Secret Gardens

July 27, 2012

For bibliophiles, few adventures compare to crossing the threshold of a used bookstore. The musty air, overcrowded shelves, and tantalizing phrases on faded cloth spines always hint of buried treasure. My trip to the bookseller’s shop near Mecosta, Michigan was no exception. I remember stepping inside with a small band of college students, and exploring until an old brown volume caught my eye. The cover bore the name of a familiar author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and a curious title: The Shuttle.

Like many girls, I read and loved Burnett’s The Secret Garden as a child. Until my trip to Mecosta, however, I didn’t realize that she had published a “grown up secret garden” several years prior to the classic children’s tale. The longer novel draws its motif from weaving shuttles, which carry yarn or thread back and forth across the looms in ever tighter, ever more complex patterns. The Shuttle tells of interwoven families and fates following the marriage of an American heiress and an Englishman of title (a not uncommon occurrence in the late nineteenth century).

The heroine of The Shuttle is the beautiful Bettina Vanderpoel, who journeys to England in search of her married older sister after years of family silence. Betty discovers a locked garden in her sister’s heart and languishing, unkempt grounds on her Stornham Court estate. To restore what has been forgotten and lost, Betty must challenge the cold, faithless Sir Nigel, who left her sister’s spirit to wither and their home to rot. With strong practicality and a sunlit countenance, Betty finally awakens spring in yet another dormant heart – in the fiery but downtrodden Lord Mount Dunstan.

*  *  *

This month, I was privileged to travel to Giverny, a small village in Normandy, France. There, impressionist Claude Monet lived for over forty years, cultivating his garden and capturing nature’s palette with his paintbrush and canvas. Following his death, Monet’s landscaping masterpiece became another “secret garden,” as family members passed away and preservation funds dwindled. Beloved trees died while weeds ran wild; trellises rusted and the famed bridge decayed. Then, restoration began in earnest, culminating in the summer of 1980 with a warm welcome to the public. Since then, art lovers from far and near have discovered the shady peace and blooming euphoria of the gardens at Claude Monet’s estate.

Loving hands keep green things growing in Giverny, just as they did in the beloved fictional worlds of writers like Frances Hodgson Burnett….


To Turn Back Time

November 14, 2011

Some books can spoil readers with details, descriptions, flashbacks and footnotes.  Then, there is Hemingway.  His short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is rather like the unmarked script of a play.  With neither pages of back story nor physical descriptions, he gives us just the “man” and the “girl,” a nameless couple on a railway platform, sorting through their lives in sensuous, sweltering, post World War I Spain.  The actress within me is intrigued.  I yearn to understand these characters, to discover the tones of their dialogue, and as fancy may strike me to design their set.

I imagine the girl in those long, lonely years when she waited for life to begin.  Now the story has opened.  She is center stage.  She is lovely, and soul-weary; she wonders if there is really no more to life than to “look at things and try new drinks.”

She fingers a curtain of beads in her hand, and plays with the thought of turning back time.  If only things were just the way they were, when they measured their love in tongues of hot, rosy flame.  If only things were like they were before, when a girlish word and laughter could make the man her slave.

Looking out on the world, she wants only to hold it, to know its beauty, its wonders, its spells and its charms.  Yet her world has been marred, and her innocence lost.  “Once they take it away, you never get it back.”

And, there sits the man who might have opened her world.   A man of two continents, he has tasted all things yet never drunk deep.  He cares for her, but not for “it.”  His core of self can admit a place for the lover, but not for new life born of their love.

A train arrives; two faces disappear.  I wonder how their story will end.  I wonder how many girls of no name – yesterday, today, and tomorrow – give up everything to “turn back time”

Yes, it takes courage to choose life over self, to exchange known comforts for unknown beauty and rewards.  So we remember, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”





Literature has always held an honored seat in my heart.  Thus, I am chagrined when I see the classics of Western culture interspersed with cheap, vulgar titles in mainstream bookstores.  How I long to warn unsuspecting buyers that fiction and literature are non-equivalent things.

True literature may be defined as “the best expression of the best thought.”  Fine expression characterizes any great writer who has refined his voice, style, and literary devices.  A fine thought, on the other hand, is less easy to identify in our tolerant, pluralistic society.  For the Christian, however, the difficulty dissolves.  The best thoughts have been predetermined:

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8).

One can imagine a zealous believer adopting extreme measures where fiction is concerned.  Her reading material may be restricted to pious novels with sugar-coated heroines (not to mention preachy fathers and suitors, both woefully unpracticed in the art of normal conversation).  I suggest that such a course will teach our families and children to loathe books, when they might have learned to enjoy and even seek out the wisdom of the ancient and modern classics.

But, what of the call to purity? my zealous friend asks.  Consider a character such as Edward Rochester in that darling of British Literature, Jane Eyre.  Rochester’s history is dark.  His words are deceptive, his intentions deplorable.  Shall we label this as literature?

Acclaimed Southern writer Flannery O’Connor repeatedly delved into the theme of evil in her short stories and novels.  In a letter from 1956, she wrote: “I don’t think purity is mere innocence. I don’t think babies and idiots possess it. I take it to be something that comes either with experience or with Grace….”  Searching the lives of Abraham and David, or the epistles of the Apostle Paul, we find the true virtue of our faith to be not naïve innocence, but purity.

Stories of redemption are the stories worth telling.  While shabby fiction glorifies evil in all its shameful aspects, literature portrays fallen and restless mankind – without subjecting the reader to sordid details.  Jane Eyre is a praiseworthy tale of the broken made whole.  Jane finds purity through experience, for in refusing an illicit proposal she truly bends her desires to a higher will.  For Edward, purity comes through the grace which floods his life after his own cunning and strength have failed.  May every book we read infuse our lives with such thoughts, and such hope.