Snugness in “The Secret Garden”

A robin in its nest

I am engaged in a book-length study of pleasures particular to childhood. To explain what I mean, I often point to the joy children get from playing under tables or behind couches or in tents made of chairs and blankets. I know few adults who enjoy playing under tables.

That particular example has led me to explore, among others, the topic or poetics of snugness in Children’s Literature. I should also add that my studies began shortly after September 11 when I was haunted by stories my daughter, a schoolteacher, told about her first graders’ drawings after that event: What those pictures seem to indicate was a deep concern with vulnerability. So, in an essay (“Reading Differently After September 11”) for an Irish journal, I explored “vulnerability” as an opposite of snugness or coziness.

While I mean to examine here a very small passage in The Secret Garden in relation to all this, and by way of preamble, let me give you a rather quick summary of some of the various ways this issue of snugness appears in Children’s Literature.

Illustration by Gustaf Tenggren for “Heidi” (Houghton Mifflin, 1923).

One of the real great example of snugness occurs in The Wind in the Willows when Mole, after having been lost and snowbound in the Wild Woods, finally finds his way to Badger’s cozy, underground abode. The vision Kenneth Grahame gives us of Badger’s welcoming kitchen, the merry fire that greets the shivering Mole, that simple but welcoming place with its baskets of eggs and smiling plates–all these suggest the very picture of the snug abode and how snugness is a kind of friendly patina laid down on top of brute objects, how snugness is a spiritualization of feelings added to a place.

Felicitous space is often enclosed and protected; sounding very much like Robinson Crusoe talking about his stockade, Badger says of his underground home: “Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get at you. You’re entirely your own master.” You might also think, in this regard, of the familiar childhood drawing of the “happy house”: a squat home very much rooted in the world, with eye-like windows, a welcoming door, and a chimney with smoke pouring out to indicate it is inhabited; and, of course, the sun happily shining on all of this.

There are, of course, certain times of year and day that are more conducive to evocations of snugness. Winter, especially after snow has fallen, and Christmastime are special in this regard; consider, for example, the tableau of the family in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, all gathered together around the fire when father returns at Christmas; or Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” when “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, / While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.” And as for time of day, the moment for nesting is when sleep comes; here the great tableau may be in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi when grandfather, both when Heidi first arrives and when she returns from Frankfurt, steals up the ladder to look at the slumbering child in the nest she has made for herself from hay in the attic. To be brief: a snug place is a place where one can sleep peacefully.

Of course, as I have suggested, the opposite of snugness is vulnerability: they are a pair. So, Peter Rabbit’s return to his mother at the base of the fir tree is all the more welcome because of the precariousness of his time with Mr. McGregor; and Mole especially prizes Badger’s underground retreat, or his own Dulce Domum, after his anxiety in the Wild Woods. But perhaps the sense of vulnerability in the immensity of space is most acute in Little House on the Prairie where Laura Ingalls feels ill at ease: “All around them there was nothing but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky,” she writes, “The land and sky seemed to large, and Laura felt small.” Laura feels that way at least until the house is built.

Illustration by Inga Moore for “The Secret Garden” (Walker Books, 2007).

All this by way of preamble, then. We turn now to the question of how anxiety might be allayed. How can confidence and security, well being and trust, be created and enclosed?

In this regard, I think we can view snugness as a retreat, but as an active retreat–a withdrawal associated with a sense of renewal rather than with torpor or defeat. In the safe anchorage of the snug place, calmness and confidence is restored and well being enclosed. And from this safe center–like the swallow that builds its nest, as it were, from the inside out, from mud and its own saliva — these feelings of well being can expand out into the universe. You might think, in this regard, of Erik Erikson’s first principle: the notion of Basic (or existential) Trust.

In the Sufi tradition, as passed along by Idries Shah, there is a story of a student who wishes for enlightenment and approaches a teacher who is resting in a courtyard. When the student asks to be instructed, the teacher tells this seeker that he will not give him any instructions until that time when the student can enter a courtyard and not cause the birds to fly away, as they just did. For twenty years, the story goes, the student did whatever was necessary to change so that when he entered a courtyard the birds didn’t fly away. At the end of the twenty years, Shah notes, the student no longer had any need for a teacher.

This presents an interesting question. What would a person need to change or do so that when one enters a place, the birds don’t fly away? Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden tells such a story, about such a transformation, and about creating the conditions where others feel comfortable and snug in their places.

Echoed in “The Secret Garden,” “My Robin” (1912) is a short account (approximately 17 pages) of the Burnett’s fascination with English robins and her friendship with one particular one. It is available on Amazon and Project Gutenberg.

In the beginning of the book, Mary and Colin are irritable, contrary, colicky children. But under the tutelage and example of Dickon, a rural boy amongst whom all the animals of the Yorkshire moors feel at ease, Mary and Colin change and their instability is replaced with a calmness that allows others to feel secure. This is most evident in a scene where Burnett tells how the three children share the space of the Secret Garden with a nesting robin and his mate:

In the robin’s nest there were Eggs and the robin’s mate sat upon them keeping them warm with her feathery little breast and careful wings. At first she was very nervous and the robin himself was indignantly watchful. Even Dickon did not go near the close-grown corner in those days, but waited until by the quiet working of some mysterious spell he seemed to have conveyed to the soul of the little pair that in the garden there was nothing which was not quite like themselves — nothing which did not understand the wonderfulness of what was happening to them — the immense, tender, terrible, heart-breaking beauty and solemnity of Eggs. If there had been one person in that garden who had not known through all his or her innermost being that if an Egg were taken away or hurt the whole world would whirl round and crash through space and come to an end — if there had been even one who did not feel it and act accordingly there could have been no happiness even in that golden springtime air. But they all knew it and felt it and the robin and his mate knew they knew it.
At first the robin watched Mary and Colin with sharp anxiety. For some mysterious reason he knew he need not watch Dickon. The first moment he set his dew-bright black eye on Dickon he knew he was not a stranger but a sort of robin without beak or feathers. He could speak robin. . . . His movements also were robin. They never startled one by being sudden enough to seem dangerous or threatening. Any robin could understand Dickon, so his presence was not even disturbing.

The robin feels less trusting, however, about the other children, about Mary and Colin, especially since the latter comes to the garden in his wheelchair and moves awkwardly until he learns to walk. But that discomfort eventually disappears as well:

At the outset it seemed necessary to be on guard against the other two. In the first place the boy creature did not come into the garden on his legs. He was pushed in on a thing with wheels. . . . That in itself was doubtful. Then when he began to stand up and move about, he did it in a queer unaccustomed way and the others seemed to have to help him. The robin used to secrete himself in a bush and watch this anxiously, his head tilted first on one side and then on the other. He thought that the slow movements might mean that he was preparing to pounce, as cats do. . . . When the boy began to walk by himself and even to move more quickly it was an immense relief. . . .[and] the nest in the corner was brooded over by a great peace and content.

Since we have been discussing snugness in Children’s Literature by means of a kind of photo album of images, this image of the robin snug in its nest may be the best one with which to end. Instead of a world where Burnett’s robin fears the cat is about to pounce, it is a trustworthy universe of “great peace and contentment.” Instead of a garden where Peter Rabbit trembles because of Mr. McGregor, or a snowbound woods where Mole crouches in fear, or a vast prairie where Laura feels dwarfed and vulnerable, it is a cozy hole where Peter is snug in his own bed and Badger’s underground abode where Mole can finally relax, and grandfather’s attic where Heidi slumbers. The image in The Secret Garden of the robin in its nest — absent of fear and full of trust–presents a strong picture of the conditions of snugness. Moreover, as with the Sufi story of the teacher and the student and the courtyard full of birds, it also suggests what must done to give rise to such ease in others.

This essay originally appeared in “In the Garden: Essays in Honor of Frances Hodgson Burnett,” ed. Angelica Shirley Carpenter (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006). I devote a chapter to the topic of snugness in my book “Feeling Like a Kid.”

Mourning dove nesting on my back porch.

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