Classics : Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958)

Life (and love) is a dream shared, in Philippa Pearce’s classic novel

by Gordon Campbell

For anyone trying to write about it, Tom’s Midnight Garden poses a significant problem. The twist ending will be well known to anyone who has read the book, but first time readers would justifiably want to kill anyone who spoils the surprise, which provides one of the most satisfying and moving resolutions in children’s fiction. So if I seem to circle somewhat mysteriously around aspects of Philippa Pearce’s classic novel, that’s the reason why.

The basic plot for Tom”s Midnight Garden is simple enough. Tom Long, a young schoolboy, has his summer holiday spoiled when his brother Peter contracts measles, and he is packed off to stay with his kindly aunt and pedantic uncle who rent a boring house with an old and erratic grandfather clock in the hall downstairs, and an elderly landlady in the flat upstairs. Unable to sleep soon after his arrival, Tom hears the clock – at midnight – strike 13, and curiosity drives him out of his bedroom to investigate what time is showing on the dial. He finds himself in a Victorian garden, some sixty or more years in the past.

Each subsequent night at the 13th hour, Tom has a brief period of time to explore the garden, where he meets a young girl called Hatty and strikes up a deep friendship with her. Yet on each visit, what to Tom is merely the next night is experienced as a period of months and years in Hatty’s life, and she gradually grows up and away from him, into a young woman. Tom’s sense of loss, and his attempt to puzzle out the nature of the twin realities he is inhabiting – is Hatty a ghost, and/or if this garden is a dream, whose dream is it? – are merely one dimension of this beautifully crafted story, which becomes a meditation on time, memory, and the scope for communication between the very young and the very old.

None of the deeper themes of the book get in way of the enjoyment that younger readers can take in Tom’s story. Pearce portrays her characters and the physical setting so vividly that the fantastic time travel/dream/ghost story elements of the tale seem totally credible. However, the elements of nostalgia and loss may also explain why adult readers love the book so fiercely. Even at the time of its publication, the reviewer John Rowe Townsend – by no means a critic easy to please – had this to say about it :

It is as near to being perfect in its construction and its writing as any book I know. I think only a woman could have written it ; girls should like it, and adults, and thoughtful boys, but not the lovers of the rough stuff.

The book has a profound, mysterious sense of time; it has the beauty of a theorem, but it is not abstract ; it is sensuously as well as intellectually satisfying. The garden is so real that you can have the scent of it in your nostrils… I have no reservations to make about it. If I were asked to name a single masterpiece of English children’s literature since the last war it would be this outstandingly beautiful and absorbing book.

One explanation for the precision of Pearce’s description of the walled garden in her story is that she actually played in it herself, as a child. Born in 1920 as the daughter of a miller, she was – as she told interviewers Ronu Natov and Geraldine DeLuca in 1986 – something of an “isolated” child, being younger than her three siblings, and so sickly that she didn’t start school until she was eight or nine. The garden where Tom and Hatty meet was inspired by the mill house in which she lived, which also had a walled garden with a sundial set into one wall. As she explained to Natov and Deluca, the family attachment to this Cambridgeshire house went back for generations, and as a adult she lived in a cottage just across the road from the same house. Once, her father had walked along the high narrow wall that Tom so memorably walks upon mid way through the book. And like Tom, her father had once skated all the way along the frozen river, to Ely Cathedral. As Pearce said :

My father was born in that house because my grandfather was also a miller. We moved in when I was very small, my grandfather died and we took over. This is the house and the garden with its sundial on the wall in Tom’s Midnigfht Garden. The garden was absolutely the image of that walled garden in the book…”

Ingeniously plotted as it is, and resting on solid memories for its physical setting, Tom’s Midnight Garden would still have been nothing without the skill that has gone into the deceptively simple writing. The book is a series of short, lucid sentences and perfectly observed details. Townsend was absolutely right about Pearce’s attention to the sensuous texture of the world she created. Here for instance, is a passage near the beginning of the book, where Tom climbs a tree. Only someone who has climbed a lot of trees could get it so right :

The first branches grew conveniently low, and the main trunk had bosses and crevices. With the toes of his left foot fitted into one of these last, Tom curved his hands around the branch over his head. Then he gave a push, a spring and a strong haul on the arms: his legs and feet were dangling free, and the branch was under his chest, and then under his middle. He drew himself still further forward, at the same time twisting himself expertly; now he was sitting on the bough, a man’s height above ground.

The rest of the ascent was easy but interesting: sometimes along the spreading outermost branches, sometimes working close to the main trunk, Tom loved the dry feel of the bark on the main trunk. In places the bark had peeled away, and then a deep pink showed beneath, as though the tree were skin and flesh beneath the brown. Up and up he went, and burst at last from the dim interior into an openness of blue and fiery gold. The sun was the gold, in a blue sky. All around him was a spreading tufted surface of evergreen. He was on a level with the tall south wall….

Click to enlarge
Ely Cathedral, circa 1896.

Towards the end of the book, Tom and the now near-womanly Hatty go skating down the icy river together. The sweeps of the prose mimic the blades on the ice, and convey a vast sense of freedom – and of contentment in each other’s company, and the joy that comes from simply being in the world together :

The skates were on, and now Hatty and Tom were ready for the ice; two skaters on one pair of skates, which seemed to Tom both the eeriest and the most natural thing in the world. A new skill and power came into him, as though these skates knew their work better than the skater: he could skate as well as Hatty, because these were her skates…

They did not skate with linked hands, as many skating partners did, for fear of the odd appearance being noticed but once they had left behind the thick crowds of sociable skaters just below the town, they skated abreast, keeping time together, stroke for stroke. There was no wind at all that afternoon, and they cut through the still air, faster and faster.

Hatty had pinned her skirt up above her ankles, for greater freedom of movement; and now she abandoned the use of her muff, the better to swing her arms in time with their skating. Their speed made the muff fly out behind her on its cord, and at last a stroke gave it such a violent fling that the cord broke and the fur ball shot away and landed in the middle of a game of bandy and somehow became part of the game and was never seen again. Hatty saw it disappear, and neither stopped nor faltered in her course but only laughed, as though she cared nothing now for muffs or improprieties or aunts. They skated on…

Since its publication in 1958, Pearce’s book has been adapted for the stage and twice for television, most successfully in the 1989 adaptation written for television by Julia Jones. An excerpt from that production has been posted on Youtube here and the less rewarding 1974 adaptation by John Tully is also available online. The 1998 film version, which suffers from terrible miscasting in almost every role – the actor playing Tom was 17 at the time, and looks every bit of it – is best ignored.

Thankfully, there is something about Tom’s Midnight Garden that brings out the best in the critics who have analysed it. Humphrey Carpenter for instance, in his book Secret Gardens (about the golden age of children’s literature ) brilliantly likens Pearce’s novel to an inverted version of Peter Pan. It is best seen, Carpenter maintained, as “a rewriting of Peter Pan from Peter’s point of view” with Tom’s sorrow about losing the garden and Hatty being akin to Peter’s fervent attempts to persuade Wendy to stay with him in Never Never Land forever. Hatty does grows up, falls in love and leaves Tom behind as a ghost from her childhood. The last time he tries to visit the garden it is no longer there. Paradise has been paved, leaving behind only a yard filled with dustbins.

Gardens lend themselves readily to symbolic purposes. In this case, the garden feels real and tangible, albeit experienced with dream-like intensity. Yet it also carries a degree of symbolic meanings so un-obtrusively that I missed them entirely, or glossed over them on first reading. They are there, though, in at least two respects. Firstly, from the book of Genesis : it is hardly accidental that the grandfather clock that serves as the gateway to the garden carries the image of an angel, and Tom later dreams of the same angel barring his way back to the garden with a flaming sword. Secondly, amidst the book’s many insights and ruminations about the nature of time – is it circular, or continuous, or does it co-exist in parallel ? – is a quote from Revelations (Rev 10. 1-6) about the dissolution of time. Like a good, Sunday school Victorian girl, it is Hatty who first suggests this quotation, and later on the point is picked up explicitly : “Tom said : “We’re both real. Then and Now. Its as the angel said : Time No Longer.”

This spiritual dimension is present, but is not omnipresent. In interviews, Pearce has said that most of her own thinking about the nature of time was inspired by J.W. Dunne’s book An Experiment With Time which her brother and friends were reading when she first started to write Tom’s Midnight Garden : “ I never understood it properly, but it was a sort of theoretical base for the book. ”

For all its poignancy, Tom Midnight Garden is neither pessimistic, nor maudlin. By means I can’t divulge without spoiling the ending, Pearce finally manages to portray the transition from childhood fears and desires to adult compassion in an entirely optimistic fashion. In his Northern Lights trilogy, Philip Pullman also likened this rite of passage to the Fall in Genesis. To Pullman, the Fall marks a positive moment when humanity first started to think and act for itself, and to live in a world where happiness and pain our are own responsibilities. Tom, by the end of this story, is ready to do likewise.

For this essay, Gordon Campbell drew upon material contained in volume 9 of the Children’s Literature Review and volume 129 of the Something About the Author series – and most notably, the interview with Philippa Pearce by Roni Natov and Geraldine DeLuca published in The Lion and the Unicorn, volume 9, 1985.