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An Exotic Breeze

The unexpected new book about Frances Hodgson Burnett

There’s a new biography of writer Frances Hodgson Burnett, and it’s about time. Called Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of The Secret Garden, it should become the definitive text about the woman whose books still sell more than a century after she wrote them.

The biographer is Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. She teaches at northeastern colleges—Barnard, Columbia—and is a fairly well known author of books on London literary history and black culture. It might have surprised her colleagues for her to take on Burnett, a white English woman best known for her children’s books, but this book was much needed. Burnett’s reputation has changed considerably in the 30 years since the last book about her, the not-quite-scholarly Waiting for the Party.

Thirty years ago, most of us knew Burnett as a little old lady’s writer, the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy. She’s identified that way on a historical plaque in New Market. People may still recognize that phrase today, but I know very few people who have read the book. I’m not sure I know anyone at all who’s read it recently. It was made into several movies, but the last one I know of was an allegedly mediocre made-for-TV version in the ‘70s. People just aren’t as charmed by foppish Victorian boys in curls as they used to be.

However, in the last 25 years, another Burnett book, which seems to resonate more strongly with moderns, has found a new life. In that period there have been three major film versions of The Secret Garden. The 1993 version, starring Maggie Smith as the retentive Miss Minchin, was a critical and box-office success.

Most modern American bookstores stock at least one new edition of The Secret Garden. It’s a book that can hold an adult’s attention—but today it’s not unusual to meet a girl under 12 who has read the whole thing. (Another much-praised Burnett-based movie, 1995’s A Little Princess, was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, auteur of the current Harry Potter epic.)

It seems as if the lady has caught a second wind, 80 years after her death. Maybe she’s just hitting her stride. Burnett, a writer too complex to be described as a children’s author, was due another biography, and we’re lucky Gerzina was the one to write it.

Burnett’s life, and Gerzina’s rendition of it, carries you along. I’m sure it’s more for narrative punch than charity to Knoxville that she opens the book with what was, perhaps, the most personally dramatic time of Burnett’s life: her coming of age, her first years in America, the beginning of her writing career, the years that she lived here. Eliza Hodgson, Francis’s widowed mother, brought the family from England to an uncertain future with her brother, a Knoxville merchant, weeks after the end of the Civil War. Reconstruction-era East Tennessee was as different from Manchester, England, as you could get in the English-speaking world, but 15-year-old Fannie was fascinated with the place. She recalled, “Not until after I was 20 did I find out that during those years spent among the woods and mountains of East Tennessee I had been accumulating material out of which I could build and from which I should draw as long as I lived.”

Several decades ago there was a plaque on a house on Henley Street, and a little shrine on the site of another house near Knoxville College, but they’ve vanished. The only thing we’ve saved of her in Knoxville is the grave of her mother, Eliza, at Old Gray Cemetery. You won’t be able to tell from the stone, but that single-sized grave also contains the remains of Frances’s dissolute brother, John, one-time Lamar House saloonkeeper, who died in Knoxville 30 years after his mother.

Early this year a dress shop opened in Market Square, one of the few places Burnett would have recognized, carrying the name of the novel she wrote here and named after one of her houses: Vagabondia.

Gerzina discusses at length Burnett’s formative years here: her early stories; the bohemian group that gathered at Vagabondia; her courtship with local doctor Swan Burnett; inspirations for her fiction. The new book connects Knoxville with Burnett, “a young woman who landed in their yards like an exotic breeze at the end of the worst slaughter America had ever known,” much more vividly than the previous biography did.

Gerzina and I differ a little about a few geographical details of Burnett’s Knoxville career. It’s a little confusing; in the decade or so that Burnett spent among us, she lived in New Market, 20 miles to the east; then on old Clinton Pike, just outside Knoxville’s city limits; then in downtown Knoxville, near the river; then on Temperance Hill on the east side.

The Hodgson’s Clinton Pike home, which was near Mechanicsville and probably on the same hill as the future Knoxville College, was the one she christened “Noah’s Ark”; “Vagabondia Castle” was near the river and downtown. Or maybe there was another one still. Occasional references to the gas works, which were a couple of blocks from the presumable site of Vagabondia, but not near Noah’s Ark or Temperance Hill, are sometimes hard to square.

Don’t let a few misspellings bother you—it’s Mabry Street, the Holston River—because Gerzina’s descriptions of postwar Knoxville are so interesting it’s easy to forgive minor details. In the postwar years an eccentric, democratic, manic-depressive town which somehow contained Burnett, future New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, Catholic poet Father Ryan, and Bard of Venom Parson Brownlow. Gerzina turned up a few descriptions and references and details I’d never seen before, that the Hodgson house known as Noah’s Ark was later used as the home of the president of Knoxville College.

Gerzina is skeptical of my proposal that The Secret Garden may have had some spiritual basis in the quiet place the teenage Fannie Hodgson found for herself in the woods near Noah’s Ark. She describes that place, which she called “The Bower” (she had a talent for naming things to suit her unusual fancy) in a rhapsodic autobiographical essay called “The One I Knew the Best of All,” published in Scribner’s in 1893. It shares some intriguing elements with The Secret Garden, like the elusive bird the lonely girl follows from place to place.

There’s a more literal secret-garden story from Burnett’s youth, concerning a neglected garden she encountered; she later insisted it was all based on speculations about a garden at Maytham Hall in England where she lived as a middle-aged woman. That’s what Burnett told people The Secret Garden was about, and Gerzina’s buying it.

Burnett lived a fascinating life, unlikely at every turn, a children’s book author sometimes better known for her mature social satire; a strong, opinionated, successful woman in an era when women weren’t even allowed to vote; a sensitive English girl in postwar Knoxville. There was no one much like her.

Several questions about Burnett’s life and work remain to make an especially complicated puzzle. Thanks to Gerzina’s new book, it’s a more interesting puzzle than it was last year.

July 1, 2004 • Vol. 14, No. 27
© 2004 Metro Pulse