Wednesday 26 August 2009

Persephone Week 3: The Runaway

I don't know about you, but I'm really enjoying Persephone Reading Week. Do keep popping over to Paperback Reader and The B Files to catch up on what's going on across the interweb, and I do hope you've felt encouraged to pick up your own Persephone book. Our Vicar's Wife has promised to cook something from her copy of Good Things in England by Florence White, to celebrate the week, so hopefully I'll be able to treat you to a picture of whatever it is, later in the week.

I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep up to one Persephone a day, since I was out at the theatre tonight (seeing Spike Milligan's Hitler: My Part in His Downfall - for free, because I'm under 26 - hurrah!) But I was speedy, and the book was quick, so I can add Elizabeth Ann Hart's The Runaway to my list for the week. A children's novel originally published in 1872, and reprinted in 1936 with over sixty wood-cuts specially made by the sublime Gwen Raverat, The Runaway has become one of my very favourite Persephones.

Both text and illustrations are quite, quite wonderful. It's impossible to imagine them separated, and I pity the children between 1872 and 1936 who had to make do without - but more do I pity myself and all other children who didn't get this read aloud to them in their infancy. The protagonist is Clarice, an imaginative fifteen year old (who acts more like a modern day ten year old - whether that is a sign of the times, or simply Clarice alone, I'm not sure) who regrets that her father is not the army, and in the opening line, redolent of Emma, is described: 'Clarice Clavering - young, ardent, and happy -'. Longing for adventure, she finds it in the form of Olga, hidden amongst the thicket. The eponymous Runaway, she persuades Clarice to allow her to hide in the house. The plot is about whether or not Olga will be discovered; whether or not she is telling the truth about her origins; what the consequences of her running away will be for all.

But, for me, the plot is less significant than the lively characters. Clarice is a fairly typical good, obedient Victorian child, but without the slightly sickening edge that certain members of the March family have for me(...) Her spirited eagerness for adventure set her apart from her less attractive compatriots. And then there is Olga! What a delight - airy, impetuous, irrepressible, and vibrant, she reminded of nothing so much as Clarissa from Edith Olivier's The Love Child. And anybody au fait with my 50 Books You Must Read will realise what a compliment that is.

Had the text been printed alone, this would be a lovely book - but Gwen Raverat's wood-cuts take it to the next level. I didn't really know what wood-cuts were before I started reading Persephone Books six years ago, but now I love them. Often featured in the early Persephone Quarterlies, an article by Pat Jaffe in PQ 4 speaks of the 'bookish, talented, visual twentieth-century women [who] have taken such delight in the intimate, intricate craft they were at last allowed to learn.' Each of Raverat's must have taken so long, and they are enchanting. Not twee (though personally I never find a touch of twee goes amiss) but as spirited as Olga herself.

Any parents or grandparents out there, I do encourage you to get a copy of this for your child. If you catch them at the right age, I suspect The Runaway will become a favourite for years to come. And, like all the very best children's books, it's one which you'll have to buy a copy of for yourself too.


  1. How interesting! The illustrations look fantastic. Your comment on Clarice sounding like a modern ten-year old reminded me of another book I read a while back (I think it was The Welsh Girl) where the thirteen-year old sounded irritatingly naive till I realised that as the book was set in the 50s, teenagers were surely much less precociou then. How times change.

  2. This sounds wonderful. I tend to flip past the Persephones that are aimed more towards a younger audience (or oringally intended as such), but this one sounds nicely appealing. The woodcuts are lovely and I sometimes wish adult books had them as well (why should only children get them??). You're doing very well with your reading! Looking forward to tomorrow's book!

  3. This one is on my wishlist for the illustrations alone...good to know the story is just as good. I look forward to seeing what gets cooked up from Good Things.

  4. That sounds wonderful - I read one of the other P children's books but not that one. I love Gwen Raverat too - if you haven't read it you must try to get hold of her autobiography, Period Piece.

  5. I love the woodcuttings and end-papers from this and it is one that I would love to own (although I haven't yet read the other of the "child" titles that I have on the shelf, The Young Pretenders).

    A very vivid review, Simon. Lovely. I also look forward the Our Vicar's Wife's offering! That would be amazing.

  6. Sorry I let you down on the 'read aloud' list - but the Famous Five, William and Biggles (no, maybe it was Wind in the Willows) rather filled the evening slot!
    I'll try not to let you down on the Persephone bake!

  7. Do get a copy of this, or put it on your Christmas list, everyone! I too hadn't paid much attention to the Persephone children's books - the only reason I bought this one was because I went to the shop without a list of the ones I *do* own, and knew I didn't have any of the children's ones. I sometimes buy duplicates by mistake... I'm so glad I did, I'm going to re-read and re-read this.

    And you did very well with book choices Mum - not your fault this wasn't in print! But not Biggles, I've never read/heard Biggles. Narnia, though, definitely! Those are the ones which have stayed with me most.

  8. I have enjoyed your reviews. I too am sorry it was not a childhood reading book. The illustrations look beautiful.

    I often buy books at the thrift or other places just for the illustrations, especially older books.

    The Persephone reading weeks has been great fun.



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