I missed Book Bingo in June. With the stress of assignments and exams I was otherwise occupied, but today I am checking off the Prizewinner square with Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1920-2006). First published in 1958, it won the Carnegie Medal and is still credited as “one of the best-loved children’s books ever written.”
When Tom is sent to stay at his aunt and uncle’s house for the summer, he resigns himself to weeks of boredom. But as he lies awake in his bed he listens to the grandfather clock chiming in the hall downstairs.
Thirteen! Tom races down the stairs and finds, outside the back door, a wonderful garden. A garden everyone told him didn’t exist. Tom’s midnight garden is full of magic and adventure, and children too. Are they ghosts? Or is it Tom who is really the ghost…
Rereading a book gives you the opportunity to take notice of the things you missed the first time, the things you have forgotten and the things that jump out at you because they are particularly pertinent to the current time. Tom’s Midnight Garden turns out to be the perfect book for reading during social distancing, isolation and quarantine. The main character, Tom, is in quarantine because his brother, Peter, has the measles.
“He must not mix with Peter in case he caught his measles; and he must not mix with other people either, in case he already had Peter’s measles.”
Staying with his aunt and uncle, “Tom had to stay indoors and do crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles…the only exercise he took was in the kitchen…How miserably dull it was here…nothing to do, nowhere to go, nobody – to speak of – to do things with.” Sound familiar?
Being in quarantine was particularly crushing for Tom, and Peter as well, because they had had plans for the school holidays. Although their garden was small, it did have one large apple-tree in desperate need of a tree-house. Instead, Tom discovers the garden at the back of his aunt and uncle’s flat. During the day it was a…
“narrow paved space enclosed by a wooden fence, with a gateway on to the side-road at one end. There were five dustbins, and near the dustbins was parked an old car…a piece of newspaper bowled about, blown in from outside and imprisoned here; and the place smelt of sun on stone and metal and the creosote of the fencing.”
But at night, when the clock struck thirteen, it became a…
“great lawn where flower-beds bloomed; a towering fir-tree, and thick, beetle-browed yews that humped their shapes down two sides of the lawn; …a greenhouse almost the size of a real house;…a path that twisted away to some other depths of garden, with other trees.”
For Tom, the midnight garden became the whole centre of his life away from home.
“The garden was the thing. That was real. …he almost had the feel of tree-trunks between his hands as he climbed; he could almost smell the heavy blooming hyacinths in the corner beds.”
In his night-time adventures, Tom discovers that he is invisible to most people, except for Hatty, an orphaned girl living with her aunt and cousins during the Victorian era, and Abel, the gardener. Hatty is lonely and isolated, viewed with disdain by her aunt, who sees her just as “a charity-child, a thankless pauper…an expense and a shame…a liar, a criminal, a monster.” Like Tom, Hatty is also invisible, in her own way, but she sees more than people know.
“I know better secret places–many better secret places, and I can keep quieter than they can. So quiet, that nobody ever knows I’m in the garden at all..I see everybody, and nobody sees me.”
It is interesting that all the animals and wildlife can see Tom too, and react to his presence. Perhaps it is those who are rendered invisible due to their circumstance or social position or perceived lack of worth, such as women, the working class and wildlife, that are far more aware of what is right before their eyes.
Pearce brings to life a time when kids played out doors, roaming from dawn to dusk, climbing trees and having adventures. A vast difference from today when we struggle to get kids outdoors at all. In the shift between Tom’s present time and Hatty’s past, we see the price of progress. The meadows have been replaced with houses and factories. The river that once used to support a whole ecosystem is now polluted and unsafe for human activity.
“Tom looked at the river-water: it did not look foul, but he saw that the weeds below the surface of the water, instead of being slim and green and shining, were clothed in a kind of dingy brown fur. There were no geese about, nor any waterfowl. There certainly seemed to be no fish. On the other hand, there was a large quantity of broken glass, broken crockery and empty tins dimly to be seen on the river-bed.”
Tom finally solves the mystery of the midnight garden, what happened to Hatty and the importance of Mrs Bartholomew, the old lady who lives in the attic flat. One of the delights of rereading is discovering that the clues were there all along, if only we have eyes to see.