Tom’s Midnight Garden
Illustrated by Susan Einzig
OUP 2008 (1958)
When the dreamer dreams who dreams the dreamer? Do people change their essence as they age? And can Eternity be contained in a dream? Big questions, imponderable maybe, but ones raised by a reading of Tom’s Midnight Garden, first published over sixty years ago but retaining a freshness whilst reflecting the angst of childhood.
Though set in 1958 — when, incidentally, I was roughly the same age as young Tom — the story also harks back to the late Victorian period, specifically the late 1880s and 1890s. This is the time of the midnight garden, when orphan Hatty is growing up in a Cambridgeshire villa, reluctantly taken in by an unsympathetic aunt and largely left to her own devices.
Meanwhile — and it is a curious ‘meanwhile’ — Tom Long is sent to stay over summer with his aunt and uncle, in quarantine while his younger brother Peter recovers from measles. Like Hatty he is isolated from his contemporaries, and his yearning for company of his own age chimes in with the mystery of the grandfather clock that incorrectly marks the hours. At one witching hour, when thirteen is struck, Tom finds his way through the back door leading to a plot out of time.
This is a modern classic which, incomprehensibly, I’ve avoided up till now, and I have no idea why. I thought that maybe because it was regarded as somehow ‘worthy’ I may have been put off; and when I was reading its slow but atmospheric opening chapters in which nothing much happens I was almost convinced that was the case.
Then something wonderful occurred about the halfway mark and I couldn’t wait to see what was in the next chapter, and then the next. It was almost as if the concept of Time — which plays so much of a part in proceedings — was being simultaneously telescoped and stretched out on elastic. The climax of the story occurs during the severe winter of 1894-5 when rivers all over Europe and North America froze solid for months and ice skating was almost universal: Tom and Hatty’s epic journey down to Castleford (as Cambridge is called here) and on to Ely proves a turning point for their relationship and both their lives.
Like all the best novels Tom’s Midnight Garden keeps one thinking long after the last page is turned: the nature of change (already the rivers of the 1950s are polluted, and green space built on), the different concerns of youngsters and young adults, and the lack of understanding, even sympathy, shown by an older generation all emerge as themes. Has as much changed in the six decades since the novel was published as it did following the late Victorian period depicted in its pages?
But the heart of the story is the seemingly unlikely friendship which grows up between Tom Long and Henrietta Melbourne, both of whom appear ghost-like to the other, a feature which you might think would prove unsurmountable. How it unfolds is gentle and natural, how it becomes heartache for Tom is inevitable. The couple in the garden, the realisation not of their nakedness but of growing differences in their ages, the expulsion from their paradise — it’s hard not to see this as a metaphor, not necessarily of a religious nature, more of how we change as we age. Are we the same person when we’re many decades older? Can we remember what we were like at an age of relative innocence?
Pearce’s storytelling is artless, so that you’re not distracted by stylistic or verbal tics. The cultivated garden, the different seasons, the wildlife are mute yet telling actors in the drama, and the sense of generous space (despite hedges and the wall with a sundial) expands Tom’s nightly excursions out into orchard and meadow and beyond, down the river and through the fens.
Susan Einzig’s original line illustrations which feature as chapter headings are so vivid and so perfectly capture details in the story that it’s hard to think that any others would serve so well. Like a fly in amber or the mechanism of a clock that has wound down to a standstill they characterise the fateful phrase inscribed on the timepiece’s face: Time no longer. I’m glad to have finally made the acquaintance of this modern classic, a deserving winner of the Carnegie medal and a timeless evocation of youthfulness.