Time no longer

Philippa Pearce:
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.

Mill House, Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire

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.

37 thoughts on “Time no longer

  1. I had never heard of this until I took a class on children’s literature where it was one of the required texts. I don’t normally care for ‘ghost’ type tales but this had me entranced. The ice skating scene in particular was beautifully done.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not normally a fan of ghost tales, Karen — many are rather too run-of-the-mill for me — but some like this one have real heart. Others I’ve loved (and they’re mostly kids books) have been Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time and Diana Wynne Jones’ Time of the Ghost.

      I agree about the ice-skating episode, very memorable. I wonder if it influenced Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) which has a similar ice-skating scene on a river in it? Pearce’s novel came out only four years before.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a story that I love and your thoughtful post has captured all the reasons why. It is a book for both children and adults, I think. The concept of time and aging is so tenderly written. Perhaps not a ghost story in the usual sense.

    When I read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase for the first time last summer I was reminded of this ice skating scene and of another in Little Women too.

    Thank you for this review Chris, I enjoyed reading it very much.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad my thoughts on this did your love for it justice, Anne, and yes, that denouement is tenderly done. You remind me that I must visit Little Women, another classic I’ve avoided for far too long, but sadly Anne of Green Gables is before it in the queue!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Alyson Woodhouse

    This is another childhood favorite of mine, I found it rather beautiful in its way. It had the potential to descend into somewhat sentimental territory, but somehow it didn’t. Quite a gentle story really, but with a definite charm about it. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As someone only a decade away from the age Mrs Bartholomew has attained at the end of the novel, Alyson, but who also remembers being Tom’s age I found this true to life in many ways — as well as being charming, and neither sentimental nor mawkish.

      They say friendships sometimes skip a generation, don’t they, and that seems to apply here: nearly all the adults are either mean-spirited or lacking imagination (even Hatty aged around 20 is putting aside childish things by interesting herself in Barty).

      Yet Mrs B and Tom are able to share confidences in a way that he couldn’t with his parents, aunt or uncle. There have been projects where young children have been taken to visit old people inretirement homes, to the benefit of both generations but especially the senior citizens in terms of improved mental health. Tom and Mrs B of course have memories to share, which is the big difference.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Alison Doig

    What is it about the ending of this book that, however many times I read it, always makes me cry? Something about the inevitability of time passing and leaving childhood behind, I think. A writer of rare power.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I confess my eyes were a little moist in the last couple of pages too, Alison. Leaving childhood behind is not often dealt with in children’s novels (if I remember right Peter Pan touches on it but then shies away) so I wonder how even not so sensitive young readers would react to it. As I hinted in a previous reply, I also empathised with grown-up Hatty, hearing Tom’s call — so much like Bobby’s ‘Daddy! My daddy!’ in The Railway Children — and her easy manner with Tom after a gap of six decades.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. buriedinprint

    This is one of my all-time-favourites but I haven’t reread it recently (perhaps because I’ve been so focussed on finishing various series instead but also because I think I had the idea that the magical bits of it might not hold up so well – good to know I’ve no concerns on that score).

    The ice-skating detail you’ve noted (here and also in Wolves) makes me wonder what you will think of the ice-skating in Little Women (when you get to it): maybe they both owe a wave in Alcott’s direction!

    Will this be your first reading of Anne of Green Gables? You know there is an age-old division between those who love her Anne and those who love Emily? (I’m mostly kidding – although there is a division in many readers’ hearts and minds – between those who feel stronger towards one protagonist than the other. I’ve got different reasons for having loved both characters through the years.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, this will be my first reading of Green Gables Anne! And isn’t that the great thing about characters in fiction, as much as with acquaintances, that you learn more and often different things about them at subsequent meetings? Looking forward to seeing who might be my favourite — until a second read!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        Definitely! (And just to be more clear, Emily is in another series, the first book published in 1923, Emily of New Moon – lest you were heading into AoGG thinking you’d also be “meeting” Emily there. She’ll wait patiently in her own trilogy.)

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ll be reading this quite soon as I think I’ve mentioned before and having read your charming and poignant review, Chris, I’m looking forward to it even more. Some of the themes you identify regarding passages of time, and how much we change/remain the same person as the years pass mirror my thoughts from The Go-Between. Fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I remember your Hartley review, Sandra, and while the Pearse is a lot shorter I do see the similarities in themes. Once you’ve read this I look forward to your responses to see if you’re of the same opinion! Having seen both film and TV adaptations I almost feel I’ve read the Hartley but I’d be lying if I said I had…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Time no longer — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. There are worthy modern classics which are struggle to get through, and there are modern classics which are worth only a slight effort — you can guess which category this title belongs in, Ola! Hope you eventually enjoy it! 😊

      Liked by 2 people

  8. earthbalm

    The book is up in my ‘top twenty’. I can also recommend ‘Minnow on the Say’ and ‘A Dog so Small’ but best of all is ‘What the Neighbours Did and Other Stories’. And, if you like Philippa Pearce, you’ll probably like Helen Cresswell. ‘The Nightwatchmen’ is fantastic and ‘Moondial’ contains one of the best children’s books opening in existence. 🙂

    I’m looking forward to hearing your comments on ‘Anne’, another of my favourite books.

    Thanks for posting Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll see what’s available from Powys libraries, Dale. Intriguingly, in view of my previous unfamiliarity with Jan Mark, my local library actually had one of her books on the shelves a short novel which I’ve now borrowed. I’m sure I could get either Pearce or Cresswell from there as well, and maybe both as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for this post, Chris. You’ve reminded me of why I reread this so many times as a child.

    I might have to track down a copy, I don’t think it’s amongst the few I’ve stashed away in the attic. I must have believed I’d outgrown it, at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

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