Philippa Pearce

Author of a 'masterpiece of English children's literature' in 'Tom's Midnight Garden'

Saturday 23 December 2006 01:00

Ann Philippa Pearce, children's writer: born Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire 23 January 1920; FRSL 1993; OBE 1997; married 1963 Martin Christie (died 1965; one daughter); died Durham 21 December 2006.

The author of the classic children's novel Tom's Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce was a writer of rare excellence. The comparatively few titles she produced were all marked by extreme sensitivity as well as consummate writing skill. Preferring to talk to children because, unlike adults when struggling to be polite, they "always yawn when they are bored", she combined a quizzical humour with a gentle but insistent honesty that won her many devoted friends at home and abroad.

Born in 1920, the fourth child of the local flour miller and corn merchant, she was brought up in the Mill House, a handsome early 19th-century dwelling set in the upper reaches of the River Cam near the village of Great Shelford. This home stood next to the mill itself, and "on Saturday afternoons, we used to creep into it by a secret way and play among the bulging sacks, and hide". Although there was never much cash there was ample space, providing opportunity for canoeing, fishing, swimming and skating.

Starting school at the age of eight because of illness, Philippa eventually won a scholarship to read English and History at Girton College in nearby Cambridge - the third child in her family to get a scholarship to university and the first generation to do so.

After getting her degree, she was employed as a civil servant before becoming a scriptwriter and producer for BBC Radio Schools Broadcasting for 13 years, until 1958. She followed this by a stint as children's editor at Oxford University Press and then, 1960-67, André Deutsch. But during a long period in hospital in the summer of 1951 recovering from tuberculosis, she spent hours re-creating every moment of a favourite canoe trip taken many years ago on the river next to her childhood home. These memories led to her first novel, The Minnow on the Say (1955).

Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, this outwardly conventional story of two boys finding lost treasure just in time for one of them to save the family home also provided a sensitive exploration of mood, friendship and the power of place. The social division between the boys is noted but never emphasised, while their families are treated with equal respect. Childhood itself comes over as an amalgam of wonder and adventure but also a time often prey to anxiety. For, however happy her own childhood, Philippa Pearce remembered enough about other emotions experienced at the time to avoid any sentimentality in her fiction. As she wrote in an article for The Horn Book Magazine in 1962, "There is very much unpleasantness in childhood that we adults forget - and much that some simply dare not remember. For, let's face it, a good deal of childhood is strong stuff for adults and totally unsuitable for children."

Her next book, Tom's Midnight Garden (1958), was an instant success that soon took on classic status. Inspired by the fact that her father had decided to sell Mill House after retiring, Pearce wrote a story based on the walled garden that she, her father and grandfather had all once enjoyed as children. She also drew on J.W. Dunne's celebrated 1927 study An Experiment with Time, and its central notion that different periods of time are able to co-exist and blend together.

The novel starts with young Tom, down from suburbia to stay with his childless aunt and uncle in East Anglia in a flat converted from part of a once fine old country house. He is there because his brother at home has measles, but an otherwise boring stay is transformed once he starts dreaming every night about entering a beautiful garden. There he encounters Hatty, a child orphan living in late Victorian times who often seems as lonely and bored as he is himself. They make friends and go on trips together after Tom has encouraged Hatty to reach beyond the garden walls into the world outside.

But, as she inexorably puts on age between each of their short meetings, Tom finds he wants to arrest time altogether, leaving them both to play in the garden in the way they did before. In this sense, the garden represents childhood itself; something that has finally to be relinquished, whatever the occasional wish to make time stand still.

The story ends with the nearly adult Hatty disappearing from his dreams altogether, leaving Tom now wanting to go home and resume his life there. But, on the final pages, Hatty is revealed as the ancient landlady still living on in the upstairs flat in house of her childhood within which Tom has also been staying. The original garden however has long been built over. The moment when Hatty and Tom recognise each other and embrace makes for one of the most moving endings in all children's fiction.

Describing the work as a whole, the respected critic John Rowe Townsend states in his 1965 book Written for Children: "I have no reservations about it. If I were asked to name a single masterpiece of English children's literature since [the Second World War] . . . it would be this outstandingly beautiful and absorbing book."

Winner of the 1959 Carnegie Medal, for which her previous novel was runner-up, this book was illustrated by Susan Einzig, using family photographs and drawings. It has since been televised three times, turned into a play and made into a film in 1999.

But the years that followed were not easy. Pearce's next book, A Dog So Small, was rejected by the redoubtable Mabel George at Oxford University Press for being too depressing. This was a sad misunderstanding of a fine novel, within which young Ben Blewitt, another bored and lonely child, slowly discovers that living in a fantasy world provides no long-term alternative for embracing everyday reality. This lesson is finally learned when he exchanges the perfect, imaginary dog he has created for himself for the bouncy, real-life mongrel that his family at last allows him. Published by Constable in 1962, this moving and tender novel was another critical success, while never enjoying the same fame as its celebrated predecessor.

In the same year, in her early forties, Pearce married Martin Christie, a fruit grower who died two years later, never having recovered fully from his time as a Japanese war prisoner. He lived to see the birth of his daughter, Sally, later to become an accomplished children's author herself.

The strain of bringing up a child single-handed while also working took its toll on Pearce's writing. A firm believer in letting a book grow slowly in the imagination rather than trying to force it to the surface, she now seemed never to have enough time or leisure for this process to happen.

There were still some notable if minor successes. In The Children of the House (1968) she expertly re-drafted the poignant childhood memoirs of Major Sir Brian Fairfax-Lucy, who had been brought up in the stately home of Charlecote in conditions of severe emotional and physical neglect. The result made for an outstanding story, re-issued as The Children of Charlecote (1989).

The Elm Street Lot (1969) and What the Neighbours Did (1972) were both lively collections of short stories, some of which had already been aired on television. Concentrating on children's everyday experiences as seen through their own eyes, these tales were often very funny while never in the least condescending.

Pearce finally returned to her literary prize-winning ways with The Battle of Bubble and Squeak (1978). This account of a family's up-and-down adventures with a couple of gerbils was based on actual events at home with Sally's own pets of the same ilk, who, too, used to gnaw holes in the curtains and run foul of the family cat. The fictional gerbils also served to help bridge a growing gap between a young boy and his mother. This funny and affectionate story won the Whitbread Children's Book Award for that year.

By now moved back from London to a small cottage built by her grandfather opposite the Mill House she had immortalised in fiction, Pearce and her daughter shared space with a goat, pony, cat, dog and hens.

Her next novel, The Way to Sattin Shore (1985), was a psychological study of a child investigating her father's mysterious death. Set in Suffolk rather than in her beloved Cambridgeshire, this troubled story seemed out of character. But years later, in The Little Gentleman (2004), she returned to more familiar grounds with an affectionate tale about a talking mole whom she imagined residing beneath an old dredged-up log actually visible from her window. Long-lived, he is responsible for the death of King William III in 1702 in a riding accident caused by an inopportunely placed molehill.

An amiable fantasy involving a lonely little girl finding new strength in her friendship with the 300-year-old mole, this was Pearce's first full-length novel for over two decades.

Appointed OBE in 1997 for her services to children's literature, Philippa Pearce stayed on in her country cottage, looking after her large vegetable garden and with Sally and her two sons living next door. A popular figure at conferences, regularly charming her audiences with her wit, wisdom and inherent kindness, she continued to make guest appearances only weeks before her death following a severe stroke.

Modest about her own achievements, she remained convinced at all times of the importance of the best kind of writing in children's lives. The example she herself set in this regard was high indeed.

Nicholas Tucker

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