The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart (1872)

A few weeks ago, when I was looking at empty years in my 100 Years of Books project and books that might fill them, I was reminded of a book I read a good few years ago and I was seized by a wish to read it again.

I rushed to the Persephone bookcase, but I found that the book wasn’t there. Then I remembered that I had read a library copy, and I set about ordering it again. I found that my book has disappeared from the catalogue! And so I had to order a copy. I was sure that it was a good investment – and now that I have read it again I have no doubt at all that it was.

‘The Runaway’ is a story written for children, but it is so very well written that I think it can be appreciated at any age.

837c857f87c1089482f62775a96c43e4Clarice lives in a country house with her widowed father, who travels to work in the city every day. She loves her home and the people around her, and she hopes to have the kind of adventures she has read about in books one day.

A quite unexpected adventure begins one day when she is out in the garden picking flowers. Clarice discovers Olga, the runaway of the title in the shrubbery. Olga asks Clarice to hide her, Clarice agrees, and so the story begins.

At first Clarice is delighted with her new friend, but it isn’t long before she starts to worry. Olga is a live wire,  she hates being shut up, and she is eager to explore her new surroundings. Clarice understands, but she is torn when her governess becomes anxious at the strange noises in the house and she hates not being able to tell her father the truth.

She begins to wonder if she is doing the right thing in hiding Olga, she wonders what the consequences will be, and doubts about the truth of Olga’s story of who she is and why she ran away grow in her mind.

There are many joys in this book.

The plot plays out beautifully, through many lovely scenes. Many of then were wonderfully dramatic but I think that my favourite was a quiet scene, with Clarice trying to ask her father for advice without giving away her secret.

A dramatization could be wonderful; as would reading aloud.

I loved spending time with the two girls. What I learned of their background enabled me to understand how they had grown into the girls they were They complemented each other beautifully, and I found that I could empathise and understand each of them.

I loved Clarice for her lovely mix of imagination and sensibleness; and I appreciated that she was good not for its own sake but because the world and the people around her cared for her and she cared for them and wanted them to be happy.

I loved Olga for her vitality, her joie de vivre, and her gift for doing the unexpected.

The story shows them both off so well, a dramatic conclusion bring the best out of both of them, and I was captivated from the first page to the last.

The illustrations are utterly charming, and they match the story perfectly.

‘The Runaway’ was a particular favourite of the artist Gwen Raverat, it was at her suggestion that it was reissued, illustrated with her wood-engravings, and the Persephone Books edition reproduces them all.

I was sorry to leave them, the two girls, and their world when they story came to an end.

Anyone wanting to run away from life for a little while would do very well to run into this book.