Quarantine, a hidden garden, a great frost
and the towers of Ely cathedral, it has to be …
Tom’s Midnight Garden
First published: 1958.
Genre: Fantasy time-slip.
Who’s it for?
Children of nine upwards, lovers of The Secret Garden.
What’s it about?
When Peter gets measles, his brother Tom is sent to stay with his childless aunt and uncle who live in a flat which has been converted from a larger house belonging to old Mrs Bartholomew. Without even a garden to play in, Tom is bored and lonely, and by way of compensation is overfed by his doting aunt. As a result of the inactivity and rich food, Tom lies awake at night, listening to the incorrect striking of the grandfather clock in the hall downstairs. One night, when the clock strikes 13 at midnight, Tom is compelled to get up and investigate. He finds his way out through the back door into a large, beautiful garden belonging to the house. At first he feels cheated by his aunt and uncle for not telling him about it, but he soon realises by the surroundings that the garden belongs to the house only in the Past, and during the day when Tom is awake, there is nothing more than a tiny yard where the dustbins are kept.
What happens next?
Each night Tom visits the garden and there makes friends with Hatty, an orphan ‘charity child’, one of the Victorian children living in the house. Teased by her older cousins, and picked on by her strict aunt, Hatty, like Tom, is also lonely, and is pleased to have a companion to play with. She is the only one who can see Tom; to the others (with the exception of Abel, the silent gardener) he is invisible. Although Tom goes out into the garden every night, it is not always the next day for Hatty. Sometimes it is months between Tom’s visits, and the garden changes with the passing seasons, for it seems that time is moving much more quickly in the Past. Inevitably Hatty is growing older – unnoticeably at first to Tom – but nearing the time Tom has to go back to his real home Hatty is a young woman, barely able to see Tom any more as her attentions turn to a young man called Barry. Tom doesn’t want a grown-up Hatty, he wants his friend to stay the same, and always be there in the garden when he visits, to climb trees together, and make bows and arrows, and to build their tree-house. He tries to go back into the garden but to his distress finds he can no longer pass through to her time.
On the very last day at his aunt and uncle’s flat, Tom meets old Mrs Bartholomew who always winds the grandfather clock. He recognises that she is Hatty, grown old. Hatty tells him that she has been dreaming of her past – her childhood as an orphan in the care of her aunt, her cousins, and her young man ‘Barty’ whom she married – and in doing so she has been drawing Tom, also searching for companionship, into her dreams. Meeting Hatty again, knowing the rest of her life-story before he has to go back home, helps Tom to come to terms with growing up and change – and to realise that time never really stands still.
Most moving moment?
Aunt Gwen describing Tom saying goodbye for the second time to Harry, now old Mrs Bartholomew: ‘He ran up to her, and they hugged each other as if they had known each other for years and years, instead of only having met for the first time this morning … Of course, Mrs Bartholomew’s such a shrunken little old woman, she’s hardly bigger than Tom, anyway: but, you know, he put his arms right round her and he hugged her good-bye as if she were a little girl.’
Tom’s Midnight Garden has become an undisputed classic of modern children’s literature. It is a story with a magical, haunting atmosphere. It is richly imaginative, with a theme and a message that touches the hearts of all those who read it: that of finding ways to keep good feelings alive despite loneliness and loss, and of the inevitability of time passing and of growing up. Tom’s emotional hunger finds new and positive developments in his friendship with Hatty, while she is enabled to break out of the restrictive and submissive role in which she has been cast by her indifferent aunt. Pearce’s prose style is deceptively simple, yet her descriptions of the garden are as vivid as if you were there. The accessibility of her writing to children, and the power of the story itself, provide an imaginative entry into the past, ‘time no longer, and to the balance of gain and loss involved in the process of change.
Most memorable quotation?
‘.. nothing stands still, except in our memory.’
Who is Philippa Pearce?
She was born in 1920,the youngest of four children, in Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire. Her father was a flourmiller, and she grew up in the mill house where he had been born and raised, whose garden ran down to the river where she spent most of her time playing. Her childhood was a very happy one, but marred with bouts of illness which kept her from school. But despite a lack of early education, she went on to graduate from Cambridge with a B.A. Hons. in English and History. She first worked as a script writer and producer in the BBC Schools Department, and also in the Education Department of the Oxford University Press. She began writing in her thirties, when she was convalescing after TB, and her mind went back to her happy leisurely childhood days by the river and in the garden. The result was her first book, an adventure story, Minnow on the Say (1955),followed three years later by Tom’s Midnight Garden which features the garden as it was when she was little, before her parents retired and sold up. The novel won her the Carnegie Medal in 1959. She married in 1963 but sadly was widowed two years later, just after her daughter was born. She returned to work in London as a children’s editor at Andre Deutsch Ltd whilst continuing to write novels and short stories. She was awarded an OBE for her services to children’s literature. Philippa Pearce now lives in the Cambridgeshire village where she was born.
Other novels by Philippa Pearce:
A Dog So Small (1962), The Battle of Bubble and Squeak (winner of the Whitbread Award in 1978) and The Way to Sattin Shore (1983).
Helen Levene works in publishing.