Poor Tom. It’s the beginning of his summer holidays, but his brother Peter catches measles. And so Tom is hustled off to stay with his Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen, a well-meaning but boring middle-aged couple, who have agreed to house Tom until he is out of quarantine.
The place they live in is a grand house, or rather it used to be a grand house until it was divided up into flats. This book (published 1958) captures a period in British history when the economy was still recovering from the war, and people who owned the many thousands of old mansions dotted around the countryside had to do something to make ends meet. Old houses are very expensive to maintain, but in those days no-one had any extra money, not even to eat out. Everyone was making do and being frugal (rationing had only ended in 1953.) What to do? People split up their old houses into apartments to bring in the money they needed for its upkeep.
Thus this tale begins in dreary mid-century Britain, with the emotion of grief at having to ruin a lovely old house running not far under the surface.
This is the story where the clock famously strikes thirteen (at the beginning of Chapter 2.) After that, things start to happen. The house, which seemed so dead and cold on Tom’s arrival, starts to come alive. Tom spies a magnificent garden through the moonlit windows.
Next morning, Tom finds himself back in the dreary block of flats the mansion has now become, and there is no garden out back. But in that grey, still hour before dawn, the following morning, Tom is walking around the wonderful garden.
And this is what I remember most when I read this book as a girl. For this is a time-slip novel, with Tom journeying back to the late 19th century (1880s to 1890s) when the house was a mansion, peopled with servants, guests and the owners, and there was an enchanting garden out back. With vivid descriptions of the house, garden and Hatty, Tom’s playmate from the 1880s, we get a powerful sense of poignancy, of a time lost and forever gone, of a vanished garden and a mutilated house that still dreams of its glorious past. Perfect for middle-graders. Five stars.