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While reading Baynton’s introduction to Defectives in the Land, I couldn’t help but draw connections between the role disability and race have played in the history of immigration and the portrayal of foreign countries and races in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Throughout the book, India is demonized as both the home of uncivilized subhumans and as the cause of Mary’s chronic illness. In his introduction, Bayton points out the overlap between the perception of disabled people and people from “undesirable” races or ethnicities during immigration. In both cases, the group in question is viewed as fundamentally flawed and inferior (as Baynton would say, defective). Just as Mary, Archibald, and Colin are viewed as less than human in various ways due to their disabilities, India and its people are viewed in a similar way. In The Secret Garden, England and the moor are portrayed as inherently superior to India in their quality of life and quality of people. The idea that Mary and Colin’s health issues will be solved by England’s “fresh air” is consistently reinforced throughout the novel, strengthened through the comparison of India and the moor. Mary’s poor health in India and upon arrival in England is repeatedly blamed on the nature of Indian weather: she had been so sick and surly because “she had always been too hot and languid and weak to care much about anything.” This attribution ignores the many other factors that affected Mary’s life in India, such as a lack of parental care, and instead forces a causal relationship between her physical defectiveness and the cultural/racial defectiveness of India. As Baynton identifies in his essay, blood and heritage govern ideas of a person’s worth and where they belong, be it on the moors for the white Mary or in India for her native servants.
The views of India as an inferior country and native Indians as an inferior race are held by the adults and then passed onto children as fact, which often serves to intensify the opinions. This cycle is illustrated clearly in the first interaction between Mary and Martha. When Mary says her life was different in India, Martha replies, “I dare say it’s because there’s such a lot o’ blacks there instead respectable white people.” She then admits she thought Mary would be black (meaning Indian), which Mary takes as a horrible insult. She describes her native servants as “obsequious and servile,” saying they “did not presume to talk to their masters as if they were their equals.” She even goes so far as to say “they are not people.” Although Martha goes on to say she has “nothin’ against th’ blacks,” she still dehumanizes them in similar ways to disabled people in a freak show. She talks about how she had “never seen a black an’ was fair pleased to think [she] was goin’ to see one close,” describing creeping up on Mary while she was asleep in an attempt to look at her unhindered. This treatment is reminiscent of the story Colin tells from his childhood in which a stranger comes up to him and pats his cheek out of sympathy when she learns of his disability. In both cases, the bodily autonomy of those deemed defective is ignored in order to allow the dominant group to use their body for entertainment. This is an example of the overlap between experiences of race-based and disability-based discrimination Baynton mentions in his work, which really centers around the dehumanization of those that the dominant groups view as defective.
I have grown up reading Burnette’s The Secret Garden and it is one of my favorite pieces to revisit whenever I can. For the longest time, I had viewed Colin’s illness as one that allowed those around him to spoil him. That his father’s fear of him developing a hunched back like his own was what started the journey that disabled Colin. Colin having several illnesses throughout childhood had further led everyone to believe that there was something truly wrong with him. That he would not live to adulthood, which was something that caused him to act like a spoiled brat who got whatever he desired. It was their own fears, as well as Colins, that was the main cause of his disability. The adults around Colin treated him as if he would break, that if they went against him he would end up exhausting himself to the point where he would pass away. Because Colin was unable to have a normal childhood, he turned into himself and saw any sort of flaw as the next sign of his impending death.
Mary was a girl who saw past the adult’s fear and Colin’s tantrum to see that he was perfectly normal. That the cause of his illness was his own and that he was a boy who was as spoiled as she was when she was in India. When she realized that he was as normal as she was, she and her friend Dickon came up with the idea that the garden would heal Colin, making him stronger than he was because of his preserved disability. The innocence of a child was able to see that Colin’s disability was something that can be ‘fixed’ by going outside and experiencing things that he had been previously kept from. Colin had been confined to laying down in order to prevent the hunched back, he was prevented from anything stressful or exciting in order to prevent him from going into a fit. The one time he did go out he read about an illness and immediately caught that illness, which makes me believe that Colin might be one to believe that he could get any sort of illness that he reads about. A hypochondriac. “…One time they took him out where the roses is by the fountain. He’d been readin’ in a paper about people gettin’ somethin’ he called ‘rose cold’ an’ he began to sneeze an’ said he’d got it an’ then a new gardener as didn’t know th’ rules passed by an’ looked at him curious. He threw himself into a passion an’ he said he’d looked at him because he was going to be a hunchback. He cried himself into a fever an’ was ill all night,” (Burnett)
He is so afraid of dying or not being able to live he continuously works himself up and becomes ill. Mary is what brings life to him. She shows him that she was like him, always ill and angry with the world. Mary becomes a savior, finding ways to bring life to Colin, standing up against his anger, and teaching him life is worth living no matter what is wrong. She uses the garden to make herself stronger and in turn Colin. She takes a place where there was a loss of life and turns it into a haven for the two of them. She is what brings life back into the garden and in turn the entire manor. Showing them that fear of disability is not something to worry about, that life is worth living.
Word Count = 604