When life gives you lemons, I have learned from experience that you should read children’s books; preferably old-fashioned ones filled with unlikely coincidences, postcard pretty English countryside and lashings of easily packable food. They send you into fond reveries of a childhood you never actually had, and remind you of the possibilities of life when you are prepared to run off and have adventures. The Runaways is exactly that sort of book, and I found it the ideal antidote for adulthood. Elizabeth Goudge was a genius!
The Linnet children are those quintessential Edwardian storybook heroes; a band of perfectly sequenced girl-boy-girl-boy semi-orphans, who are left in the rambling house of an aging grandparent when their father is posted to the colonies. They are not badly treated, but life is dull and restrictive and the Linnets want an adventure. So, one afternoon, they decide to make a run for it. All is glorious until the sun starts to fade, the shadows begin to lengthen, and hunger gnaws at empty stomachs. Lost and alone in a rapidly darkening countryside, what are four defenceless children to do? Well, obviously stumble across a pony and cart that has been left outside a pub, which happens to be filled with someone’s weekly food shopping. They hop in, fill up on tinned sardines and biscuits, and let the pony take them off to its home, which is just a short journey away. Thankfully, the pony’s owner is a kindly elderly gent, who is only too happy to welcome the children into his cosy cottage and put them up for the night. The children can’t believe their luck, and when the elderly gentleman’s servant Ezra comes home from the pub singing and dancing in the early hours of the morning, it seems that their life is about to become much more exciting than at granny’s house.
In a shocking coincidence, the children find out the very next morning that the kindly elderly gentleman is none other than their father’s brother, Uncle Ambrose, who they have conveniently never met before. He has already been in touch with their grandmother, who has agreed that they can live with him, and they are now free to have as much fun as they like as long as they agree to be educated for a few hours a day. You’d think that there wouldn’t be much fun on offer in a sleepy Devonshire village largely populated by old people, but you’d be very, very wrong. For there is much amiss in High Barton. Not only does the village shopkeeper look suspiciously like a witch, but the two publicans are clearly up to no good, there is a huge tower of stones shaped like a lion up on the moor that is rumoured to be cursed, and the manor house at the edge of the village green is mysteriously overgrown and owned by the tragic recluse Lady Alicia, whose husband and son both disappeared many years ago.
With such a cast of characters to play with, the Linnet children soon manage to embroil themselves in all manner of tricky situations, and it’s all Ambrose and Ezra can do to keep them safe from harm. For it turns out that High Barton has been under a nasty spell for a long time, but can the children, through their pluck, charm and adventurous spirits, be the ones to finally break it and bring about a happy ever after? You’ll have to read it to find out!
I fell in love with this beautifully written vision of an idyllic childhood from the moment I started reading, and now I am very keen to hunt down more books by Elizabeth Goudge and imagine myself elsewhere. You just can’t beat her blend of whimsy and good old fashioned values; it’s like reading The Railway Children with some fairies and unicorns thrown in. Hesperus Press are definitely onto a winner with their latest publishing venture; The Runaways is just one of several reprinted children’s classics in their new imprint, Hesperus Minor, and I can’t wait to see what they’re bringing out next!