The Secret Garden-Was it racist?

My younger sis started reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and she came across a few sentences in Chapter 1 in the first paragraph itself.

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. Her father had held a position under the English Government and had always been busy and ill himself…

She was offended by 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. part. She said it meant that all people from India are always ill. Whereas I think the author meant ‘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‘ are meant to be 2 statements not really related to each other. But I could be wrong.

The next sentence ‘Her father had held a position under the English Government and had always been busy and ill himself‘ kind of contradicts my understanding.

But my sister was really offended. She said the author should have taken the sentiments of all readers in mind before making a carpet statement like that.

And besides Indians don’t have yellow hair, neither do we have yellow faces.

I would have read this book sometime later but I’m really not keen to read it anymore. My sister is still reading it but she is reading it to find if there are more references like that in the book.

I told my sister I will ask my blog readers about it. So what do you think? Was it racist? Would you read a book that criticizes your nationality or race?

43 thoughts on “The Secret Garden-Was it racist?

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  1. I think there are two messages conveyed in that passage: one being the character is indian and the other that she gets sick easily. I do find it strange why the author described the character has yellow hair or faces considering she is indian (unless she’s a caucasian born in India?). Oh well, I find the descriptions a little confusing though.

    I can’t comment on the book since I’ve not read it, hopefully the book will get better and no contradictions when your sister read further.

    Well, it sure is discouraging (and/or an insult?) to read a book that criticize our nationality or race, I might probably not read that book again but then it won’t stop me from reading the other books by the same author.


    1. Thats what I thought, 2 messages, but the writing style sure is confusing. I

      probably wouldn’t read any other book by an author if I thought he/ she is a racist. It just doesn’t fit well with me.


  2. The way I interpreted is: She had yellow hair (statement 1 – this probably means she had caucasian parents who were living in India). She also had a yellow face because she was often ill, and she was often ill because she was born in India (statement 2). The implication of this second statement seems to be that there is more sickness around in India and so people get ill more easily, which is definitely a colonialist attitude :S This is what bugs me about reading children’s classics: you never know when you’ll come across blatant racism. It’s the same with Peter Pan, The Water Babies, E. Nesbit, etc :/


  3. Yes it is racist to a good degree. I’ve had friends tell me about Oscar Wilde [or was it Bernard Shaw] whose every play/story/book has some character who has been to India and has fallen ill and hence is either yellow or dumb or suffering.


  4. I have to agree with Nymeth’s interpretation above – she had yellow hair because she was Caucasian, a yellow face because she was sick, and she was sick all the time because she lived in India. Definitely one of the negatives about reading older literature; no one at the time would have questioned such a horrible attitude but to us it is racist and wrong. I know I missed a lot of this when I was a kid and now as a consequence some of my favorites make me cringe.


  5. Maybe it’s a combination of both. One thing I do have to point out is that my friend spent two and a half years living in India and goes back there every six months or so and she made a point of saying that whenever she or any of her British friends go over there, they’re always ill for the first two weeks – Because their bodies are not used to the heat and also not used to the food. It takes a fortnight for their bodies to get adjusted. Though I’m not sure if this would apply to Mary as she was born there. Hmmmmm. It’s a tricky one.


  6. Oh, and I meant to add, it does sound very racist. If I’d been reading it and saw that, I’d assume it was a racist remark. But taking into account when The Secret Garden was written it’s not that surprising. :-S

    Also, I would read a book that criticises my nationality or race – I think it’s better to be aware of what is being said rather than hide in the dark about it.


  7. Not sure about the whole section but the comment about her face looking yellow would have denoted malaria to me – it causes a yellowish look to the skin (from what I understand) and would certainly be something that causes you to be ill a great deal (as it recurs often once you get it the first time).


  8. I see them as two separate statements. I didn’t read it as she was sick because she had been born in India, but what do I know? To me they all seemed separate, but it is confusing.

    I tend to not get offended by ‘racist/sexist/classist…’language in older books. To me it is a glimpse into another day. I’m not sure it’s completely fair to judge them by today’s standards.

    That being said, I haven’t read this book, but I do have it on my bookshelf.


  9. I don’t think the author is being racist. I think that the author was trying to say that the girl was yellow because she was sick and because she was a caucasian the appearance of her skin when she was sick was yellow. It could be malaria (like another reader noted) or other diseases.

    If my history is correct a lot of people of European heritage were sick when they lived or worked in the nations they conquered.

    So, the statement is not racist just not clearly worded.


  10. I’m in the ‘not racist’ corner on this one.

    Like others above, I took it to mean that she was sick often because she was a caucasian in an unusual climate. Hence she was yellow (pale?) skinned – a ‘sickly’ colour for caucasian characters in a lot of literature of the time. Compare with a ‘healthy’ skin colour of ruddy complection, rosie cheeks, etc in similar literature of the period.

    I don’t think it was meant to present a negative view of India, rather just an explanation of why the charcter might have found herself different from her peers as a result of the context of her unbringing.


  11. I’ve read the book before and have interpreted as that the girl was caucasian, hence the yellow hair and that she was yellow of skin because of being sick and not so much because of being born in India, as is stated in some comments above. I have to be more on the not racist & ‘it was not clearly written’ side. :/ While I am sadly unversed on the condition of India in the early 1900s, I would assume that, like anywhere, sickness would have been more abundant than it is now.

    I think dealing with a certain degree of racism is inherent to all classic literature. When one reads older stories about Africa and South America, blatant, unrestrained racist remarks are made about the native peoples. While I totally understand why you are now somewhat opposed to the book, that was just my view. If you decide not to read the book, I would still recommend watching the movie. 🙂


  12. I agree with Huwey on this one, I don’t think it’s a racist remark. It’s more a comment on the fact that the Indian climate isn’t suited to her. If she is blonde then that carries the connotation of being naturally very fair skinned and probably not being from a warm climate.

    It’s a very good book, I don’t think you should let that stop you and if you do read it I’m sure the authors compassion in other ways will reassure you that it was not a racist remark.


  13. Oh, aaaaand, I just wanted to say thank you for being such an amazing commenter on my blog! I’ve added you to my link list on the front page. Thank you so much again. 😀


  14. Thank you so much everyone for all the wonderful and insightful responses. It basically says people are divided in their opinions. My sister still believes it was racism, I put it down to confusing writing style.

    One thing is clear though, that racism was very common on Classics. I do agree with commentors who say books from that time shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards, but it’s difficult to ignore when it’s something said about your own country 🙂

    Thanks again though…


    1. I’m reading this book now, i started with much excitement and after a few pages i felt something was seriously wrong with the intention of the book. I don’t want to say about the yellow hair or face,whatever intention it may be,but about the blacks and that they are not people..and another sentence mentioned about the skipping rope.what had color made to do with a skipping rope? Though this classic children literature was written at those ages, it cannot be strictly passed on to this generation with such racism.The young hearts who read this and who unfortunately doesn’t know the history “WHAT IS INDIA AND HOW WEALTHY WE WERE,AND HOW WE WERE STOLEN AND DRAINED?” would think that he/she was born in a worst sick country… i accept with violet that its difficult to ignore when something bad is said about your own country. the reality is that Europeans begged and entered India,they plotted against our wealth and richness they stole our wealth and innocence from our people and they write such crap books for their children to know about India. seriously i think of writing a second part of this book titled” INDIA, THE SECRET GARDEN HID FROM MARY AND MARTHA”. this will be the tribute I pay to my own country… the secret intentional racist thought of Burnett comes out viciously. I here want to say that only parents like Mr and Mrs Lennox and a child like Mary can be seen in Victorian ages but not in INDIA,I wish to slap the attitude of the author and wish some alterations had to be done for the young readers all over the world to read.


  15. I don’t really think it’s racism myself. I think Nymeth’s reading is the one I agree with, but I don’t think it is necessarily racist. To me, there is a difference between ignorance and racism, and I don’t think Burnett meant it in that way. I also do think a lot of Europeans get sick in India (and Asia in general). A lot of people overall get sick when they visit foreign climates. I don’t know if I think it’s really against Indians. But maybe I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt. I tend to give more leeway to historical books than modern ones (even modern ones written about historical times) on that sort of thing. The only book I have put down because I couldn’t stomach the racism in it was 1000 White Women.


  16. I haven’t read the book, but I agree with Nymeth on this passage. So many “classics” come across as racist or sexist, now, but when the book was written that was the prevailing attitude, for better or worse.


  17. I can’t really comment on its racism because I last read this as a little girl. I can see your point about it though. It could be a tinge racist…though when I was a kid I always thought it meant sickly.


  18. I don’t know what to say, may be the writing style is not upto the mark.
    But well I won’t read a book that does racism. Not just my country, any country for that matter!


  19. I don’t think the author meant anything racist at all. When we read, we should read with an open mind. I think this book is really good. I’m a Chinese and if I want to be offended, I’d be offended by a lot of things and the books I read.


  20. I think this is a really poorly written sentence, actually…and I don’t think it is racist.

    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.

    Her face is yellow I think refers to jaundice which is a symptom of liver disease. The fact that she was born in India I suppose might allude to a diminished health care system which made her be less than healthy to begin with and susceptible to illness…I don’t know if India has (or did have) diminished healthcare in the time frame at which the book was written (as compared to Britain)…But this sentence seems to me to be so out of context that it is hard for me to put it in any kind of perspective. The way the sentence is written leaves it up to all kinds of interpretation…which, in my view, makes it poorly written. I need a lot more than this to convince me that the book or its author is racist.


  21. Definitely need to consider the time at which this was written. I remember getting so angry at my grandfather when he used the term Negro to describe an African-American (which, when I was a kid it was PC to use the term Black). Anyway, his word choice seemed so archaic and wrong, but it was a product of the time in which he was raised (when the term was accepted as correct)

    I’m sorry your sister is having such a hard time with this; it might be good for you to read THE SECRET GARDEN yourself to compare how you perceive it.

    I always thought Mary was English (?) which would explain the ‘yellow’ hair, and sickly to explain ‘yellow’ skin.


  22. If it is racist, it’s not as bad as some Victorian literature I’ve read. I think the author is just making a statement, as you said in your post, about two things: that her hair was yellow (i.e. white chick), and that her skin was yellow because she was sick. Perhaps there is an assumption that India isn’t as “healthy” as the pure English country side, but I think that might be more subconscious colonialism that racism per se.

    This is actually a pretty good book. I think it would be a shame if you let that one statement dissuade you from giving it a try. Very interesting post, though! I don’t think I caught that when I was reading it; but then I read it when I was eight-ish.


    1. My sister did continue with it but after a few pages she found some references which were examples of severe racism. She also read them out to me with the context. I am quite tolerant than her with racism whereas these old books are concerned, but honestly I don’t have to read so mch crap about my own people. There are many other good books out there.

      I had asked her to continue with the book after the first mild occurance but I couldn’t ask her to continue after what she read out to me.


  23. Are you seriously going to discuss this? First of all, it was written in 1910, so talking about it over a century later is idiotic. There are many statements in every book that can be considered racist. Consider trying to read a book for its message and not a word by word.


    1. Firstly this is a book blog and thats what we do here – discuss books, what we like and what we dont like. Second – there may be some but there are not many books with racist statements. I dont have to read a book if it offends my nationality or my race no matter when it was written. I can get my messages from somewhere else.


  24. Hi Violet,
    I’ve just started to read this book because I’m taking a class on Children’s Literature. I searched for “Racism in The Secret Garden” and this was one of the first entries to pop up! I want to echo a sentiment that other commenters have made: that the statement you have highlighted seems to be about a young girl born to English parents, and that many colonizers did fall ill in India, in part due to the unfamiliar climate and associated unfamiliar pathogens. There were also stupid things the British did that exposed them to diseases, like staying in the lowlands instead of retreating to the hills when the monsoons came.

    The little girl, Mary, was not “racially” Indian, so I don’t believe the statement about yellow hair, birth in India, and disease should be interpreted as racist against people who are racialized as Indian. HOWEVER, the rest of the book contains hundreds of examples of the British racism of the day, including gems like:

    “Pig! Pig! Daughter of Pigs!” she said, because to call a native a pig is the worst insult of all.


    Mary did not even try to control her rage and humiliation. “You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people—they’re servants who must salaam to you. You know nothing about India. You know nothing about anything!”

    The list goes on. I have not finished the book yet, though, so I cannot comment on whether there is any address of the issue of racism by the conclusion, nor have I passed judgment on whether Frances Hodgson Burnett was herself engaging in outright racism, or whether she was merely depicting as faithfully as she knew how the racist attitudes of British colonizers. There is a halfway-decent discussion on this thread: — although I am pretty skeptical of Choisya’s statement that Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was “not [racist] and especially about Indians.” Seems to me like any Empress of India whose greatest anti-racist act was to “make provision for her favorite Indian servant before she died” was preeeetty racist.


  25. Hey I just came across this blog when I was googling about the Secret Garden.

    I don’t think that particular line is racist, since I think, as another commenting person wrote, that historically, many European colonialists did get sick when they were in India (of course, colonialism is in itself, among many other horrific things, racist). However, the rest of the beginning of book does get increasingly racist, it’s quite horrifying actually. I was googling about the racism in the book which is why I came across this blog. And yea, she’s English and was born to parents who seem like some sort of socialite high-ranked people in the colonial British government in India.


  26. Mary had yellow (blonde) hair and her skin was sallow because she was sickly, I guess due to the humid environment of India.

    As for racism, you do find other references in there. When Mary arrives in England, her maid Martha tells her that she thought Mary would be black, since she had arrived from India. This infuriated Mary, who said that the natives weren’t human, but servants.

    Later on, Martha blames Mary’s poor behavior on her being from India where there were “such a lot o’ blacks instead o’ respectable white people.” (Her words, not mine).

    At any rate, the book is the product of the time it was written in (1909). That was simply the way of thinking then. We should certainly disagree with it, but we must respect that it was a different time.


  27. Yeah….both The Secret Garden and The Little Princess definitely have racist elements. Not always malicious, but sometimes very unfair, and always cringeworthy. Basically, any time Indians are mentioned, it is about how subservient they are to white people, how they seem pleased to even be this way – they are somewhat childlike, and worship the British. India itself is described as an awful place – England is clearly seen as being superior and healthier. I think it would take a good dose of denial to interpret them overall any other way, even one tries to make once particular sentence not mean such a thing – taken overall, the picture the author had of India and Indians is clear. Again, it does not seem malicious, just ignorant, and with a frank sense of superiority. It seems more to do with his ideas about Indian culture and India the country, rather than about anything inherently wrong with the people. But, these are very, very brief aspects of the books – I managed to brush them aside and still really loved the other aspects of the stories.


  28. This is really simple… These sections are referencing the fact that she was “jaundiced” due to chronic illness (liver and digestion problems), which are not uncommon for people who have trouble adjusting to water and food in India. When you suffer from liver problems your skin turns yellow due to bile build up.


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