Linnets and Valerians (by Elizabeth Gouge)

I am very much enjoying re-reading the books by some of my favourite authors, and looked forward very much to re-reading this one by Elizabeth Goudge. Although she wrote several thoughtful novels for adults, she’s perhaps best known for her children’s book ‘The Little White Horse’. However I always preferred ‘Linnets and Valerians’ , which I came across in my teens, and last read eighteen years ago.

I remembered liking it so much that when I couldn’t find it on any of our shelves, I assumed someone must have borrowed it without returning it, and promptly ordered a second-hand edition from the AwesomeBooks site. I started reading it a week ago and was surprised to find that I had forgotten most of the plot, other than the main outline - that four children in the early part of the 20th century run away from their rather strict grandmother, and find themselves at their Uncle Ambrose’s house instead.

Uncle Ambrose, who was once a teacher (now a Vicar) decides to educate the children in a classical way, insisting that he doesn’t like children at all, but growing fond of them fairly quickly. He is looked after by Ezra, an intriguing and delightful character who functions as butler, cook, chauffeur and more. The children explore their neighbourhood, and as with many of Goudge’s books there’s an interesting mixture of Paganism and Christianity, of practical real-life adventures and mysticism.

Not that this is a fantasy story: it’s set very much in the real world, and the obvious theme is that of family relationships, of loss and reunion, of friendship and loyalty and hard work. But there’s also a strong good vs evil thread winding throughout, with gradual healing and forgiveness and restoration, in a way I enjoyed very much.

The four children are nicely drawn: Nan, the oldest at twelve, is responsible and kind, but also gifted with a special kind of insight. Robert, at ten, is an adventurer, forever imagining himself in heroic roles; he has a good imagination in a dramatic sense, yet is not very observant, nor does he have any real intuition. Timothy is eight, and the frailest of the children; he’s also extremely observant and highly intelligent, and his imagination is of a very different kind to his brother’s. The youngest, Betsy, is a delightful six-year-old who tags along with the family and has a great sense of her own importance.

Inevitably some of the storyline reflects upper-middle-class culture of a hundred years ago. Children are expected to obey their elders, particularly when given plenty of freedom to go out and about, and there are unpleasant threats made, some of which become realities, should they fail to meet their obligations.

In places the story is a little slow-moving, with a tad more description than I would have liked as a child, but I think it would appeal to avid readers from the age of about nine or ten, and of course adults who remember it fondly from their own childhoods.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

(Note that in the United States, it's published as 'The Runaways')

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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