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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Classic British Telefantasy: My Top Ten Favourites (Part Two)

Here’s the second part of my rambling list of favourite Classic British Telefantasy series:

At Number Four is Sapphire and Steel, one of the strangest telefantasy series ever. Short on budget, hence relatively scarce (but effective) special effects, but oozing with quality writing, and oppressive, frightening mood and terror, this was a truly classic sci-fantasy series, featuring two of the most charismatic and mysterious central characters in telefantasy history, Sapphire (played by Joanna Lumley) and Steel (played by David McCallum). The sheer mystery, the fact that nobody ever found out who or what the main characters really were, where they came from, or what the hell was actually happening most of the time, added greatly to the attraction of the show. The fact that Sapphire and Steel was rarely repeated on television also added to the effect, as all we had to go on for many years were our fading memories. Luckily the series has been made available in recent years, firstly on VHS video, and then on DVD. And even more fortunately, it definitely lives up to our fond memories of the show.

At Number Three, it’s UFO, by far my favourite of the Gerry Anderson shows, not a stone’s throw from the top of my list of favourite British telefantasy series. First airing in 1970, and set in the not so far off future of 1980, the gorgeous hardware, the aliens, sexy women (those gorgeous moonbase babes – Gay Ellis, oh my poor heart!), and interesting characters were a huge attraction for a young boy like me. From an adult perspective, that totally kitsch, retro futuristic feel (unintended at the time, of course), gives UFO an undeniable charm that allows the series to still hold up really well today. The complex alternate-universe 1980-that-never-was, combining a mix-mash of styles from 1970 and the imagined future “1980” (which actually feels more mid- or late-21st Century) give it a retro but also an undefinable “sometime just a few years from now” feel which makes the show work even in 2013, although its version of a 1980 “future” is actually thirty-three years in our past.

At Number Two, it’s Quatermass. If there’s any British telefantasy that might give Doctor Who a run for it’s money, it has to be Quatermass. The original Quatermass serials were well before my time (I wasn’t born until 1960, and those serials appeared in 1953, 1955 and 1958), although I really enjoyed the three film versions and the 1979 Quatermass serial featuring John Mills as the Professor. Reading a number of excellent Quatermass articles in various telefantasy fanzines during the 1980s really fired up my interest in the original 1950s serials. I was also fortunate, at some point during the early 1980s, to come upon three books containing the scripts/teleplays of all three original 1950s serials (complete with nice b&w photos). I was hooked on the original serials even more by that time, and, just to complete the circle, soon afterwards I also bought the novelization of the 1979 serial. I was now a hardcore fan of Quatermass in all its forms, both serials and films.

A few years later, I was absolutely elated to get my hands on the VHS video release of the third (and the best of the three) 1950s serial, Quatermass and the Pit, and finally got to see what all the hype was about. I’d always loved the 1967 film version of Quatermass and the Pit, but the original serial absolutely blew my mind. It was way, way better than the film, and remains, to this day, my favourite ever single piece of British telefantasy. If the first two serials had been as good as the third (only two episodes of the first serial still exist), Quatermass might’ve made it to the Number One spot in my list. I was doubly delighted, about ten years ago, to get my hands on the excellent three-DVD release of The Quatermass Collection, featuring the beautifully restored Quatermass and the Pit, the entire (unrestored) Quatermass II, and the two surviving episodes of the Quatermass Experiment. This remarkable DVD set is an absolute treasure, and any British telefantasy fan worth their reputation should have a copy of this in their collections.

And finally, at Number One, it’s Doctor Who, just about my favourite telefantasy series of all time. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was five or six years old, way back in the mid-1960s. I like the modern version of Doctor Who, but not as much as the classic 1963-1989 series. I love the classic 1960s Hartnell and Troughton b&w stories, but my favourite Doctor Who eras were the Jon Pertwee years and the first half of Tom Baker’s run on the show. In my opinion, the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe years were, without a shadow of a doubt, the best ever in the show’s history. This show had (and still has) so much history, continuity and detail. The Doctor(s) and the Tardis, travelling anywhere in time and space, Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Sutekh the Destroyer, Omega, the Master, the list goes on and on and on, spanning the alphabet, from Autons to Zarbi, Doctor Who is immense. It was a huge part of my growing up process from early childhood right up into adulthood and to the present day (I’m now 52), this is the British telefantasy series (indeed THE telefantasy series, British or not) that has had the biggest effect on my life.

And just outside the Top Ten, in no particular order:

The Avengers – I quite enjoyed the weekly exploits of John Steed and Emma Peel, and later Tara King (I was too young to remember the earlier stories with Cathy Gale). Emma and Tara were certainly extremely easy on the eyes, and those two ladies absolutely kicked ass each and every week. The series was extremely psychedelic (hey, it was the Sixties!) and was overly camp at times. I was never a fan of the camp thing (hated it, actually), a major reason why I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as other UK telefantasy shows. I also quite liked The New Avengers, although it only occasionally crossed into telefantasy from its primary action adventure format. But it was worth watching for Joanna Lumley, playing Purdey, another gorgeous yet kick-ass Avengers female.

The Champions – enjoyable super-spy hokum in which three super-powered agents save the world each and every week from mad scientists and other menaces. I quite enjoyed this, although, with the exception of a handful of episodes, there was very little real sci-fi in the series, other than the agents showing their weekly portion of super strength, super speed or telepathy. I mostly liked it for the great theme tune and the epitome of eye candy provided by the absolutely gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo (who played Sharon McCready), who was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful women ever in the history of telefantasy.

Thunderbirds – loved the hardware, but, unlike Captain Scarlet, most of the stories themselves were not sci-fi enough for my tastes, even at that early age. Also, and despite my liking for Captain Scarlet, I was never really a fan of those damned puppets. I hate those wooden actors! I always preferred the live-action Gerry Anderson series.

That’s about it for the more famous British telefantasy series. At some point in the future, I’ll be devoting one or more blog posts to other, more obscure British telefantasy, particularly series aimed at children. My own memories of most of these are very incomplete and vague, so I’ve been buying a few of the more recommended classic children’s sci-fi series on DVD from Amazon UK. So far, I’ve got my hands on the entire original series of The Tomorrow People, Timeslip, Sky, Children of the Stones, The Owl Service, The Demon Headmaster and the 1980s version of Tom’s Midnight Garden. I think I’ll nab a few more series so I can post a reasonably comprehensive blog review.