I’d never heard of Tom’s Midnight Garden until I read about it a couple of weeks ago on Shazza’s blog. Written by Philippa Pearce and first published in 1958 it’s a classic story for older children/young adults but it sounded so fascinating I just had to get a copy, and I read it in its entirety one evening earlier this month.
Tom’s younger brother Peter has the measles and so Tom doesn’t catch them as well he’s packed off to stay with his very dull aunt and uncle who live in a first floor apartment in what was once an old manor house. There’s no garden to play in, just a back yard where the dustbins are kept and where one of the other residents tinkers with an old car ; the only thing that interests Tom is a big old grandfather clock in the communal hallway which never strikes the right time. He soon realises that every night at midnight the clock strikes thirteen so one night he sneaks out of bed to investigate and finds that the extra hour takes him back to a time over half a century earlier where the old house is just one residence and the back yard is now a huge and very beautiful sunlit garden. There he befriends a lonely little girl called Hattie and meets her in the garden almost every night, where they play together and have different adventures which he gradually realises are taking place in the late 19th century.
No matter how many hours Tom stays in the garden he finds that when he goes back to his own time he’s only actually been gone for a few minutes, but time in the garden advances through the seasons and several years. Although Tom stays the same age Hattie grows up fast and as she grows older Tom seems to her to become thinner as though he’s gradually disappearing, then after one last outing together, where she begins to fall in love with a young man from her own time, Tom finds he has become completely invisible to her. He doesn’t see her again and the next time he goes to the garden he finds that it’s turned back into the modern day back yard where in a panic he runs into the dustbins, knocking them over and making quite a noise.
The following day it’s time for Tom to go back home but before he leaves the house he’s told that the elderly and reclusive landlady in the upstairs flat, who he’s never previously met, wishes to see him, presumably so he can apologise for disturbing her and the other residents during the night – and that’s when he discovers that she is actually Hattie, many years older than when he last saw her in the garden. After a long conversation, in which Hattie tells him about her life through the years between their last meeting and the present day and asks him to visit her again, they say a fairly formal goodbye to each other and Tom turns to go but at the bottom of the stairs he rushes back and gives Hattie a big hug, happy that he’s found her again after so long.
The story is extremely well written and the description of the beautiful garden is so detailed that I could really imagine myself exploring such a place. I must admit though that the time shifting aspect of the story seemed to ask more questions than it answered and left me a little confused. When Tom was in the garden no-one but Hattie and the gardener could see or hear him and as the story moved on through their adventures I found it hard to tell who was actually real and who could have been a ghost, or if the whole thing was just one of Tom’s dreams. Nevertheless it was an intriguing and fascinating read and left such a lasting impression that on learning that it had once been made into a tv series I was prompted to find out if there was a dvd version of it. There was quite an up-to-date one made in 1999 so I sent for that and watched it last weekend.
The start of the dvd is nothing like the start of the book and I initially felt a bit disappointed until I realised that it shows present-day events after the story has moved on, events which lead back to the beginning of the story. The story itself is told in its entirety as a flashback and the film is very true to the book right up to the last few minutes where it reverts to the present day and a continuation of the film’s beginning. Although the book doesn’t mention Tom’s age I got the impression that he was about 11 years old but the film portrays him as being 14. The book ends where young Tom hugs the now elderly Hattie and I was left with the feeling that there should have been a bit more, but the end of the film shows a now adult Tom with a wife and baby daughter, who they’ve named after Hattie, living in a cottage which is one of several built in the original garden of the old house which is now being demolished – and still standing at the bottom of their own part of the garden is the big tree where young Hattie had carved her own initials and young Tom’s signature drawing into the trunk so many years before. It’s a very fitting ending to the film and I think it finishes off the story very well.
The house and garden in the story are based on the author’s own childhood home in Cambridgeshire and a bit of Googling discovered an article written in 2014, which included many photographs, when the actual house and over three acres of garden were up for sale. I’m not sure if the garden in the film is the real life garden or a bit of computer-generated imagery – or maybe some of both – but it’s a truly beautiful garden, and looking at the photos of the real garden it’s easy to see how it inspired this magical fantasy story. The book makes a lovely read and the film really brings everything in the book to life – certainly well worth anyone reading and watching.