I read two books this month aimed at vastly different audiences. One was The Secret Garden, a children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911. The other was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a book for adults written by Gail Honeyman and published in 2017.
Despite being written in different centuries and for different audiences there was one particular theme that ran through both of them. This was: neglectful parents and the effect that neglect can have on what children believe about themselves.
The main characters in The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, both have distant parents. Mary’s mother is a socialite who is too busy to bother with her daughter. When Mary’s parents both die, their absence makes little sentimental difference to the already lonely, emotionally stunted girl. Her cousin, Colin, is actually physically stunted because of his father’s neglect. After Colin’s mother dies Mr Craven withdraws from his son. Craven firmly believes that Colin will become a hunchback like himself and die young. Despite having nothing biologically wrong with him Colin appropriates his father’s beliefs and subsequently lives the miserable life of an invalid.
In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, main character Eleanor is likewise disregarded by a delinquent, powerful mother. Eleanor’s mother is in fact cruel and abusive, the full extent of which is gradually revealed as the book progresses. And into adulthood it is ‘Mummy’s’ voice in her own head that Eleanor simply can’t shake. A voice that constantly tells Eleanor she’s a bad, insipid, useless individual who will never amount to anything. Like Mary and Colin, Eleanor takes on board her parent’s beliefs about herself. And she becomes a friendless, tactless, emotionally immature person.
Happily, there is a positive resolution for all three characters. In each case it is the ministrations of friendship that launches a change. Much else could be said of both books and their tropes and themes. But having read them alongside each other this theme of parental influence on self-belief (or unbelief) is what stood out for me. The books are a sobering example of how parental treatment of, and communication with, our children can have such a powerful and material influence on who they become.
By Brenda Daniels