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"Tom's Midnight Garden": A Children's Book and Philippa Pearce

Linda Crampton is a former teacher who enjoys reading and creative writing. She likes classical literature, fantasy, myth, and poetry.

Reading a book can be a wonderful adventure.

Reading a book can be a wonderful adventure.

A Classic Children's Book for Today

Tom’s Midnight Garden is a wonderful story about a lonely boy who periodically goes back in time. He befriends a young girl living in the past and participates in her life as she grows up. The book has a surprise ending that shows us that what we have read is not simply a time travel story. The story was written by Philippa Pearce and published in 1958.

Ann Philippa Pearce was born in 1920 and died in 2006. She wrote over thirty books, but her second one about Tom and his experiences is her most famous. It's considered to be a classic book for children aged eight and above.

I’ve always believed that a children’s book should also be enjoyable for adults. In fact, I didn’t discover Tom’s Midnight Garden until I was an adult. I was an avid reader as a child (and still am). I visited the local library every weekend during the school year and several times a week during school holidays, yet somehow I missed Tom’s story. I’m very glad that I eventually found it. I loved it right away and have reread it many times. In this article, I summarize the plot of the story, discuss its mysteries, and include a biography of the author.

Hidcot Manor Garden looks somewhat like the version of Tom's garden that is stored in my imagination.

Hidcot Manor Garden looks somewhat like the version of Tom's garden that is stored in my imagination.

Tom's Discovery of the Garden

When his brother develops measles at the start of the summer holiday from school, Tom is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle to avoid catching the disease. They live in a large Victorian house that has been converted into flats (apartments). Tom has to stay inside his aunt and uncle’s flat in case he is contagious. He is lonely, frustrated, and miserable.

One night he hears the grandfather clock that stands in the downstairs hallway strike thirteen. Tom goes downstairs and opens the back door in the hope that the moonlight will illuminate the clock face. To his amazement and delight, instead of finding a small, dingy backyard and rubbish bins, which his aunt and uncle had told him about, he finds a large and beautiful garden. After he has discovered the garden, Tom visits it regularly.

The grandfather clock in the hallway plays an important role in "Tom's Midnight Garden".

The grandfather clock in the hallway plays an important role in "Tom's Midnight Garden".

Tom Discovers the Midnight Garden

Meeting Hatty

Tom discovers that the garden is only present at night in his world, although it may be any time of the day or night in the garden when he arrives there. He also finds that he is invisible to most of the people that he meets in the new world. One person who can see him, however, is a young girl named Hatty. (The only other person that can see Tom is the gardener.)

Hatty lives in the house where Tom is staying, as it existed in the past. She is an unhappy orphan that is being cared for by relatives who are not pleased to have her in the family. Tom and Hatty become playmates and good friends as his visits continue. Exploring the interesting garden and the surrounding countryside together is a way for them to escape the problems in their lives.

Time moves more rapidly in the past than in the present. As the story progresses, Hatty grows up. She is always friendly towards Tom, but as she matures she develops new interests that don't involve him and becomes friends with a young man of her own time. Tom becomes less visible to Hatty as time moves on.

The Gardener and Hatty

The Skate Along the Frozen River

Towards the end of the book, Tom visits Hatty while she is learning to skate on the frozen River Say. He is disturbed to see that she looks like a young woman instead of a child. He asks her to leave her skates in a hiding place under the floorboard when's she's not using them and when she leaves the house for good. Hatty agrees.

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The next morning, when Tom is back in his own time, he goes to the hiding place and finds the skates. They are accompanied by a note from Hatty saying that she has hidden the skates to fulfill a promise that she made to a little boy. The note is dated from some time in the 1800s. (The last two digits are hard to read.)

When Tom returns to Hatty's time with the skates, he finds that the river is still frozen. Hatty and Tom skate along the river together. Hatty hasn't hidden her skates, but Tom has found them in his own time. This means that the two friends are wearing the same pair of skates.

The journey along the river is poignant. Tom looks faint to Hatty, and she has trouble seeing him. The reader senses that the connection between the friends is coming to an end.

The Loss of the Garden

On the last night of his stay with his aunt and uncle, a frantic Tom opens the back door of the house and finds no garden. In despair he cries out to an invisible Hatty, awakening the tenants in the flats. He also wakes Mrs. Bartholomew, the elderly and unfriendly landlady who owns the house and lives in the attic flat.

In the morning, Tom goes upstairs to apologize to the landlady (who he hasn't met before) and discovers that she is Hatty. The two have a joyful reunion. Hatty reveals that every night she has been dreaming of her childhood and adolescence and of the man that she befriended and eventually married. She has been taking a trip through time in her dreams.

After her marriage, Hatty left the house to live with her husband. At that point, the garden was no longer part of her life. She has returned to the house now that her husband and relatives have died. Her memories of the past met Tom’s yearning for company and fun to create (or perhaps find) a world that both of them could enter.

Vivid Description and Intriguing Questions

The imaginative story and magical atmosphere aren't the only attractions in the book. Tom's feelings and moods are depicted vividly, and the scenery is described with care.

The ending of the story is happy, with Hatty inviting both Tom and his brother to return for a visit. There are some intriguing questions left for the reader to puzzle over, however. How was the garden actually created? Does the past still exist, or can it be recreated? Are dreams real? What if it was possible to join someone in their memories and to interact with them there? What if memories could become reality?

Another question that interests me is why the gardener can see Tom but none of the other humans can except for Hatty. Did Hatty give the gardener this ability in her dreams or is the tale a ghost story as well as a time slip one, as some people have suggested?

A classical grain mill was powered by water flow. This was true for the seventeenth century one in this photo and for the one by the Mill House in Great Shelford.

A classical grain mill was powered by water flow. This was true for the seventeenth century one in this photo and for the one by the Mill House in Great Shelford.

Philippa Pearce and the Mill House

Ann Philippa Pearce was born on January 23, 1920, in the village of Great Shelford. The village is located in the county of Cambridgeshire, England, about four miles from the city of Cambridge. Pearce was the youngest child of Ernest and Gertrude Pearce and had three siblings. She didn't start school until she was eight or nine years old due to ill health. She reportedly suffered from chronic nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys).

Pearce grew up in the Mill House, a large and imposing building that dates from the early nineteenth century and still exists today. The house lies next to the upper reaches of the River Cam and has a big garden. This became Tom and Hatty's garden in Pearce's story.

Pearce's father was the local grain miller and corn merchant. He was born in the Mill House and inherited both the house and his job from his father. Pearce said that although the house was shabby and her family didn't have much money, they did have a lot of space. The house and garden, the mill next to the house, the river, and the surrounding countryside were wonderful places for a child to play.

Sadly, when Pearce's father retired in the late 1950s the Mill House had to be sold. Her father's age, the declining need for a local grain miller, and the size of the house made it impossible to maintain.

The Mill House and Some Special Memories

Philippa Pearce loved the Mill House and was very concerned about its fate. She said that she walked around the garden shortly before the property was sold, making a note of everything that she saw. Pearce was afraid that neither the house nor the garden would survive after the sale and that the estate would be redeveloped. Tom's Midnight Garden grew from this fear.

Pearce's recollections of her childhood and her father's stories of his adventures in the area also influenced her story. The skate on the frozen river was related to a real-life event. The River Cam froze during the harsh winter of 1894-1895, allowing people to travel between communities by skating along the river. The River Cam became the River Say in Tom's Midnight Garden, Great Shelford became Great Barley, and Cambridge became Castleford.

Philippa Pearce's Adult Life

Despite her late start in formal schooling, Pearce was able to obtain a degree from Cambridge University. She studied both English and History at the university. After graduation, Pearce worked as a civil servant in London. Later she both wrote and produced school programs for BBC radio. Eventually, she became an editor for two publishers of children's books.

Pearce's first book of her own was called Minnow on the Say and was published in 1955. It describes the adventures of two boys searching for treasure by paddling along the River Say in a canoe called the Minnow. Like the boys in her story, Pearce enjoyed exploring the river by canoe as a child. Tom's Midnight Garden followed in 1958 and was an instant success. Pearce's third book was titled A Dog So Small and was published in 1962. In this book Pearce describes the imagination and experiences of a boy who badly wants to have a dog as a pet.

Pearce married Martin Christie in 1962 or 1963. The reported date of the marriage varies. The couple had one child, a daughter named Sally. Unfortunately, Martin Christie died just two years after his marriage when his daughter was only ten weeks old. He never recovered from the health problems that developed as a result of his being a prisoner of war.

View of the River Cam and Clare Bridge, which is located by Clare College, Cambridge University; Philippa Pearce enjoyed playing by and on the river as a child

View of the River Cam and Clare Bridge, which is located by Clare College, Cambridge University; Philippa Pearce enjoyed playing by and on the river as a child

Later Life of the Author

The years immediately following her husband's death were difficult for Pearce. She had to bring up a child alone and earn an income at the same time. She wrote many more books and collections of short stories. Some of these were acclaimed, others not so much. Still, Pearce was a respected and much loved writer who is still praised today. She was particularly admired for her ability to see from a child's point of view.

In the 1970s, Pearce returned to Great Shelford to live in a cottage near the Mill House with her daughter. She seems to have had a happy life there, writing, taking care of her daughter, pets, and garden, and attending special events and conferences. The Guardian newspaper reports that when Pearce was asked in later life if it hurt to live close to the Mill House after the major changes since her time there, she would say that it didn’t hurt at all because she had undergone changes over the years as well.

Pearce’s daughter married and had her own children but continued to live near her mother. Pearce died on December 21st, 2006, after experiencing a severe stroke. She was 86 years old.

What Is an OBE?

Philippa Pearce was awarded an OBE during her lifetime. The (Most Excellent) Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry containing five ranks. People admitted to the order have made a significant contribution over time to the arts, science, public institutions, or charitable organizations and receive an award from the reigning monarch.

The five ranks in order of decreasing status are:

  • Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GBE)
  • Knight/Dame Commander (KBE or DBE)
  • Commander (CBE)
  • Officer (OBE)
  • Member (MBE)

Members of the first two ranks may use Sir or Dame before their name. Members of all ranks may use the appropriate abbreviation after their name.

A lych gate is a gateway with a roof found at the entrance to a churchyard.  This lych gate is located in Great Shelford.

A lych gate is a gateway with a roof found at the entrance to a churchyard. This lych gate is located in Great Shelford.

Awards for Philippa Pearce and her Books

Tom’s Midnight Garden won the Carnegie Medal in 1958. This medal is awarded by CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), a British organization. A movie, three BBC television series, and a stage play have been created based on the story.

Philippa Pearce also won the Whitbread Award (or the Whitbread Prize) for The Battle of Bubble and Squeak, a story about a family and two gerbils published in 1979. Today the Whitbread Award is known as the Costa Book Award.

In 1997, Pearce was awarded an OBE for services to literature. She was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Hull University.

2007 was the seventieth anniversary of the Carnegie Medal. A reader poll was taken to choose the best medal winner. Philip Pullman won for Northern Lights, which received the Carnegie Medal in 1995. The book is known as The Golden Compass in North America. Philippa Pearce was the runner up for Tom's Midnight Garden. Philip Pullman was grateful for his award and generously praised Pearce at the same time, as the quote below shows.

The reviews of Tom's Midnight Garden by both children and adults have been very positive over the years, even recently. Many adults say that this is one story that has stayed in their mind since childhood. Although the book was written over fifty years ago, it has stood the test of time and is still appealing to many children today.

Personally, I feel they got the initials right but not the name. I don't know if the result would be the same in a hundred year's time; maybe Philippa Pearce would win then.

— Philip Pullman (Winner of the reader poll taken on the seventieth anniversary of the Carnegie Medal)


© 2011 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 15, 2011:

Hi, ellahall2011. Thanks for the comment. Many children like reading Tom's Midnight Garden, even though it was written some time ago, so your sister's children will probably enjoy their gift!

ellahall2011 on October 15, 2011:

Thanks for the info. I'll buy one for my sister's children.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 29, 2011:

Yes, Tom's Midnight Garden is a good story. Many children enjoy reading the book, and I do too!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 24, 2011:

Thank you for the comment, John. Yes, this book would make a good present for a child.

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on June 24, 2011:

Thanks for the hub. Great B-day or Christmas present for a youngster....

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 07, 2011:

Hi, Nell. Thank you for the visit and the rating. I love lots of the older children's stories, as well as some of the newer ones!

Nell Rose from England on June 07, 2011:

Hi, I think I must have read the book when I was small, but I definitely saw the tv adaption. I love these sort of time travel stories, thanks for the ending, I had totally forgotten what happened, these old ones were the best! thanks rated up! nell

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 05, 2011:

Thank you very much for the comment and vote, mar! I hope that you enjoy Tom's Midnight Garden when you read it.

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on June 05, 2011:

Alicia C,

I am always on the look out for a good classic children's book. Like you, I enjoy reading as well as giving as gifts. I shall add Tom's Midnight Garden to my list, based on your excellent review.

Voted UP & USEFUL & AWESOME- thanks, mar.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 04, 2011:

Hi, LULU SUE1987. Thanks for the visit. I hope that your grandchildren enjoy the book if they read it.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 04, 2011:

Thank you, Docmo. I enjoy remembering and thinking about a story!

LULU SUE1987 on June 04, 2011:

Sounds really good for my grandchildren.

Mohan Kumar from UK on June 04, 2011:

I've read this great book and as you say it has stayed with me for ages. Thanks for the nostalgic trip down memory lane - I am sure others will enjoy this.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 03, 2011:

Hi, Danette. Yes, I admire these authors too. It's wonderful to be able to create such a memorable story that people remember it for years, or perhaps for their whole lives!

Danette Watt from Illinois on June 03, 2011:

Hi AliciaC, I too have never heard of this book but it sounds great. There are so many good children's and young adult books out there. I admire authors who can give their young readers a story they'll always remember.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 02, 2011:

Hi, Denise. I hope you like the book! Thanks for the visit and comment.

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on June 02, 2011:

I have never heard of this book nor have I read it to my kids (obviously if I've never heard of it, LOL) So, I will have to check it out. I am intrigued.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 02, 2011:

Thanks for the votes and a great comment, Chatkath! I hope that you enjoy the book when you read it. I love what you wrote about books being able to spark imagination and the story staying alive in a reader's mind - I enjoy stories like this too!

Kathy from California on June 02, 2011:

I don't think that I have ever read this but I am going to now. It sounds like a true classic that I somehow missed when I was younger. I just love stories like this...Where events in real life are lacking in some way, sparking the imagination of a young mind and creating a magical escape that becomes all too real and ends leaving the reader to question multiple scenarios that keep the adventure alive, perhaps only in the mind of those who believe?

Great Hub and review of a true classic, thanks for sharing Alicia! Voted up & awesome.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 01, 2011:

Thanks, b. Malin. I agree - a good children's book can be great for all ages!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 01, 2011:

Hi, mistyhorizon2003. This book captured my imagination too, even though I first read it as an adult! Thanks for the comment.

b. Malin on June 01, 2011:

Children's books give us such Imagination, good for the Young and the not so Young, but Young at Heart. I too remember this book and you've captured it well once again for all of us. Thanks Alicia.

Cindy Lawson from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on June 01, 2011:

I too read this book many years ago (at least I am fairly certain I did based on your excellent description of it), and it truly captured my imagination. I love those kinds of stories, or which I have read several.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 01, 2011:

Thank you, Movie Master. It is a lovely book. It seems that most people who read it enjoy it.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 01, 2011:

Hi, CMHypno. Yes, it's great to read the classics as well as the new stories! Thank you very much for the comment.

Movie Master from United Kingdom on June 01, 2011:

I had forgotton all about this book! I read it many years ago and loved it, lovely hub.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on June 01, 2011:

The oldies are the goodies as they say, and you cannot beat a classic children's book like Tom's Midnight Garden. Excellent hub as usual, Alicia

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 31, 2011:

Thank you, smcopywrite. It's nice to meet you!

smcopywrite from all over the web on May 31, 2011:

there are some books that stand the test of time and live on through generations, this is one of them. thank you for the hub.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 31, 2011:

Hi, Karanda. Yes, I never like to see a movie before I read the book that it's based on, and even then there has to be a long gap between my reading the book and my seeing the movie, so that I can "let my imagination roam free", just as you say! Thank you for the comment.

Karen Wilton from Australia on May 31, 2011:

Isn't it wonderful how books from years ago such as Tom's Midnight Garden can be enjoyed by all ages? The difference between the movie and the book is you can let your imagination roam free amongst the pages. Nice Hub.

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