I was delighted when the Hesperus Press reissued ‘Linnets and Valerians’ a while ago, but I was disappointed that the title was changed to ‘The Runaways.’ It’s so much less intriguing and it rather misses the point; this not so much a book about running away as a book about finding the right place in the world, and playing the right role.
That was the only thing that disappointed me – everything else I loved!
The Linnet children were sent to live with their elderly grandmother when their father was posted overseas with his regiment, and they were not at all happy about it. It wasn’t that she was unkind, it was that she didn’t understand. Their lives were dull and confined, and so on one particularly dreary afternoon they decided that they would escape and have a grand adventure.
Everything went beautifully, and they were thrilled to be out in the wilds of Dartmoor, but when the sun began to fade, when the shadows began to lengthen, when they began to feel the pangs of hunger, they realised that they hadn’t planned what they would do then.
They saw a pony and cart that had been left outside a pub, and they saw that it held lots of bags of groceries. It seemed that it had been left there for them and so they got in, they found themselves something to eat, and they let
Bhthe pony take them where it would.
It took them to its home, where a rather irascible elderly gentleman was extremely surprised to see them. he wasn’t best pleased at what had happened but he rose to the occasion, taking them into his cottage and putting them up for the night. The children were thrilled, and when the manservant who had ‘lost’ the pony, the cart and the shopping cane home from the pub singing and dancing in the early hours of the morning, they were sure that this must be just the start of their adventure.
They were right.
The next morning they learned that the elderly gentleman had known exactly who they were. He was their father’s brother, their Uncle Ambrose, and that he had already visited their grandmother to make arrangements for them to stay with him for a while. There would be rules, but they were very different rules. There would be lessons, for several hours a day, and as long as the children worked and paid attention then they were free to do whatever they wanted, to go wherever they wanted, for the rest of the day. There would be pocket-money, but it would be have to be earned by doing jobs in the house and garden.
It was a wonderful regime. Uncle Ambrose was the very best kind of teacher and they discovered just how exciting learning can be. They enjoyed doing their bit to keep the household going as they earned pennies for sweets and treats. And the meals were glorious!
I saw Elizabeth Goudge’s values threaded through the story and it was lovely. She did it so gently, offering simple explanations and advice, and showing such empathy with the four children.
And, of course, there were adventures.
The children found that their new home was a happy place in an unhappy setting. The village shopkeeper looked worryingly like a witch; the tower of stones, shaped like a lion, up on the moor was said to be cursed, and the manor house had fallen into disarray and disrepair as the elderly Lady Alicia mourned her husband and son, who has both disappeared years earlier.
Was it witchcraft? Had the children been sent to put things right?
They would find out all sorts of things, they would get themselves into difficult and dangerous situations, as they explored the village and the surrounding moors.
Each child was different, and at a different stage of life, and so each had a different part to play and different lessons to learn.
This was a lovely story quite beautifully told. Elizabeth Goudge’s prose and vocabulary is as lovely as it ever is; and It’s rich with descriptions of the countryside that she knew and loved, and its rich with so many other things that she understood were – and are – so very important in life.
There’s magic, but it’s not the kind often found in story-books: it’s the kind of magic that rises up from nature, and from history, that is a natural part of life but is unquestionably magic
Because the story is so rich its best read slowly, chapter by chapter, and it would be quite wonderful read aloud.
I think that this is a book that would work best read in childhood – and I do wish I had discovered it as a child – but it still has a great deal to offer to the grown-up reader.
As the story drew to a close I started to have an inkling of how Elizabeth Goudge would have events play out. I was right and I was so pleased, because it was so utterly right. So utterly right – emotionally and spiritually – that there were tears in my eyes.