Beautiful and organic, Christine Johnston

Dunedin writer Christine Johnston rediscovers the still-growing pleasures of Tom’s Midnight Garden.

I would have borrowed a copy of Tom’s Midnight Garden from Dunedin Children’s Library, which in those days was located in two of the terraced houses in Stuart Street just above the Octagon. (That terrace has since become a city icon.) Our family visited regularly, often weekly, carrying our piles of books up a series of ever steeper streets. The library was the principal source of our reading material, though I owned a few books, given as presents. The librarian kept aside new publications and offered them to my sister and me when she was stamping our chosen books. She would have been aware that this book was an award winner: published by Oxford University Press in 1958, it won its writer, A Philippa Pearce, the Library Association’s Carnegie Medal. The book made a profound impression on me.

It’s impossible for me to summon up the eight-to-10-year-old I was when I first read this book and obsessively studied the fine black and white illustrations by Susan Einzig. I know I loved it then, and when, as a student, I saw it in the University Book Shop (was I seeking it out?) I bought a copy and have read it many times since. Rereading Tom’s Midnight Garden after 50 years, I experienced no disappointment; it seems as brilliant, and the illustrations as tantalising in their detail.

I must have read it to my own children, but the book has remained a private pleasure, as if it were written especially for me, catering for my persistent obsessions and delights. Why did I find it so enchanting? I wasn’t feeling nostalgia for a life I had ever lived; it was a more complicated experience, perhaps satisfying an inherited longing for a world, now past, that existed in family stories and in the books I read. One didn’t read much that was contemporary (or local) in those days. My knowledge of summer houses, London trains and domestic servants came solely from books. Perhaps I was programmed to be enthralled by the large Victorian house with its secrets. My widowed grandmother, fallen on hard times, rented rooms in just such a house in George Street. Cavernous and cold, it might have been comfortable once, when there were maids to fetch and carry and light fires. Like Tom and Hatty, my siblings and I loved peering through the small panes of coloured glass around the door. Tom, my contemporary, was a believable 1950s boy, and Hatty, the Victorian, as beguiling as any of literature’s orphaned heroines, another Jane Eyre with a horrid aunt and mean cousins.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is the 1950s Rip van Winkle (in reverse) and must have been the first “time-warp” story I ever read. It has spawned many imitations and variations, including some from my own keyboard. It is an ambitious book for children, with speculations about the nature of time and references to the Book of Revelation. Mostly these sit credibly in context, along with oddities like telegrams, Tom’s daily letter to his brother and the “rules” for dealing with measles. Though thoroughly English, as were almost all the books I read in my childhood, and rooted in the 1950s, this novel transcends its setting; among its themes are the change and loss associated with the passing of time. For the modern reader, the 1950s setting has become another level of time shift.

A Philippa Pearce uses the conventions of the ghost story, but who is the ghost – Tom or Hatty?

The possibility of Hatty’s being a ghost stayed in his mind, however – at the back of his mind … until one day in the garden it became the cause of a quarrel with Hatty herself. It was the only real quarrel that ever took place between them.

 

Each adamantly rejects the notion that she or he is a ghost but, after harsh words and tears, they reach a kind of truce. It doesn’t really matter. Like dreams, ghosts are a literary device; they have a job to do in a book about time.

Tom enjoys climbing trees: “Tom loved the dry feel of the bark on the main trunk. In places the bark had peeled away, and then a deep pink showed beneath, as though the tree were skin and flesh beneath its brown.” Of course the tree is the ghost of a tree, just as the midnight garden is the ghost of a garden, but it is described in such loving detail that it seems more alive and desirable than the dull “reality” that has replaced it. That of course is Pearce’s point. She also has something to say about pollution, a word that must have had me reaching for the dictionary in the 1950s!

Much of the botanical detail that was lost on me as a 10-year-old delighted me in this latest reading. (Along with reading and writing books, I have made, re-made and maintained a few gardens.) Tom’s is a full-blown Victorian garden right out of Beatrix Potter, with asparagus beds, a pond, an octagonal summer house, a tunnel in the hedge, fruit trees and strawberry beds, a row of rhubarb, an aviary with fan-tail pigeons, and, beyond, a meadow, complete with drooling cows and a gaggle of geese. Not to mention “pears on the wall muffled in muslin bags for safe ripening”. Oh bliss! It’s beautiful and organic!

Of course such a garden demands a fulltime gardener, a fact that many of us who have struggled with cottage gardens have come to realise. Tom’s midnight garden has the kindly Abel, a devout Christian and the only other human being besides Hatty who can see time-traveller Tom.

I read Tom’s Midnight Garden this time as a writer reads, with a critical eye for the structure and the tricks of the trade. One chapter where I felt the action faltered, I seemed to remember doubting as a younger reader. When Tom’s brother Peter is rather unconvincingly roped into the action, his presence undermines rather than reinforces Tom’s reality. But perhaps this is because the midnight garden is becoming less reliable. Tom must eventually return to his own family and his own time zone.

The one-dimensional 1950s grown-ups are background characters (and a bit wet); the story belongs to Tom and Hatty. The pleasure I took as a child reader in the final revelation was tinged with sadness. That the strange old lady, living in the upstairs flat and emerging only to wind the (pivotal) grandfather clock, was the same spirited Victorian child of Tom’s midnight adventures seemed totally right but at the same time heart-breaking.

It’s just a book. It’s a book that reminded me of other books. Didn’t Katherine Mansfield also write about those panes of coloured glass that transform the recognisable world? Don’t the clocks strike 13 in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four? And the Good Book has a role to play: “they could see that the topmost book of the pile was a Bible. ‘Abel says the Bible must be above all the other books …  .’ ”

Tom’s Midnight Garden is literate and literary. Did I need to be reminded that the world of the imagination is a parallel but recognisable universe that creates its own hunger and nostalgia? You can read this novel and enjoy a spot of time-travel, but you can also read it to re-enter a world where books rule, okay? Recommended for children of all ages.

 

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