A classic of children’s literature about time travel, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden is one of those books that has followed me around throughout my life. It was read to me as a child and when I was a little older, I used to carry a time-worn Walkman everywhere listening to it in audio cassette form (I’m unsure why because I am fairly certain CDs had been invented by this time). As a teenager, I’d dip in and out, just to check in on Tom and Hatty. Then, one summery day in 2018, I received a copy in the post, a welcome gift from my soon-to-be PhD supervisor Dr Zoe Jaques. It was like being reunited with an old friend. However, even with this background in mind, I could never have predicted the uncanny irony of finding myself researching the abstraction of time in quarantine, during the middle of a global pandemic, and my own government sanctioned isolation.
What has happened to time? If you are anything like me, you will occasionally glance at the date, initiating a downward spiral, questioning “how is May nearly over?” and “did April actually happen?”. The days are starting to blur into one and it feels like the 52nd of March. In some ways, quarantine appears to be endless, and in others it is so very urgent. It seems that the ways in which time has become unfamiliar differ for each of us. For some, furlough and even redundancy has led to dragging, interminable days. Yet, for key workers, NHS staff – with never-ending shifts who even sleep at work, or those who have unfortunately become ill, time is more pressing than ever before. We undoubtedly also all share a disjointed temporality experienced while waiting for seemingly empty government updates or urgently searching for a vaccine. And all the while, I find myself researching a text which directly examines the unpredictability of time in quarantine.
Time is a central concept and motif in Tom’s Midnight Garden. At the beginning of the novel, we meet Tom Long, a young boy who has been sent to his aunt and uncle’s house to quarantine while his brother recuperates from a measles infection. One sleepless night, Tom listens attentively to the temperamental grandfather clock that “seldom chooses to strike the right hour”. (p.10)
‘…Tom whispered angrily over the edge of the bedclothes “Why don’t you strike one o’clock, then, as the clocks would do at home?” Instead: Five! Six! Even in his irritation, Tom could not stop counting […]. Seven! Eight! After all, the clock was the only thing that would speak to him at all in these hours of darkness. Nine! Ten! “You are doing it”, thought Tom, but yawning in the midst of his unwilling admiration, Yes, and it hadn’t finished yet: Eleven! Twelve! “Fancy it strikes midnight twice in one night!” jeered Tom, sleepily. Thirteen! Proclaimed the clock, and then stopped striking.’ (p.19)
In this passage, Pearce animates the fantastical workings of the clock, foregrounding the ambiguous sense, that is pursued throughout the text, that the world of the novel may be pure magic, or it may simply be the product of imagination and dreams. As the story progresses, we come to understand that Tom can only enter the garden at night; in the daytime it is gone, and grey dustbins exist in its place. Just like Tom, since being in lockdown I have found the night particularly inviting. For many of us quarantine has signified a break in routine, upsetting our familiar circadian rhythms, and resulting in sleepless nights of staring at the ceiling for hours and hours. Pearce’s focus on the ticking hands of a clock encapsulates the desire to quantify our lives in numbers – counting sheep or calculating “how many hours sleep will I have if I fall asleep now?”. However, lockdown also, highlights the abstraction of time and often, when one sleeps, and wakes seems completely futile. Tom’s Midnight Garden is a novel for night owls. If you are anything like Tom and I, there is something spectral and magical about the middle of the night. As John Berger writes ‘time is much kinder at night. There’s nothing to wait for, nothing is out of date at night. Unless panic sets in, darkness tends to reduce hurry. There is more time’ (Berger, 2019, p.84). The middle of the night seems quieter and calmer. No one expects to have your attention at 2am, no one will read you statistics about COVID-19 death rates and for a short few hours things seem “normal”.
Tom creeps through the back door to find a newly visible lustrous and verdant garden. Entering the garden without a trace, not even leaving his footprints behind, Tom’s time in the garden exists in isolation. In the daytime there is no garden, but as you might expect, Tom returns each night. While he is there, he befriends a little girl named Hatty and as the narrative progresses, Tom does not age, but Hatty starts to change and grow up. For Tom, the garden exists as a temporal vacuum that is detached from the linear progression of time (both in the garden and in his real life). I am experiencing something similar with my own garden and the woods adjacent to my house. In a bid to retain my sanity, I force myself away from the laptop screen at least once a day to read and write (with an actual pen and paper, shocking, I know!). Physically detaching myself from social media, news sources and the familiarity of digital interaction, this time in the garden seems slippery and malleable. Forcing myself not to pay too much attention to a clock, I have found it comforting to allow myself “free time” in the truest sense of the phrase.
When Tom arrives at his aunt and uncle’s house he is pining for independence, encapsulated by the literary association between autonomy and green open spaces. Pearce even reflects this sense of ‘longing’ in his name. As such, the garden symbolises more than a dreamworld of imagination, it signifies freedom. In willing the garden into existence, in an almost fairytale-esque way, Tom conjures a space that is free from the temporal constraints of his day to day life. Now, while it is a little too grandiose to compare my humble garden to the midnight garden in the novel, I have found much comfort in nature in these last few months. The countryside landscape of my hometown in the Brecon Beacons is simultaneously, slow and quiet, yet, governed by the temporal certainty of the changing seasons. For Tom, the time in the garden is truncated, as Pearce exemplifies when he returns to the house after his first night of exploration: “He had come down the stairs […] at midnight; but when he opened that door and stepped out into the garden, the time was much later” (p.41). The flora and fauna of the garden also suggest that time for Tom is distorted: “the hyacinths don’t flower even out of doors at this time of year – it’s too late in the summer”. (p.33) Yet, unlike Tom, for us, nature is an uplifting reminder that, while it may not feel like it, the seasons are changing, time is passing, and things are moving forward. Together with the fact that, if nothing else, the only positive that has come from our bleak situation is that the skies have started to clear of pollution, wildlife has returned to newly clear rivers and, at the risk of sounding overly-sentimental, being in nature may offer a glimpse of an alternative, more hopeful future.
Time is a strange and fragile notion. If you aren’t sleeping well, or you aren’t exercising as often as you’d like, or you haven’t managed to pen your own King Lear variety of prolific musings – that’s fine and you are absolutely not alone. Take a leaf out of Tom’s book, spend some time in a garden, or a local park and if you can, while you are there, please pick up a copy of Tom’s Midnight Garden and give it a re-read. Pearce is a master of escapism and I think we all need a touch of that right now.
P.S. If you have access to a cat, I highly recommend their presence in your life, for they both fix and elude time in their companionship.
“There’s no place for cats. Place, not time, for cats slip through time unnoticed”. (Berger, 2019, p.83)
Stella Miriam Pryce is an ESRC Scholar researching the intersection of Children’s Literature and Spectrality Theory at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge.