TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN (1958) by Philippa Pearce

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This time out, I’m going to take a look at something completely different. It’s a classic Young Adult/children’s novel written by a British author who is very famous on this side of the Atlantic, but is probably a lot less-known to readers in the US.

Ann Philippa Pearce OBE (22 January 1920 – 21 December 2006), better known simply as Philippa Pearce, was a famous English author of children’s literature. She wrote over thirty books during the years 1955–2008, and quite a few of her books and short stories fall under the fantasy and supernatural heading, including this particular novel, Tom’s Midnight Garden.

TITLE: TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN
AUTHOR: Philippa Pearce
COVER ARTIST/ILLUSTRATOR: Susan Einzig
CATEGORY: Novel
SUB-CATEGORY: YA/Children’s Fantasy
FORMAT: 1st Edition Hardback, 229 pages
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press, December 1958.
ISBN: 0-19-271128-8.

Tom’s Midnight Garden belongs firmly in the classic timeslip fantasy sub-genre, which was so popular in British fantasy literature during the second third of the twentieth century. It’s a charming, gorgeous, beautifully-written tale about the relationship between a young boy, time-slipping from the late-1950s back to the 1890s (and moving closer in time as the story progresses), and the young girl he meets and befriends there.

SYNOPSIS:

Tom Long is a young boy sent to stay with his Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen, when his brother Peter gets measles. They live in a small upstairs flat of a huge house, which was once an impressive Victorian mansion. There’s nowhere for him to play, as there’s no garden, nothing but a tiny yard to park cars. The old landlady, Mrs Bartholomew, who lives in a room at the very top of the stairs, is a strange one. She keeps to herself, and hardly anyone ever sees her. She certainly doesn’t like children running about, so Tom is expected to be quiet and behave himself (some chance of that – young boys must get up to mischief).

Most strange is the grandfather clock down in the hall. Tom can’t get to sleep at night, so he lies listening to it as it strikes midnight. But instead of striking twelve times, the clock strikes thirteen! Overcome by curiosity, Tom sneaks downstairs, opens the back door, and finds not a dingy little back yard, but a huge sunlit garden (hey, it’s supposed to be midnight!). So every night when the clock strikes thirteen, Tom runs downstairs and out into the gorgeous Victorian era garden.

He meets and befriends a lonely little girl called Hatty, who becomes his only playmate. Tom sees many other people in the garden, but only Hatty (and the gardener) can see him. All the other kids think that Hatty is playing alone, and that she’s a bit of a weirdo. But strangely, on each nightly visit to the garden, Tom seems to be jumping around in time, mostly forward. Hatty is getting older, at first slowly, from a little girl a fair bit younger than Tom, to a girl his age, then faster and faster until she is much older than Tom, eventually becoming an adult. At this stage of the novel, she is courting a suitor (Barty), and she doesn’t seem to see Tom any more. He is becoming more and more insubstantial until he fades away altogether.

On the very last night before he’s ready to go home, Tom runs downstairs as usual. But the garden is gone. There’s nothing there but the dark, dingy back yard. Tom crashes into bins, knocking them over and causing quite a racket, waking up the residents. He lies there sobbing, calling out Hatty’s name. His Uncle Alan picks him up and helps him back into the house, excusing what happened to be a result of Tom “sleepwalking”.

The next morning, Tom is summoned up the stairs to apologise to Mrs. Bartholomew. But instead of getting a major telling-off, he is greeted warmly and is astonished to find out that the old woman is actually Hatty, who had heard him calling out to her the previous night. She explains everything to Tom, including what happened after his final visit to the garden. On leaving her, he rushes back up the stairs and, to the amazement of his Aunt and Uncle, gives Mrs. Bartholomew a big hug, like he’s known her all his life, and as though she is still a little girl.

Tom’s Midnight Garden was Philippa Pearce’s second novel, and was published by Oxford University Press in 1958. It is by far her most famous book, and it won the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1958, an annual British literary award (first awarded in 1936) given to that year’s outstanding new book for children or young adults (its nearest equivalents in the US would be the Newbery and Printz Awards). It’s beautifully written, from the intelligent story, to the touching relationship between Tom and Hatty (and her older self, Mrs. Bartholomew), and the regular correspondence between Tom and his brother Peter, to whom he writes daily accounts of his adventures in the garden with Hatty, as Peter recovers from his bout of measles. Quite a few of the scenes in the book are exquisite and genuinely moving.

It’s quite a different kind of book to the mainstream fantasy that most readers devour today. Pearce’s novel comes from a storytelling tradition of an earlier age, from an era before mainstream fantasy became dominated by Tolkein and the endless stream of clones/copycats that took over the bookshelves in the wake of the meteoric rise in popularity of the Lord of the Rings books during the 1960s, and which still rule the bookshelves today, more than half a century later. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was written during the years 1954-1958, so Tom’s Midnight Garden was a contemporary literary work. However, it is an entirely different kind of fantasy to the Lord of the Rings books. Thankfully, I may add, as I am certainly no fan of the Tolkeinesque brand of high fantasy.

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Tom’s Midnight Garden has been a lifelong favourite of mine, ever since I was a young boy. I first read it when I was nine or ten, picking it up from the school library. I also had easy access to it over the years as it was readily available from local libraries (it was a very popular book in the UK back in the day). So I was able to revisit it quite a few times during my teens and twenties. I eventually bought my own paperback copy back in the 1970s (the 1976 Puffin paperback edition), which I dig out every couple of years for a re-read.

Philippa Pearce’s classic novel was one of those remarkable childhood favourites that made an indelible mark on me as a young boy, and my love for this book will remain with me till the day I die. This is a true children’s fantasy classic, and every young boy or girl really should read this gem at least once in their lives. Hell, even if you are not quite so young any more, if you have never read this book, put it right at the top of your “To Buy” list.

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THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES OF LUCKY STARR by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)

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Last time out, I listed some of the SF novels that I picked up recently, among them two of Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr juvies that he wrote back in the 1950’s under his Paul French pseudonym. Well, that set me to searching for the only single-volume omnibus of all six Lucky Starr novels, which I found on Amazon. It’s quite hard to come by, being out-of-print, and quite expensive. But I took the plunge and bought it, and it arrived by mail in double-quick time.

So what’ve we got? Let’s look at the details:

 

TITLE: THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES OF LUCKY STARR
AUTHOR: Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
CATEGORY: Novel
SUB-CATEGORY: Omnibus
FORMAT: Hardback, 701 pages
PUBLISHER: Science Fiction Book Club, in association with Doubleday & Co. Inc, New York, 2001
ISBN: 0-7394-1941-2

CONTENTS:

  • Introduction to the Adventures of Lucky Starr
  • Introduction to the Further Adventures of Lucky Starr
  • David Starr – Space Ranger (1952)
  • Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953)
  • Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus (1954)
  • Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956)
  • Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957)
  • Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn (1958)

The reason for the two introductions is that the books were released in two volumes back in 1985, with a different introduction for each volume. So both introductions have been republished in this single volume. The introductions alone are very interesting, and give some nice insights into Asimov’s thoughts on his old juvies from a vantage point of thirty years later.

Asimov spends much of both introductions, explaining, almost apologizing for how wrong he got the planetary science in his novels. I found all of this very entertaining, but, in effect, totally unnecessary. He wrote those books according to the knowledge that science had in the early 1950’s, from telescopic observations of the planets, before the radar imaging and planetary probes of the 1960’s and 1970’s made that old knowledge totally obsolete.

Sure, the planetary science is in those books is wrong and way out of date. Hey, so what? All planetary science before the Mariner space probes and those that followed is hopelessly out of date. There are no oceans on Venus, and it is a boiling, poisonous, high-pressure inferno to outdo any religious visions of hell. There has never been any advanced life or civilizations on Mars, no canals, and only an extremely thin, cold atmosphere. Mercury does not keep one side only to the Sun, Saturn’s rings are radically more complex, and the lunar families of both Jupiter and Saturn are much larger than they ever suspected back then, and the lunar ecologies of both planets much more complex than they could ever have imagined.

But you know what? I don’t give a hoot. That kind of thing has never bothered me too much, any more than the “wrong” planetary science in the books of earlier “greats”. I just shunt these Lucky Starr stories into the same alternate solar system where all the mythical planets of great earlier writers reside. Asimov is in some great company there: Stanley G. Weinbaum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Edwin Lester Arnold, C. S. Lewis, Raymond Z. Gallun, P. Schuyler Miller, Ray Bradbury, Clifford D. Simak, James Blish, Clark Ashton Smith, John Wyndham, Frederik Pohl, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A. Heinlein and many, many other giants of the genre. These earlier solar system tales exist in their own little continuum, untouched by cold, hard, modern scientific facts. Nor should they be.

I first read most of these novels (all except Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus and Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury) way back in my early teens, usually on loan from local libraries. These were the classic NEL (New English Library) UK paperback editions, with those beautiful covers. Even now that I have the hardback omnibus, I still want to pick up those paperbacks in good condition, just for the covers.

I’ve been reading a little of the first novel in the series, and the writing holds up surprisingly well today. I think I’m going to really enjoy reacquainting myself with David “Lucky” Starr, Bigman and the rest in these fun books.

Some New and Old SF Novels

I’ve picked up a few books recently, so I’ll list them, a few at a time. Starting off firstly with the novels. Two new purchases from Amazon.co.uk, and two old/used books from local car-boot sales.

  • SATURN’S CHILDREN by Charles Stross (paperback, Orbit Books, London, 2008, ISBN: 978-1-84149-568-2)
  • NEPTUNE’S BROOD by Charles Stross (paperback, Orbit Books, London, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-356-50100-0)
  • PIRATES OF THE ASTEROIDS by Isaac Asimov (Paperback, NEL, London, 1973, first published by Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1953, as LUCKY STARR AND THE PIRATES OF THE ASTEROIDS by Paul French)
  • OCEANS OF VENUS by Isaac Asimov (Paperback, NEL, London, 1974, first published by Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1954, as LUCKY STARR AND THE OCEANS OF VENUS by Paul French)

The two Charles Stross books were bought new from Amazon.co.uk. These two books can be considered a pair, or loosely connected series, set in the same post-human “universe” (but many centuries apart) where humanity’s “children” seem intent on recreating the worst mistakes of both our dodgy societies and our nasty individual behaviour. Both novels can be classified as “thrillers”, set in the above-mentioned SF scenario.

The first book of the two, Saturn’s Children, is set within our solar system, only two hundred years after the death of the final natural human, whilst the follow-up novel, Neptune’s Brood, is set five thousand years later, and against an interstellar background, although constrained by STL travel and real physics. Both books are of the Hard(ish) SF/New Space Opera sub-genre of SF that I like so much, and Stross writes excellent New Space Opera fiction, so I’m pretty much guaranteed to enjoy them. I’ll leave commenting on the plots of either novel until a later date, as I haven’t read them yet.

The two Isaac Asimov novels are part of his “juvenile” or Young Adult (YA) SF&F Lucky Starr six-book series, written back in the 1950’s under his “Paul French” pseudonym (Pirates of the Asteroids is Book 2 in the series, and Oceans of Venus is Book 4). I read all of these books back when I was a kid, and they were an important part of my formative years as a young SF reader, leading me directly onto reading Asimov’s more adult SF works. As the series was written back in the Fifties, long before the first space probes gave us the first true images of our planetary neighbours, giving us a wonderful glimpse of one of those SF alternate “solar-system-that-never-was” continuums that fascinate me so much.

Unlike the two Stross novels, these two books are much older, used/second-hand copies, and were picked up recently at a car-boot sale for next-to-nothing. Both books are in quite tatty, strictly “readers-only” condition. They are definitely not collectible copies, so, ideally, I’d love to pick up pristine copies (or at least much better) of these two books, and every book in the series (if possible), as these are the classic New English Library (NEL) UK editions with the gorgeous cover artwork that I read way back when I was a pre-teenager.

I know that an omnibus collection of the entire six-book series, The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr, was released back in 2001 (although it’s apparently now out-of-print and quite expensive to buy), but I’d like to track down decent condition copies of the six 1970’s NEL paperback UK releases, just for the lovely covers, and because they will bring back so many great childhood memories. 🙂