Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958)

What do you write about Tom’s Midnight Garden, a ‘modern classic’ if there ever was one? A book about which Phillip Pulman wrote that it was ‘a perfect book’? It is one of the Carnegies of Carnegies (i.e. the top 10 Carnegie winners) and is widely read and loved today and has been adapted for radio, tv, cinema and the stage. It is an exceptionally tightly constructed time-travel fantasy and seemingly kicked off a spade of time-travel plots to follow. I would venture that time-travel is one of the key plots in historical fiction for children and a host of other time-travel winners followed Tom’s Midnight Garden.
Tom is sent away to stay with his aunt and uncle for the summer holidays as his brother is ill at home. With no garden or children to play with, he feels lonely and unhappy, until one night he hears the clock striking thirteen and discovers a secret garden where he makes a new friend, Hatty. Yet it soon becomes clear that his new-found friend is living in another time altogether, and to her, Tom is a sort of ghost. Each time he visits the garden, Hatty has grown older. Finally, on a skating trip up the frozen river in the garden, Hatty and Tom begin to fade and become invisible to each other once more. However, it turns out that Hattie is the old lady who lives on the top-floor and Tom and she meets in the present before Tom returns home.

The story unfolds in a specific time and place. At the start of the book, it is not clear whose world is ‘real’ and if one of the children is a ghost, but over time the time-slip nature becomes clear and logical. Sometimes in time-slip fantasies, the present-day child is the catalyst for a change in the past (for instance in Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park) but not here. Tom and Hattie are brought together by loneliness and derive solace and happiness from playing together. As the summer draws to a natural close Hattie has grown up, and Tom is returning home to his family.

It is a book about relationships, Tom’s and Hattie’s of course first and foremost, but both are part of a web of other relationships which are described in a nuanced way. For instance, at the start of the novel, Tom very much feels that he’s been abandoned by his family and sent away to his aunt and uncle who he doesn’t know very well. But over the course of the story, his relationship with them grows and develops not in a schmaltzy way but to the point of mutual like and appreciation. Tom’s Midnight Garden is also a meditation on growing up and growing old, and about the passage of time facilitated through the ancient metaphor of the garden. Both Tom and Hattie are staying with relatives. For Tom, like for Mary in The Secret Garden (and it would of course be interesting to do a ‘compare and contrast’ on the two), the garden is a place of solace and healing of hurt. For Hattie, playing with Tom in the garden is assuaging her loneliness and benign neglect. Significantly, they are not able to leave the garden until the last meeting where they are able to escape to skate on the river together. Here, at the end of this sequence, Hattie has met her future husband and leaves Tom behind.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is both well-constructed and well-written. I admire its tight construction and internal logic, but somehow it left me slightly unmoved. I liked it, but I didn’t absolutely love it. 7/10

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