The Chalk Garden (1964) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A grandmother (Edith Evans) seeks a governess for her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Laurel (Hayley Mills), who manages to drive away every one so far by exposing their past, with a record of three in one week. When an applicant with a mysterious past manages to get the job, Laurel vows to expose her. Meanwhile, Laurel's married-divorced-married pregnant mother Olivia (Elizabeth Sellars) tries to get her back.

  • Sixteen-year-old Laurel has been the ward of her wealthy maternal grandmother, Mrs. St. Maugham, for four years, since Mrs. St. Maugham's estranged daughter, Laurel's mother, Olivia, got remarried. Laurel's father has since passed. Laurel, who has not seen or heard from her mother since, believes her mother deserted her and her father. As such, Laurel has grown into a rebellious and rambunctious teenager, her actions and words, such as her threat to burn down the house, meant to shock and provoke. Because of her behavior, Laurel has had a series of governesses who she has been able to scare off, some upon first meeting. The latest governess that Mrs. St. Maugham hires is Miss Madrigal, despite Miss Madrigal having no references and admitting that she has never done such work before. Conversely, Miss Madrigal feels compelled to this job, Laurel, who Miss Madrigal believes she can help, unable to scare her off upon her job interview. Outwardly, Miss Madrigal is an open book in that she leaves her bedroom door open and thus unlocked most of the time. However, she is short of information about her past. Laurel is determined to do to Miss Madrigal what she has been able to do with all the rest, namely get her to quit. To do so, Laurel knows she has to find out what Miss Madrigal is hiding about her past. Thus begins a battle of wills between the two, Miss Madrigal who tries to discover the entire truth behind Laurel and her mother, so that she can better help her. That battle has the potential to break wide open as Olivia returns wanting her daughter back, resulting in Mrs. St. Maugham consulting with her old friend, Judge McWhirrey, for legal advice.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Wealthy Mrs. St. Maugham needs a governess for her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Laurel. No one has ever stayed long because Laurel runs them off with her bizarre behavior. Miss Madrigal is hardly the ideal candidate as she lacks references and has never been a governess. But when she reveals that she knows a lot about gardens, Mrs. St. Maugham takes her on.

    Laurel notices that Miss Madrigal's clothing is all new and some of it still has price tags attached. Her room also lacks pictures of family and friends. Miss Madrigal is determined to get the upper hand, sensing that Laurel's behavior stems from a traumatic past. Maitland, the family butler, befriends Miss Madrigal and warns her to keep her door locked.

    Every night Laurel lights a bonfire in the garden and runs around it screaming. Mrs. St. Maugham explains that they are curing her of this by making the pile of wood smaller every time. Laurel also regularly threatens to burn down the house. She is determined to find out what Miss Madrigal is hiding, as the governess refuses to reveal anything about her past.

    Laurel lies about nearly everything and Miss Madrigal must sort out what is truth and what is fiction. It is evident that the girl hates her mother, Olivia, who is Mrs. St. Maugham's estranged daughter. There was a scandal when Olivia ran off with her lover, abandoning her husband and Laurel. Laurel claims that her father was so despondent that he shot himself to death in front of her. Maitland later refutes this. Laurel's father died of a liver ailment caused by too much drinking.

    Another of Laurel's stories involve a man who supposedly attacked her in Hyde Park shortly before her mother's marriage. Maitland explains that no one really knows what happened. Mrs. St. Maugham wouldn't allow Laurel to be examined by a doctor or questioned by the police. As far as Mrs. St. Maugham is concerned, Olivia abandoned her daughter and is an unfit mother.

    Slowly Miss Madrigal begins to gain Laurel's trust. They go sketching and play tennis. Miss Madrigal learns to ignore her charge's bizarre stories. Then a telegram comes from Olivia. She intends to pay her mother a visit and wants to see Laurel.

    It is obvious that Mrs. St. Maugham still loves her daughter, even though she is disgusted that Olivia married her lover and is now pregnant. She does not want to hear anything about her new son-in-law. Laurel knew her mother was coming and has vanished. Miss Madrigal and Maitland scour the grounds looking for her but fail. Olivia warns her mother that she wants Laurel back and if necessary will resort to legal means. After she leaves, Miss Madrigal finds Laurel on the beach, standing next to a bonfire. Laurel breaks down and sobs.

    Unable to sleep one night, Miss Madrigal goes to the library for a book. There she finds Maitland, who tells her his story. He and his wife owned a small hotel and the St. Maughams used to stay there. Then he, his wife, and their child were in a car crash. They were killed and Maitland had a nervous breakdown. Mrs. St. Maugham stepped in and offered him the post as butler at her country estate. She is only there four months out of the year and the rest of the time he has the place to himself.

    While looking at framed pictures of Mrs. St. Maugham's admirers, Miss Maitland recognizes Judge McWhirrey. She is obviously upset but won't say why. Maitland reveals that the judge is an old friend of Mrs. St. Maugham's.

    On a trip into the village, Maitland buys a padlock for Miss Madrigal's bedroom door. While they are gone, Laurel snoops through Miss Madrigal's belongings. She finds nothing of interest but notices a briefcase on top of the wardrobe. It is locked. Just then she hears Maitland and Miss Madrigal returning. She takes the case with her and runs to an outbuilding, where she finds a tool to break the lock. Inside are paints and a palette. The inside of the lid is nearly covered with dabs of paint but part of a monogram shows. Laurel removes the paint with turpentine and sees the initials C.D.W. Obviously not Miss Madrigal's.

    Laurel leaves the dinner table early to return the case to Miss Madrigal's room but it is newly padlocked. Not to be deterred, she climbs out a window, crosses the roof, and enters the bedroom. She replaces the case but on her way back slips and falls into a tree. Her dress is caught on a branch and she has no choice but to call for help. Her grandmother believes her story about just wanting to climb a tree, but Miss Madrigal saws the branch off the next morning. She knows Laurel was in her room because the case was missing and the wardrobe door was ajar.

    Mrs. St. Maugham has a talk with Miss Madrigal while the latter is working in the garden. Miss Madrigal says that the soil is full of chalk, which is why nothing will grow. She recommends enriching the soil so the plants will survive. As to answering Mrs. St. Maugham's questions about her past, she gives deliberately vague answers.

    Concerned that Olivia might actually gain custody of Laurel, Mrs. St. Maugham invites Judge McWhirrey to lunch to discuss the situation. Laurel suddenly asks Miss Madrigal who C.D.W. is. Miss Madrigal says the initials belong to her married sister.

    When the Judge arrives for lunch, Miss Madrigal is distraught and spills her wine. Laurel, sensing that Miss Madrigal has a criminal past, deliberately asks questions about famous murder trials. The Judge tells about one a number of years earlier, where the defendant was hardly more than a child. She was accused of murdering her stepsister out of jealousy. Her name was Constance Doris Wakeland. Mrs. St. Maugham tries to stop the conversation after Miss Madrigal suddenly leaves the table. Laurel realizes she has gone too far. She goes after Miss Madrigal but is stopped by Maitland. He asks if she is satisfied now that she has unmasked Miss Madrigal's secret. Laurel is very remorseful and promises not to tell anyone.

    Maitland tries to comfort Miss Madrigal but her concern is for Laurel. She can easily see Laurel becoming like herself if she goes on lying and acting out. Miss Madrigal is ready to leave Mrs. St. Maugham's employment but Maitland persuades her to stay. She is a different person now.

    Before the Judge leaves, Miss Madrigal speaks to him privately. He recognized her at lunch but could not recall where they had met. Miss Madrigal reveals that he once sentenced her to death but it was commuted due to her youth.

    Miss Madrigal decides to tell Mrs. St. Maugham the truth, that she came to her directly from prison. Mrs. St. Maugham is horrified that Laurel has been under the care of a felon. Miss Madrigal doesn't mince words when she says that Laurel must go to her mother. It is a good thing that Olivia still wants her. Mrs. St. Maugham says that since Olivia is expecting another child there is no room for Laurel. They do not realize that Laurel is outside the door and has heard everything. When Olivia arrives, Laurel is packed and waiting on the front steps. She tells Miss Madrigal that it is she who made her change her mind and want to go with her mother. Olivia thanks Miss Madrigal for her help. She and Laurel drive away. Mrs. St. Maugham asks Miss Madrigal to stay on, to which she replies that she will stay as long as she is wanted. Together they will work on the garden and make it beautiful. Then Mrs. St. Maugham asks if Miss Madrigal was actually guilty of murdering her stepsister. Miss Madrigal replies that if she did not tell the many learned men at the top of their profession who questioned her all those years ago, she certainly will not tell Mrs. St. Maugham.

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