Friday, April 20, 2007

"The Runaway" - Elizabeth Anna Hart

Victorian poet Elizabeth Anna Hart wrote "The Runaway" in 1872 and, although popular at the time, it became forgotten until wood-engraver Gwen Raverat - who had loved the book as a child - created 60 illustrations for it and campaigned for its republication in 1936. And in 2002, Persephone re-published it for a third time, complete with Gwen's beautiful illustrations, which add great depth to the story and really help it come to life.

Although "The Runaway" is essentially a children's book, it has something for all ages – as proven by the fact that I've just finished reading it for the first time (aged 29) and loved it so much I raced through it, while sitting in St James' Park on a gloriously sunny afternoon. The story is simply that of Victorian teenager Clarice, who lives a luxurious life with her widowed father and typically starchy governess, who one day happens upon a runaway girl hiding in the bushes. Olga, the runaway, brings new excitement to Clarice's life, excitement that Clarice had been longing for with the romantic aspirations of any bored 15-year-old. As the days progress, Clarice struggles to keep Olga hidden around the house, as Olga is intent on causing mischief and creeping up on the servants to make them believe she is a ghost. But also, as the story progresses, Clarice is led to question whether she is doing the right thing in concealing Olga, and whether Olga is telling her the truth about who she is and why she ran away in the first place.

The triumph of childhood over adulthood is clear, and the strong sense of morals is in place, making "The Runaway" a classic "good" book. But it is more than a moralistic tale of right and wrong. "The Runaway" is something that a contemporary children's book could never be: a yearning for a simpler way of life. After all, it was only around 20 years ago that, as a child myself, I was lapping up books like Eve Garnett's "The Family From One End Street" and Ursula Williams' "Gobbolino", as well as books my own mother loved as a child like Elizabeth Stucley's "The Pennyfeather Family" (I have the original 1950 edition in front of me now - complete with the illustrations crayoned in by my mum when she was little - and, Persephone take note, this book has long been out of print, is impossible to get hold of anywhere, and desperately needs to be resurrected); and these were all books, like "The Runaway", that told simple stories in an uncomplicated but engaging way. So I can't help feeling that the "Harry Potter"'s and "Tracey Beaker"'s of the world are a shame, because although they are getting children reading, they are hardly literary triumphs.

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