chapter  9
“Girls Like it Most”: Challenging Gendered Canons and Paracanons in the Case of The Secret Garden
Pages 18

The personal practice of going back to remember and reread childhood books has increasingly found a place in canonization processes in the later years of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, enriching and shaping the history of how a specific text becomes a ‘children’s classic.’ Italo Calvino’s premise that “the classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory” (Calvino 1990: 4) suggests that individual recollection must be set alongside cultural histories in order to understand the interweaving impulses involved in canon formation. Private canons are formed within a matrix of literary, historical and socio-cultural contexts, and can run in parallel with public canons or may diverge from and challenge them. The experiences of individual readers provide windows onto everyday use of canons and the negotiations that might be made when encountering a book that has been sanctioned as appropriate in some way for a specific audience: children; British children; British girls; and so on. It is important to explain precisely what that book might have done to its readership in order to secure its place in a certain canon. While it can be difficult to identify and isolate the immediate impact a text has on a child through discussion with him or her, paying attention to reading histories and the practice of rereading in adulthood can offer insights into the effects that classic texts have on readers over time, thus helping to explain their significance on a personal level. The concept of the “paracanon,” defined by Catharine R. Stimpson (1990, 97) as a set of texts “beloved” (98) by individuals and communities of readers that may exist beyond traditional parameters of critical taste or opinion, is a helpful tool for articulating the power of such personal narratives and will set the tone for this chapter’s interrogation of the canonization of The Secret Garden. I prefer to extend Stimpson’s definition to include texts that exert something of Calvino’s “peculiar influence,” and not just those that evoke feelings of passion or nostalgic love, since childhood reading is made up of a gamut of emotional investments and all can help to shape a personal canon. In her study of children’s literature and canonicity, Anne Lundin (2004) provides a good account of her lifelong “romance” with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel that helps

demonstrate the importance of investigation into paracanons, explaining how it acts for her as a connection to her younger self that is “primal, fierce, protective” (121, 147), while Beverly Lyon Clark notes that for many of her female friends and colleagues with whom she discusses childhood reading, the work is a “secret love” (2003: 30). Yet there are other remembered relationships with The Secret Garden, less passionate but no less telling about its meaning for readers, that are worth examining.