So, let me explain how all of this lusting after attractive male characters in period literature came about.
Really, this is all Hallmark’s fault. I remember being seven years old and sitting down with my family to watch a movie on TV. The opening credits came on, and I was instantly transported by what I would later realize is probably one of the worst movie adaptations I’ve ever seen in my life: Hallmark Hall of Fame’s “The Secret Garden.”
This particular movie is deceptively bad. It builds up your expectations, opening with a woman dressed as a red cross volunteer from WWI, driving through the English countryside and then arriving at an estate, where she begins walking the grounds in search of something. Chopin’s Nocturne in e minor, op. 72, No. 1 is playing in the background, setting a melancholy tone to the whole piece. I was hooked.
In all honestly, I really don’t know what went wrong. This version of The Secret Garden stars Gennie James, who was really great in “Places in the Heart,” as Mary. It features Barret Oliver, who was really great in “The Neverending Story” and “Cocoon,” as Dickon. It also features Derek Freaking Jacobi, who was really great in pretty much everything he’s done, as Archibald Craven. A certain someone also makes an appearance at the end. By all rights, this should have been a great movie. Instead, it’s awful.
As a young girl though, I didn’t realize this, because I was busy falling in love with Dickon Sowerby. I didn’t know it was love. All I knew was that I felt the same fluttering in my heart that I had experienced while watching the Artful Dodger in the musical “Oliver!” and also David Bowie in “Labyrinth.”
After seeing the movie, I checked the book out from the library, and, soon after that, bought it. I was completely captivated by Dickon.
Reading the book from an adult perspective, I realize that Dickon is a little one dimensional: he’s portrayed almost as a spirit of the moors, he doesn’t develop at all throughout the novel, and comes dangerously close to representing a very distinctly English version of the noble savage, being barely literate yet remaining Mary’s advisor on all things to do with the natural world. As cynical as I am, and as aware of all the critiques of his character and the inherent imperialism present the book, I find there is still something magical about the story, and especially about what Dickon represents in it.
Dickon is a rather mythical character, existing as a hearty, yet fey spirit very reminiscent of Pan. The first time Mary encounters Dickon, he is sitting playing his pipe to a group of animals that has gathered around him, for fuck’s sake.
Although Mary is friends with him, he in many ways remains inaccessible to her, since she is still constrained to life at the manor and its upper class lifestyle that is so different from his. She worries that he’ll disappear like some kind of “wood fairy.” These fears are assuaged when she finds his note to her telling her that he will come back. The note also contains a drawing of a missel thrush on its nest- his way of reminding her that she and their garden are “as safe as a missel thrush,” which makes her one of the many creatures whose secrets he keeps faithfully.
As the novel progresses, Mary and Dickon take on the roles of surrogate parents to Colin, seen in their attempts to help him walk. Their interactions with Colin, while encompassing friendship, are also protective of him, in the way that parents are protective of a child who is too vulnerable to be exposed to the evils of the world. They try to distract him when he asks about the tree in the garden with the broken branch, which is the place from which his mother fell to her death years before.
The film adaptations of these books have played with the relationships between the children in different ways. The BBC version from 1975 contains a nice scene during the end credits, in which Mary and Dickon sit together alone in the garden, presumably after Colin and Master Craven have left it to go to the manor and spread the news that Colin is recovered. This is a rather sweet nod to their characters, which have been somewhat abandoned in the book in favor of focusing on Colin. We see them resuming their previous relationship with each other, with them sitting side by side, talking and laughing together, surrounded by Dickon’s animals. In this version, Dickon is portrayed as a plucky and hearty moor boy, which seems to fit in pretty well with his character from the book, although it’s a little lacking in the portrayal of him as the magical boy that Mary envisions.
The 1993 version of The Secret Garden really takes up the relationship between Mary and Dickon, and definitely provides fan service for Mary and Dickon shippers. The kid they have playing Dickon, Andrew Knott, is adorable, although maybe a bit too hearty to be playing some poor moor kid who eats grass like his pony because he doesn’t get enough to eat at home. Having seen this version as an adult, I obviously didn’t lust after young Andrew Knott, because that would be gross and weird. I will say though, that he grew up alright.
The writers and director really went all out in trying to show the potential for a love triangle between Mary, Colin and Dickon, although it’s pretty obvious that Dickon is the winner in the movie. Two of the scenes, the swing scene where they gaze into each others eyes, and a scene later in the movie in which Dickon tries to comfort a crying Mary, have inspired tons of fanfiction writers who desperately want the two of them to end up together. And fair enough; there is something compelling about their relationship in the book, and you can’t help wishing that they’ll grow older, overcome the seemingly insurmountable class differences between them and end up together with their own garden. However, it’s hard to imagine how this works, since Dickon would have to be an actual real person, not an unchanging moor spirit. However, I am forced to admit that I can appreciate the movie’s balls to the wall approach to their relationship. It’s a happy story, although it is rather melancholy to see Dickon riding off over the moors by himself at the end.
It’s good that this version was made, because it helped to heal the traumatic wound I was dealt at the end of the 1987 Hallmark version. I am still scarred from watching this movie, and the first time I saw it, I cried for days at their suggested resolution of Dickon’s character. I hid my tears, and attempted to walk around with as much dignity that a seven year old can muster in the face of losing her first love.
The ending of the movie finds us once again with the young woman, a grown up Mary, in her red cross uniform, finished with the flashbacks of her childhood that have comprised the entire movie. She meets up again with the kind, yet surly Ben Weatherstaff, who hands her the key to the garden. Then, Ben says it.
“You know about Dickon.”
My heart stopped and I was filled with dread for what was to come.
Yes, that’s right. It seems that Hallmark felt that the awkwardness of class differences and the unchanging nature of Dickon were just too much to deal with, so they killed him off. In the war. In a forest, as if that makes it ok. I was crushed.
OK, OK, this is probably fairly realistic. England practically lost a whole generation of young men in WWI, and it’s reasonable to expect that Dickon could have been one of them. But still, it smarts. And, in a way, I feel like it’s a little bit of a cop out, like resigning yourself to the idea that he was too good and perfect to live in the fallible world, sort of like the argument that Romeo and Juliet’s love was too pure and thus had to transcend the rottenness of the world. So, despite what I said earlier, I call bollocks.
So, thank you Hallmark, for dashing a young girl’s dreams, and killing off the character that you made her love. Yeah, the acting was terrible at times, as Barret Oliver seems to have lost some of the ease with which he used to perform in front of the camera by this point. But still, his Dickon in some ways is perfect. He’s kind, playful and rustic, yet at the same time, the quiet tone of Oliver’s voice portrays the gentleness inherent in Dickon that is a little lacking in the other performances. In this one, despite how bad the movie is and despite how atrocious some of the acting is, you at least get the sense that Dickon really is magical. The writers go overboard with this aspect of his character a bit, making him into some prescient child who somehow knows of his own death, and that’s too bad, because otherwise this version would have been satisfying in it’s portrayal of his more fey qualities.
As a child, I was also moved to appreciate the Dickon in this version precisely because Mary didn’t seem to. This movie focuses more on her relationship with Colin, with him giving her a locket and them constantly discussing their futures. And then, at the end of the movie, right after we’ve learned that Dickon is dead, in walks Colin into the garden.
I don’t mean Colin Craven. I mean Colin Firth. Yes, that’s right. Colin Firth. He waltzes in there, and asks Mary to marry him, and she agrees, thereby cementing the tone that’s set in the book in which Colin will become Lord of Misselthwaite and take his rightful place in English society, with a good wife to help him out. Colin wasn’t killed in the war, just acquired a dramatic limp, the type of glamorous injury given to men in film, similar to the dramatic cheek scratch that is given to heroines to show them having strength under duress.
I was so bitter about Dickon’s death that I had my own Lizzie Bennett moment then and there and hated Colin Firth instantly on sight, because he insulted my sensibilities. To be fair though, I was seven, and instead of looking like this:
he looked like this:
What was I supposed to think? With time though, I have overcome my grief and now accept that if a person who looks and sounds like Colin Firth comes up to you and asks you to marry him, you should do it. But surely, there is always a little place in your heart that can still belong to a gentle moor boy who can keep all your secrets.