The Forgotten Garden starts in London, 1913, when a four year old girl is abandoned aboard a ship bound for Australia. She is told by the mysterious "Authoress" to remain hidden behind a barrel and to keep her name a secret. But the Authoress never returns and the little girl survives the voyage and is left standing alone on the wharf with a little white suitcase containing her only belongings and the only clues to her identity.
The mystery shifts backwards and forwards in time over the span of a century. Three main characters help to move the story forward and fill in the gaps that lead the reader ever closer to the truth (Eliza, who we meet as a young child orphaned in London (1900) working to earn her keep alongside her twin brother Sammy, a chimney sweep; Nell, who is 95 in present time -(2005) and spends much of her life troubled by a secret she learns on her 21st birthday and carries with her to her deathbed; Nell's granddaughter, Cassandra, who not only inherits a cottage high atop the rugged, rocky cliffs of Cornwall, but also the quest that her grandmother started in 1975).
Of course this gothic tale would not be complete without the presence of a coldly calculating, aristocratic family whose lives are intertwined with our main characters. The Mountrachet family reside at Blackhurst, a large country estate complete with a maze... that leads to a garden.
There are many parallels in this story to the famous children's book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924). The story of young Mary Lennox brought to live on her Uncle's large and stuffy English estate. Mary befriends her sickly cousin Colin who craves his father's attention and together with the young gardener Dicken, they set to restore to life the garden that caused his father so much pain. Morton cheekily has Burnett make a "cameo" appearance in this story, as herself, a liberated, society woman (imagine being twice divorced at the end of the Victorian era, an established writer, and a powerful figure to boot - I really like this lady! Note to self - more research on Burnett - for example, Why, oh why, did you name one of your sons Vivian?) invited to a soiree at Blackhurst (1909) and takes an interest in the maze on the grounds of the estate. Burnett was living in England at this time and left to reside (until her death) in the United States that same year. The Secret Garden was published in 1911 and it has been said that Burnett's "secret garden" actually existed and she discovered it in Kent, at Great Maytham Hall, where she lived from 1898 until 1907.
The first movie that I ever saw at the cinema (that I remember) was the 1949 black and white version of The Secret Garden starring Margaret O'Brien. The year was 1971 and the movie was then well over two decades old. Imagine paying $10 or more today to see a movie more than 20 years old! I was mesmerized by the movie and just beside myself when the black and white gave way to glorious technicolor as the garden came to life. I remember being enthralled with the beauty and magical qualities of that walled garden. Did pixies live behind the rose bushes? Were elves peeking out of the ivy? I didn't really give a hoot about wimpy, whiny Colin and his miraculous restoration to health. In fact, I wanted to pinch him. I wanted to pinch him very hard for every nasty temper tantrum, for lying about feeling sorry for his miserable self in his dark, dreary bedroom screaming at Mary. (Ok, I was five, perhaps I missed the bigger message of the story.) It would be a few more years before I discovered that the movie was based on a children's story, one waiting for me to find in the library, crack it's spine and return to the garden once again.
Just as I was mesmerized as a child by Burnett's story of a mysterious secret garden, I was equally spellbound by Morton's story. I feel that my review is not doing this story the justice it deserves. My fear is that the more I divulge, the more I spoil. There is a reason that this story is listed on many of my fellow book bloggers "To Be Read" (TBR) lists. It's outstanding!
One more thing before I close. Central to the mystery is a beautifully illustrated volume of Victorian fairytales found inside the child's little white suitcase. These tales are told in their entirety as the story unfolds. They are enchanting and so well written that I literally found myself "googling" their fictitious author. I figured if Morton inserted Frances Hodgson Burnett then maybe....
Can't wait to read Morton's other novel, The Shifting Fog (also titled, The House at Riverton), which is on my "To Be Read Challenge 2010" list.