I know I have been neglecting to update this like I promised I would. Again. I actually took detailed notes and pictures when cooking for my friend Cate when she was over last week – I’ve just been feeling too lazy to actually upload the pictures. I’ll get there.
But in the meantime, I just finished rereading The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. She is phenomenal and quite possibly my favorite author – I have to add qualifiers like “quite possibly” when I say that because somewhere inside of me, the younger version of myself is appalled by the idea that I could contemplate liking any author better than J.K. Rowling but no really – I adore her writing. I’ve read all four of her novels and have enjoyed them all thoroughly.
The Forgotten Garden is a story about a young girl who was abandoned on a ship from England to Australia, was taken in by strangers and raised as their own, that is until her 21st birthday when she was told the truth. This revelation shattered “Nell”‘s sense of identity and throughout the remainder of the story, it’s a mystery to find out where she came from, who her parents are and why she was abandoned.
If you’re unfamiliar with Kate Morton’s work, the novels I’ve read have a similar common theme – a family secret to be discovered. The wondrous thing is that she interweaves the stories from different time periods, generations and characters together. In the case of The Forgotten Garden, we have the story line of Nell’s search for her past, her parents’ timeline of how the characters in that generation ended up there, and Nell’s granddaughter Cassandra’s picking up the pieces of the puzzle following Nell’s death. It’s like we are all rushing throughout the reading to get to the finish line, all from vastly different eras.
I decided to reread this one though because of the four, it was the one I enjoyed the least and I enjoyed it noticeably less so than others. I thought I might have been in a strange mindset at the time because it didn’t grip me the way The House at Riverton (which I read before this book) or The Distant Hours and The Secret Keeper (which I read after) did. And I’m sticking with “strange mindset” for the first read because this time I was considerably more enthralled- staying up far part my bedtime on a work night to keep reading.
And enthralled is the word for it – Kate Morton’s books capture me so completely that they stay with me for such a long time afterwards. That is why I’ve decided to write this now – Morton has woven a spell on me and I’m not ready to leave it’s clutches yet.
On the very last page of the book (my copy anyway) are some “Suggested Discussion Points”. I’ve been thinking a lot about them and will be answering them below. While I tried to keep everything mostly spoiler free above this point – I make no promises that there won’t be significant spoilers below.
1) On the night of Nell’s 21st birthday, her father Hugh tells her a secret that shatters her sense of self. How important is a strong sense of identity to a person’s life? Was Hugh right to tell her about her past? How might Nell’s life have turned out differently had she not discovered the truth?
I’m gonna start with the last question. In the very beginning, we meet a 21-year-old Nell, surrounded by the comfort of her 3 younger sisters who look up to her, a fiance who adores her, and a father who has always been there for her. After she learns the truth about herself, she pulls away from all these people. The love she felt for her family, which had come so easily to her in the way that familial love does, was gone. With her own shattered sense of self, she pulls away from the fiance – if she was so easily discarded by her biological parents, how could the fiance not see that there was something wrong with her, something clearly not worth loving? Had she not discovered the truth, Nell would likely have married the man and remained close with her adopted family, content in her belonging with them. By all rights, her life might have been much happier without learning the truth.
Despite that, I think her father was right to tell her about her past. A person deserves to know who they are and where they came from.
I think a strong sense of identity is very important to a person’s life. But that said – this identity comes from many different places. Nell puts great value in the sense of identity derived from our biology – the family she never knew but I think the sense of identity also comes from how we were raised, those who matter to us and the choices we make. Nell likely felt she spent years living a lie and as such I can understand why she’d consider that lost knowledge to be so important to her sense of self. Me personally, I hold greater a greater sense of self from the choice I’ve made, but I am saying this as someone who is quite sure of her lineage – take 1 look at me, then my brother, then our parents – quite clear we are related and that certainty is a comfort I’ve always know I could rely on.
2) Did Hugh and Lil make the right decision when they kept Nell?
I went back and forth about 100 times before answering this question. It’s just not as simple as a yes or no answer.
When Hugh and Lil found Nell, their marriage was having difficulties that arose largely from their inability to have a child. They desperately wanted a family and Lord can I understand how that inability could eat at a person – particularly back in 1913 (when Nell was found) when many of the options open to couple now were just not available. Throughout my life, I have never been sure what I wanted to be when I grow up, professionally – I fell into my political science major in college and into my Production Clerk job – but I’ve always known that I want to be, am meant to be a wife and mother. I could easily see how not meeting that goal could tear at a person and cause them to want to do extreme things. And at the beginning, it was hardly extreme – to take in an abandoned girl and act as a foster family while looking for her family is a generous thing to do. To fall in love with her and see her as their own is hardly strange.
But no matter how their feelings may have changed – Nell was not their child and she did have a family looking for her. That Hugh chose to keep this from wife and adopted daughter is where we get to the questionable morality of it all. It was one thing when they kept her until finding the family, it is entirely different when Hugh chose not contact them because he felt they did not deserve to have Nell back after abandoning her on a ship across the world. While by the end of the novel, we the reader know that it would not have been a happy life for Nell if she were returned to her biological family, Hugh did not know that. As the reader, we know that Nell’s mother Eliza was killed by her aunt and uncle after kidnapping the child and attempting to flee to Australia, that Adeline with her strictness for rules and her hate for Eliza and Linus with his generally creepy demeanor where anything involving his late sister Georgiana is concerned would hardly be the loving and fulfilling childhood Nell got from her adopted family, Hugh knows nothing of this. All he knows is there is a family looking for the child and he keeps her anyway. I have a hard time condoning his decision on this.
3) How might Nell’s choice of occupation have been related to her fractured identity?
Nell sold antiques, she bought old pieces, restored them, and resold them to others. As someone who’s identity was irretrievably shattered, she might’ve seen the furniture as a metaphor for herself. Something with a long unknown history that needs to be put back together and made right again. Furthermore as someone with little understanding of her past, she would likely see all the more value in it.
4) Is it possible to escape the past or does one’s history always find a way to revisit the present?
When you read a book like this, with so many generations’ tales so thoroughly woven, it’s impossible to think one could ever escape their past. But as I said earlier, I think we are the sum of all of our parts, and if we try hard enough to put the past aside, we can move past it.
5) Eliza, Nell and Cassandra all lose their birth mothers when they are still children. How are their lives affected differently by this loss? How might their lives have evolved had they not had this experience?
Eliza: Had Georgiana not died, Linus’s detective would not have found the death certificate and been able to find Eliza. While they may have been discovered at another time, not then, which would’ve completely changed the rest of the story.
Cassandra: Leslie dropped Cassandra with her Grandmother and this really affected her life in a very positive way. Nell refers to Cassandra as her second chance and we know Cassandra loves her grandmother dearly as well. I think Nell greatly shaped Cassandra into the woman she became and most of the life experiences of Cassandra’s we hear about only happened because she was left with Nell.
Nell: This one is so much more difficult to talk about to me because Nell passes away never knowing who her birth mother was or how she died. Nell is effected more by Hugh’s telling her at her 21st birthday than she is by the loss itself. Though her life would’ve been very different had Eliza survived. Eliza was killed trying to escape Linus’s men and get back to the ship taking Nell to Australia. If Eliza hadn’t died, the two together would have traveled to Australia, met up with Eliza’s servant friend Mary’s family and lived a happy life together. And ironically enough if we’re to follow the context clues – Mary’s family Hugh and Lil – we gather this from Eliza’s picking that ship to take them to Mary’s family’s town, and because Mary’s younger brother William has the same secret ingredient in his soup as Nell’s adopted family does.
6) Nell believes that she comes from a tradition of “bad mothers”. Does this belief become a self-fulfilling prophesy? How does Nell’s relationship with her granddaughter, Cassandra, allow her to revist this perception of herself as a “bad mother”?
At the time when Nell gives birth to her daughter Leslie, she says she didn’t feel the connection to her daughter she’d expect and later admits “of course she was a terrible mother…it was in her blood… a tradition of bad mothers, the sort who could abandon their children with ease”. By the end of the story, we know that it is not biology, not in Nell’s blood to be a bad mother. Eliza died trying to get back to Nell before the ship to Australia left. It is only Nell’s thoughts of herself that become a self-fulfilling prophesy of being a bad mother.
In the Epilogue, Nell refers to her granddaughter as “her second change, a blessing, a savior” and that it wasn’t until Nell got the chance to know Cassandra that she was able to know who she was. I think this was helped by Nell’s ability to connect with Cassandra. While there was a “streak of wildness” that kept Leslie and Nell from connecting, Cassandra was abandoned by her mother to be left with Nell. While Cassandra speaks of being able to look past that, she says that Nell was never able to forgive her daughter for, that no one can be forgiven for abandoning their child. Nell of all people knows just how devastating that could be. Beyond the duty of caring for the granddaughter in her mother’s absence, it’s clear to me that Nell truly cares for Cassandra. Just before Cassandra is left at Nell’s, Nell had bought the cottage in England and was planning on moving their to find out who she was and where she came from. While this put Nell’s plans on hold, Cassandra went away to college, marries, and has a child of her own and Nell could have easily moved away then. But she chose not to, Nell chose having Cassandra in her life over learning her family’s story. “Bad mothers” don’t do selfless things like that.
7) Is The Forgotten Garden a love story? If so, in what way/s?
In Ancient Greek and by extension Latin and the present day romance languages, there are several different words that in English is simply “love”. Aga’pe is true unconditional romantic love, E’ros is physical/sexual love, Philia (which anyone from my neck of the woods can easily tell you) is brotherly love- such as friends and family (Philadelphia – the City of Brotherly Love), and Storge which was rarely used and seems to be natural, familial love and used in an “i put up with you” kind of way- seems to me to be like “I love you but I don’t like you”. In English, when we say it’s a love story, we call to mind stories like Romeo and Julie or such. But keeping this in mind the different types of love, I think The Forgotten Garden is most definitely a love story. While there are some storylines of romantic love – Rose and Nathaniel, Christian and Cassandra -, this is a love story between family.
While there are numerous other story lines woven throughout, the novel is at it’s core about Eliza. Eliza loses her mother at young age and then shortly after, her twin brother, her soul mate, is killed. She looks to be made whole again, to be part of a pair again, and Eliza finds that in her cousin Rose. Eliza loves Rose so strongly that even though their relationship is diminished following Rose’s voyage to New York, Eliza does not think twice about doing whatever it takes to make Rose happy. When Rose is unable to conceive, asks that Eliza carry her husband’s child, and allow them to raise the daughter as their own, Eliza hands over the child to her with little thought on the emotional damage she undergoes as a result. That is how sincere, true and unconditional Eliza’s love for Rose is, how strongly she wishes for Rose’s happiness, how much she wants to be needed by her.
8) Tragedy has been described as “the conflict between desire and possibility”. Following this definition, is The Forgotten Garden a tragedy? If so, in what way/s?
Absolutely. Most of the story lines move through and arise from the conflict between desire and possibility right from the beginning of time. I started to list every way any of the characters had a conflict between what her or she desired and what was possible and it quickly got out of hand. This is an incredibly tragic novel. So I will focus on the biggest tragedies.
Eliza and Rose. As I said above, I think at it’s most basic plot, The Forgotten Garden is a love story between Eliza and Rose. Following her twin brother’s death, Eliza looks for that strong of a connection with someone and for a time finds it in Rose. When Rose meets and marries Nathaniel, Rose’s love for him replaces her affection for Eliza. Eliza’s real tragedy is the conflict between her wish to restore the connection and the inability to do so. Eliza goes through such lengths as to have Nathaniel’s baby and give it to Rose to raise in attempt Rose will remember that she needs Eliza (which was of course done to ease Rose’s tragedy between her will to have children and her inability to conceive). But Eliza is banished from the other size of the garden maze, told never to see Rose or the child again. That which Eliza did in attempt to fix the conflict between desire and possibility only further deepened the tragedy.
Nell. From her 21st birthday onward, Nell struggles with her sense of identity. It is not until after Hugh’s death that she has any information on her biological family to try to learn about them. Just when she begins to put the puzzle together and solve the mystery of who she is, granddaughter Cassandra is dropped on her doorstep. This eliminates her possibility of moving to England and learning the truth despite the strong desire to. Nell dies without every finding the answer about where she came from and why she was abandoned.
9) In what ways to Eliza’s fairy tales underline and develop other themes within the novel?
There’s a point in the 2005 story line, I believe between Christian and Cassandra – I wish I could find the exact passage but it’s just not working right now – where they comment on Eliza’s fairy tales being autobiographical. There are numerous ways where each tale clearly illustrates a point in Eliza’s life or a even a theme repeated throughout the generations. Let’s look at each fairy tale 1 by 1.
The Crone’s Eyes: In this tale, a beautiful princess is raised by a crone without eyes. The Princess travels far to retrieve the crone’s eyes but the crone dies before the princess makes it back to her. The Princess is told though that “she did not need her eyes to tell her who she was. She knew it by your love for her”.
While I do not understand how this one connects to Eliza as much, the parallels to Nell and Cassandra are clear to me. Nell is missing her identity/her past and following her death Cassandra takes up the mystery and solves it. But in the Epilogue, Nell’s thoughts show she had learned who she is by her granddaughter’s love for her without ever solving the mystery of herself.
The Changeling: A queen makes a deal with a fairy to get the child she longs for but refuses to return the Princess to the Queen Fairy. Desperate to keep the child, the Queen makes a deal with a second fairy to keep the Princess, but the Princess is turned into a bird as a result. The Queen locks the Princess is locked in a bird cage until her 18th birthday where the kindness from a stranger releases her from the cage and she turns to a person again and is returned to the Fairy Queen.
This theme though is one we could see throughout many of the characters in the book. The first is from Eliza’s perspective – this is the first tale Eliza writes and was a gift for Rose on her 18th birthday. Rose was often ill as a child and her mamma Adeline seeks to protect her in my opinion (and Eliza’s) by sheltering her and keeping her cage but she is finally free to go outside and take the voyage to New York after her 18th birthday. There is also parallel’s to Rose’s relationship with Eliza’s daughter Ivory/Nell – so desperate for the child, Rose makes Eliza promise to keep away and when Eliza reenters their life with the book of fairy tales, hastily made plans to leave England that resulted in her death. Finally, there’s a similar theme with Hugh and Lil’s relationship with Nell. Though Lil passes away before Nell learns the truth, Hugh went to extreme measures – as the queen did – to get the child and when he admits the truth, on her birthday no less, he loses his relationship with her forever as she is never the same after that.
The Golden Egg: A maiden guards a golden egg but is convinced by the queen to give it to the Princess to save her life and the Kingdom. The kingdom prospers but the maiden now has no purpose and dies alone, her once beautiful cottage covered in dust with no animals nearby anymore.
This fairy tale is the most blatantly autobiographical for Eliza, with as Rose the ill princess, Adeline as the Queen seeking for the Princess’s happiness, the baby as the golden egg to bring happiness and prosperity to the kingdom (Blackhurst Manor), and Eliza as the maiden, dead inside after her birthright is taken from her.
I’m skipping number 10 – I’m just not in the mood to talk about the settings.
Goodness that was a lot. I think I’m done for now though, now that I’ve written a short novel about that novel hahah.
That was real enjoyable though.