Snow falls outside my window in New York City as I write. Although winter does not technically begin until next week, as I noted in a fond farewell to autumn two days ago, winter seems to not be interested in the calendar. While many may be tempted to stay indoors the next few days due to winter weather and other matters, I write today to remind readers that the great outdoors are good, even when the weather is cold. Rather than remind readers myself, I turn to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic, “The Secret Garden.” If the winter air was good enough to liven the unhealthy and disagreeable Mary Lennox, it is surely good enough for winter walks for us as well.

Brief Introduction to The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden follows the adventures of Mary Lennox. The ten-year old Mary was British, but she had been born and raised in India. Near the start of the book, a newly-orphaned Mary moves from India to northern England to live at her uncle’s Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, which sat on the edge of a moor. In India, Mary was mostly ignored by her parents and had been raised by servants, whom she was accustomed to ordering around. Other than being bossy, Mary’s most notable qualities were her sickliness and her lethargy. Burnett began the book by providing a very unflattering portrait of the Mary as she arrived at Misselthwaite Manor:

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too. She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.

The Secret Garden (page 1)

Mary arrived at Misselthwaite Manor in the winter, and she quickly discovered that she had no way to pass the time other than braving the winter winds at the edge of the moor.

Mary Lennox’s Winter Walks

Mary Lennox during the winter opening the door to the secret garden in "The Secret Garden"
Mary Lennox opening the door to The Secret Garden – clipped from the cover of the original edition

In chapter 5, we learn that Mary’s health improved as soon as she began exploring the great outdoors. Well before Mary found her way into the secret garden to which the book owes its title, Burnett described how the inhospitable winter conditions benefited Mary Lennox:

[E]very morning she ate breakfast in the nursery which had nothing amusing in it; and after each breakfast she gazed out of the window across to the huge moor which seemed to spread out on all sides and climb up to the sky, and after she had stared for a while she realized that if she did not go out she would have to stay in and do nothing—and so she went out. She did not know that this was the best thing she could have done, and she did not know that, when she began to walk quickly or even run along the paths and down the avenue, she was stirring her slow blood and making herself stronger by fighting with the wind which swept down from the moor. She ran only to make herself warm, and she hated the wind which rushed at her face and roared and held her back as if it were some giant she could not see. But the big breaths of rough fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes when she did not know anything about it.

The Secret Garden (page 55-56)

As Mary battled the cold winds sweeping down from the moor, not only did her physical health improve, but her formerly sour expression was replaced by a new glint in her eyes.

Final Thoughts on Winter Walks

Cold days and precipitation tempt people in places with cold winters to stay indoors. But in most cases, walking outdoors is good or healthy, and winter walks are no less so. There is no better time to begin adjusting to the changing temperatures than at the start of the winter season. Had Mary Lennox not built her strength and improved her character upon arriving at Misselthwaite Manor in the winter, she would have hardly had the physical strength and personal sensibilities to revive the long-abandoned secret garden in the spring and summer. If someone as frail and malcontent as Mary benefited from battling the elements on winter walks in northern England, surely we can benefit from nice walks in nippy winter conditions.