The Runaway is a children's story which was first published in 1872 and was then re released in 1935 with a series of wood cut illustrations by the artist Gwen Raverat.
I had chosen The Runaway as my first Persephone mainly because of the beautiful pictures and on that front, I was not disappointed. There are 60 woodcuts interspersed with the text of this book and they range from tiny images of each character as he or she is introduced, larger full page illustrations or extensive two-page wide images which stretch above and below the text.
There is a particularly lovely one which shows Olga, the eponymous character in a tree which stretches its branches across two pages and Clarice, Olga's accomplice standing on a path below which fades into the distance.
Woodcut is an extremely unforgiving discipline; one cut out of place and you can ruin hours of work. Each cut that has been made in the wooden printing block avoids being inked up, so the artist is creating his or her lights and shades in reverse. The image itself must also be reversed. It requires incredible amounts of skill, concentration and physical stamina, as the tools are tiny and cramped, blistered fingers are inevitable. I point all this out only to make clear the incredible achievement of Gwen Raverat. This book is an artistic masterpiece.
She is capable of carving solid wooden furniture, draperies, faces, shadows and gossamer thin imaginary spirits with an equal amount of skill. The pictures not only support and illustrate the text, but also show scenes in the book that are only mentioned in retrospect (Olga being spotted on the roof by policemen, for example.)
The eagle-eyed reader may have noticed that I do not yet mention the story. This is because I was not very impressed. Apparently this work was a labour of love for Gwen R. as she had adored The Runaway as a child and pushed for it to be republished twice in her life time. I cannot see why, but then we all have beloved children's books that don't really stand up to much scrutiny (Hi Malory Towers!).
Olga, the runaway child is obviously supposed to delight the reader with her mischievous, devil-may-care ways but, quite frankly, I found her to be a complete arse and have never wanted to punch a fictional character in the face more keenly than when reading this book. Selfish, snobbish and completely ungrateful, Olga comes close to causing her supposedly dear friend and protector Clarice to have a nervous break down.
I was fond of Clarice. A painfully conscientious and lonely girl, she undertakes to keep Olga hidden from her father, servants and eventually policemen. She is wise and kind, anxious to be good and to protect the feelings of those she loves
"Olga opened her blue eyes wide, and stared about her. 'I don't know what you are talking about,' said she; 'it sounds like gibberish.'
' Never mind' said Clarice. 'We all speak gibberish to others, I think, when we say what we really feel'
'I feel very sleepy,' said Olga, 'but that is not gibberish is it?'
'No', said Clarice smiling, 'because I am getting sleepy too; when people feel alike they don't talk gibberish'"
There are some quite amusing moments in the book, like when Olga dresses up as a policeman and is outraged when Clarice derides her efforts and another occasion when Clarice worries to herself that Olga may actually be 'deficient' rather than just jolly and careless.
It is not a great book and I can see why the rather patronising overview of Elizabeth Anna Hart's works was put in as an after word rather than a fore word. At one point, the story looks like it is going to take an interesting turn which would make the character of Olga far more interesting and sympathetic, but it soon returns to its snobby and predictable path. It is an easy read, however, a book very much of its time and is eccentric and event-filled enough to carry you to the end.
At points, the friendship between the two girls seems like an intense love affair, with Olga teasing and flirting and pouting her way out of trouble with Clarice who takes the younger girl on her knee where Olga "began kissing her with dainty little kisses, as a bird might with it's beak peck sugar from her lips."
Olga's pouting lips and dainty white body are described again and again and Clarice is a slave to the younger girl's whims. "She (Clarice) thought of the money, and the jewels, and her heart sank within her, and she felt as if it must break... oh that she had never seen her! Oh that she had never listened to her!" At one point, Olga declares that she and Clarice will both go and live in an old cottage together "like those two old creatures in North Wales." where they will keep geraniums and "wear men's hats."
I was not sure if this aspect of the book was a heavily disguised reference to homosexuality. It is hard to find details about author Elizabeth Anna Hart's life despite her prolific output and she and her husband never had children. Homosexuality could not be openly discussed in the late 1800s but it has a pervasive yet subdued presence in the literature of the time. It is this, and the feminist moments, "It's girls that are kept under and kept down..." that most intrigued me about this book.
To sum up, this book is definitely worth buying for the gorgeous illustrations alone but the story, although original and lively, is not of the same quality.