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The story behind the picture: Producing ‘The Secret Garden’ in 2015

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In 1909 Ellen Thomas-Stanford of Preston Manor took her camera equipment outside and created photographs of the beautiful romantic gardens surrounding her home including this view looking into the walled flower garden, a scene that can be enjoyed today.

Over the years a great many people have said to me, “this would be a perfect location for a dramatised version of The Secret Garden,” and so in 2015 we did just that and this is the story of that event.

The Secret Garden is a novel by British-American novelist, Frances Hodgson Burnett first published in 1911 and is a classic and much-loved children’s book. The story has been adapted for film, stage and television many times and so lives in the hearts of generations ranking alongside E. Nesbit’s 1906 The Railway Children as a delightful escape into Edwardian childhood enjoyed by adults of all ages as much as younger people.

The challenge at Preston Manor was creating a version of the story using simple props and a cast of two. Fortunately, the manor house and gardens made the ideal backdrop and little adaption was required on location to bring life to The Secret Garden.

My first task before creating the event was reading the book. Typical of Edwardian stories written for children the story is hard hitting, opening in British-ruled India with spoilt rich kid, Mary Lennox being orphaned as the result of her parents dying of cholera. Mary is packed-off to cold grim Yorkshire and lodged with a wealthy and aloof elderly uncle who dislikes children. While exploring the uncle’s manor house and gardens, Mary discovers two other children; a sad motherless invalid boy called Colin, who turns out to be her cousin, and the jolly robust gardener’s boy, Dickon. The three children embark of a journey of discovery. Mary learns to be kinder. Colin discovers that he’s fit and healthy after-all and Dickon is an all-round environmentally aware eco-hero, a poor boy who helps the rich children become happier, stronger and better people through generously sharing his love and understanding of the natural world.

Next, I had to adapt the story to modern audiences.

As with many children’s books of the Edwardian and Victorian period The Secret Garden contains passages, words and themes that would be considered offensive today regarding attitudes towards race, disability, gender and social class in the 19th and early 20th century. Death also features in graphic ways. Eventually, with much cutting and reworking I had the version of The Secret Garden I knew would work for the Preston Manor children & families event programme of summer 2015.

I created a script and then began working with Social & Cultural Historian and skilled storyteller, Sarah Tobias who was my co-host. Sarah is an expert on life in Britain in the Victorian and Edwardian period and bought much to the adaptation and flowing of ideas around how we would present the story in an authentic manner.

I knew straight away that I wanted the event to be interactive and not just an exercise in sitting and listening so I sourced props that could be handled and played with by children to help their understanding of the plot. Keeping everyone active we moved the action around Preston Manor (standing in perfectly for Misselthwaite Manor in the book) beginning in the Dining Room where Mary’s back-home story began with her boxes and trunk packed in India which children could open and find her grand clothes, toys and dolls.

One of the Manor bedrooms became Colin’s room set with a basket for the invalid with tartan rug, books and boy’s toys. Most of all I enjoyed sourcing and creating the props that would best explain Dickon; the child-sized gardening tools, period natural history books and authentic looking Edwardian seed packets which I made and filled with dried lentils which, when shaken, sounded like seeds. To add to the suspense of unwrapping this character, Dickon’s props came in little cloth draw-string bags, made by my dressmaker sister, in vintage fabric printed with flowers and leaves.

The Secret Garden is set in a large country house meaning some of the adult characters are domestic servants and so we took the story down to the Preston Manor kitchens, the province of Martha the maid and Cook. The families who came to the event therefore not only enjoyed hearing the story but they got a tour of Preston Manor at the same time.

For added fun, children could I-Spy Dickon’s pet robin, which appeared perched somewhere in each room we visited. Finally, we ended with a real treat, a chance to go out into the Manor’s old kitchen gardens which are not normally open to the public. Much of the action in the story takes place in a vividly described walled garden as it awakens from winter to spring, and so stepping outside using a small side door in the Manor’s basement created the sense of literally walking into the real life world of Mary, Colin and Dickon.

Sarah and I presented as a dramatised story containing enacted scenes in which I played Martha the maid. In this role I could hand out the props and busily pack them away afterwards – with the help of the children. Sarah was the calm voice of the author expertly balancing suspense, action and emotion as we all travelled back in time to Edwardian childhood. The event took place while Preston Manor was open to the public meaning casual visitors got to see the house unusually set with interesting looking props and theatrical scenes.

The Secret Garden went out live to the public for the first time on Saturday 30 May running for three dates in the summer of 2015, one of the 46 public events I created for Preston Manor that year. The event re-appeared in the 2016 Easter holidays and remains one of my favourites in the house’s public programme.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer, Preston Manor