The omniscient narrator of The Secret Garden begins by enumerating the many defects of Mary Lennox, the ten-year-old girl who is the novel's protagonist. Mary is ugly, with skin made yellow by constant illness. At the outset of the novel, she is living in India with her parents, who have neither time nor affection for her. Her mother, who had never wanted a child at all, has entrustedMary to the care of a number of Indian servants, whose only instructions are to keep the unloved child out of her mother's sight. Mrs. Lennox is described as a famously beautiful, elegant woman, who does nothing but attend fashionable parties. Though everyone is acquainted with and admires Mrs. Lennox, nearly no one knows that she has a little girl, so totally is the embarrassingly ugly childkept from public view. As the servants are obliged to give Mary whatever she wants (lest her parents be disturbed by her crying), Mary becomes terribly spoiled, selfish, and dictatorial. She loves no one, and no one cares at all for her. This already unhappy state of affairs is made worse when a cholera epidemic breaks out in the Indian village where the Lennoxes are living. The family does notmanage to flee in time to escape the epidemic because Mary's mother, in the spirit of thoughtless egotism that is typical of her, has insisted upon staying to attend a dinner party. On the morning that the cholera finally strikes the Lennox bungalow, Mary's Ayah (the Indian woman who serves as her nanny) does not come to tend to her. Left utterly unsupervised, Mary wanders into the garden and begins toplay by herself beneath a tree. There, she overhears a conversation between her mother and a British officer, after which the events of the morning are explained to her. The fact that her Ayah has died of the cholera does not bother Mary at all, as she did not love her nanny or anyone else.
The household is seized by terror and confusion, and in the ensuing chaos Mary is completely forgotten.She shuts herself in her room, and does nothing but cry and sleep for more than a day. When she finally ventures out, the house seems eerily deserted, as though it has been abandoned. Mary drinks a glass of wine left standing on the dining-room table. The wine causes her to fall into a deep sleep that lasts many hours. When she awakes, a small green snake with glittering eyes is the only livingcreature besides Mary herself left in the bungalow—everyone else, including her parents, has died or fled. A party of British soldiers finds her there and takes the newly-orphaned child away with them.
Mary is sent to live with an English clergyman and his family in the period immediately following the death of her parents. Her misfortune has done little to change her worldview, however,and she instantly despises the clergyman's five children and the poverty of the family's circumstances. They, for their part, are quite frank in their dislike for her, and she finds herself ostracized by the other children. They delight in making fun of her, and, upon finding her playing at gardening, give her a mocking nickname borrowed from a nursery rhyme: "Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary."Basil, the favorite among the children, informs Mary that she is to be sent to England to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven. As she has heard of neither England nor her uncle, this comes as something of a surprise to her. It is also from Basil that Mary begins to hear the peculiar rumors that surround her uncle: it is said that he is a hunchback and hermit who lives in a mysterious, rambling oldhouse in the middle of nowhere. Though Mary roundly spurns Basil and his story, she is preoccupied by what he has told her. A few days later, she does indeed set sail for England, in the care of an officer's wife who is on her way to leave her own children in a boarding school.
In London, Mary is handed over to Archibald Craven's housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. The pair loathe each other on sight—a...