Brian Jackson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976

[Philippa Pearce's] achievement, wonderful enough in itself, is representative of how (without forsaking the adult note) a truly gifted writer can now write directly for the child, and for the ordinary child, in a way seldom achieved before….

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[Minnow on the Say] has the hypnotic craftsmanship of a first class detective story. And as the story winds its fascinating course, the book engages the reader even more deeply in the lovely recreation of a boy's life in a small East Anglian village. In doing so, it brings back many childhoods…. It spills over with a child's geography, places that only a child would know…. (p. 196)

It is, if you like, a very conservative book. Children are expected to be polite to adults, to make things—scraping and varnishing their canoe—not to destroy. There are all the tiny ceremonies of inviting friends to tea, or calling on strangers. Pocket money is earned and carefully counted, and very neatly you pick up the nuances of children and adults observing the codes….

Of course, the boys—being boys—are sometimes rude and destructive, thoughtlessly or at moments of stress. There is the moment when Adam, obsessed by the treasure, suspects treasure under the lovely pinky-yellow rose bush that stands by itself in the garden…. (p. 197)

Without being in the slightest moralistic, the book has the rare capacity to create goodness, to make the decencies of life ring true.

Her effects come through her art; her negatives—'a deep, raw hole, empty now of any rose-tree roots'—imply her positives.

And yet there is more; already at least a pre-echo of the Philippa Pearce music, that note of controlled poignancy that is to make Tom's Midnight Garden a classic of its literature. (p. 198)

Again the tale has the same breathless, detective pull….

Who, once having read them, can forget the chapters when boy and young woman skate up the river to Ely?

For it is in these final sections that the art transcends itself. Through scenes of haunting and sometimes painful beauty, Tom perceives that the old woman in the upstairs flat was once a child like Hatty, and that age and life will make Hatty an old woman like her…. It is, if you like, one of the ordinary insights of life; but one, perhaps, we most easily slur over…. Philippa Pearce makes you find it, feel it—and for her child audience it is maybe the first uncovering….

[A Dog So Small again] has the clean narrative pull, the delicious quiet humour, an essential inwardness…. (p. 200)

It is a very fine book, and yet—coming where it does in her work—it is something of a pendant, a detour. So much is there, but not the music. The theme of obsession (which of course informed the treasure hunt in Minnow on the Say) now dominates and fills the gap. There is something of the psychological study about it, and—ever so slightly—the eye slips off the child audience. Characteristically, she no longer relies wholly on her art to do its own work, but—again, ever so slightly—tops up the insights with glimpses of sententiae….

It seemed at that stage that either Tom's Midnight Garden had exhausted the more elusive and precious vein, or that having hit such brilliant moments the writer was reluctant to make the even more demanding commitment to her talents that was perhaps required.

In the event, she felt her way out of the situation with cautious instinct…. [The Children of the House] was originally drafted by Brian Fairfax-Lucy, as a tale for adults. Philippa Pearce worked on the existing draft and, as the introductory note says: 'made it one that can be enjoyed and understood by children'. She did a good deal more than that. She made it a classic. The setting could be that of one of the Victorian or Edwardian writers. (p. 201)

What takes it out of the standard Victorian mould (as it does E. Nesbit) is a refusal to identify with the assumptions and aspirations of the upper class home—the sense of the house through the servants' eyes, of the eldest daughter denied a useful education, of the old men combing the bins, or the ironic stonebreaker on the roadside…. (p. 202)

Compared to her previous books—and perhaps because of the curious joint authorship—it takes some chapters before the vision becomes as freed from its setting as this. And it nowhere has the potent narrative thread.

But it has the music. The beautiful, piercing sense of childhood swept along—and overswept—in the stream of time. The art is superb. The ordinary incidents of childhood—boiling a moorhen's egg, a forbidden hair-clipping, finding a half-crown—lap quietly in the reader's mind: months and years imperceptibly vanish at each chapter's end.

So apt and unforced is the second half, that you may not realise how it is all building up inside you until the marvellous final section, the adieu. There is something almost Tchekov-like in those last dozen pages. For one splendid stretch she again meets and tops the great Victorians in their own arbour.

I do not think any age previous to ours could have so brought out Philippa Pearce's talent. Her clean, plain prose opens up her books to any child who reads at all easily. I fear that isn't at all true of many revered classics of the past. Her work brims with life, and with life decent, positive, ongoing. Again one wonders if a critical look at some of our Edwardian inheritance might find that this was precisely what some of them lacked. She writes—mostly—to and for the child: not through the child to other adults. (p. 203)

Brian Jackson, "Philippa Pearce in the Golden Age of Children's Literature," in The Use of English (© Granada Publishing Limited 1970), Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring, 1970, pp. 195-203, 207.

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