A Cognitive Perspective on two Classics of British Children’s Literature

Time and Place in Lucy M. Boston’s "The Chimneys of Green Knowe" and Philippa Pearce’s "Tom’s Midnight Garden"

Master's Thesis, 2020

66 Pages


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Part A: What is there to Learn?

2. Time

2.1. Time in The Chimneys of Green Knowe

2.2. Time in Tom’s Midnight Garden

3. Place

3.1. Place in The Chimneys of Green Knowe

3.2 Place in Tom’s Midnight Garden

Part B: Didactic Elements

4. Frameworks and Concepts of Cognitive Criticism

5. The ‘Story in the Story’

6. Outlook: Children’s Perspectives

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The similarities between Lucy Boston’sThe Chimneys of Green Knowe and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden cannot be overlooked. Having been published in 1958 the novels are both examples of what is called time-slip. Time-slip novels, according to Nikki Gamble, are novels in which “a modern-day child is transported back in time [or] in which characters from the past reappear in the present” (167). In the two novels there is each a main character, a boy, who comes to live in an old country house. Tolly, the main protagonist of The Chimneys of Green Knowe, stays with his great-grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow, at their stately family home for the holidays as his parents are both living in Asia (although we do only get this information in another book of the series). He has already stayed there once before and experienced time travels then. This means that he already expects to make the same experience again.

Tom, in Tom’s Midnight Garden, on the other hand, does not know about time travel yet. He has to stay with his aunt and uncle in a large country house, which has been converted into flats, for a part of his summer holidays as his brother is ill with measles. He is far from happy about this because he is not to leave the flat for he might already be infected with measles. This means he has to stay all day inside the small flat without any playmate apart from his aunt and uncle, who cannot satisfy his need for being active out of doors.

Tolly’s great-grandmother seems to believe in the possibility of meeting people who once inhabited the house, some of their ancestors. She tells Tolly stories which are connected to objects or paintings the two of them find in the house. Most of the time it is only Mrs. Oldknow’s stories that bring the reader back to the past – but this kind of reality is blurred in the instances when Tolly is able to see the characters in his great-grandmother’s stories when he plays in the garden or the house. Sometimes he can even communicate and it seems that he is also able to change history in limited ways.

Tolly is travelling back to the year 1798 where he meets the blind girl Susan and her companion Jacob, whom her father, a sea captain, has brought back from a slave trader in the Caribbean Islands to help her with everyday life. With their help he is able to solve a mystery which has troubled the Oldknow family since Susan and Jacob’s time. Susan’s mother was robbed of all her valuable jewels shortly before a great fire that destroyed large parts of the house. Her jewels have never been found thereafter. From the stories his great-grandmother tells him and from his experiences during his time travels he pieces together where the jewels are to be found. Eventually, he is able to recover the precious gems and thereby ensures that his great-grandmother can pay for the necessary repairs to the house.

Tom, on the other hand, experiences his time travels in a different way. In the main entrance hall of the house in which his aunt and uncle live, he finds a grandfather clock which seems to be the only remaining object of the original inventory. At night, when he is not able to sleep because he lacks exercise and fresh air, he notices the grandfather clock striking thirteen instead of one o’clock. Sleepless as he is, he slips down to the clock and when he opens the back door in order to let some moonlight in to look at the clock more closely, he realizes that there is a beautiful garden behind the house. At first, he believes that his aunt and uncle lied to him in order not to tempt him to leave the flat but later he realizes that the garden is only there at night-time – in the nights when the clock strikes the thirteenth hour. With each night arriving, he manages to leave the flat without being heard and escapes to the garden. During his first visits he plays in the garden alone, running around and climbing trees. The people he sees in the garden are completely unaware of him. He notices that each night it is a different time of day and also the seasons differ from visit to visit in the garden. One day, a little girl, Hatty, reveals to him that she has been well aware of his presence (later, we learn that the gardener, Abel, can also see him) and the two children befriend each other. From then on, the two of them spend a lot time together playing, although the possibilities are limited for Tom as he cannot pick up or move objects. As the novel progresses, it becomes obvious that time is not reliable for Tom. First, he sees Hatty as a girl of similar age, then as a small girl and finally as a young women. He desperately tries to solve the mystery of the grandfather clock and how his time travels are possible. The result is not revealed until the very last chapters. When he tries to get back into the garden shortly before his return to the family he is unable to access the past and instead, he only finds the back yard which is now there instead of the garden. In despair he cries out and wakes Mrs. Bartholomew, the old landlady, who lives an isolated life in the attic flat. The next morning she expects him to come to her flat in order to apologize for the nightly disturbance. It is there that he learns that what he has seen was Mrs. Bartholomew’s dreams of childhood and her growing up. Mrs. Bartholomew turns out to be Hatty more than five decades later.

The plots of the two novels are, therefore, very much alike. Tolly is able to ‘see’ his late relatives by means of his great-grandmother’s stories she tells him. Tom experiences, or rather, shares, Mrs. Bartholomew’s memories by entering her dreams. It is also obvious that the place where the stories are told and the actual setting are one and the same – i.e. the two houses and the gardens that belong to them. The houses are places which have the function of archives as they keep history alive and engage the person experiencing them through storytelling (Long 90). Such archives “are not just sources or repositories as such, but constitute full-fledged historical actors as well” (Burton 7). Their inhabitants, i.e. Mrs. Oldknow in The Chimneys of Green Knowe and Mrs. Bartholomew in Tom’s Midnight Garden, keep the history linked to the places they live in alive. The time of publication is very important as the time shortly after the Second World War is a time of dramatic change of living situation. As Claire Langhamer rightly notes this is a time of “[s]ignificant social, cultural and economic developments” (342), which completely changes the notion of ‘home.’ More and more people are able to afford houses, but these homes are new and middle-class and they replace older ideas of the ‘home’ in people’s mind. These new homes have not been passed on from generation to generation and are therefore devoid of history.

The conclusion one is tempted to arrive at is that both novels are mere expressions of nostalgia (cf. Nodelman, Hidden Adult 192). Mrs. Oldknow is alone most of the time and with Tolly visiting her she can share the stories she remembers being told her in her own childhood by her nurse. She even admits this when Tolly asks her how she knows so much about Susan and Jacob (Boston 56). This is also true for Mrs. Bartholomew: with Tom in the house she dreams of her experiences in childhood and as a young adult. Author-centred approached would certainly be able to find evidence for such a claim. One might argue that Mrs. Oldknow is the in-text version of Mrs. Boston and Mrs. Bartholomew represents Mrs. Pearce. Certainly, this possibility should always be kept in mind especially as most novels written by Lucy Boston are linked to her own home, the Manor at Hemingford Grey, which she bought and moved to in 1939 (Shirasu 230). Mrs. Pearce is said to have the mill house where she grew up in mind when writing (Hall, Dead and Living 226). There are also textual parallels between Mrs. Boston and Mrs. Oldknow; the former, for example, loved “making patchwork quilts in front of the old fireplace” (231) as much as Mrs. Oldknow does.

Such a conclusion would, however, would fail to bear in mind the very fact that the two novels are examples of literature for children. Most scholars – and so will I argue – agree that children’s literature is – apart from a few rare cases – always didactical (Nodelman, Hidden Adult 151; Nodelman, Hidden Child 272; Reynolds 4). Naturally, children such as Tolly or Tom cannot reverse the changes that modernity has brought with it and surely this is not what these work want their readers to do. This does not mean the houses cannot serve as archives – for the plots of the two novels they certainly do. We will come back to this aspect later.

Didactical perspectives on children’s literature ask for an approach that acknowledges this assumption. Cognitive criticism has been adapted for the needs of children’s literature just lately. Nikolajeva defines cognitive criticism as an

approach to reading, literacy and literature that suggests rethinking the literary activity as such […] including interaction between readers and works of literature, but also the ways literary texts are constructed to maximize, or perhaps rather optimize reader engagement (Nikolajeva, Reading for Learning 4; original emphasis).

Cognitive criticism is therefore a strategy that combines the perspectives which focus on the author and the strategies he or she makes use of in order to push the reader in a certain direction, and on the (child) readers’ perceptions. The approach is, however, “less concerned with what is interpreted and more focused on how the interplay between reader and text […] produces meaning” (Kokkola and Van den Bossche 358). The underlying assumption for the approach therefore is that writing and reading are complimentary acts in a communicative situation between authors and the readership.

What is new to Nikolajeva’s approach is that it has been adapted for use in the field of children’s literature. The child “has limited cognitive and affective skills as compared to an abstract, constructed “adult”” and less experience in life (Reading for Learning 15). Therefore, a novel for children needs to be different from one for adults. What the adult already knows or is likely to infer when reading, a child needs yet to learn. This is what children’s literature offers to their readers. What we can, however, not assume is that there is a binary distinction between these two types of readers. Rather, as Nikolajeva goes on to explain, there is a continuum from a novice reader to the expert reader. A child, especially if young, is more likely to be found somewhere near the novice reader pole, whereas the adult, having had plenty of opportunities to come into contact with fictional worlds and their real-life equivalents, are surely closer to the expert reader pole. But this does not have to be the case as some young readers can also be highly efficient in decoding literary messages and certainly there are also adults who lack such competencies to a large degree. Reading fiction, therefore, can also enhance real-life skills. Following the idea that reading fiction offers reader a way to becoming more knowledgeable, Nikolajeva distinguishes two major types of knowledge which awaits child readers: factual or encyclopaedic knowledge and fictional or aesthetic knowledge ( Reading for Learning 22). Factual knowledge in the light of my discussion would for example shed light on what readers can learn about the historic periods Tolly and Tom travel to. This could include information about people’s lifestyle, their ways of clothing, typical daily routines, etc. But, without any fictional knowledge, much of the communication process between author and reader is lost. Indeed, although the two novels do include information about certain practices (The Chimneys of Green Knowe introduces slave trade, and Tom’s Midnight Garden tells the reader a bit about Victorian clothing habits, for instance), they are both not very rich in factual information. To make sense of the two novels and to take something from them, child readers need fictional knowledge as well. They “need to understand the arbitrarity of signifiers in fiction as opposed to fact [… and] the conventions used in literary works,” as Nikolajeva puts it (Reading for Learning 23). Works of fiction are able to induce responses that are similar to real-life experiences. They can help children develop and hone their Theory of Mind (ToM). Roughly, this set of skills can be defined as the ability to “identify and understand others’ subjective states” (Kidd and Castano 377). In their study, Kidd and Castano have been able to show that reading fiction can help people develop higher proficiency in their ToM because “[fiction] forces us to engage in mind-reading and character construction” (377). This proves older more theoretical approaches to be true: Vygotsky, among others, had claimed in the 1970s that a child learns cultural performances by means of interaction with others (Sell 268). The problem which remains is: Child readers do not interact with the adult author at all: is it still possible to call the act of reading communication?

Classical reader-response theories have focused on a “fundamental asymmetry between text and reader” (Iser 33), so-called ‘gaps.’ These ‘gaps’ point out an incompleteness in the communication process between readers and authors. The reader has to focus on what the text offers him or her and can never be sure “how accurate or inaccurate […] his views of it [are]” (32). In other words, the text will be interpreted differently by different people because they possess more or less factual and fictional knowledge. If the communication process is to be meaningful, “the reader’s activity must also be controlled in some way by the text” (33). What can be deduced from Iser’s work is that authors might want to include certain devices that point to some specific passage which is important in his or her view and also help in decoding the messages hidden. This will prove difficult for child readers, as they can be expected to possess less of this fictional knowledge which is needed.

In her study, Nikolajeva is able to describe three major cognitive strategies which are used by authors to direct their child audiences. The first is the use of a non-mimetic mode (Reading for Learning 45). Interrupting fictionality is an easy device to make readers aware of exactly this fictionality. This would be possible in a direct address to the audience or when including an entry of an encyclopaedia. Defamiliarisation (Reading for Learning 47) makes readers aware of a text’s fictionality by presenting it through an unfamiliar perspective. These perspectives can activate readers’ cognitive resources and also point out specific aspects of the world presented through unfamiliar focalization. Her last point is, however, the most important in the light of my present discussion: Metafiction (Reading for Learning 46) means revealing a text to be a work of fiction. This is done by means of “elaborate narrative structures and multiple narrative frames, deliberate tension between fact and fiction, logical paradoxes, impossible temporality and spatiality.”

Several points of Nikolajeva’s definition hold true for both The Chimneys of Green Knowe and Tom’s Midnight Garden. Both have complex narrative frames and the structure could be called ‘stories in a story.’ Tolly in Chimneys experiences the past because he asks about objects in the house with remind his great-grandmother of the stories he heard about when she was a child. Tom, on the other hand, can enter the garden because it exists in Mrs. Bartholomew’s dreamscape. Tolly and Tom, therefore, are also consumers of stories; the child characters are also ‘readers.’ What readers of the two novels experience or witness is a child character processing his own ‘reading’ experience. This fact asks for a more precise way of describing the relationship between the authors and the readers.

Nodelman, in his ground-breaking work The Hidden Adult, claims that works of children’s literature – though presenting events through child focalizers – always contain a hidden adult voice: “[Works of children’s literature] possess a shadow, an unconscious – a more complex and more complete understanding of the world and people that remains unspoken […]” (Hidden Adult 206). Clearly, this must be an adult’s voice as they possess more factual and fictional knowledge. This adult knowledge, hidden in the text, must “necessarily be available to them [i.e. the child readers], as recondition for their comprehension to the texts” (Hidden Adult 209). According to Nodelman, the narrator must therefore be “someone much like the actual author” ( Hidden Adult 210). The problem is where to locate this ‘hidden adult.’ The author is certainly a communicator, but he is not present in the story world. Nodelman remains vague about who the ‘hidden adult’ is or where to find it within the story. He simply notes that “an adult storyteller is hidden, masked within what claims to be not only the child’s thought but also the child’s words” (Hidden Adult 212). The two novels in question avoid this trap by planting adult storytellers in the story world, so that it is the child characters that experience and not that tell.

Nodelman’s theorizations have partly been informed by the works of Aidan Chambers and he has explored further the idea that “[an author] puts himself into the narrator” (Chambers 2). What Chambers, clearly adhering to reader-response, claims, has added to the field is his notion of ‘second-self.’ This term accounts for the fact that neither the author nor the reader can actually be situated within the story and therefore avoids “the dangers of the ‘intentional fallacy’” (Cocks 93). The author creates a ‘second-self’ by adding his own attitudes towards events or characters in the story and by the perspective he employs (2). The reader’s second-self is “guided by the author towards the book’s potential meanings” (2; emphasis mine). I am emphasizing ‘potential’ as informed children, who possess more fictional knowledge, can willingly choose to ‘resist’ these messages (Nodelman, Hidden Child 276). Most children, however, as they lack fictional knowledge, will need more guidance than adult readers.

This is why we can expect more devices, such as the ones Nikolajeva points out, which help child readers “to give [themselves] up to the book” ( Reading for Learning 3). A reader is “made aware of the kind of reader that is ‘desired’ by the text” (Cocks 94); in other words, the reader that the author has in mind when writing (this audience is often referred to as the ‘implied readers’). Cocks, who further develops Chamber’s theories, splits the communication process between the author and the reader into three main processes: negotiation, fulfilment and adoption. What is important about this terminology is that Cocks acknowledges that authors and readers share the communication process equally. Chambers, on the other hand, reserves the important part of the communication process for the author leaving the reader only with the decision whether to give himself up to the book or not. Negotiation describes the way in which a book sets up its ‘potential meanings’ (96). The reader, during the fulfilment process submits himself to the book at his own volition (98). This is how far Chambers himself would go. Cocks adds another step: When a reader “takes on the position of the demanding author/ text” adoption has taken place (100). This is – in my view – the crucial part because it explains how child readers can potentially learn from fiction in meaningful ways.

To make these narrative structures of a literary communication within works of children’s literature – such as the novels that are in the focus of my discussion – clearer, I suggest a model that condenses the above theorists’ claims in one communication diagram. The actual author creates a second self in order to access the story world. This implied author is the one who sets the focus and who acts as the narrator. This implied author shapes and has access to the child protagonist – his character traits and feelings.

The actual reader also creates a second self. This is the implied reader, who enters the story world and is willing to get involved. This implied reader uses the factual and fictional knowledge available to him to shape the child protagonist in a way that makes sense for him.

[Abbildung in Leseprobe nicht enthalten]

Fig. 1: The makeup of the communication process between the author and the reader in literature for children. The boxes represent the realms in which the author (left box) and the readers (right box) can operate. The child protagonist is the entity in which their communication efforts meet.

What further complicates this model, but also sheds more light on the complex narrative strategies employed inThe Chimneys of Green Knowe and Tom’s Midnight Garden, is the fact that the child reader is only direct witness the frame narratives. The child protagonist is also an actual reader within the two story world. Just as Lucy Boston is the actual author who communicates with real children (who therefore are actual readers) in The Chimneys of Green Knowe, Mrs. Oldknow is the actual author for the actual reader Tolly. For real consumers, then Tolly is of course the child protagonist. This is very obvious in Chimneys. Tolly’s actions at Green Knowe lead him to find objects he is curious about and asks his great-grandmother whether she knows more about whom the object in question belonged to and if there is a story behind it. As this is always the case, he, as well as the readers piece together Susan and Jacob’s story. The situation is similar in Tom’s Midnight Garden. Although Tom does not learn but at the very ending of the story that he has in fact entered Mrs. Bartholomew’s dreams, he remains a consumer of her dream story and therefore is, within the story world, an actual reader. For us, again, he is the child protagonist .

What, then, is the significance of the ‘story within the story?’ I will argue that the very fact that the child reader witnesses a child hearing and responding stories is more likely to respond to and therefore learn from the two novels in question. The most important process underlying this assumption is the process of identification. It is also right to assume, as I have already hinted at, that the two novels make use of the strengths of metafiction. This might help child readers to hone their skills in recognizing and building up fictional knowledge. (Nodelman [Hidden Adult 175] would also add that metafiction would be a feature appealing to adult readers. This could be a possible explanation why the novels are also read – and bought – by adults. The question of a dual audience is interesting in itself, but this work will not be able to discuss this.)

The two main questions the present work will seek to answer are what a child readership can learn from the two novels and how this learning process is facilitated by the structures and features of the works themselves. In Part A, I will take a close look at time andplace and the way they are represented in Chimneys and Tom’s Midnight Garden. It seems impossible to circumvent a discussion of time as both works are examples of time-slips novels and the protagonists do experience the past. Tom’s Midnight Garden puts extra emphasis on the concept as Tom is busy finding out and asking about time throughout the second part of the novel. Place is also very important in the context and must not be overlooked. Tolly and Tom are both in historic houses they do not normally inhabit. Tolly, having visited his great-grandmother once before, knows about the secrets that the house contains and that time travel is possible. Tom has not known about this possibility before but in the novel the particular house does not play that much of a role for him specifically. Instead, the garden is the place where most events unfold and where he meets and befriends Hatty. The notions and implications of the ‘house’ and the ‘garden’ will be explored in due course. This is the aim of Part A.

In Part B, I will seek to answer the question of who learns, why and how this is archived. It will be necessary to take a look at the effects of the ‘story within the story,’ as mentioned above. The relationship between author and reader also asks for clarification. What is the role of the authors and how does he or she expect the child readership to react? There will be a differentiation between how the child protagonist learns and what, possibly, the actual reader can learn. The strategies which facilitate or make possible the fruitful communication process will be looked at more closely.

I will conclude the discussion by presenting a study with real children responding to the stories in the Green Knowe series. This is what needs to be done in order not to forget the child’s perspective.

Part A: What is there to Learn?

In this section, I will be trying to answer the question of what a child readership can learn from the two novels in question. Not only because they are examples of time-slip novels, but also because they actively deal with the question of time, will this aspect have to be looked at more closely. Tom in Tom’s Midnight Garden, confused by the constant changes of season and time of day in the garden, seeks to find an answer to his ‘mystery’ by trying to understand what the inscriptions on the clock mean. The ending provides him and the readership with the clue that he has been experiencing Mrs. Bartholomew’s dreams all along.

Tolly in The Chimneys of Green Knowe is intrigued by his great-grandmother’s stories and therefore ‘meets’ his late ancestors. Here, Tolly is not so much interested in the concept of time; however, the simplicity of time being merely time passing in Mrs. Oldknow’s stories is taken away in the episode when Tolly is able to save Fred Boggis, who has been the gardener at Green Knowe during Susan and Jacob’s lifetime.

The events which unfold in the two novels are also inseparable from place. The setting is a country manor and a garden belonging to it in both of them. The stories, or the dreams, are tightly linked with place, as Tolly experiences his time travels only at Green Knowe and in after finding tell-tale objects in it and Tom can only enter ‘his’ garden by going out through the back door shortly after midnight.

2. Time

It seems obvious that I have to start the discussion of time with the genre the two novels belong to: time-slip. Lucas sees a rise of the time-slip story in the 1950s as it became a distinctive sub-genre in the field of children’s literature (xix) but the genre had already been born with the publication of Edith Nesbit’s The House of Arden in 1908 (Hall, House and Garden 153). The special qualities of the genre, in Ann Lucas’ eyes, are “its endorsement of experimental thoughtfulness and questioning” (Lucas xix). This ‘thoughtfulness’ is based on the idea that “children’s sense of rootedness and belonging” has seriously been threatened after the Second World War (Hall, House and Garden 153). This is why in time-slip novels have widely been written during that time. They try to give children an idea of who they are and what their relatives’ past was like. Instead of writing only about the past, authors of time-slip novels root their stories in the present in order to show the child readership that the story is about them. Hall aptly expresses this important observation by saying that “[time-slip novels] may be defined as fiction with its feet in the present but its head in the past” (154). The aim of time-slip novels written in the post-war period therefore is to attempt a “future [which] is inextricably bonded with the present and thereby with the past” (154).

Time-slip novels are able to give the reader “the feelings of boys and girls moving in history but still remembering their own times” (Gamble 167). What is important here is that “[h]istorical events, characters and behaviours are filtered through the eyes of a contemporary protagonist, which allows the implied reader to view events from a similar perspective” (168). This can help the child protagonist, the implied reader and the actual reader to build up a connection with the past. ‘Connection’ does not mean factual knowledge here, but more abstract and often more emotional experiences such as “loss, memory, [...], growing up” (169). The child protagonist within time-slip stories goes himself through a learning process. The encounters with people and places in the past help him to understand the issues in life he is struggling with or not willing to understand. Actual readers and child protagonists will realize that “time cannot be halted, that the child, too, must grow up and in turn pass into old age” but that at the same time “the past [...] allow[s] the child character to better understand or endure his or her present” (Gavin 160). This view allows the child protagonist and the actual reader to reflect on their present and to be creative in order to situate them within the time frame provided.

Other views, however, are less optimistic in time-slip novels’ ability to aid the child. Hall reflects that the places with are depicted in 1950s examples of these novels “represent a golden age, which, despite social inequalities, enshrined certain values proper to the good society” ( House and Garden 157). Scholars who adhere to this claim mainly see the novels as products of their actual writer’s nostalgic feelings towards his or her own childhood. Then, the act of novel-writing itself would seem to be a kind of therapy which “ha[s] the potential to re-engage adults with the children they once were” (Reynolds 32). The term ‘nostalgia’ is linked by definition to the adult – this being the author of the novel or an adult character.

As the two novels we are looking at address mainly children, writing a nostalgic book would not make sense from the author’s point of view. Nikolajeva argues that ‘nostalgia’ is given a negative connotation most of the time (Time 19). However, this must not be so. We can use ‘nostalgia’ to refer to as a positive drive, an incentive for the author to choose a particular time, setting or theme. Nostalgia can for example describe the “affection for a particular place, the love of home” (19). This will be the way I use the term; as we have seen in the introduction, there is, for instance, a particular incentive for Mrs. Boston to write about the fictional Green Knowe: her own home at Hemingford Grey, which serves as a template for the novel’s setting.

What can now be learned from ‘nostalgia?’ As I have pointed out I merely see it as an incentive for the author to start a communication process. It is a feeling that may help the author choose a theme or a place he or she wants to talk about, some story that is in his or her mind and needs to be told. As both novels address children, they need to talk about something children do not know about yet. I argue that the quality of the time-slip novel, and of The Chimneys of Green Knowe and Tom’s Midnight Garden, is to give children not only a sense of belonging, but also to see memory as an important and valuable source about times gone by and their role in a chain of on-going story-telling. The result will, hopefully be, identity formation. Memory has been identified as a major factor in this process (Nikolajeva, Reading for Learning 146).

Foster, in his introductory work on memory, comes to the conclusion that it is “far more than simply bringing to mind information encountered at some previous time”, but that our memory influences us later in life (3). As I have pointed out above, for many people, memory, just like ‘nostalgia,’ seems to work only for the actual author and the adult protagonists in the two novels. What makes The Chimneys of Green Knowe and Tom’s Midnight Garden special in this respect is that actual readers do not experience the past through adult narrators’ eyes, but through the child protagonists’. The two child protagonists do not only listen to the stories or live through the dreams, respectively, but they construct their own memory of a time they could not possibly have experienced themselves by ‘meeting’ the people that once inhabited the places in question. This coincides with Foster’s observation that “memory is not a veridical copy of the world, unlike a DVD or video recording” but that it should rather be described as “an influence of the world on the individual” (13).

Nikolajeva arrives at the conclusion that a “”just-like-me” experience is not particularly beneficial for the development of empathy” ( Reading for Learning 143). Therefore, she distinguishes between immersive and empathetic identification (85). The former describes the state of being “so absorbed in fiction that [one is] unable to liberate [oneself] from the subject position imposed by the text” (85). Empathetic identification, on the other hand, means a “social skill that implies the ability to understand other’s people’s minds without sharing their opinions [and] their emotional experiences” (86). The major implication behind this is that readers, who have identified with the narrator or the child protagonist in an immersive way, are unable to add their own real-life experience, while readers who react empathetically, can. Actual readers can make sense of narratives that go well back to a time before they were born. What is narrated can be reflected in a way to ask oneself what consequences this has for one’s own life, or, in other words what can be learned from it. What complicates this discussion for our purpose is that actual readers are not addressed directly by Mrs. Oldknow or Mrs. Bartholomew, but that we experience the child protagonists’ consumption of the ‘stories.’ For a communication process to be successful, this means that both Tom and Tolly have to identify empathetically with Mrs. Oldknow and Mrs. Bartholomew, and actual readers, then, have to identify empathetically with Tom and Tolly. This fact is reflected in the time frames the two novels use: were there a direct address by Mrs. Oldknow or Mrs. Bartholomew to the actual readership the notion of time-shift would be completely unnecessary. The necessity of using time-shift as a strategy is due to the fact that Mrs. Oldknow’s and Mrs. Bartholomew’s memories are filtered by the two child characters. We can see that Tom and Tolly succeeded in their personal meaning-making processes, because we can see the ‘product’ of their story consumption, i.e. the time travel experience itself. This shows actual readers the importance of the memories and their role in identity formation. Yet, actual readers must be prevented from immersive identification as well. They should not only enjoy Tom and Tolly’s experiences but they should be able to go through the same meaning-making process themselves.

Memory works as a tradition, especially in The Chimneys of Green Knowe. Just as Mrs. Oldknow was told stories by her nurse about the former inhabitants of the house, she, in turn, passes them on to Tolly. For Tolly, the child protagonist, this will create a sense of belonging. For the actual reader experiencing Tolly processing his great-grandmother’s stories, this will raise a similar interest. Certainly, implied readers will share Tolly’s fascination for Green Knowe but the implications for the actual reader will be different ones: finding out about and exploring one’s own roots and belonging. As I have explained in the Introduction, this was especially important during the time when the novel was published because people’s living conditions and sense of ‘home’ changed rapidly after the Second World War.

The role of memory in Tom’s Midnight Garden is perhaps a bit less obvious; however, it follows the same pattern as in The Chimneys of Green Knowe. Tom does not have any connection to the manor house where his aunt and uncle live – and they have neither. In fact, even Mrs. Bartholomew does not belong to the house in the way Tolly does. The novel does not focus on family tradition in ways that The Chimneys of Green Knowe does. It is more focused on the character of Mrs. Bartholomew than it is concerned with the actual place. Mrs. Bartholomew’s personal memory, and, especially, her childhood and young adult experiences are what the novel focuses on. Tom learns about decisions that need to be taken, personal growth and development, and also what childhood means by accessing Mrs. Bartholomew’s dreams.

As the two novel’s goals force them to adopt complicated time frames, we will need to specify the ‘times’ in the two novels, to describe the ways time is represented. Before taking a closer look at the representation of time in the two novels, I will introduce Nikolajeva’s distinction of linear and mythic time.

Nikolajeva uses the Greek terms chronos and kairos to refer to linear time and mythic time (Time 5). For reasons of simplicity, I will use the latter terms instead. Linear time is the time that can be measured and which is used in children’s literature as adult time (90). Mythic time, on the other hand, is reversible (5). It works in a way that enables it to “be integrated with linear time through rituals, rites and festivals” (5). Accordingly, this time cannot be measured because it does not exist outside of people’s minds. Mythic time is of enormous relevance for the discussion of the two novels. In fact, all further points and efforts of interpreting the two works will be based on this notion. Especially in Tom’s Midnight Garden this is fairly obvious: as Tom enters the garden, the linear, adult time begins to stand still for him and as he returns he notices that it was “[s]till only a few minutes after midnight” (Pearce 43). As we will see, time is also ‘unreliable’ in The Chimneys of Green Knowe, although to a lesser extent. Additionally, both Mrs. Oldknow and Tolly firmly believe in the magic realm and therefore acknowledge mythic time without questioning it.

In the remainder of this chapter, I will attempt to apply the notion of memory to both novels in turn. It will be necessary to look at how exactly time is represented and what the implications are with regard to the meaning of the works. This will help understand the way theactual author constructs the plot, but also what possible messages actual readers can perceive. It will be important to keep in mind the distinction of linear and mythic time to see where there are connections between the two and how they are being read.

2.1 Time in The Chimneys of Green Knowe

The first step of my analysis of time is to look at what levels of time are present in the novel. If we apply a chronological order, the first ‘time’ which is represented is the last years of the eighteenth century. The reader knows this as Mrs. Oldknow tells Tolly that Maria’s, Susan’s mother’s, jewels were stolen in 1798 (Boston 15). Although, if pieced together, Mrs. Oldknow’s story is told in a chronological order, we, as readers, do not exactly know what time span the story encompasses. As Susan’s father, Captain Oldknow, is away on his ship voyages for several months on several occasions, we can leap to the conclusion that the narrated time spans a few years. At the ending of her story to Tolly, Mrs. Oldknow even tells her what has become of Susan and Jacob (185), extending the time frame by several decades. The next time level is the time when Mrs. Oldknow has been told the stories, which she now passes on to Tolly, by her nanny when she herself was a small child (56). The time when the stories are told again, now to Tolly, is what we could label the frame narrative. Tolly is both a consumer of his great-grandmother’s stories, but also an active agent. His searches the manor house for old objects, which he presents to his great-grandmother. These objects always seem to lead to the next bit of the story, which gives the novel also a hint of a detective story. Rebecca Long points out that these objects “are necessary to activate Tolly’s imagination” (Long 97-8). Objects are essential for the archive of Green Knowe. It hosts object that link the different ‘times’ within the narrative. These objects are capable of “act[ing] on our memories and remind us of our own past” by letting us think [...] back through a long chain of the people who have used them, even if we know nothing about these people” (Aers 70). One of the most important objects that serve as a key to the past is the patchwork quilt Mrs. Oldknow works on.

Mrs. Oldknow had a basket beside her full of pieces of paper all cut the same size and shape, over which she had neatly tacked bright cotton materials. These she was trying on over torn pieces in the quilt to see which looked best.

“Blue stars or scarlet ferns?” she asked Tolly, trying first one and then the other.

“Scarlet ferns, I think.”

“So do I. But I hate covering up the old bits. It’s like burying someone that perhaps needn’t be dead. So I never do it till the old piece has quite, quite gone. Look, on this patch someone wrote in Indian ink: 1801. The quilt was made in this house and all the pieces are from the clothes of the people who lived here in 1801, their clothes and their curtains. Mostly, her clothes”, she said. [...]

“Feel it with your finger. What have you ever felt that was as soft?” Tolly fingered it and thought.

“Dandelion clocks,” he said.

“Dandelion clocks! And she liked to imagine she was the most delicate thing that ever happened. It wasn’t her fault if her hands weren’t softer than her muslins. Let’s see what kind of a detective you would make. See what other people you can find in this patchwork. (Boston 16-7)

Not only does this scene begin the entire story Mrs. Oldknow is going to tell to Tolly, but also does it show how important objects in the house are for Tolly to experience. The objects themselves, such as the patchwork quilt, do not contain much information about the past and the people who lived then. But they serve as important links to the past which uphold the memories linked to them. The patchwork quilt serves a kind of perpetuation of people past. Without the quilt, so the text suggest, these people would sooner or later be forgotten. Most importantly, it shows Tolly that these people are not abstract ideas, but that they are more similar to Tolly and his great-grandmother than he could have imagined. Mrs. Oldknow not only preserves this heritage but she also actively changes it and modifies it for the future. This can also, symbolically, be seen in her mending the quilt. Mrs. Oldknow is certainly the teacher within the walls of Green Knowe and it is she who is the “store of active memories of the house” (Hall, Dead and Living 230). She is well aware that her memories alone are incapable of giving Tolly back an understanding of his roots. What is striking in this passage, and in fact throughout the entire novel, is that she makes sure that Tolly is also opening up to the story. In the above passage, she makes him understand that he stands in line with all his past relatives when he is allowed to decide which changes should be made when Mrs. Oldknow repairs the patchwork quilt. In parallel, he decides which parts of the story will be told to him when he rediscovers objects hidden in the house. The meaning of the story that is told within the novel to Tolly, the child protagonist, is constructed between Mrs. Oldknow and Tolly. The essential message behind it can only be achieved by Tolly processing what he hears and taking part actively in what is to come. As Linda Hall puts it, it “is the storytelling of his great grandmother combined with the creative imagination that figures forth the forms or ‘spirits’ of the past” for Tolly (Dead and Living 230). This is a “magical access to history” (Ringrose 211) which “depends less on facts than on ‘atmosphere’” (Hall, Dead and Living 223). This special bond between Tolly and his great-grandmother is seen as a kind of intergenerational contract (235), in which Mrs. Oldknow has the obligation to pass on information and myths about the family history so that Tolly can identify with it and, later, pass it on to yet a further generation. Watson is critical of this view: in his eyes, understanding one’s past is not enough. He believes that, additionally, there has to be love (Watson 32). This is certainly the case; although he has only stayed at Green Knowe once before he and his great-grandmother “hugged each other and she was little and soft and shaped like a partridge. She was very pleased to see him again and he to see her. She understood what nobody else did” (Boston 11).

It is obvious that Tolly is going through a learning process which is carefully built up. In fact, Green Knowe is a place where he can learn with all the senses. Not only does he see the quilt but he can also touch it. Let us take a look at a further passage, in which he finds Susan’s personal belongings in a bedroom.

It [i.e. the wooden box] was filled with beautifully fitted trays and as each was lifted out there was another underneath. In the first were shells of every kind laid out in rows on wadding – fan-like or spiral or curly, mother-of-pearl, rose petal, or crisp, heavy or featherweight. Each was a pleasure to touch; some were so small as to slip into the cracks between his fingers. He arranged then all as he found them and went to the next tray. This held pebbles, moonstone, amber, agate, quartz, alabaster, marble, or slate, all worn to their perfect shape as the sea rolls them, exciting to handle, some slippery, some eggshell, some pulling on the finger like glass-paper, some cold, some warm. [...] He spent a long time handling the collection. He would never guess what each piece would weigh. Some like cowrie shells were unexpectedly heavy – he popped one into his mouth to “taste” the shape – others were so light he had to hold his breath while he picked them up, or to lick his finger so that they would stick to the end. Of the remaining boxes one contained beads of all shapes and sizes, glass, ivory, china, blue stone, and cedar-wood with a delicate fruity scent. (Boston 25-6; emphasis mine)

The fact that he is able to see, feel, taste and smell the real collection he has just found, underlines the importance and also the truthfulness of the story he is about to hear. Also, the sheer variety he sees catches his attention. This experience is what makes him be interested in what his great-grandmother has to tell him, but also makes possible the time travels, the direct encounters, he goes through in the novel. In fact, it is immediately after this discovers that he meets Susan for the first time.

As I have suggested, this frame narrative serves the important function of presenting a contemporary character, through whom the story or memory is filtered. The snippets of Susan and Jacob’s story Tolly is confronted with are not merely normal bed-time stories for him, but they trigger a reaction, so that he is able to step back in time meeting them because he firmly believes in the house’s qualities to help him do just that. He confesses to Mrs. Oldknow that for him the experience is “like living in a book that keeps coming true” (21). In fact, most of the contact Tolly has with the past is through the stories themselves. Throughout the novel, he is only travelling back in time on five occasions, but is only able to converse with Susan and Jacob twice. The other three encounters merely consist of Tolly sensing Susan and Jacob’s presence and vice versa (77, 89, 95).

So far, we have been looking at the frame narrative, or, more precisely, at the way it triggers the stories and Tolly’s learning process. I will now turn to ‘the story in the story’. First, we will take a look at Tolly’s travels in time as they are direct responses to Mrs. Oldknow’s stories.

The sensory qualities of the ‘stories’ can be seen as leading to his time travels. As I have pointed out already, three of the encounters are very short and the reader is left with the question whether Tolly has actually travelled in time and whether he went back to the past or Susan and Jacob came to Tolly’s time. Before one of these encounters, Tolly looks for a few flowers he can leave for Susan in her room as he has learned that Susan is blind. From the beginning, he is sure that this way he will be able to ‘meet’ her.

He was looking for scented flowers, but the strongest and most exciting smell of all was the earth itself. Really, what a thing to live on! He picked violets and viburnum and tiny sweet-briar leaves and made them into a tight bunch. This he put in Susan’s mug and took it upstairs. He went in cautiously looking towards the child’s chair, innocently empty. And now a difficulty arose. Where was he to put it so that she would find it? He moved a small table near the chair and put the flowers on it.

“Ooh! What a lovely smell. It’s like Mamma’s perfume.”

Susan was sitting on the window-seat threading beads. Her hair was hazel-gold against the light and she looked very serene, as little girls can.

“What shoes are you wearing, Jacob? They sound different.”

“It’s not Jacob.”

“Oh, it’s you again! Do bring the flowers here. If I get up all the beads will spill.”

“I can’t,” said Tolly. “I – “

But he was alone. (76-7)

It is his own sensory reaction to the flowers and the earth that brings Susan to life for him. Obviously, he associates strong fragrances with Susan and her blindness. The last sentence of the above paragraph makes actual readers question whether Tolly or Susan is actually travelling in time. In this light, time travel does not seem to be necessary for a connection between the two. It is the larger story of Green Knowe which links their fates. What is of greater importance in this passage is that Tolly accepts Mrs. Oldknow’s story and internalizes it. Still, a fascinated implied reader might find this to be real time travel. Here, the implied reader is invited by the last sentence to take a step back. This encourages the reader to identify empathetically with Tolly because the immersion is dissolved as the narration questions the reality of the situation. This is mythic time, which does not follow the rules we would expect from ‘time.’ The episode in which he finds the entrance to a tunnel in the garden which leads to the manor itself, the mythic conception of time is even more pronounced. After he has cleared the entrance, he starts descending into the tunnel. Although, due to the description of the work he has had to do, this is to last for no longer than an hour or so, he finds himself in darkness soon. Before clearing the entrance he “lay on the grass to eat his sandwich lunch” (125), but when he comes out from the tunnel later, however, the “first thing he saw was the Evening Star” (127), although it should be the middle of the afternoon. This is also the beginning of the longest time shift in the novel. When he returns to the house, he finds that time has shifted and that he has travelled back to the late eighteenth century. In the house, he finds Susan and Jacob who tell him that the gardener, Fred Boggis, is hiding in the tunnel Tolly has just left, because the villainous Butler Caxton wants to sell him to a group of people taking part in the impressment while the Captain, Susan’s father, is away. Tolly promises to take a basket of food to Boggis and to tell him to remain in the hiding place as the Captain will soon be returning from his voyage.

The implied reader is confused about the reality of time a couple of times in this passage. Tolly’s description of the place seems very realistic, although he is not sure himself whether what he sees is reality or not.


Excerpt out of 66 pages


A Cognitive Perspective on two Classics of British Children’s Literature
Time and Place in Lucy M. Boston’s "The Chimneys of Green Knowe" and Philippa Pearce’s "Tom’s Midnight Garden"
University of Koblenz-Landau
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Cognitive Criticism, Reader Response Theory, Children's Literature, Philippa Pearce, Lucy Boston, Tom's Midnight Garden, Green Knowe
Quote paper
Sven Klees (Author), 2020, A Cognitive Perspective on two Classics of British Children’s Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/951085


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