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Biography: Frances Hodgson Burnett by Gretchen Gerzina

Secrets of a lost celebrity

Penelope Lively
Friday 16 April 2004 00:00 BST

There is something of an admission in the extended subtitle of this biography: "the unpredictable life of the author of The Secret Garden". Frances Hodgson Burnett needs a touch of explanation; plenty of people will not have heard of her. On the other hand, more are going to know The Secret Garden. The fate of JK Rowling in 100 years, maybe - Frances Hodgson Burnett enjoyed parallel celebrity in her day, though not equal riches.

But the Victorian writer was prolific across several fields - magazine stories, novels for adults and children, drama - and was not seen primarily as a children's author at all. The Secret Garden does indeed hang in there as a classic. But it would be a rarefied child now who has come across Little Lord Fauntleroy or A Little Princess, both hot titles in their day and, in the case of Fauntleroy, responsible for the mortification of a generation of small boys stuffed into black velvet and lace collars.

The Secret Garden has generated much critical interpretation - religious fable, allegory of sexual awakening, study of nervous breakdown -- and it has devoted advocates. I pass; I came first to it as an adult and found myself resistant to its charms, except for the evocative description of the garden. For me, it has the mawkish quality of so much writing of its day. But I did have A Little Princess as a child, and from that there lingers still a whiff of the irretrievable quality of childhood reading. I was mesmerised by the account of Sara Crewe's lavish clothes; silks and satins and velvets. Apparently, its author was herself addicted to clothes and fashion; the passion must have lit up her writing, like that meticulous attention to the garden.

Ann Thwaite's pioneer biography of Hodgson Burnett is now 30 years old. Gretchen Gerzina has come up with new material and photographs; that said, there is nothing very new in terms of the life. This account is workmanlike rather than sparkling, and perhaps a bit too exhaustive, as we traipse across the Atlantic with Frances, and keep tabs on her complex family.

She spent her childhood in Manchester, emigrated to Tennessee at 15, began successfully writing stories for magazines, and was famous by the time she was 30. She was propelled into writing by family poverty, and went on writing for money when supporting her first husband during his years as a struggling doctor. She called herself "a pen-driving machine", and seems to have driven herself into a series of breakdowns from what was defined as nervous exhaustion.

She discarded two husbands, the first because the marriage had simply run its course, the second for the good reason that he had bullied her into marriage and then subjected her to insufferable rages and jealousies. Indeed, he can be seen as a justification for the profession of literary agent; he had inserted himself into her life in the role of business manager, and in the end demanded a legal hold on her earnings. Nowadays, 10 per cent suits both parties; no need for a shotgun marriage.

By then Frances was a celebrity and such goings-on attracted intense press attention. The newspapers carved her up - plus ça change. She was wounded and angry, understandably so; from the viewpoint of today, her marital conduct seems not unreasonable. It is more difficult to condone her curious habit of leaving one or other or both sons, whom she adored, on the opposite side of the Atlantic for months on end - one even when he was terminally ill. Their beseeching letters make for pathetic reading.

She was incorrigibly peripatetic, renting house after house in the manner of the times, in America, in Britain, in Italy, in France, and seems to have been undecided whether she was American or British, plumping eventually for America. Undoubtedly this dual personality was a professional advantage, bestowing insights and enabling her to write with equal ease of both cultures. She was popular, warm-hearted and generous, enjoyed enormous sales but was frequently strapped for money. She is an odd phenomenon: the one-time literary lion remembered for a single tenacious title.

Penelope Lively's latest novel is 'The Photograph' (Penguin)

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