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Frances Hodgson Burnett: Secret Long Islander

By Tara Mae

Frances Hodgson Burnett was already a well-known author when she wrote The Secret Garden. Although the novel takes place on the grounds of an English estate, the lush hidden fortress of flora that the main character Mary Lennox creates was written, in part, from Burnett’s Planedome Park home. It was here that Burnett found the peace that Lennox discovered in her secret garden. 

By the time Burnett settled into her Long Island residence, Fairseat, she had divorced two husbands and buried one child. She weathered scandals and tragedies and drew comfort from the quiet beauty of her summer home. Construction was completed in 1908, three years after she became an American citizen and six years after her stay in a US sanatorium due to a physical collapse. 

Independently wealthy from the success of her books and plays, Burnett enjoyed an international lifestyle, crossing the Atlantic 33 times in her life and making multiple trips between England and New York. Born in England on November 24, 1849, her father died when she was three, and the family moved to Tennessee to live near other relatives. Burnett began writing as a means to support the household, selling stories to magazines such as Harper’s and Scribner’s Monthly

Within 12 months, she had earned enough money to move her family into a better house. In 1870, her mother died, and in 1872, she married Swann Burnett, an aspiring doctor and childhood friend. He proposed several times over a seven year period. Perhaps acquiescing to societal pressure that she marry, Burnett eventually accepted. They had two children and divorced in 1898. 

Wanting to get out of Knoxville, Burnett’s earnings allowed them to travel and move to Paris, where Swann studied medicine. Their sons, Lionel and Vivian, were born there. They then returned to the United States, settling in Washington, D.C. Burnett was the primary breadwinner; she enjoyed popularity and recognition for her writing during her lifetime. To better manage their money, she made clothing for herself and her sons, creating frilly, highly embellished outfits for the three of them. She was renowned for her affection for Victorian attire, and Vivian was the inspiration for Little Lord Fauntleroy. First published as a serial in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine based out of New York, the novelization solidified her status as a successful writer. 

Living in Washington, D.C., Burnett continued to build her profile. She was inspired to write children’s fiction after meeting Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas. Her contributions to this genre would bring her lasting acclaim. She hosted salons that were attended by politicians and literary celebrities. Swann’s practice, although successful, did not garner the income generated by her writing, and so Burnett continued to compose short stories, novels, and plays. 

An unconventional woman for the time, with financial and personal independence, Burnett endured aspersions against her character. It was still very rare that a woman worked outside the home. Burnett did not live her life within the constraints of strictly domestic matters: while she was a devoted mother, she was a professional author. She faced public criticism for her unconventional lifestyle, but did not bow to societal norms. 

In 1887, Burnett and her two sons journeyed to England. She continued to host salons and met her future ex-husband Stephen Townsend. They became business partners, but that arrangement disintegrated before the end of their marriage. While wintering in Florence, Italy, she composed Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin's, which was published in the United States. It would develop first into a stage play and then, in 1905, into the beloved children’s novel A Little Princess

Lionel died of tuberculosis in 1890. The press was critical of her as a mother. A grieving Burnett, who had developed an interest Christian Science, Theosophy, and Spiritualism in the 1880s, sought solace in her beliefs. And, she continued to write. In the mid 1890s, concerned about her financial state, she published The One I Knew Best, a memoir of her childhood, and The Lady of Quality, thought to be one of her best plays. 

By the time she and Swann divorced, they had been living apart for years. Burnett waited for Vivian, whose education she financed, to graduate from Harvard before filing for divorce. This procedure was orchestrated by her and Swann; he took his own apartment so that she could seek a dissolution of their marriage for desertion. Two years later, she married Townsend, a choice she soon regretted. 

Mainly living at Great Maytham Hall in England, Burnett moved Townsend into the home before they were married. The vicar, at least, was aghast. Within a few years, the marriage was over and she suffered a physical collapse. Burnett sailed back to America and entered a sanatorium. She informed Townsend that she wanted a divorce, returned to England, and lived at Maytham for approximately two years before making Long Island a primary residence. 

After years of private trials and public scrutiny, Burnett wanted a reprieve from the spotlight. Burnett had generally not adhered to society’s view of how a woman should behave. She made her own money, provided for her family, and traveled independently, even sailing the Atlantic with different male companions, sans chaperone. Burnett bucked tradition and her reputation, and sales of her work, occasionally suffered for it. Fairseat was a sanctuary. 

Like so many of her affluent contemporaries, Burnett primarily enjoyed Long Island as a summer retreat. For many, the area represented the best of both worlds: immersed in the beauty of nature and the allure of the sea, yet close to the business and hustle of New York City. Monied people, from writers to bankers, flocked to the seaside, where they constructed lavish homes. These estates showcased expansive, resplendent gardens. 

Fairseat’s proximity to the water appealed to Vivian, an avid sailor. The sprawling grounds enabled Burnett to add her own luxurious garden. She continued to travel, but consistently returned home to Planedome Park. As Burnett got older, she summered at Fairseat and wintered in Bermuda. The house’s proximity to New York City allowed her to be closer to the publishing firms of Manhattan and to Vivian, who worked in the business. At Vivian’s request, she became an editor for Children’s Magazine. She had numerous short pieces published in it. 

The Secret Garden was published in 1911. Burnett started the book while living in England but presumably wrote or rewrote at least some of it on Long Island. In the novel, Mary is a lonely orphan who makes “herself stronger by fighting with the wind.” She seeks and finds consolation in the neglected, overgrown garden that she brings back to life. Drawing inspiration from either the garden of her childhood home or Great Maytham Hall, Burnett infused the book with her own love of gardens. 

In England, she frequently wrote in her garden. In Planedome Park, she oversaw the development of a sprawling rose garden that included over 300 plantings of Laurette Messimy, her favorite variety. Surrounded by a stone wall, the garden and its enclosement were modeled after those in The Secret Garden. From Fairseat, Burnett wrote her last three novels: The Lost Prince (1915), The Head of the House of Coombe, and its sequel, Robin

Fairseat offered Burnett calm and respite. Having struggled with bouts of depression and periods of illness, she led a less public existence. Burnett died on October 29, 1924, having spent the last 17 years of her life on Long Island. A fire later destroyed Fairseat, sparing only the stucco carriage house and garden balustrades. She is buried in Roslyn Cemetery. 

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