Reviewed by Rachel Fenn
Hesperus Press, known for their very attractive reprints of minor works by major authors, has recently launched a new arm of their business called Hesperus Minor, dedicated to bringing forgotten children’s classics back into print. For someone like me, who grew up on a diet of saccharine Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature that promoted the benefits of plenty of fresh air and wholesome food, this is music to my ears. What happened to escapism, to good old-fashioned adventures, to unlikely coincidences and massive midnight feasts? This is the stuff my dreams were made of as a child, and I cannot praise enough any initiative to re-introduce true Enid Blyton-esque magic and whimsy into children’s fiction.
The Runaways by Elizabeth Goudge was the winner of Hesperus’ competition to uncover a forgotten children’s classic. I have never read any Goudge novels before, but I know plenty of people adore her work, and this appears to be one of her lesser-read books that is more than ready for a new audience. It is an absolutely delightful story that has much more going on beneath the surface than at first appears. It begins with the classic Edwardian trope of four children – always two girls and two boys, in perfect sequence – being left with their grandmother in the countryside due to their mother being dead and their father being in the army abroad. Grandmother is perfectly nice but doesn’t know what do with these four lively munchkins, so one day they decide to run off and have an adventure. As luck would have it, just as they have been walking for hours and are starting to feel very tired and hungry and afraid, they come across a pony and trap filled with shopping that has been left outside a pub. They jump in, gorge themselves on sardines and biscuits, and the pony leads them off to a chocolate box cottage that belongs to a gruff but kindly elderly gentleman and his wonderful servant, Ezra. Miraculously it turns out that the kindly gentleman is actually their Uncle Ambrose, whom they had never met before, and their grandmother is only too happy for them to move in with him permanently. What are the chances?!
However, these lucky coincidences are just the start of an even bigger adventure. The pretty Devonshire village of High Barton might look idyllic, but the Linnet children soon discover that rippling underneath the surface of village life are some frightening characters and tragic tales. Emma Cobley, who runs the village shop, is rumoured to be a witch, and she certainly gives the children a fright when they pop in to buy some sweets. The Lawsons, who run the pub, are sly and menacing, and seem to be up to mischief. At the corner of the village green are the gates to a manor house, now an overgrown wilderness as the mysterious Lady Alicia retired from life after the disappearances of her son and husband many years ago. If that wasn’t enough, rising up behind the village is a huge stone tower, the Lion Tor, which marks the entrance to the moors. The children are warned that it is a dangerous place, but no one will tell them exactly why…
Unbeknownst to them, the children’s arrival in the village will trigger a course of events that will change everything forever. Obviously they do not listen to any of the warnings given to them about where they are not allowed to go, and before long they have managed to gain entrance to the Manor and meet the regal and sad Lady Alicia, her monkey Abednego and her huge African servant Moses Glory Glory Alleluja; climbed up the Lion Tor, where they find some intriguing paintings and a kind tramp who cannot speak, and discovered some terrifying truths about the inhabitants of the village. For, it turns out that High Barton has been held under a horrible spell for many years, and only the Linnets, with the help of Uncle Ambrose and Ezra, will have the power to break it and bring about a happy ever after.
This is a beautifully written, atmospheric book that truly transports you to another world. There are many elements of the plot that, for adult readers, require a healthy dose of reality suspension, but this only adds to the magical and mysterious tone of the story. You can tell that Elizabeth Goudge is J K Rowling’s favourite children’s writer, because there are many elements in here to please Harry Potter fans; wonderful scenery, evil villains, protective and caring guardians and just enough danger to keep things interesting without preventing a happy ending. It is a charming, escapist journey into a lost world of country superstitions and childhood innocence, and even though I am far too old to be reading children’s stories, I couldn’t put it down. It is certainly a classic worth reprinting for a new generation and I look forward to seeing what other lost treasures Hesperus Minor will unearth.
Rachel Fenn blogs at Book Snob.
Elizabeth Goudge, The Runaways (Hesperus Press, 1964 repr.2014), 269pp., paperback.
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