Monday, January 27, 2020

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

 1993, first published 1956

Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, a time-slip novel, starts on a low. Tom is being sent away from home to avoid measles. This disrupts his plans for the summer with Peter and pushes him into the unknown. There is a sadness about the house where his aunt and uncle live: it is old, has seen grander days and is encroached upon by modern houses (4). Tom faces further trials when he arrives at his aunt and uncle’s flat: they have no garden, there are nursery bars at his window, his aunt’s rich cooking, combined with lack of exercise, keep him awake and his aunt has supplied him with a load of girls’ books to read.
Then the adventure begins and something sinister happens.  The grandfather clock in the hall seems amusing at first; it strikes the hours wrongly.  One night, when Tom still cannot sleep, it strikes thirteen. The house itself seems to talk to Tom. Then he opens the back door and sees the magnificent garden.  He believes absolutely in the garden; he is disturbed that his aunt and uncle have lied to him that there was nothing to see but a back yard beyond the back door (20). He is not worried, though the reader may be, when he sees a difference in the hall on his return and sees a maid appear (22).  Eventually he realises that sometimes the back door has a Yale lock, at other times just a bolt (37). It all becomes gradually more sinister and when he examines the unusual objects in the hall on his second visit “They looked forbiddingly real” (44). Tom’s apprehension about the strangeness of this is gradually replaced by a fear that the garden and house may disappear (47). He moves like a ghost through the new landscape.  He has no physical substance at first. He moves through shut doors. There are more surprises: one night he sees a tree fall. The next night it is still standing; he does not always go to the same time (57). Hatty admits to having seen him (74).  
In their garden Tom encounters everyday problems. There are three boys, a little older than him. He and their step-sister Hatty can only “tag along”. He and Hatty both long to be a member of this little gang. The boys can be cruel. “Let’s all run from Hatty,” says Hubert (65). We also witness Hatty’s aunt being cruel to her (97-98).  Hatty was poor and orphaned and has been taken on by her aunt - an in-law, not a blood relation.  Her uncle is dead.
Tom begins to live for the nights. He even becomes ill; he catches a chill from standing in a puddle of water when he was daydreaming about the midnight garden (103-05).       
Tom remains at odds with his aunt and uncle. He continues to believe that they have been lying to them and tries to challenge them (28-29).    Neither is it always paradise in the midnight garden - Tom and Hatty quarrel about who exactly is the ghost (110-11).
There is some risk-taking: Tom walks along a narrow wall (124) in the midnight garden but is in ghost form so presumes he will be all right. Hatty treads on a cracked bough and tumbles to the ground (134-35). Abel, the gardener rescues her. Tom now finds out that Abel has been able to see him all the time. Abel takes Hatty into the house and shuts the door. Tom cannot get back in, nor back to his own time.
Later Tom does get access to more of the house and overhears Hatty’s cousin and her aunt talking about Hatty’s future. They are not too kind. James says “In that case, Mother, she will have to earn her own living, although how she is to do that I don’t know” (145). There is a waning for Tom too. “We have friends and she must not be allowed to hide form them as if she were afraid” (146). Is she to be enticed from the garden?
The whole novel anyway grapples with the nature of time, quite a demanding concept for the target reader. Tom had s a difficult conversation about it with his uncle (174 - 78). The ice-skates form part on an important experiment. Hatty hides them in the secret place in her bedroom. Tom has the same bedroom in the present day flat. He finds them in the present.
We have more of the supernatural too.  When Hatty and Tom climb the tower at Ely cathedral Peter joins them. Peter is dreaming but seems as real to Hatty as Tom does.     
Tom keeps in contact with his brother Peter and tells him all about his adventures in the midnight garden. But his letters must be burnt. Here do we have echoes of censorship during World War II?
Tom has to face Hatty’s ageing - first she becomes a young woman and in the present day he meets her again as an old woman. Hatty loses interest in Tom when young Barty comes on the scene. A last attempt at vising the garden goes wrong: there is no midnight garden anymore (216).
The story resolves: Mrs Bartholomew, the landlady and the keeper of the clock, is of course Hatty now as an old lady. However, this leaves Tom and the reader with a puzzle about the nature of time. Pearce offers an explanation through Hatty: Tom so wanted a companion that he influenced her dreams which in turn influenced what Tom experienced in the garden.
Julie Eccleshare provided the afterword in this 1993 edition. She suggests that Pearce has used the time-slip because “she did not want to lose sight for ever of the years that had gone before” (235).   
The 1993 edition has a respectable spine. The text is blocked in an adult font. There are 237 pages. Each chapter has a line-drawing that illustrates at the beginning.   
Click on the image to find out about editions on Amazon.  

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