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What The Secret Garden Taught Me about Strong Female Protagonists

The world is changing. Literature, media, legislation—they’re all beginning to recognize the power and strength of women around the globe. There is still a long way to go, and the fight toward equality and equal representation still feels like swimming against the current, but there are more role models for young girls to look to than there were just ten or so years ago. Simply look to literature for the change. Now, there’s Katniss Everdeen and Beatrice Prior battling their way through post-apocalyptic worlds and showing young girls that they, too, can be just as tough as their male counterparts.

Growing up, however, for me, there weren’t as many strong female characters. By the time J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series had come out, the only female role model I could remember looking to was a ‘contrary’ little girl by the name of Mary Lennox.

While Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was published in the apex of Victorian literature—an era as far removed from an Asian child growing up in a Western world as any era could be—there was something so wonderfully familiar about Mary. She was naughty and talked back to her elders. She got her hands dirty in the mud, and she found pleasure in the natural world. These were all characteristics that I realized encapsulated a young me. For the first time, I was seeing that being ‘quite contrary’ was okay, because if it wasn’t for Mary’s more-than-a-little-aggressive personality, her cousin, Colin, would never have overcome his illness and reunited with his estranged father. Mary did that.

This was the first time that I saw that girls didn’t have to smile and to be passive. In this patriarchal world, we have the ability to be whomever we want and to affect the people around us for the better. I feel obliged now, however, to note that my parents had always nurtured my more-curious and active side, but reading Burnett’s The Secret Garden validated that for me. Yes, Mary isn’t a perfectly behaved little girl at the beginning of the novel, but for the first time, I found a female character I could relate to. That is a profound thing in a little girl’s life, and for that, I will always be grateful to Burnett and to the scores of authors who are writing strong female characters for the next generation of little girls.

PREA SATRUSAYANG is a 24-year-old postgraduate student studying English Literature at the University of Newcastle. She has a penchant for cat videos, young adult fiction, and soaking in the sun.

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