By Carol Howard
Summer break has begun. A boy named Tom finds his holiday plans foiled by an epidemic of a highly contagious, airborne virus for which there is no vaccine and no cure. He has dreamed of building a backyard treehouse with his brother. Instead, he finds himself quarantined. His brother has the disease and is bedridden. Tom has no symptoms, so he must be kept away from his brother as well as from other people, for a two-week incubation period. He is sent away to be cooped up in the drab apartment of an aunt and uncle who have already had the disease and are immune. There is no backyard and no garden in which to play.
In 1958, the year in which the first measles vaccine was tested, the British children’s author Philippa Pearce published Tom’s Midnight Garden. This time-travel novel opens with a boy’s summer vacation plans thwarted by a measles epidemic. In 1950s Britain, measles had become a familiar, but still serious, childhood illness whose outbreaks came in predictable waves.
In the novel, as Tom enters the front hallway of his relatives’ apartment building—a former grand Victorian home converted into unimpressive, modern flats—he hears the tick tock of a grandfather clock that belongs to the elderly landlady who lives upstairs. The mysterious clock keeps time but strikes the wrong number of chimes each hour. One night, after midnight, when everyone else is asleep, Tom listens to the clock as it strikes thirteen. Then his magical adventures begin.
In the darkness, Tom finds his way to the building’s back door, which in daytime leads to an alleyway lined with trash bins. At night, however, the door opens onto a beautiful walled garden that is filled with flower beds. Set on a great lawn, the garden features a kitchen vegetable plot (or “potager”), interwoven yew branches, winding paths, chirping birds, a pond, a greenhouse and a towering fir tree.
Tom has been transported not to a faraway place, but to a distant time. He is in the same house, but he has landed in the 1890s, when the old estate flourished. The novel is of the “time slip” genre made popular by Mark Twain. The seasons and years change as Tom slips back and forth through the garden door. He is confused by the blooms of spring hyacinths, as it is summer in his world. An orphaned Victorian girl, who becomes Tom’s only friend in the past, grows older from one visit to the next while he remains a boy. As Tom travels between present and past, a sundial in the garden—a device of ancient origins used to tell the hours and seasons—makes him contemplative. He and the girl sit, “trying to make out how it told time.”
The most wonderful and portentous events of the novel happen during the summer solstice in June, as though to mark the mysteries of the growing season and of the planet’s movement. In a nod to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tom finds tucked away in a garden crevice a note addressed “To Oberon, King of Fairies.” The note is part of a make-believe game invented by the orphaned girl.
On one momentous midsummer’s eve, “demons of the air seemed let loose in that garden.” Mischief-making spirits are aloft, but so is Cupid. A storm fells the towering fir tree; the next day, there is a marriage. As the time slip door closes one last time, and Tom is reunited with his now-healthy brother, he learns that the past is still with him in the present.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College.