David Rees

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3031

Minnow on the Say employs a familiar formula for a children's book—the successful search for a long-buried treasure, with its usual attendant props, the false clues, villain racing to beat the children in their quest, etc. If the book were no more than this it would scarcely be worth writing about but it is however an unusual book in many respects; and it is worth noting that none of the subsequent novels employs such a well-tried device. The main characters—Adam, David and Miss Codling—are drawn with a convincing detail that immediately places the book on a higher level than its plot suggests. Adam has many of the characteristics of the heroes of Tom's Midnight Garden and A Dog so Small, particularly their passionate obsession to achieve their hearts' desires. Adam is irrational, often bad-tempered, often depressed; he swings mercurially from one extreme emotion to another…. He is much the most interesting character in the book, and altogether a surprising person to find in a quiet and leisurely English children's novel.

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David, in contrast, is practical and down-to-earth, much the sort of son we would expect of Bob Moss, who drives the country buses and grows prize roses. Yet Bob Moss was once known as Bab Bobby Moss, Terror of both the Barleys; and David too, experiences the longing, the unfulfilled desire that torments all Philippa Pearce's heroes…. (pp. 40-1)

[Mr Smith] is one of the book's failures. He is observed at such a distance and so unsympathetically as to be scarcely credible. The author is not really interested; Mr Smith is no more than a necessary piece of the plot—the one scene in his house, curtains drawn and weak disembodied voice, is unnecessarily melodramatic, and his relationship with his daughter, Elizabeth, is like that of Mr Rochester and his wife in [Charlotte Brontë's] Jane Eyre, and no more convincing. Elizabeth never succeeds in being credible either; and the recognition scene between her and Adam is particularly weak. Melodrama in fact is the book's main weakness; particularly in the last part of the book, one larger-than-life scene succeeds another…. The last part of the book deteriorates in quality; the pace slackens, too many interviews take place behind closed doors and have to be reported, the denouement is slow and an anti-climax. But it must be said that all the succeeding books are totally free of these particular faults.

The book seems to go wrong at the point where the Smiths enter the story, and perhaps the deterioration is because the author clearly dislikes Mr Smith…. Philippa Pearce's least successful creations seem to be people she dislikes—Mrs Melbourne, Sir Robert Hatton—though these are not as unconvincing as Mr Smith. (pp. 41-2)

For all its faults, Minnow on the Say is an impressive first novel. It could never be mistaken for a book by anybody else, despite its well-worn storyline, for the virtues that delight us in the succeeding books are already there. Ultimately it is not the treasure-hunt, or the Smiths that we remember so much as Miss Codling's anxieties and dignity, the unusualness of Adam, the quiet pastoral background of the Barleys, the boys' and the author's sensuous delight in the river—absent from hardly any page of the book—the warmth and naturalness of David's home and family.

The voice we associate with the later books is already there—the rendering of the sensuous physical world, linking it so often with a past that is only just under the surface, in sentences in which the rhythms and cadences express exactly the right pleasure or sadness that the words mean.

Tom's Midnight Garden is the novel more than any other on which Philippa Pearce's reputation rests. It is not without its faults, however, and striking though the imaginative conception of the story is, I am not sure that the two subsequent novels are not better done. The opening chapters seem laboriously written, the characters a little wooden, and measles is certainly not a good enough reason for packing Tom off to his Aunt Gwen's. However when Tom enters the garden, all is well; the writing loses its uncertainty, and seems to change into a triumphantly major key; it is as if the author, having eventually got her central character into the situation she is most interested in, is relieved at being able, at least, to say what she wants to say…. (pp. 42-3)

Like Adam Codling, Tom Long is obsessed by one fixed idea. This is to explain to himself the mystery of the garden, and ultimately to stay in it for ever. Other children in the book, Tom's brother Peter and Hatty Melbourne, are as single-minded and passionately concerned with their own longings as Tom is: Peter with joining Tom in the garden (some of the most moving writing in the book expresses Peter's frustration at being left out of things), and Hatty with finding her own satisfactory modus vivendi in the unsympathetic Melbourne family…. [Her] happiness as an adult seems to reinforce a feeling that pervades the whole book, that children of Tom's age experience joy and disappointment with an intensity that adults hardly ever realize: it is the force with which this intensity is expressed that is one of the book's main strengths…. (p. 43)

As well as this intensity, the characters share other characteristics, impulsiveness, unreasonableness, even rudeness; adults as well as children….

In contrast with this feverishness of emotion in almost all the characters, the landscape has a cool, unchanging certainty about it; this was the function of landscape, particularly the river, in Minnow on the Say and Tom's garden, though its seasons may alter, or lightning on one occasion strike down a tree, is always there, inviting, full of promise….

The 'magic' of the garden is that it is a Garden of Eden, a symbol of Tom's and Hatty's innocence; they have to leave it as they grow up—Tom's appearances become rarer as Hatty grows older; he grows so thin that she can see through him. It is no coincidence that when Tom finds himself excluded finally it is Hatty's wedding day. Hatty is in love with Barty, so she has no more need of her imaginary friend; Tom is banished simply because she doesn't think of him any more. The relationship between Tom and Hatty is like an innocent love affair in this Garden of Eden; and other parallels with the Book of Genesis can be seen—Adam and his descendants were gardeners, according to tradition; Adam's sons were Cain and Abel; our gardener is called Abel. Our Abel, however, is in his simplicity and religious devotion, inside Eden with Tom and Hatty, not outside like the Abel of Genesis. However, just as Eden was destroyed so is this garden; sold off by James for building land. (p. 44)

Many people reading the book for the first time, who have not noticed that Mrs Bartholomew and Hatty are one and the same person, speak of the almost unbearable tension as the book proceeds into what is a seemingly inescapable tragedy, and their sense of relief when this is averted, and their delight that the ending is so credible. The fact that the ending is not just a happy coda stuck on so that the reader won't be upset, is because Hatty is Mrs Bartholomew, and always was, since before the beginning of the book. In other words, the author knows precisely what she is about. The clues are all there for us, early on. The first appearance of Mrs Bartholomew is when she comes downstairs to wind up the clock, a sort of Father Time figure. A page is spent on showing this seemingly irrelevant character carrying out a seemingly insignificant action, but as the clock is the great link between time past and time present, and Mrs Bartholomew is shown as its keeper or guardian now (just as the angel on the dial is its keeper in time past), it seems clear that the purpose of the scene is to suggest that she has a much more significant connection with the past than Tom, at the moment, realizes. And at the end of the chapter, when Tom enters the garden for the first time, the game is virtually given away by a further apparently irrelevant comment. Mrs Bartholomew 'was lying tranquilly in bed; her false teeth, in a glass of water by the bedside, grinned unpleasantly in the moonlight, but her indrawn mouth was curved in a smile of easy sweet-dreaming sleep. She was dreaming of the scenes of her childhood.' (pp. 45-6)

Another reason why the ending seems so effective is because the author herself seems to be growing up as a writer in the process of writing this book. There is a great difference in the quality of the last chapters compared with the first; not only is there simply more certainty and maturity in the way the language of the sentences is put together with their increasing poetry, subtlety of rhythm and cadence, but the insights and sympathies deepen all the time; we feel that the author has a more profound knowledge of Tom and Hatty at the end than she had at the beginning. The same is true of Tom's relationship with the Kitsons, it is developing all the time in sympathy, and in humour. Nevertheless it must be said that the problems of that relationship remain unsolved; Alan and Gwen are no nearer understanding Tom than they were at the beginning, and the debt of gratitude Tom should owe them is scarcely commented on. The speculation about the nature of time grows more thoughtful as the book continues; Tom's ideas on the subject become more complex and adult, and his imaginative leaps seem to hold more truth than Uncle Alan's scientific explanations. (p. 46)

The certainty with which these things are done shows a great advance on Minnow on the Say and if that book can be said to be an unusually interesting first novel, Tom's Midnight Garden is nearly a masterpiece.

I can think of only one blemish in her next book, A Dog so Small, and that is the somewhat irrelevant story of what happened to the picture after Ben lost it, which seems to show the old unfortunate taste for melodrama. But in Ben Blewitt we have the most interesting of Philippa Pearce's heroes. Though she tells us more than once that Ben is a perfectly ordinary boy, we can scarcely believe her; Ben is surely the oddest person she has ever written about. No other character in her novels departs so far from reality into his private obsession as Ben does; Tom Long's fantasy world was confined to night time but Ben's operates during the day as well as in his dreams…. Ben's problems with his family do not come solely from the fact that he is the odd one out in age; he is also the only one with any real sensitivity or imagination…. Ben has an additional problem that none of the heroes of the other novels has to face; there is no possible outlet for his frustrations, no person sufficiently unpleasant for him to dislike, or blame. A Dog so Small has no villain. The Blewitt family are remarkable for their niceness, so Ben's troubles turn in on himself…. This withdrawal from reality the author suggests is sad and reprehensible…. The answer is that the Blewitt parents should have given Ben a dog in the first place; had they known what damage the absence of a dog was causing him they would almost certainly have done so. But they never know, and this points to another sadness in this book—that even in the nicest of families real communication between its members can be impossible.

The construction of A Dog so Small is interesting; its opening pages and its conclusion contain the most memorable moments. Like Tom's Midnight Garden it opens with the hero's world crashing about his ears; Ben's discovery that he has not been given a dog for his birthday would be so easy to sentimentalize, but in fact the author is quite merciless, showing no let-up in the portrayal of Ben's disappointment, every humorous and uncomprehending remark from his family making the situation worse and worse. Ben is not allowed any escape from the moral dilemma; it would be so easy if he could just quietly hate his grandparents but Grandpa Fitch has written 'TRULY SORY ABOUT DOG' and for Ben there is no way out of that. So Ben's feelings as elsewhere, turn inwards. The last chapter, too, could so easily be a sentimental happy ending. Instead we have something that is psychologically far more truthful; as Granny Fitch says, 'People get their heart's desire, and then they have to begin to learn how to live with it'; Ben makes the miserable discovery that a real dog, given to him at last, is no adequate substitute for the chihuahua of his imagination. It would be a cruelly tragic ending if Ben were to leave Brown on the Heath in the growing dusk; right up to the last page it looks as if he will. But he does not, fortunately. By this I don't mean I necessarily want the book to end happily … but the reasons and feelings Ben has for keeping the dog are consistent with the development of his character in the last third of the book. Since the accident he has begun to grow up, to accept, however slowly, the fact that he has to live in the real world…. This book, more than the others, charts the changes and growth of its hero's personality…. (pp. 47-9)

[The] unusualness of A Dog so Small lies in its ability to suggest the sheer pleasure humans can derive from the animal world, and the intensity some people feel for animals, when there is an emotional gap left by the deficiencies of other human beings. (p. 49)

[Though The Children of the House] is the saddest of all the books, there is nevertheless an emphasis on the companionship and pleasures of friendship between the brothers and sisters, in direct contrast with the family in A Dog so Small which splits into a pair of brothers and a pair of sisters, leaving Ben, number three of five, a solitary. Margaret in The Children of the House we are told 'wished above all for the companionship of the other three'—the very thing that ultimately is denied her; she only wishes to exist as a member of a group, an adjunct of the other three, and this over-riding desire … gives the writing a poignancy and total sense of loss when she is separated from [Hugh and Laura], a feeling not only of loneliness, but of existence being without any further meaning….

However, much of the book concerns the adventures the children share together…. The others grow up, Tom and Laura are impatient to leave, only Margaret wants to play 'Do you remember?' Laura cannot leave quickly enough, we are told more than once that she is a girl of spirit, that she has her father's high temper and determination. Tom also wants to leave, to be a soldier; he is pathetically unaware of what we, with the hindsight of history, know is waiting for him. (p. 50)

Hugh is more in the tradition of Philippa Pearce's previous heroes—Adam, Tom Long, Ben. He has the same passion (an example is his furious disgust with Tom, when Tom wonders whether the stone breaker deserves to be given a shilling) and shrinks from situations of possible violence that his brother Tom might relish….

This sharp distinction of character is necessary in a book in which four people are sharing the same activities. It is worth noting that The Children of the House is the only novel of Philippa Pearce's in which girls play a central role, in which we look at the world through the eyes of the girls as well as the boys. There is, of course, Hatty in Tom's Midnight Garden, but we rarely observe Tom from her point of view; it is usually the other way round. Less successful creations in The Children of the House are the parents, Sir Robert and Lady Hatton, particularly Sir Robert. While it is true that the author is trying to emphasize in this novel that life fifty or sixty years ago is not the pleasant magic world lost beyond recall of Tom's Midnight Garden that one aspect of life that was less satisfactory was the relationship between parents and children. Sir Robert Hatton does not come off as a credible Victorian-Edwardian father, conscious of status, chilling and distant to his children; he seems inhumane, improbable, devoid of any parental feelings at all…. (p. 51)

No matter what part of the authorship of the novel belongs to Philippa Pearce, it is as if The Children of the House was a deliberate corrective to a view of the past suggested in Tom's Midnight Garden. (p. 52)

The Children of the House differs from the other three novels in that there is almost no narrative. The plot consists of a series of incidents—punting, the walk to Honeford, the attempt to see Victor—which are connected only by their being shared by the same four characters; there is no story as Minnow on the Say has a story…. But we never feel that the book is aimlessly episodic; the style of the writing is its great unifier. In no other novel of Philippa Pearce is this more evident or more successful. It reads like one long prose-poem from its melancholic opening sentence 'No children live at Stanford Hall now' to its last dying echo, the name 'Elsie—Elsie—Elsie' reverberating through the empty rooms….

Like the work of most great artists, her work is an expression of her own needs and feelings and values, and it is this that gives to it its peculiar strength and appeal. (p. 53)

David Rees, "The Novels of Philippa Pearce," in Children's literature in education (© 1971, Agathon Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), No. 4 (March), 1971, pp. 40-53.

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