Tuesday 6 April 2021

Of Gardens and Time Travel by Paul May

I recently re-read Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, the winner of the 1958 Carnegie Medal. It was a surprising experience in many ways, because this was not quite the book I thought I remembered. When I'd finished it, I was inspired to return to the greatest of all children's books about gardens, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911. Just think - Tom's Midnight Garden was published 63 years ago, and The Secret Garden a mere 47 years before that. Time does indeed seem to play strange tricks as we grow older. Philippa Pearce writes a great deal about Time, but that's not what gives her book its power to move the reader, for this is a book about loss and longing, about memory and grief, about the way the world changes throughout a long lifetime.

I never read this book as a child, and first discovered it when I was in my twenties, at an age when one lives in the present and the future rather than in the past. And though my grandmother, then in her nineties, told me that she could sit happily for hours remembering the tiniest details of events and places from her childhood, I never imagined then that there would come a point when I, like her, would discover that there was more life behind me than there was ahead of me. And so, when I read Tom's Midnight Garden a few weeks ago, I saw that it's not a book about a little boy travelling in time, but rather, it's about an old lady remembering and dreaming of the past.

My grandmother on the left, with a few of her buddies.

If you haven't read Tom's Midnight Garden and you're planning to, you might want to stop here. The book is essentially a mystery. We want to know, as does Tom Long, what this garden is that he visits every night as the grandfather clock in the hall strikes thirteen. How can the garden be there in the middle of the night and not there in the morning? And how is it that no time seems to pass while he is there?  And what time is it, exactly, in this garden, for it seems to be in the past: but what past?  When Tom finally sees the words 'Time no longer' which had been hidden on the face of the grandfather clock, his thoughts begin to take a new shape:

'Tom thought again: Time no longer—the angel on the grandfather clock had sworn it. But if Time is ever to end, that means that, here and now, Time itself is only a temporary thing. It can be dispensed with perhaps; or, rather, it can be dodged. Tom himself might be able to dodge behind Time's back and have the Past—that is, Hatty's Present and the garden—here, now and for ever. To manage that, of course, he must understand the workings of Time.'

Given that Tom appears to be a boy of no more than about 9 years of age this seems a surprising meditation. But then, I have to say that I'm unconvinced by Tom as a character, and I didn't really like him very much. He's a slightly rude and grumpy small boy at the start and he doesn't really improve with acquaintance. His brother, Peter, is in quarantine with measles, and Tom is  upset about being sent away to an uncle and aunt who live in a flat with no garden, when he should have been spending the holidays playing with his brother in his own (not very interesting) garden at home. This is a book full of complexity; full of metaphors and symbols, and some have seen Tom as a kind of 'everyboy'. I can see all of this, and I do agree with all those commentators who believe this is one of the greatest children's books of all, but I still find Tom hard to like, and I don't think he really changes significantly throughout the book, whereas Hatty changes in almost every way, moving from orphaned infant to lonely old woman asleep with her teeth in a jar beside the bed.

It may be that we can see the whole book as Tom gradually being brought to understand that old Mrs Bartholomew, and by extension all old people, were children once. I certainly felt that the overriding feeling of the story was a passionate regret for the loss of childhood, but it is Mrs Bartholomew's loss that is the most deeply felt, and it is her childhood that is so vividly realised and symbolised in the garden. Tom's own suburban garden by contrast is duller than dull ; 'Town gardens are small, as a rule, and the Longs' garden was no exception to the rule; there was a vegetable plot and a grass plot and one flower-bed and a rough patch by the back fence.'

I suppose I see Tom as a bit like that garden, and a bit like the rest of the suburbanised, built-over modern world that Philippa Pearce describes. Dull and miserable. A world where the river that once ran beside meadows had 'back-garden strips on one side and an asphalt path on the other.' Aunt Gwen asks a fisherman if he's caught any fish.

'There aren't any fish,' the man replied sourly. He stood by a notice that said: 'WARNING. The Council takes no responsibility for persons bathing, wading or paddling. These waters have been certified as unsuitable for such purposes, owing to pollution.'

Illustration by Susan Einzig

So, whose midnight garden is it? I agree with Maria Nikolajeva, who says this: 'In the old Mrs Bartholomew's account of the events we suddenly see the whole story from another perspective. It is not only (and maybe not primarily) the story of a young boy who is tempted to exchange time for eternity. It is the tragic story of an old woman who knows from experience that time is irreversible. So, a feminist critic might inquire, why is it Tom's midnight garden?

Puffin cover by Shirley Hughes

For me at least, Tom's Midnight Garden is a book to admire, but The Secret Garden is a book to love. The central character, Mary Lennox, is about as unattractive a character as you can imagine at the start of the book, but she has reason to be. Compared to her, Tom Long has little to complain about. Virtually ignored by her mother and father in India, Mary is then dramatically orphaned and shipped home to England where she's sent to her uncle's vast and almost empty house on the Yorkshire moors. There is not a scrap of nostalgia here. As the secret garden is brought back to life, so are the children, Mary and Colin - Colin who actually thinks he is bound to die because he's overheard adults saying so. I've complained about the lack of character development in Tom's Midnight Garden, and The Secret Garden couldn't be a greater contrast. Mary, Colin, and Colin's dad, are all utterly changed by the things that happen. Only Dickon, who must surely be some kind of incarnated minor god, stays the same. It's a very realistic book, despite its somewhat fantastic plot, and what's most real about it are its descriptions of plants and gardening. Read this and you might never need to watch Gardener's World again.

I was planning to write more, but I'm busy reading a biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett and I think she deserves a post all to herself.  I also have an allotment to dig and tomato plants to pot up, so I'd better go. 

Maria Nikolajeva's piece; 'Midnight Gardens, Magic Wells', can be found in Children's Literature, Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, published by the Open University in 2009.

Paul May's website is here.


Ms. Yingling said...

One of my favorites. I found the graphic novel version interesting, since I hadn't fully envisioned what the house and its current environs looked like. I'll have to see if I can get a student to check this out today!

Becca McCallum said...

I read both books as a child, and have returned to The Secret Garden again and again, while I've only re-read Tom's Midnight Garden once or twice since. I loved The Secret Garden even when I didn't understand parts of it as a child. I think it's because the garden is almost like another character in the book, and is so richly imagined and always seemed like a place full of possibilities, rather than "Tom's" garden, with gardeners and other people liable to pop into it at any moment.

Catherine Butler said...

I love both. TMG is a much more artful book, I think, and (at the level of individual sentences) noticeably better written, but TSG gives more raw pleasure. TMG probably suffers a bit from the fact that any read today has to negotiate not only the contrast between Tom's contemporary world and Hatty's past, but also the distance of both from our own - temporally, they're more or less equidistant - and this makes reading it a more complex affair.

Paul May said...

You put it very well, Catherine, though I would say that the writing in TSG is uneven rather than less good, because at times it is brilliant. And, Becca, I think you are right about TSG being a place full of possibilities, whereas the garden in TMG is not really a place where anything grows - it's a place that existed once and has gradually disappeared over time. Luckily, we have both books!