Holly Webb, Return to the Secret Garden

Scholastic, 2015, ISBN 978-1407144856

The Secret Garden is one of my all time favourite children's books and my master's dissertation was on Frances Hodgson Burnett, so I approached this new sequel by Holly Webb with much anticipation, but also a degree of trepidation. Could it live up to its illustrious forebear?

We meet Emmie in Craven Home, a London orphanage, just before the outbreak of the second world war. Unattractive and grumpy, she is the object of derision, and lives a lonely existence, a starving cat her only company. When the orphanage is evacuated, even that solace disappears, her fights to take the cat in vain. A long and bewildering journey ends at Misselthwaite Manor, an enormous warren of a house set in empty countryside, something the orphans have never encountered before. Despite the welcome of Mrs Craven and the other adults at the Manor, a sharp contrast to the attitudes of the orphanage staff, Emmie finds her new uprooted life as hard as her old one. The undisguised dislike of Mrs Craven's son Jack, home from boarding school because of illness, makes it all worse. Then she finds a secret garden, and a friendly robin. She meets a gardener, Mr Sowerby, with a scarred face and a metal leg, who scares her at first, but shows her kindness and tells her about the plants. Hidden away in a drawer in her bedroom she discovers some old notebooks, the diary of another lonely, grouchy child, Mary Lennox. Like Mary, she hears distant crying. Like Mary, she starts gardening. Like Mary, she begins to make friends, including with the crying boy. And gradually she starts to make connections.

As this synopsis shows, Webb successfully weaves elements of the original Secret Garden story into a moving tale of wartime and self-discovery. Readers who know Burnett's book will be fascinated, and at times deeply saddened, by the adult lives imagined here for her characters, though the book works fine too as a stand-alone novel. My qualms disappeared within the first few pages. Webb's cleverness with the plot is admirable. So too is the way in which she brings back the magic of that secret garden and of the book in which we first met it.