As I mentioned recently, this book was the winner of the Hesperus Press competition to find a lost children’s classic – and they’ve certainly come up with the goods here! Goudge is often mentioned nowadays as ‘the author who inspired J.K. Rowling’ as apparently her book “The Little White Horse” is Rowling’s favourite. I confess this is the first Goudge I’ve read – but I don’t think it will be the last.

the_runaways

Wikipedia says: “Elizabeth de Beauchamp Goudge FRSL (24 April 1900 ā€“ 1 April 1984) was an English author of novels, short stories and children’s books as Elizabeth Goudge. She won the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books in 1946 for The Little White Horse.She was a best-selling author in both the UK and the US from the 1930s through the 1970s.”

“The Runaways” was originally published under the title “Linnets and Valerians” and the story focuses on the intertwining lives of those two families. The four Linnet children – Nan, Robert, Timothy and Betsy – are living with their grandmother and her fearsome companion, Miss Bolt, while their father is abroad. Unfortunately, the lively quartet are a little too much for the old people and the story opens with each child locked in a different part of the house, with Absolom the dog howling. Fortunately, Robert is a resourceful boy (every 5 minutes changing his mind about what to be when he grows up!) and soon the children have broken out of the house and are running away. A fortuitous find, in the form of a horse and cart, leads them to the village of High Barton and a rather strict gentleman who owns the conveyance – and just happens to be their Uncle Ambrose, retired teacher and Vicar! Despite professing to hate children, he soon becomes attached to his nieces and nephews, and it is decided that they will stay with him and his general factotum, Ezra (who seems to be able to do just about anything around the house). The Linnets explore the local area, meeting the sad Lady Alicia Valerian, who has lost both husband and son, plus the decidedly unpleasant Emma Cobley, a women with hidden, wicked depths. All seems not quite right in High Barton – as the Linnets venture deeper into the countryside and explore further, will they be able to counteract the local evil, or are they in danger themselves?

“Uncle Ambrose did not have to call for attention, for in a few moments he had them spellbound. He was, they discovered, the most wonderful storyteller. Who would have thought that education was like this? He told them first about the land itself, and he took books down from his shelves and showed them pictures of the glories he had seen, mountains crowned with ruined palaces, statues and temples and shrines beside the sea. And all he described to them they saw with their inside eyes, so that the pictures in the books were scarcely necessary, and the words that he used fell chiming, so that they remembered the sequence of them as one remembers the sequence of the notes in a tune.”

“The Runaways” is *such* a wonderful read! The writing is lovely – readable and intelligent, shot through with humour and also with real threat at times. The characters of the children are all believable and distinct; and Uncle Ambrose is a delight, with his desire to teach them, his foibles and his mad owl Hector! Emma Cobley is a genuinely creepy person, and her evil cat sent a few shivers up my spine too! Because there is a lot more going on in this book than a simple, straightforward children’s narrative…

Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge

The story is in many ways a battle between good and evil, the former represented by the Linnets, the Vicar, Ezra and their friends. They’re up against some real nastiness in Emma Cobley and her cohorts, who seem to have no restraint when it comes to getting what they want. There’s magic in the book, but it’s a kind of subtle, earth-bound magic, rooted in the English landscape and its heritage. The forces of good are guided by the Vicarage bees, who always seem to be there to point the way to safety when needed. This is the type of world where animals and bees and humans are in sympathy and understand each other, and there is tolerance for all. Although good is represented by Christianity (Vicar Ambrose and the church), there is also room for the pagan, in the form of Ezra with his pixie ears and his own kind of magic, and Pan who makes a brief appearance. Goudge is a good enough writer to recognise that these elements existed in Britain before Christianity and are part of the fabric that makes it up.

Goudge’s writing is very compelling, and I found myself drawn into the book and staying up late to finish it. It’s definitely the best sort of writing for young people, multi-layered and surprisingly sophisticated and which doesn’t talk down to them. Truly, this is a book I wish I’d read as a child, as I can see that I would have loved it and returned to it over and over again. As it is, I loved it as an adult and can’t commend the competition judges enough for making it the winner. And from now on I shall always pay attention to what the bees are singing…

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