It’s a long standing setting. The walled garden. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett shows how illuminating and magical a place it can be. A gift, and place to discover the self as well as be free to be a child.
But the walled garden isn’t always a place of joy and discovery. More and more it is used in children’s and YA literature as a place of oppression and patriarchy. A place that is not safe, or is holding back the potential of young women.
I recently read Winterkill (click here for my thoughts on it) and the conditions the main character, Emmeline, is living in, made me think more about this idea of the ‘walled garden’.
Emmeline lives in a closed settlement controlled by a group of men. They are kept safe from the icy clutches of winter as well as the monstrous claws of the malmaci which lurks in the woods. Everyone has their place and their tasks; but they are being controlled by fear and male dominance.
The walls of her settlement keep her from becoming the woman she yearns to be. She wants to be free to love, and free to have her own passions. She wants to be free to explore, and it’s this desire that overrides everything and eventually leads her on a potentially life-threatening quest to find ‘other’.
It sounds easy, doesn’t it? If she’s hearing the whisperings of the trees, the call to adventure, why not simply walk straight out of the gates and never come back? Because a man has told her this will make her a sinner, she will not be loved, she will be a cursed thing. Not to mention the fear of putting her family and friends at risk.
Emmeline lives in microcosm of male control. The patriarchy is almost sickeningly effective. She must be good, she must marry well, she must obey obey obey.
Thank fuck she doesn’t.
It’s left to Valerie to work through the web of lies and deceit to figure out the truth. But it’s these same lies that have been the glue that held together the small village for so long.
Discovering the truth is dangerous because it means thinking bigger than the walls of her village and realising that she has just as much power as her male counterparts. She loves and she is loved, but she her mind and body are a power all her own.
Again, for me, this depicts a failing patriarchy, one that inevitably is pulled about by a
wolf woman. There is something to be said about demonising women here, but I’m leaving that for another day.
Blood and Salt is a little different in that the protagonist willingly enters a ‘walled garden’, even if she doesn’t know it at the time. And here the wall is made out of corn, and magic.
But again, the community Ash finds is such a hardcore form of patriarchy, it’s essentially a cult. And the aim? To feed the select few (mostly men) more power, both spiritually and literally, over the women.
I haven’t yet mentioned this but you will also find a common theme between these books and that’s ‘falling in love with the wrong person’. Or ‘forbidden love’. This suppression of desire is never going to end well. I’m just glad that for the most part, the ‘true’ love eventually becomes a catalyst for change and then also a strength. Although it would be nice to see it not happen at all, however the conditions and environment foster it. So it’s to be expected.
The walls could not be any closer around protagonist, Amanda Verner. The house here represents the fear and loathing that can breed out of familial expectation on a girl. Again, Amanda has ‘forbidden’ desires. She wants to love and be loved and live a life she makes for herself, however, her love for her family causes her much pain and guilt and shame because she is not content in the bed they made for her.
Amanda, thankfully, burns it all to hell. But the end of the book is a sharp reminder that escaping one nightmare can often mean falling into another. It’s like that wolf, the malmaci, the demon in the corn… there’s always someone or something else waiting to test her and try to control her.
And then there is Only Ever Yours. Which is probably the most frank example I could find. frieda is living in a prison school for young girls to make them ready for the men to choose from.
It’s fashion and body image and media culture and mean girls and jealousy and female insubordination and objectification and more, all wrapped tightly into one narrative.
This is everything that is wrong with gender equality magnified to the extreme.
Only there isn’t really a way for frieda to beat the system, and that is a real reflection on current society. The will of one is amazing and can show how change can happen, or should happen, but it takes more that the singular to really make it stick. frieda wins in her own way, but does she bring down the walls? Not for her society, but for ours she makes a start- in the minds and hearts of young girls, by asking these questions.
Why is the ‘walled garden’ used over and over? I think it’s quite simple; it’s relevant. And it continues to be relevant. Women experience male ‘superiority’ in all kinds of situations and at different extremes. But in a narrative like those above, it can be explored in a secure environment. Story is ‘safe’, not least because mostly these books are set in different times or worlds. This separation allows for a safe distance to ask questions and to explore the answers. It opens up a conversation without having to feel at risk by pointing fingers.
I do hope that the ‘walled’ garden’ falls out of favour one day, because that would mean women would be living in a different world. But until then, I’m happy to keep reading it and I hope the younger generation of both boys and girls are too. Let’s show them the way out. Brick by brick.