John Rowe Townsend was for many years a journalist on The Manchester Guardian, where his duties included reviewing children's books. He was powerfully struck by the contrast between the happy lives of the children in the rather anodyne books of that era, and what he had seen on an assignment on the work of the NSPCC. He then wrote a book about real children, Gumble's Yard, still in print after 50 years, and embarked on a career as a children's writer. John has written more than 20 books for young readers, and a history of English Language children's books, Written for Children, of which there have been six British and six American editions. In this post, he writes about Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden.
John Rowe Townsend on Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
Many years ago I was invited to name a single masterpiece of English children's literature since the Second World War. It was an unwise undertaking, and I mentioned at once a number of other books of which I thought highly. Masterpiece is a strong word, not to be lightly bandied around. One masterpiece in 20 years, I suggested, might be a fair ration.
I was understating my case. All the books I then spoke of are in fact still around, and so are very many more, for in the meantime children's literature has grown up and has been widely recognized as worth serious discussion. But for me personally there is still one book that stands out among all others, and it is the one I first thought of: Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.
Philippa Pearce was the youngest of four children of a flour-miller and a corn merchant, and grew up at the mill, on the river bank. She went to the Perse Girls' School in Cambridge, then to Girton College, and for 13 years was a scriptwriter and producer. Tom's Midnight Garden was her second book. Underlying it was a solid rural community and a river that flowed through it. It was the work of a writer who was fully aware of it both as place and as symbol: the changing course of life, the flow of time. Along with this went a mastery over words, a strength of imagination, and an ear for that particular strain that Wordsworth called 'the still, sad music of humanity'.
Tom himself is hardly 'a character': he is any child, any person. He could be you. In quarantine for measles, he goes to stay with his loving, childless Aunt Gwen and with Uncle Alan, who reads a clever weekly paper and is ready to reason with a child but hasn't the slightest understanding of childhood. There Tom meets and plays in a garden with a small girl named Hatty, who, unlike her family, is able to see him, though she thinks him a ghost.
But although Tom's visits to the garden are taking place nightly in his own time, in Hatty's time they are at long intervals; she begins to grow up, to grow beyond him. Philippa Pearce herself has said that the walled garden represents the sheltered security of childhood, but Tom climbs the high wall to describe the extensive view of adult life beyond. At the end of the story, when Tom is about to leave for home, he meets an old lady, Mrs Bartholomew, and realizes that she is Hatty; night by night she has been dreaming of her past life as a lonely child, and the lonely Tom has been able to enter it with her. As I understand it, the book is telling a story with an extra dimension, in that Tom and Hatty are travelling from childhood through to age. Fifty years on it is as highly acclaimed as ever.
In Tom's successive visits to the garden, the story quietly takes possession of the past. As a symbol of childhood a garden is not static; it is evanescent. Today is not as yesterday and tomorrow will not be as today; the season moves on.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]