Those with more varied or exotic backgrounds sometimes envied Philippa Pearce for the consistency and roundedness of her life, the circularity of its progress: it ended where it began. She was middle-aged when I first met her but long talks about her origins, which fascinated me, painted in at least some of its landscape. Her writing, though not strictly autobiographical, grew directly out of it, her personality was a part of its appeal. The judgments implicit in what happened to her characters, how they behaved and responded to others, were always hers: the integrity, the stability, the kindliness. Not that this was ever explicitly said: she would never have approved of preaching or even of pushing her point of view. With the lightest of touches she watched and recorded, sometimes going beyond the everyday into the supernatural or the animal world.
Her masterpiece, Tom’s Midnight Garden, published in 1958 when she was in her late thirties, has elements of all these worlds: realism and fantasy together, so that the fantasy works exactly in terms of time and space. It has a quiet perfection that has kept it, ever since it first appeared, not just in print but deep in its readers’ imaginations. The TLS called it the only undoubted children’s classic since Alice Through the Looking Glass. Like that book, it defies description because it veers between past and present, the solid and the fabulous, so exactly, with such tenderly recalled detail of real events while its people both age and remain where they used to be without strain. How did Philippa achieve this? The most unpretentiousof masterpieces, it rings true in every phrase whatever the action, and when the young boy and the old lady embrace at the end – no one else knows why, it seems out of keeping with the boy’s usual reserve – one has a sense of relief and fulfilment that are just what is needed to round off such an achievement beyond the need for ordinary critical praise.
With such a debut – or almost; it was in fact Philippa’s second published book – the rest of her output, for all its praise and prizes, might seem something of a falling off. But masterpieces don’t come in rows, and if she never achieved such a triumph again, her career for the next half-century was a busy and distinguished one. And her personal qualities, those her friends remember and value most, were outstanding. She was much loved, and, as an old friend said when she died, hers was a life well lived. Above all she had integrity, which ran through everything she said, wrote or did, and with it, qualifying but never diminishing it, humour, sympathy and a tender heart. And she was a good companion, fun to be with, relaxed and generous. To the wide range of people from around the world who visited her in the village outside Cambridge where she spent most of her long life, the house and garden must have seemed to express much about her, her interests and affections: the neat rows of vegetables, with herbs grown in the two big chimney pots my son had given her; the bantams; the goat (at one time she was part of the local goat circle); the dog and cat and her daughter Sally’s pony in the adjoining meadow; and most importantly, her own welcoming presence. The house (one of a pair built by her grandfather for his workers) was a pleasure just to be in, not only cosy but aesthetically pleasing, each object seemingly in its right place. It was this sense of rightness that predominated, expressing not just Philippa’s taste but her whole personality, from the pictures up the stairs – several by family illustrators of her books – to the miniature forest of potted basil (so hard to grow successfully, as less dedicated gardeners know) or the massed tomatoes in an easily watered trench, or, beyond, the large meadow leading down to the river: an ideal, all-embracing place, a paradise of memories, and a setting for most of her books. I won’t list them (too many), but each had its own atmosphere and none repeated what had already been used. An endlessly fecund background, it seemed.
Widowed two years after her wedding, with a small baby, she carried on with grace and good humour, so that outsiders could probably not guess at much of the inner life. Weakened by his experiences as a Japanese prisoner-of-war, her husband died suddenly. As time went by and her fame grew, Philippa was lionised not just by children but by parents, teachers and others who knew and loved children’s books (in Japan she was mobbed rather alarmingly in the street). But she was unchanged by it all, neither indifferent not excited. Perhaps the stability of her background and family, the fact that her forebears had on both sides been mill-owners and millers for generations, and had stayed in the same places, meant that she was able to deal calmly with the whirligig of fortune, and make her life a triumph not just of intellect and imagination but of willpower and temperament. The two small grandsons she doted on at its end seemed to crown its triumph.