Girls and Green Space: Sickness to Health Narratives in Children’s Literature

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Author: Janet Grafton
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 215. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,926 words

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[(essay date 2011) In the following essay, Grafton observes that Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy (1917), L. M. Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill (1937), and The Secret Garden all feature convalescence in the context of their main female characters’ experiences in rural green space, and she uses ecocriticism to establish that there is a connection between the natural world and these girls’ sense of self.]

The way people interact with the natural world is changing with every generation. The land is transforming quickly, just as taste in literature is shifting. I believe there is a connection between endangered green spaces and endangered books. As our relationship to green spaces is altered by development, our ability to connect with the green spaces in fiction-spaces from the past that no longer resonate with us today-diminishes. Nonetheless, fiction from the past can serve as a portal, a window onto a natural world and a way of life that are mostly gone now. Exploring the intersection of the real world with worlds in literature is at the heart of this paper. Through the examination of pastoral children’s literature from the past a strong argument emerges for the connection between the natural world and the sense of self in pre-adolescent girls as represented in literary narratives. In drawing attention to both textual and actual green space as psychological resources, I hope to contribute to the survival of these stories and these spaces.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy (1917), and L. M. Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill (1937) depict three remarkably similar transformations: all centre on sickness-to-health transformations that are rooted in each female protagonist’s experiences within a rural green space. The amount of time each girl spends in a healing environment is similar in all three stories: Mary’s transformation begins in winter and ends in late summer; Betsy’s story begins in winter and ends the next fall; and Jane’s time on the island spans two consecutive summers, totalling six months. In each story, the sickness-to-health trope is centred on a lack of confidence, or on being ill at ease, rather than physical illness. All three protagonists are nearly the same age: on the cusp of adolescence but still children. As well, each story is set in the Edwardian era. But most importantly, these three stories all reflect an idea expressed by Rosemary Sutcliff in her autobiography, Blue Remembered Hills. Of her childhood in the English countryside she writes,

[a]bove all, I soaked in the ‘feel’ of the downs, the warm sense of the ground itself actively holding one up; a sureness, a steadfastness; and the sense that one gets in down country of kinship with a land that has been mixed up with the life of men since it and men began.(1983, 37)The protagonists of my chosen texts are all “held up” in various ways by the land. Each girl’s connection to the land builds her sense of personal capability, and the environment is more than backdrop.

In answering questions that engage...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420123195