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The Secret Garden opens by introducing us to Mary Lennox, a sickly, foul-tempered, unsightly little girl who loves no one and whom no one loves. At the outset of the story, she is living in India with her parents. A dashing army captain and his frivolous, beautiful wife, but is rarely permitted to see them. They have placed her under the constant care of a number of native servants, as they find her too hideous and tiresome to look after. Mary's circumstances are cast into complete upheaval when an outbreak of cholera devastates the Lennox household, leaving no one alive but herself.
She is found by a group of soldiers and, after briefly living with an English clergyman and his family, Mary is sent to live in Yorkshire with her maternal uncle, Archibald Craven. Misselthwaite Manor is a sprawling old estate with over one hundred rooms, all of which have been shut up by Archibald Craven. A man whom everyone describes as a miserable hunchback, Master Craven has been in a state of inconsolable grief ever since the death of his wife ten years before the novel begins. Shortly after arriving at Misselthwaite, Mary hears about a secret garden from Martha Sowerby, her good-natured Yorkshire maidservant. This garden belonged to the late Mistress Craven; after her death, Archibald locked the garden door and buried the key beneath the earth.
Mary becomes intensely curious about the secret garden, and determines to find it. This curiosity, along with the vigorous exercise she takes on the moor, begins to have an extremely positive effect upon Mary. She almost immediately becomes less sickly, more engaged with the world, and less foul-tempered. This change is aided by Ben Weatherstaff, a brusque but kindly old gardener, and a robin redbreast who lives in the secret garden. She begins to count these two people, along with Martha, Dickon Sowerby, and Susan Sowerby, as the friends she has had in her life. Her curiosity is whetted when she hears strange, far-off cries coming from one of the manor's distant rooms.