Over Dickon’s Dead Body? Virility/Masculinity in The Secret Garden

Like countless lovers of literature, I couldn’t tell you just how many times I’ve read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, but this semester I get to experience the joy of teaching it for the first time, and as always, the greatest pleasure I get from teaching old favorites is rediscovering them along with students who are reading them for the first time.

I’m teaching the novel in a course on 20th Century British Literature, subtitled British Literature and the Body, and yesterday, a seemingly predictable discussion of nature symbolism as metonymic  of the female womb/female genitalia took a rather unexpected turn when one of my students–a male, not surprisingly–pointed out that the garden might be Mary’s, and the land–Misselthwaite Manor and its grounds–might be Colin’s, but Dickon is the first to really plant anything in the garden; he is the one who knows the land intimately and how best to cultivate it; he is the one who sows the seeds. This comment invited an investigation of the contrast between Dickon and Colin and the notion that Dickon is the more masculine of the two; he is, of course, an obvious rival for Mary’s affection–as indicated by Colin’s fierce jealousy–but Burnett scholars have quite exhaustively commented upon the fact that the final third of the novel focuses almost entirely on Colin’s transformation from effeminate invalid to healthy boy-man (see for instance Danielle E. Price, “Cultivating Mary: the Victorian Secret Garden” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26, no.1  (2001); Anna Krugovoy Silver, “Domesticating Bronte’s Moors: Motherhood in The Secret Garden,” The Lion and the Unicorn 21, no.2 (1997).

Two of the novel’s adaptations–the 1993 Warner Adaptation and the 1987 Hallmark adaptation–clearly recognize Dickon’s threat to Colin’s burgeoning masculinity; in the Warner adaptation, Dickon, in knight-in-shining-armor fashion, appears in a scene at Colin’s window on horseback, calling to Mary to come outside, which Mary does; compared with the weak, whining Colin, confined to his couch, Dickon is the embodiment of ideal victorian masculinity.

The Hallmark adaptation ends following World War I; Colin has received a shrapnel wound in the leg and appears leaning on a cane; Dickon, Ben Weatherstaff reveals, has been killed. Colin’s limp and his cane naturally suggest impotence–underscored by the frustration in his tone when he questions Mary about her refusal to respond to not one, but two proposals of marriage.

I’ve always read this scene as a revision of the text that responds to the argument that the novel’s conclusion, by marginalizing Mary and making Colin the narrative focus, problematizes a feminist interpretation of the narrative. The focus in this final scene is largely on Mary and Mary’s agency. This reading, of course, conveniently overlooks Dickon because he is (physically) absent, though like Mrs. Craven, his spirit is allocated a pervasive presence.

Both Colin and Dickon are heros; Colin’s symbolic impotence might also be interpreted as a necessary rite of passage to legitimate his manhood; no longer a poor, pitiful, wining creature, he is a brave defender of the empire. When Mary expresses concern about his release from the hospital, he replies gallantly, “Do you think I’d let a little shrapnel stop me?”, wearing his battle wound as a badge of courage.
Dickon, on the other hand, has died; Colin might be wounded, but Dickon’s entire body–his life–is the ultimate sacrifice and call to heroism. Is Dickon then the braver, stronger, and ultimately more masculine man? Had he lived, would Mary have  chosen him? She gives every indication that she loves Colin and wants to Mary him, but she speaks so tenderly of Dickon and his memory that one can’t help wondering if she had secretly prefered him at some time.

Yet we don’t know how Dickon dies, precisely, nor how Colin is wounded, but the fact that Dickon’s death occurs in a forest–a place with “green, growing things” in Mary’s words–suggests a place of peace far-removed from the bloodstained battlefield where Colin is presumably shot. Limp notwithstanding, Colin still cuts a rather striking pose in this final scene; his battle has been one of personhood as well as patriotism. He has faught not just for his country, but for his manhood, and he has won both. In the end, Colin, not Dickon, gets the girl. Despite the textual evidence–however minimal–Dickon is only a perceived, not an actual threat to Colin simply because he has no design on Mary. Mary is arguably marginalized in the novel, but if she is, so is Dickon. Neither of them receive any credit in the final hour for restoring Colin to health and longevity, but Dickon most certainly doesn’t expect it. He simply fades into the foliage from which he emerged, leaving in his wake a  trail of roses and the lingering love that is his gift.

The King’s Speech: the Story of a Man, not a Monarch

The nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them, but I can’t speak.

This statement admirably encapsulates the complexity of the story conveyed in “The King’s Speech”–a story where the personal and the political intersect and entangle.

“The King’s Speech” tells the story of the Duke of Yourk (the current Queen Elizabeth’s father), thrust onto the throne after the abdication of his elder brother. In the age of radio, required to address his people both at home and in England’s far-flung colonies, George VI–or “Bertie”– struggles to overcome a life-long stammer with the aid and friendship of his unorthodox Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. After failed attempts at more traditional methods of “treatment”–from the use of marbles in the mouth to aid in pronunciation to gargling and smoking to relax the larynx–Logue offers a blend of breathing treatments and psychoanalysis, asking probing questions, refusing to use the duke’s royal title, and doing just what every faithful British subject is warned not to do—exposing the personal life of a public family and treating the monarch as a man.

You can’t watch this movie without being acutely aware of its political framework, which, given that this is a movie about the British Royal Family, probably goes without saying. Nearly every scene, from the opening of the film at the Empire Exhibition to Bertie’s wartime speech at its conclusion captured the precarious political point on which the British empire was trying to balance in the middle of the twentieth century as it struggled to maintain an imperial stronghold on the world amid the First and Second World Wars. Telling the story of King George VII’s speech difficulties highlights this slippery grip; even today, english is often thought of as the language of imperialism, and a monarch who “can’t speak”, as Bertie puts it with ironic elequence, communicates a message of national and ppolitical weakness when juxtaposed with Hitler’s skill as an orator.

The use of shakespeare also works to remind the audience of the association of the English language with cultural as well as political superiority. Logue’s recitation of Richard III’s speech is particularly effective in this context because not only is it, like Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, one of the most well-known speeches in the Shakespeare Canon, it is, more importantly, a king’s speech–a speech about power, delivered by a monarch who will stop at nothing to obtain it. Not to mention, it’s Shakespeare, and linguisticly speaking, far more elequent than Bertie imagines he can ever be.

The backdrop of wartime England also highlights the personal battle of bravery undergone in this story. as was so aptly said in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” , “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In Bertie’s case, it was obviously the latter; this story of a stammering monarch is the story of a man who reminds us of the paradox of power–that those who possess the most potential for power are the ones who, more often than not, want none of it.

Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonam Carter–along with the rest of the cast–give outstanding performances. Firth’s interpretation of Berti as man, not monarch, is powerfully moving. He handles the mechanics of the stammer with amazing authenticity. I felt my own throat tightening at Bertie’s every word, tasting his tension. Most powerful are, I think, the scenes in which his stammer subsides during his conversations with Logue; Bertie slips so imperceptibly into normal speech that it underscores the dynamic of intimacy between the two men. We realize that in Logue’s presence, Bertie can be what he is–a man, not a monarch. Given the intense physical concentration and mechanical challenge of an actor trying to stammer and portray a man struggling to overcome precisely that, this is an astoundingly convincing bit of acting.

Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue is equally amazing; invasive, unorthodox, he isn’t so much aware that he is overstepping boundaries as he is endeavoring to dissolve them with his insistance on “total equality” that strips away the monarch’s mask to reveal the man beneath. Rush’s Logue is alternately cocky and compassionate and the perfect bold-faced reflection of the Bertie within.

Helena Bonham Carter conveys the strength and strain of the Queen Mother with equal gravity. Taking command one moment, tenderly comforting the next, her strongest moment is, I think, by far the scene in which she comforts a hysterically tearful Bertie, conveying the quiet strength that only a supportive spouse can offer.

I’ll be much surprised if these three–but especially Rush and Firth–don’t scoop up an Oscar or Golden Globe.

the humor provided a comic contrast to the more serious scenes without being jarring, the cursing and singing scenes both chuckle-worthy and offering relief from the intensity of following Bertie’s struggles on-screen. from a practical standpoint, some might have found it physically draining to follow the dialogue otherwise, though I found it intriguing. those used to characteristically Colinesque humor with his deadpan delivery will not be disappointed.

In short, to borrow one of Bertie’s favorite words, “Bloody” brilliant!





Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1

I’ve just been to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and I honestly must say that of the seven movies, this one was by far my favorite; naturally, it didn’t feel nearly as hurried because it was planned to be spread over two parts, but even so, I felt the explanations about elements of the plot–the story of the deathly hallows, for instance–were detailed enough to allow anyone unfamiliar with the books to follow along, but not too revealing.
The only thing the film didn’t touch on in as much detail, which I suppose will have to be dealt more with in the second half, was the new regime under Voldemort–specifically its impact on Hogwarts and the magical community. Voldemort’s sneering comments about mating with muggle-borns was a bit in the vicinity of Hitleresque eugenics, but numerous readers have commented upon the parallels between the pureblood philosophy and ethnic cleansing. I think the idea of compulsory education for all children in the magical community underscores the level of governmental control under Voldemort’s regime, but again, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the way these issues are being treated without having seen both parts of the film.
The dynamic among the treo was fabulous; the tension was palpable; Daniel Radcliffe’s performance in particular was spot-on. The balance between humor and horror was managed well, though I did feel at times that there wasn’t enough time allowed for audience reaction; my laughter had hardly died away in places before I had time to brace myself against the shock of an attack, but I think that served as a means of drawing the audience into the constant tension–the unpredictability of the bouts of calm and storm that the readers and characters alike experience.
I did think it ended rather abruptly; I rather thought stopping just after Ron destroys the horcrux and the three reunite might have been a less awkward point, but thinking about it, that would have meant leaving off before we get to the story of the three brothers that explains the legend of the deathly hallows. I don’t suppose there could have been a non cliff-hangerish way to leave off.
In short, very well-worth the wait, and highly enjoyable!

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them: a reflection on heroism

As I move toward the end of the semester with my students, it has occured to me that one of the topics to which we keep returning is the concept of the hero; it began during the Romantics unit, when I gave a brief lecture on the Byronic Hero. Then, of course, while discussing the various social constructions of gender during the victorian period– the rise of the age of imperialism–naturally the subject of the hero, specifically the battle hero/the conquering hero, emerged yet again. Now, as we study the literature of the twentieth century–a century strewn with the carnage of multiple wars–we return once again to the subject of the hero. Yesterday morning as I walked to class, I found myself pondering why it is that we continue returning to this subject, and I wonder if perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that, given the current state of war, that heroism is naturally at the forefront of social consciousness–especially with the current generation of college students.
Now, admittedly, I’m not much older than the traditional college student, but it’s only just struck me how young some of my freshmen were on 9/11 and later when we declared war on Iraq. Some of them were probably just beginning middleschool and have been living in the shadow of war for almost half of their lives. some of them have probably lost fathers and brothers to the war, and now, six and a half years later, they find themselves and many others of their generation standing on the frontlines. I think it says a great deal about the fact that, for some reason, times of war call us to reexamine and sometimes redefine our concept of heroism more so than in times of peace. Of course, the war hero is only one construction of the hero; there are many models of heroism, some more subtle than others: the single father who works three jobs but never misses his son’s baseball games; the woman who pulls over onto the side of the road to rescue a stray puppy; the child who befriends the social outcast on the playground.
But right now, it’s obvious that for many people–if my students are any indication–heroism is mostly bound up in patriotism, which is hardly surprising. Once again I find myself confronting the paradox of being a teacher–that more often than not, I’m the one who learns something. I’m reminded yet again that every day, my students are sharing themselves with me, and that sometimes, interwoven with talk of child psychology in Jane Eyre or the gender politics of Pride and Prejudice, are the stories that they bring with them every day for me to listen to and learn from.

BBC1’s Sherlock

This past week I had the opportunity to view the first season of BBC1’s new series “Sherlock”, which, in short, features everyone’s favorite consulting detective and his faithful sidekick in the 21st century. As a Victorianist, I was intrigued about how this would work, but on a completely non-academic note, delicious Britishness is always welcome to a starved American anglophile.

Having only watched each episode once (so far), my comments are pretty generalized, sprinkled with some rather interesting observations made during the shows with the friend who introduced me to the series. For me, at least, the plots of the cases, though certainly interesting, were secondary to the unfolding relationship between Sherlock and John; the writers make no secret of the fact that they’re teasing out an oft-overlooked romantic and/or homoerotic element of this friendship, and it is, I think, done tastefully (deliciously so). One can certainly ignore the hints, but they’re there if you choose to observe them (i.e. the suggestive addressing each other by their first names–something that never occurs in the original stories, primarily because Victorian gentlemen typically addressed one another by their surrnames).

I definitely want to watch each episode again before I can really draw my conclusions, but I felt the need to put my initial reaction in writing. Generally speaking, what intrigued me most was how the series calls into question the way that we categorise the relationship between John and Sherlock: are they lovers, or is it a “romantic friendship”? (Tangentially, it’s delicious that the series is addressing something so taboo for the Victorians). I think the initial response would be to read the homoerotic subtext, and while one could certainly do so, this would imply that there can’t be romance between two men, not to mention our difficulty in separating the dominant/submissive roles in a relationship from gender–the notion that dominance is characteristic of the male in a relationship, and submissiveness characteristic of the female. Sherlock is undoubtedly the dominant one in the relationship, and even I found myself slipping and referring to him as “masculine” and John as “feminine” because it’s just a knee-jerk reaction; without meaning to, I automatically tried to analyze their relationship and make sense of it within a heteronormative framework. In general, we can’t seem to wrap our minds around the possibility that dominant and submissive roles can exist independently of gender roles.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the contemporary setting works quite well, mostly I think because there’s no time-travel involved; it’s as if the characters were created to exist in the 21st century, which still takes considerable imagination and creativity to pull off. Admittedly though, since I grew up on the original stories, there were several jarring moments: seeing the London streets full of cars, Sherlock comunicating via text rather than employing the irregulars–though he does use them in the third episode because, despite the advancements we’ve made in technology, the boys are still the most efficient and unobtrusive way to have ears and eyes all over the city.

In short, it’s an innovative way to make the stories accessible to a 21st century audiance, and it’s an interesting coincidence that Doyle’s Dr. Watson is a military man who’s served in, of all places, Afghanistan. Highlighting that element of the original character is something that would certainly resonate with the viewing audience.

I’m certainly going to need to watch each of the three episodes again before writing up a more detailed reaction, but my appetite has certainly been whet, and I’ll be curious to see how the American audience will respond when it airs here in October.

Writer and Teacher

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