There is the most explicit attempt in Tom's Midnight Garden to understand the nature of time, one's attitude to it, its relation to one's own existence. Many aspects come over powerfully: the child growing up and changing; the destruction of the garden and its transformation into a housing estate; and a mean little yard mirroring a whole changed pattern of society. But I think that Philippa Pearce's resistance to the new polluted environment loses its impact because it becomes identified with the feelings towards the loss of childhood, which is an inevitable process, whereas the pollution of the environment need not be….
Tom is only really aware of time in relation to his own immediate living, and to the things he wants to do…. (p. 79)
This refers only to a week in Tom's life, but it reflects the larger truth of time as the creator and the destroyer. Thus we have in this book the sense of Tom's own holiday and the larger sense of Hatty's whole life, and even the background—the objects—changing and being destroyed. The sense of loss, as shown by the central image of the tree falling, is stronger than the sense of creation and growth. This is what the novel emphasizes. Yet these are essential truths about time, in which we are bound to have our achievement and our termination. And it is the truth of Tom's Midnight Garden that conflicts with the magical aspect—why the thirteenth hour? Is it not enough to accept that Tom and Hatty are dreaming the same dreams? Is not a dream a valid experience? Given this, one can understand the way that Tom's brother Peter enters one of the dreams—but the way in which Abel sees Tom is not so reconcilable. When the whole movement of the book is to contradict the idea of Time No Longer—for time is continual change—how can this living in the past be anywhere but in dream and memory, which is the only place, as Mrs. Bartholomew says, where things stand still? There are other difficulties of course; the skates which were left in the house for Tom years before his birth—so did Hatty meet him in her actual past? There are two movements of time in the book. One is inexorable and uncompromising, but one is fluid.
The beauty and poignancy of course remain. It is a celebration of childhood—but with the apprehension that children suffer keenly. The fact that the weather is always fine—except in the beauty of the frost—shows, as Tom recognizes, the way in which Mrs. Bartholomew's mind selects its own images of childhood, ones that suggest her regret. Everything, it seems, should be teaching Tom what he himself will lose and what he will feel. (p. 80)
Tom and Mrs. Bartholomew know what they have shared together, and the closeness between the boy and the old woman is finely and delicately described. But Tom's Midnight Garden is in many ways hardly a children's book at all; it is a cry from an adult awareness. (p. 81)
Lesley Aers, "The Treatment of Time in Four Children's Books," in Children's literature in education (© 1970, Agathon Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), No. 2 (July), 1970, pp. 69-81.∗