Ten year old Mary Lennox is born in India to wealthy British parents. She is unwanted by her mother and father, and taken care of primarily by servants. Spoiled with a temper, she is unaffectionate, angry, rude and obstinate. Cholera breaks out in the manor and kills Mary's parents and many servants. She is discovered alone but alive after the house is abandoned. She is sent to Yorkshire, England to live with her uncle.
At first, Mary is her usual self, sour, disliking the large house, the people within it, and most of all the vast stretch of moor, which seems scrubby and gray after the winter. She is told that she must stay confined to her two rooms and that nobody will bother much with her and she must amuse herself. Martha Sowerby, her good-natured maidservant, tells Mary a story of the late Mrs. Craven, and how she would spend hours in a private garden growing roses. Later, Mrs. Craven was killed by an untimely accident, and Mr. Craven had the garden locked and the key buried. Mary is roused by this story and starts to soften her ill manner despite herself. Mary's time is occupied by wondering about the secret garden and a strange crying that can sometimes be heard around the house which the servants ignore or deny.