We had a trio of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books on the shelf from as early as I can remember – A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and The Secret Garden. I read all three when I was pretty young, and saw at least two movie adaptations of each one. All three books feature child protagonists who’ve lost at least one parent. In A Little Princess, Sara Crewe is known for her brave forbearance and her devotion to princessly virtues throughout her riches-to-rags story. In Little Lord Fauntleroy, Cedric Erroll remains the sweet-natured, charismatic apple of his mother’s eye as he goes from being a street urchin in Brooklyn to an English aristocrat.
The Secret Garden stands out among Burnett’s works (and classic children’s literature in general) in that ten-year-old Mary Lennox, orphaned while overseas with her parents, is a total bitch. She’s unlikeable, and I love her for it. Mary has the kind of behavioral issues you’d expect from a kid raised by neglectful narcissists whose idea of “parenting” is giving the kid whatever it takes to shut her up. Not to mention this child has gone through the trauma of finding her parents’ disease-ravaged bodies and being the only one left alive in her home.
So, when I was asked to review The Misselthwaite Archives, I was pleased to see that #MisselArch’s Mary is traumatized, depressed, and a total bitch. Though, as you can see, she’s not ten.
In this adaptation, 17-year-old Mary is sent to live at her widowed uncle’s home in Misselthwaite, a small, preppy town somewhere in Oregon. Teen angst and Portlandia snark suit this character beautifully.
As does the series’ framing device. Most of Mary’s talking-to-the-camera videos are letters to Dr. F.H. Burnett, the therapist she left behind when she moved to Misselthwaite. Others are study exercises with her perpetually cheerful tutor, Phoebe Sower (Martha Sowerby’s counterpart). Phoebe is the one who first introduces Mary to the legend of The Glade. She also introduces Mary to her little brother, Declan.
Dickon Sowerby was one of my biggest “How is a modern webseries going to handle this character?” characters. With his entourage of enchanted woodland creatures, Book Dickon is pretty much a boy Disney Princess. It’s easy and predictable to take him in a Manic Pixie Dream Guy direction. The 1987 film went full Purity Sue/Too Good For This Sinful Earth, telling us in an epilogue that Dickon died in the first World War. (I like to imagine that version of Dickon actually ran away with Walter Blythe and they lived feyly ever after, but I digress.)
#MisselArch goes the opposite way with Declan Sower. He’s a wildlife sanctuary intern who’s brilliant at ecology and animal care, but shy and awkward with humans. He’s as good-natured as his perky sister, but quiet and thoughtful in a way that connects better with Mary’s withdrawn snarkitude. In fact, Declan connects so well with Mary that every video he appears in is inevitably followed by “I ship it!!!!” comments. I have to agree. I’ve always loved Mary for feeling like a real kid, and for once, Dickon feels as real as she does.
My biggest question, though, was how #MisselArch would handle Colin Craven. I can’t tell you the answer without a ton of SPOILERS. You’ve been warned.
I say this as someone who dearly loves The Secret Garden and looks forward to sharing it with my own kids someday: The original Colin arc is problematic as hell. Aside from the fact that Colin’s treatment in the book would be more than enough cause to alert child services these days (thank goodness!), Colin’s arc is familiar to anyone who grew up on classic children’s books like Heidi. Child is bedridden from some disease the doctors can’t fix. Child has a bad attitude and expects to be waited on hand and foot because they’re crippled. Child meets Other Child who refuses to treat them like they’re crippled. Other Child teaches Child to love being outdoors. Child is restored to full health because their sickness was really all in their head.
Do I have to explain why this trope is not only cruel and insulting to a physically fragile child who’d give anything to run and play outside with their able-bodied peers, but dangerous? I’ll assume that, because you are one of my readers, you are wise and just and don’t need me to explain it. Instead, I’ll explain how #MisselArch approaches Colin’s story in a thoughtful, clever way that I didn’t see coming.
Mary says in the first episode that she wishes her cousin was home instead of at boarding school. As the series goes on, she hears strange noises in the house that Medlock (Art Craven’s sister in this adaptation) keeps dismissing. Finally, Mary investigates the noises and finds the basement locked. She swipes the keys and discovers a basement apartment occupied by a whole convention’s worth of geeky collectibles and her 15-year-old cousin, Callie.
Callie’s been hiding out in this Tumblr fever dream because she doesn’t want to see Mary or anyone else. She’d ordered her absent father and obsessively protective aunt to tell Mary she was away at boarding school so she wouldn’t be disturbed. The reasons she gives are “My mom died” and “I have diabetes.”
Mary makes light of the latter, and honestly, I was afraid the series would, too. The follow-up episode is titled “Baby Got Brimley’d” for Mary’s Walter Brimley diabeetus impression. The story seemed to be saying the same thing as the original. It’s all in your head. You’re sick because you want to be. Just get up and get outside and live life to its fullest, and you’ll be fine. You’re keeping yourself sick, and people around you are keeping you sick by taking care of you. Get up and get out. It’s all in your head.
Except…did I mention Mary’s a bitch?
By the time Mary reunites with Callie, she hasn’t changed that much, but she has become the character the audience identifies and sympathizes with. Her thoughts and feelings on Callie’s situation feel like they’re meant to be taken as reality, not just one character’s perspective.
Then, several episodes later, Callie tells Mary (and us) that her mom died in a diabetic coma. “I didn’t know diabetes was that bad,” Mary says in the ultimate understatement. The late Mrs. Craven was found alone and unconscious in her beloved Glade. Callie’s story leaves Mary (and us) hoping Callie will leave her basement and join Mary and Declan in the Secret Glade, but understanding why she’s afraid to, and why she and her caretakers are obsessive about keeping on top of her medical maintenance. Like her literary counterpart, Callie gets to be a realistic bitch, too. The scene is handled in a believable way that’s true to both girls’ characters. I’m looking forward to seeing how those characters develop.
Speaking of looking forward, The Misselthwaite Archives is running an IndieGoGo campaign to fund the rest of the season. They have ten days to raise over half of their projected funds, so click here to check it out! Want to watch the show first? Click here, or go to the playlist at the top of the page.