"Tom's Midnight Garden": A Children's Book and Philippa Pearce
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.
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.
In Britain, a yard is a paved area at the back of a house and a rubbish bin is a garbage can. A yard can be unattractive unless a person takes steps to beautify it with items such as potted plants.
Tom Discovers the Midnight Garden
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.
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?
"Tom's Midnight Garden" is often considered to be a time slip story. A time slip is a phenomenon in which a person "slips" into and then out of a time period different from their own. It's an interesting theme in literature.
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.
In May 2014, the Mill House went on sale for 3.45 million pounds (about 5.8 million dollars). The property has been converted into a luxury establishment. Pearce's daughter said that her mother would have "fallen over backwards" if she had heard the asking price for the home.
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.
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. Her daughter continued to live nearby after she married and had her own children. 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.
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