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The Runaways – Not A Runaway Success!

The Runaways, by Elizabeth Goudge: so sweet
it should come with a government health warning.

Right, back to The Runaways, by Elizabeth Goudge, as I promised some time ago in my post on Edith Nesbit’s The House of Arden. Let me start by saying I feel as if I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t like this book. It irritated me beyond measure, and had I been reading a real book (instead of the Kindle) I would have hurled it across room. So, if you’re a fan, and you don’t want to be upset, you’d better stop reading this review right now!

First printed as Linnets and Valerians in 1964, The Runaways (the American title has been used for the UK reprint) was republished by Hesperus Press last year after winning the company’s Uncover a Children’s Classic Competition. According to Amazon: 

This charming, magical story from award-winning author Elizabeth Goudge beautifully depicts early twentieth century English country life while conjuring an air of magical adventure. Written by the author who inspired JK Rowling, it is full of vivid characters, battles between good and evil and wonderful spell-binding moments.    

Sadly, this is not quite how I see the book (I wish I did – I really wanted to like it), but I include this comment in the interests of fair play.

The four Linnet children, Robert, Nan, Timothy and Betsy, and their dog Absolom are living with their grandmother because their father is abroad with his regiment and their mother is dead (absent parents again!) However, Grandmama has very strong ideas about the way children (and dogs) should behave – and equally strong views on how they should be disciplined when they don’t come up to scratch.

The Governess Cart, by Joseph Crawhall. This is the kind
of cart the children take when they run away.

 So the children run away. They borrow a pony and trap outside a pub (this is 1912), eat the groceries under the seat, and end up at a fairy tale kind of house owned by a curmudgeonly old man who turns out to be their long lost Uncle Ambrose, estranged from the family. Although he purports to hate children (and dogs), he decides to look after them. Their new life seems idyllic, if a little odd. Apart from lessons, each morning they do pretty much what they like, but they soon discover all is not well in the village.

The lord of the manor is missing, presumed dead. An explorer who went all over the world digging up vanished cities, he eventually vanished himself, 27 years ago – three years after his young son was lost. Since then Lady Alicia, his grief-stricken wife has become a recluse who only ventures out at night, and the old house and gardens are going to rack and ruin.
Then there’s Daft Davie, who cannot speak and lives in a cave on Lion Tor where he has painted a beautiful picture on the rocks… a picture that is oddly similar to Lady Alicia’s tapestry. And there’s Emma Cobley, the strange old woman who runs the Post and General Stores, and has a cat that changes size.  There is magic afoot, and the children must overcome evil if the wrongs of the past are to be righted.  
 

An earlier version of the book,
published under its original title.

Along the way they encounter bad dreams, a book of spells and queer, knobbly, little figures carved from mandrake roots and stuck with rusty pins. Set against these are charms to ward off evil, protective bees, who must be spoken to, and a pet owl (who isn’t a patch on Archimedes).

And there are quirky characters, who remain just that – characters, not people. I couldn’t even bring myself to like Uncle Ambrose’s servant Ezra, with his wooden leg and its carved, painted bee. As for the cuckoo clock in the sink, the cat and kittens on the draining board, and the copper saucepans on the floor, they all seemed too self-consciously quaint and wacky.
In theory The Runaways ticked all the right boxes, but it just didn’t do it for me. Somehow I couldn’t believe in the characters or the story. And, as with The House of Arden, I do wonder if I would have liked it more if I had come across it as a child. But I love many of the books I read for the first time with my daughters when they were young, so I don’t think age is necessarily a barrier when it comes to enjoying children’s books.
Anyway, it’s all too picture perfect for me, and very predictable, with no sense of real danger, no threat, nothing sinister, so the there’s never any doubt about the happy ending. And yes, I know I usually love happy endings, but this one is way over the top, and the whole book is anodyne, and twee beyond belief. It should come with a government health warning. Not only is it tooth-rottingly saccharine, it will turn your brain to mush. Diana Wynne Jones (who I may have mentioned before) could have done the whole thing much, much better.
But it wasn’t all bad. There were some lovely descriptions of the Dartmoor countryside, like this:
The path, with steps here and there, descended steeply among them and as they came down they could see over the wall of the stableyard and see the river and the bridge and the stretch of the moor beyond. The road down which they had driven last night was looped like a ribbon round the shoulder of a hill that was blue and green with bluebells and bracken. Stone walls divided the wilderness into fields into which sheep were feeding, and cows and a few ponies.
They sat down under a flame-coloured rhododendron and gazed, with the sun on their faces, and then they shut their eyes and listened. They could hear the voice of the little river as it tumbled over the stones in its shallow bed, the sheep bleating, the humming of the bees…
And, shallow though it may be of me, I loved the food! Ezra produces the kind of dishes that were part of my own childhood: steak and onion, liver and bacon, treacle tart, baked apples with raisins inside, junket, and muffins with strawberry jam. Proper muffins that is. Not these new-fangled American cakes, top heavy with swirls of gooey, sickly icing, but good old-fashioned English muffins, made with a yeast dough, toasted and eaten hot, lavishly spread with butter and jam. 
These little iced cakes are the right colour, although the don’t
have cherries on top, but crystalised flowers were often
used on cakes on cakes in 1912, when this novel was set.
(Pic from BBC Good Food)
At Lady Alicia’s there is afternoon tea, with queen cakes for tea, though these seem to be what I’ve always called fairy cakes – delicate little sponges, topped with a thin layer of glace icing. Queen cakes, I think, are little sponge cakes with currants in, and no icing. Whatever the cakes are called, they sound delicious:
Upon entering the room, Robert had seen out of the corner of his eye a silver tray upon a side table with its delicate cups and saucers of flowered china and a plate of little cakes. The spillikin players had evidently finished their tea some while ago, but there were a few cakes left, iced in pink, white and green with half a cherry on the top of each.
Spillikins, if you’ve never come across it, is a game, where you tip sticks out, and remove them one at a time, without disturbing the others in the pile. Like  this:
Spillikins calls for a steady hand.

PS: Since there are two sides to every story, and lots of people absolutely love this book, I thought it only right that I should include a link to a positive post, so here’s a delightful review from Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf.
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Author:

I'm a former journalist and sub-editor who loves needlework, reading and writing, and is still searching for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. Until I find the answer I'm volunteering at an Oxfam Book Shop and learning about Creative Sketchbooks!

10 thoughts on “The Runaways – Not A Runaway Success!

  1. I read a rave review of this not all that long ago, and started to read an e-copy – but though I didn't hate it, I just wasn't really engaged by it and gave it up well before the end. So you're not entirely alone.

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  2. I read this as “Linnets and Valerians” in my childhood and loved it, but I haven't revisited it or any of her others in case the magic has gone. Maybe it is one of those books you have to read first at a particular age.

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  3. Three things made my day today 1). Listening to 'A Good Read' on i player where the speakers comments on 'The Swimming Pool Season' exactly coincided with my thoughts (only they liked it and I didn't)
    2). reading Hogglestock on why he couldn't finish 'All the light we cannot see' which again is just how I feel about the book and I gave it up in just the same place and
    3) your comments on 'Linnets and Valerians'. I agreed with every single word; sorry, not true, because I couldn't finish it, but even so my sentiments exactly.
    Usually I like to find agreement on books I like, but there is definitely comfort in finding one isn't out on a limb.

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  4. Nomey, that's exactly how I feel – it is so comforting to find there are other people who don't like a book that I dislike. I've been very heartened by the responses to this post. I thought all the fans would jump on me for getting it wrong, but it seems I'm not alone in my views.

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