….
“She came to the place so much, and spent so many hours there, lying on the grass, scribbling a bit of a story, sewing a bit of a seam, reading, when she could get a book … thinking out great problems with her eyes open or shut, and she was so quiet that the little living things actually became accustomed to her, and quite unafraid. It became one of her pleasures to lie or sit and watch a bird light upon a low branch quite near her and sway there, twittering a little to himself and giving an occasional touch to his feathers, as he made remarks about the place…. Squirrels had no objection to her, rabbits occasionally came and looked, and dragonflies and beetles regarded her as of no consequence at all.”
“As if through a gateway…” To those of you who’ve read The Secret Garden, does that remind you of anything? Of course, the walled garden in the novel is distinguished by untended roses, which may be significantly different than the “wild-rose briers” in the “Bower.” In both books, rabbits, squirrels, and beetles are curiously unafraid of humans. In both books, the girl follows a bird, described as “friendly,” to new and unfamiliar places.
There are some comparable phrases: “the weight of the matted vine” (Bower) and “the climbing roses which were so thick they were matted together” (Secret Garden); “a bird…giving an occasional touch to his feathers” (Bower) and “beginning to preen his feathers with his beak” (Secret Garden); “Everything was wet and smelled deliciously – the mould, the grass, the ferns, the trees and bushes. She was not afraid of the dampness,” (Bower), and “I smell something nice and fresh and damp” (Secret Garden).
There are some differences, too. There are no pines or dogwoods or grapevines in The Secret Garden–and the Bower is so densely overgrown that it has a “ceiling”—there’s no suggestion of that in the walled garden in the famous novel named for it.
The two texts were published 19 years apart. I’m not alleging that when she wrote The Secret Garden she was plagiarizing her own memoir of the outskirts of Knoxville, just that the Bower played a similar role in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s life as did the Secret Garden for Mary Lennox, and that her memories may have had something to do with imagining the scene. Maybe we can think of “Dryad Days” as an early draft of The Secret Garden, though frankly the memoir is in some ways more lushly poetic than the novel.
I began writing this piece to correct McDowell’s book and suggest something that didn’t obviously occur to the author: that the Bower of “Dryad Days” was indeed relevant to The Secret Garden. Just this week, in preparing this column, I was curious about whether any other scholar had noticed the similarities, and did a Google search, combining “the Bower” and “The Secret Garden.” Instantly I found another author who had indeed noticed it. It was Marta McDowell.
Just three months ago, Garden & Gun, that unpredictable magazine aimed at affluent Southern hipsters, published a short feature called “The Southern Secrets of The Secret Garden,” by C.J. Lotz. Therein McDowell herself is speaking of Burnett’s time in the Knoxville area: “She called this wooded glen her Bower. She needed a space for writing, so she carved out her own spot in the woods. With the grapevines growing over it, it had the fort-like feeling of a secret garden. It was here that Frances moved into adulthood, learned the importance of her own space, and really began to write.”
In her actual book, she makes no hints of a direct connection between the Bower and the Secret Garden. Still, I was glad to see it. And to know some further context, that the site of the Bower, which inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, was later the campus of a college for emancipated African Americans, and inspired generations of Knoxville College students, some of whom later became authors, themselves.
But our problem, as I mentioned, is traction. To date, Knoxville seems unable to get a purchase on America’s historical imagination. Sometimes it’s for lack of things to point to.
As Paul F. Brown notes in his articles, every single one of the Knoxville houses where Frances Hodgson Burnett lived, including Noah’s Ark and Vagabondia Castle—and there are at least five of them—have been torn down, all of them so long ago that no one alive remembers them. Two of those spots once had historical markers on them. Those have both been missing for nearly a century, too. Except for an inscription on a big rock tucked obscurely behind Calhoun’s riverfront restaurant, there’s no historical marker or other indication that she ever lived here. All that remains from her time in Knoxville is her mother’s grave at Old Gray Cemetery.
But we do still have some very interesting stories. Maybe our main problem is that we don’t tell them enough.