Tom's Midnight Garden is an enduring English classic published in 1959, and immediately popular and lauded. It won the Carnegie Medal in 1959, and in 2007 was voted in the Top Ten Carnegie Medallists in a public vote to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Medal.
In some ways it starts off as many classic children's stories do by taking a child away from their home, and removing the normal parental supervision. Typically, this is done by orphaning children and sending them to live with cold, uncaring or mean guardians. Here, Tom is sent to live with his aunt and uncle for a while. He hasn't been orphaned, but is merely being placed in quarantine as his brother Peter has come down with measles. Tom tries to explore his new world, but there isn't really that much there. His kindly aunt and uncle live in a flat in an old large house that has been converted into flats, with a small back yard that is only used to store dustbins and parked cars.
There is nothing to do, and Tom quickly becomes bored, for he is not unwell, just quarantined and marooned. He quickly finds that the clock in the main hall doesn't work as it should, and one night it strikes 13 and he goes to investigate. He soon finds his midnight garden. A garden that only exists at night.
Tom finds a magic garden out the back door, in just the same way that the Pevensie children find Narnia in the back of the wardrobe. The garden is only there at night, in the day it's replaced by the boring back yard full of dustbins. And just like in Narnia time doesn't move in the easy linear way that we ordinarily expect. Tom meets a young girl called Hatty, orphaned, living with her aunt in a rather Jane Eyre existence, and not really included in games by her older male cousins. Hatty spends a lot of time in the garden. She is the only person who can see Tom, and so they become friends and companions. Tom's nocturnal adventures make his boring days worthwhile, so much so that he doesn't want to return home when the time comes.
Philippa Pearce was inspired to write Tom's Midnight Garden by the memories of her own childhood home. After her father retired the family home was to be sold and Philippa "imagined the possibility of it being converted into flats and its garden lost forever. Pearce wanted to recreate and 'preserve' the house and its garden as it was when her grandfather was alive."
We certainly get a sense of the workings of a Victorian house. Abel the gardener is always busy at work in the garden, the maid, Susan in the house. The garden is more than ornamental- it is a working garden, there are asparagus beds, gooseberry wires, hot houses with rather complicated plumbing
I certainly enjoyed visiting the midnight garden with Tom, but wasn't blown away by the book overall. I did learn lots of things from the book, and enjoyed that aspect of it very much. Ely Cathedral is mentioned several times. I'd never heard of it, but it looks quite magnificent and I know I'd love to visit. At one stage Tom researches clothing history so he can try to work out when Hatty lived, and he discovered that the Duke of Wellington had caused a sensation by wearing trousers in the early nineteenth century. And in a beautiful moment of synchronicity, I had just learnt about the Duke of Wellington and his scandalous trousers being refused entry to Almack's on QI the night before I read about it with Tom! I love that sort of thing. And I love this little insight into 1950s women in Britain:
On Friday morning, in the peaceful hour before the others were awake, Aunt Gwen leaned out of bed, boiled the electric kettle and made an early pot of tea.
Really? Is it normal to keep tea making things within easy reach of the bed?