Norfolk woman uncovers secrets of classic children’s book

PUBLISHED: 11:25 17 September 2020

Ann Thwaite  

Photo: Nick Butcher

Ann Thwaite Photo: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2009

Norfolk author Ann Thwaite has loved The Secret Garden for eight decades. Her fascinating biography of its author is re-released to coincide with a new film

Beyond the Secret Garden by Ann ThwaiteBeyond the Secret Garden by Ann Thwaite

As a film of The Secret Garden brings the much-loved story to a new generation of cinema-goers this month, an acclaimed biography of its author has been republished.

Beyond the Secret Garden tells the story of Frances Hodgson Burnett - and is dedicated to Ann Thwaite’s neighbours in Low Tharston, near Tasburgh, “Who all sustained us during the lockdown.”

Ann’s fascination with The Secret Garden began in childhood. “It was read and re-read and the atmosphere of it became part of my life,” she said. But she was curious about the author.

“She had been denigrated as a person by two critics who admired her as a writer,” said Ann. She set about researching Frances Hodgson Burnett and her biography brought to life the woman behind The Secret Garden’s famously disagreeable orphan Mary Lennox, her petulant invalid cousin Colin, nature-loving free spirit Dickon and the hidden garden they discover and nurture.

Ann and Anthony Thwaite  
Photo: Angela SharpeAnn and Anthony Thwaite Photo: Angela Sharpe

Ann describes how the woman who wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden, 25 years apart, had known extremes of poverty and wealth. British-born, her family emigrated to America after her father’s death. She lived on both sides of the Atlantic and enjoyed huge success as well as enduring family tragedy.

The biography was greeted as ‘a model of what a literary biography should be’ by The New York Review of Books and Ann followed it with books about writer Edmund Gosse (described as “magnificent - one of the finest literary biographies of our time”), of his father Philip Henry Gosse, (called, by Norfolk’s DJ Taylor, one of the 10 best biographies ever) and Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne (which won Whitbread biography of the year). Christopher Milne wrote to the Ann to say “In you my father has found the perfect biographer... I am left with nothing but admiration and happiness.”

Ann and her husband, poet Anthony Thwaite, moved to Norfolk in 1972. Anthony was working at the University of East Anglia when they first saw the riverside house where they still live and from where Ann wrote books for adults and children while raising their four daughters.

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“I immediately knew it was somewhere that would make a wonderful base for our family, for our writing and for our travels around the world,” she said.

Local people still remember the children’s library she set up, lending out her family’s own large collection of books, as well as volumes she had been sent to her as a book reviewer. With the nearest public library several miles away Ann said: “There seemed a real need to make them available, to share them with the community.”

Helped by other local families the library lent books to more than 1,000 children and although it closed in 1994 it is still fondly remembered. “Quite often people come up to me in supermarkets or station platforms and say, ‘You won’t remember me but I used to come to your library when I was a child,’” said Ann.

Her own family now includes 10 grandchildren and a baby great grandson. “Over the years they have continued to return,” said Ann. “There is a field to camp in and room in the house for anyone who wants a bed. The river and our punt is a great attraction for visitors.”

Ann, who is 88 this month, and Anthony, who was 90 in June, met at Oxford University and Anthony worked for the BBC and was literary editor of the New Statesman as well as teaching at universities in Japan, Libya, Kuwait and the USA. In 1986 he chaired the Booker Prize judges. On his 87th birthday he wrote a final poem which begins “Trees that I thought were dead are green again.”

The new film of The Secret Garden, starring Colin Firth, Julie Walters and Dixie Egerickx, moves the story from a pre First World War setting to 1947. It will be released in cinemas on October 23 and is available to stream on television. Ann hopes it will inspire viewers to seek out the original story – and her own account of the intriguing life of its author, Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Beyond the Secret Garden, by Ann Thwaite, with a new foreword by Jacqueline Wilson, is published by Duckworth for £9.99.

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