It is no surprise that Tom’s Midnight Garden continues to be read and loved, close to sixty years after it was published. The plaudits – it was voted one of the top ten Carnegie Medal winners of the last seventy years – are well-deserved. Given the period when Philippa Pearce wrote the book (the sixties hadn’t happened yet), it is a remarkable piece of story-telling.
The story is familiar to many. It has been told many times and in many different ways; there’s been TV and stage adaptations, as well as a film. Tom, a young boy sent away from his home to avoid catching the measles, lives with an Aunt and an Uncle (slightly distant and unpleasant, as story Uncles often are). It’s the 1950’s or thereabouts – it is a stuffy, stifled existence, with little to do, no children to play with and no garden to play in.
At night, when the old clock chimes, Tom is woken, creeps downstairs and opens the door to find a garden. Crossing the threshold of the door transports Tom to Victorian times. In the garden, now in the grounds of a large house, he meets other children – only one, a girl called Hatty, can see him. The rest are not aware Tom is there, as if he is a ghost.
Each time Tom visits, Hatty is a different age and the garden has changed in some way – sometimes Hatty is younger, sometimes older, sometimes an old yew tree stands tall, other times it has crashed to the ground. He travels back in time, but to a different time on each occasion. Tom believes he visits each night but for Hatty years may have passed. Time becomes warped and twisted.
It is a fascinating book. For younger children, there is the simple drama of being sent away from home and the magical time-travel moments when Tom walks through the door.
Reading this as an adult, there is much to think about – the meaning of time is an obvious theme, but the story also asks us to reflect upon urbanisation (by the 1950s, remember, the country house is now split into apartments and the garden is gone). The ending – without giving it away – is a powerful and moving message about ageing, friendship and the enduring importance of the memories of childhood.
But the book does bring some frustrations. Pearce’s writing is full of tension and atmosphere, but she stops short of real drama or tragedy, choosing to return instead to gentler waters. There are moments when the book leaves a slight sense of being led up a cul de sac.
One example: Tom and Hatty skate along a frozen river. It is moody and full of foreboding; the sky darkens, the hour becomes late. Rain melts the ice; unknown men warn that the ice is dangerous. They are a long way from home. A catastrophe is imminent, surely – a fall through the ice? Instead, they are helped off the ice without incident and Hatty and Tom are safely returned home (admittedly, the journey home establishes a relationship which becomes important, later in the book but the tension escapes like air leaking out of a balloon).
These are minor grumbles and I’ve not forgotten the book is nearly sixty years old. It does leave a final thought: like many classics, we can continue to treasure the original, but is it time for a modern re-telling of Tom’s Midnight Garden?