Tom's Midnight Garden

For this week's edition of Timeslip Tuesday, I have a classic, or perhaps even the classic English time travel story--Tom's Midnight Garden, by Phillipa Pearce. It won the Carnegie Medal the year it was published (1958), it was dramatized by the BBC three times, and most recently (1999) was made into a full length film. It is also available as an audio book, which we listened to last week as we drove for hours and hours of Virginia.

Tom had been looking forward to the summer vacation--he and his brother Peter had great tree house building plans. But when Peter came down with measles, Tom is sent off to stay with his uncle and aunt, in a small flat that had been chopped out of an old Victorian house. Unable to sleep, Tom is drawn downstairs by the grandfather clock in the hall outside striking thirteen, and opening the back door of the house, finds the Garden...

"a great lawn where flower-beds bloomed; a towering fir-tree, and thick, beetle-browed yews that humped there shapes down two sides of the lawn; on the third side, to the right, a greenhouse almost the size of a real house; from each corner of the lawn a path that twisted away to some other depths of garden with other trees."

Great and terrible is Tom's disappointment the next day, when he opens the same door and sees only dustbins--the land belonging to the old house had been built up years ago. But the next night, the clock strikes again, and Tom steps back again into the past when the garden still existed. There he meets small orphaned Hattie, who also longs for a playmate, and night after night they share the trees, the hiding places, the orchard, meadow, and river, and all the other things that every perfect garden has.

But time doesn't stay still. In the past, Hattie grows older, in the present, Tom grows more desperate to enjoy the garden before he has to go home, and his brother Peter grows lonelier. And at last, one night Tom opens the door, and the garden is no longer there.

This isn't a book where Lots of Things Happen. It is subtle in its buildup, and unhurried in its descriptions. The small adventures that Hattie and Tom have in the garden and its environs are not particularly strange and wonderful--but because these two children have become friends across time, each one suspecting that the other is a ghost, their encounters are magical. And because Pearce takes her time in describing each of Tom's visits to the garden, and describes at length as well Tom's daytime thoughts, as he tries to figure out what is happening, the reader gets to follow at Tom's pace, and appreciate it all along with him.

So you might think that such a book would not hold the interest of two boys, 8 and 5, on the homeward leg of a very long car trip. But it did. They protested vociferously whenever us grownups tried to take breaks from it. And actually, I take back my earlier statement that the happenings were not strange and wonderful. They have never shinned up yew trees in an English garden, or chased geese in an English meadow, or ice skated down a frozen river. Or been orphans tormented by a cruel aunt, as Hattie is, or, like Tom, been accused of being a demon by the gardener, the only other person who can see him (I have perhaps accused my boys of been demons, but they probably weren't listening). Or most magical of all, they have never forced their insubstantial bodies through gateways their hands cannot open (I like this bit--Tom leaves his head till the very end, anxiously unsure what is going to happen to it when it goes through). In a way, these things are stranger to my boys than fire-breathing dragon or the like would have been--they have become blase about such things. And the garden itself is such a wonderfully real place that anyone with any sense at all would want to run into it to play...

Here's a picture that I think match's Tom and Hatty's garden rather well--it's Levins Hall, in the Lake District:

Philippa Pearce wrote only a handful of full length books for children, including The Minnow on the Say (1954) The Way to Sattin Shore (1985). She died in 2006; here is her obituary. And Here's a link to an interview with Philippa Pearce from a few years back, talking about this book.

As usual, anyone who'd like to share a timeslip review of their own is welcome to leave me a link!


  1. A beautiful book. I remember it from my own childhood. Great escapeism, shows that magic exsists!

  2. This is one of the best children's time travel novels ever. It works on different levels, and the poignancy of the ending never fails to move me profoundly.


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