First things first. I know you will love Rosie Anthony'sgorgeous take on What to Look For in Winter. Her pictures are so full of tranquility and the strength of plants and trees that persist through these bitter, bleak months. You must see these little green stars growing on grey. Go on, go and have a look now, save this blog for later...
Just now time seems to constantly run away with itself, but I ought to give you some more pages of Tunnicliffe and Watson itself. In the last week of 2012 I re-read The Secret Garden, which felt in the same genre. The third time I've read it (the first time as a child, the second time, not) and I was surprised to enjoy it again, and see new things in it.
Last time I was surprised at how Mary vanishes from the novel as it progresses. It's as if the literary equivalent of a walking cane hooks her off-stage while Colin glides into the spotlight. This time it didn't feel abrupt: Mary begins the novel, as you might know, completely dictatorial, emotionally immature, despised by everyone she meets. That Burnett begins sweetening her quite early is slightly disappointing, but made up for when she threatens to scream and frighten the other little tyrant, Colin. By then she's not just raging at him; she's deliberately focusing and deploying her power.
I was completely surprised to find myself in tears when Mary asks Dickon if he likes her, replying: 'That makes three - you, the gardener, and the robin!' She's slightly disorientated and excited and pitifully grateful to have two men and a small bird approving of her. I'd thought of Burnett as mawkish and she's not.
I decided to read her A Little Princess, which I know I began as a child: Margery Gill's candlelit yellow-and-black cover and descriptions of a girls school in
London gaslight, all lingering in my mind. I
knew that Sara, who comes to live at that school, cosseted by her father but
abandoned whilst he gambles his money on diamond mines, would suffer a reversal
of fortune. Nevertheless, it came as quite a brutal plot twist, with some
harshly abusive behaviour from the resentful headmistress.
Once again, it surprised me by avoiding melodrama and sickly sentiment (for the most part). Sara and Miss Minchin could have been Dickensian characters, but Burnett is careful to explain to her readers how one can be so saintly, and the other so cruel. Sara is hardly an ideal those readers can aspire to, but her ability to refigure the world, to grasp certain truths via metaphor and performance, is really quite powerful. Sara even has the power to mock and pity her tormentor, though it doesn't get her very far.
It's a shame the ending is so contrived - in its artifice Burnett betrays her cynicism for happy endings (more overt, or so they say, in her adult novel Making of a Marchioness). Burnett had an extraordinary life, and certainly found happiness thin on the ground: loss of her father at an early age, loss of her son in his teens, leaving her husband for a younger man, being left, and a life of crossing and re-crossing the channel, Washington to Yorkshire, which suggests an innate restless, rootlessness.
She seems to have had a longing for drama and a passion for secrets which I identify with. She said in her autobiography that as a child she would go to birthday parties and say to herself, 'Is this really the Party?'
I won't be able to read more Burnett for a bit, but I'm surprised to find I want to read lots more of her now - not Little Lord Fauntleroy, perhaps, but the Marchioness maybe. A bit of idealism, a lot of melancholy, and you can't go wrong.