Saturday, 11 January 2014

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

published 1958




The three of them had walked from the house into the garden one day when Tom was already there. They were followed by a little girl in a frilled pinafore and with hair worn long to her shoulders. The only word you could have used about that child was ‘tagging’. She tagged along after them, and then circled them every so often— in what might well have become an exasperating way— in order to face them and to listen to what they were saying… 

Tom, from among the nearby trees, listened eagerly; and the little girl circled, and circled again. ‘Let’s all run from Hatty!’ said Hubert suddenly, and at once did so, his long legs covering great distances with each stride. James swerved away from her, too, laughing; and Edgar followed him. Hatty, as if she were used to such treatment, had already started a quick trot of pursuit….



observations: Tom's Midnight Garden is a children’s classic: it has won awards, been adapted for film and TV, was voted one of the best children’s books of all time. When I was the right age for it, I didn’t get on with it at all, I found it boring, unappealing and unengaging, and I had no interest in seeing it serialized. I was a voracious reader, I loved and consumed books, I had favourites that I re-read till they fell to pieces, and I could quote endlessly from my best ones – many of which have appeared on the blog. But this was not among them: just thinking about it brought a grimace to my face – though I always knew I was in a minority.

So I re-read it recently, and at first was as unconvinced as ever. In fact till a long way in it is very very slow-moving and still rather unappealing – though interesting in its detail of child-rearing practices in the 1950s. Various things happen, but they are unsatisfying. Tom is staying with his uncle and aunt, his holidays ruined because of measles. They live in a flat in a big house, and there is no garden and no chance of exercise. But when he wakes up in the night he can go out the back door to a beautiful garden, and meet up with Hatty, a little girl from the past. As they meet up, she grows older – to her he seems to come only occasionally, whereas for him it is every night.

Hatty is wearing Victorian clothes: they argue over which of them is a ghost (most people cannot see him) and she comments most unfavourably on Tom’s attire:
‘They’re my pyjamas,’ said Tom, indignantly, ‘my best visiting pyjamas! I sleep in them. And this is my bedroom slipper.’
Things happen to Hatty but they are largely off-stage, adding to the distancing effect.

But then in the final quarter the book becomes riveting, absolutely lovely: I was entranced by it. There’ll be another entry on the book next week, where I try to explain why.

The picture is from the State library of Queensland.

6 comments:

  1. Moira - I really love that 'photo! That child is just compelling. I know what you mean about books that every child is 'supposed to' love, but just don't move you. My daughter was that way about the Harry Potter books. She was the right age when 'Potter fever' struck, but she never really caught it. Perhaps she'll try them again at some point. I'm glad that you found this one a better read at the end the second time round. I look forward to your next post about it.

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    1. There'll never be a book that everyone agrees with, and having disliked this one as a child, I got a nice surprise this time round...

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  2. This does sound enchanting. I may try it some day since I like fantasy a bit now. I can see that it might be more interesting as an adult than as a child.

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    1. Well my advice would be to borrow it from the library and skim-read the first two-thirds! But the final section is wonderful, and the time-travel element very good.

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  3. Moira, not for me thanks, in any format! Next?

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    1. No, perhaps not. I'll see what else I can do.

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