Author Marta McDowell still remembers the thrill of reading about Mary Lennox turning the key to the locked garden in The Secret Garden. As an adult, the well-known scene still provides the same excitement as it did when she first read it as a child.
Her childhood favorite became the basis for her latest book, 2021’s Unearthing The Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett.
“Because I loved it, one might say, ‘Well, why didn’t you write this book sooner?’ ” McDowell said. “But now, it’s time.”
While Frances Hodgson Burnett is not a well-known author, her book The Secret Garden has been a staple in children’s literature for over a century after its first publication in 1911.
“Burnett is almost unknown,” McDowell said “… When I told people I was writing a book about the gardening interests of Frances Hodgson Burnett, they would look at me like, ‘No idea what she’s talking about.’ But if I said I’m writing a book about the inspiration behind The Secret Garden, then I got a lot more interest.”
McDowell will open the chapters of Burnett’s life and the late-19th-century novelist’s inspiration for the iconic children’s book to Chautauquans at 12:15 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall for a Bird, Tree & Garden Club Brown Bag.
A regular speaker for BTG, McDowell teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and consults for private clients and public gardens. She has authored several books, including Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books, and the New York Times bestseller All the President’s Gardens. In 2019, McDowell received the Garden Club of America Sarah Chapman Francis Medal for outstanding literary achievement.
McDowell remembers exactly where and when she discovered her passion for history and horticulture. As a tourist in the early 1990s visiting Dumbarton Oaks estate in Georgetown in Washington D.C., McDowell went into the historic house with a slight interest in botany and came out with a sharp hunger to know more about the intersection of history and horticulture.
“It was so beautiful, and I noticed that it had been designed by a woman,” McDowell said. “Her name was Beatrix Farrand, and I had never heard of her. I felt like that was sort of an outrage. That was really when I was bitten by the bug.”
McDowell majored in American studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. In her classes, there was a focus on untold stories of historical female figures. Farrand became her first research topic, and then the topic of the first class she taught at the New York Botanical Garden. McDowell soon went on to study the private estates of Emily Dickinson, Beatrix Potter and other renowned female authors.
In writing her latest book, about Burnett, McDowell said she felt honored to learn about the woman who shaped the childhood of many while she simultaneously built a life for herself.
“She was really an incredible person,” McDowell said. “She was a self-supporting writer. From the time she was a teenager until her death, she had a fairly lavish lifestyle, but all funded by her pen; or I think in her case, actually pencil.”
Burnett led several lives that fed the inspiration for The Secret Garden, her first full-length book.
“She was quite a character,” McDowell said. “I think she was something of a party girl. She had accomplished a complicated life and two marriages. She didn’t start gardening until later, which I always find interesting — just an interesting person who created three gardens, of which only one … somewhat remains. It was very much a story worth telling, and it was a lot of fun to learn.”
McDowell’s lecture comes just before the Chautauqua Opera Conservatory’s performance of The Secret Garden at 4 p.m. Wednesday in Norton Hall. Composed by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman, the piece is a reimagined version of the book come to life.
While McDowell typically gravitates toward writing about the gardens of historical figures, the COVID-19 pandemic pulled her in another, more sinister, direction: murder mysteries and their garden themes.
Born out of her “empty desk syndrome” and pandemic boredom, McDowell drew on the stack of murder mystery novels on her nightstand to create a new work of garden literature — with a twist.
“I’ve always been a murder mystery fan. They’re like dessert on my reading stack,” McDowell said. “They’re totally like snack food, but it struck me that I could probably make a book out of it.”
Her new book about homicide and horticulture, with the working title Gardening Can Be Murder, is due from Timber Press in 2023.
In her lecture, McDowell hopes Chautauquans will be inspired by Burnett and take a page from her book.
“It’s never too late to start gardening,” McDowell said. “Gardening is a real balm in difficult times for a person or for society, and it’s I think a very inspiring story. (It’s also a story) about the continued relevance of children’s literature now, and how I think it helps influence many people’s lives depending on what they read as children.”