Authors: Elizabeth Goudge
In September 2013, Hesperus Press ran a competition to find the next children's classic to add to its new children's imprint, Hesperus Minor. We asked members of the public to tell us why their favourite children's book should be brought back in print, with the winner writing an introduction for the finished book.
The judging panel was made up of Annie Dalton, author of the
books, Amanda Craig, author and
children's books critic, Jennifer Bell, Foyles children's books buyer, and Melissa Cox, Waterstones children's bookseller.
Adrienne Byrne submitted the winning book,
by Elizabeth Goudge, and has therefore contributed the introduction that follows this.
âHer work has that classic blend of realism and magic, and the story of three runaway children finding their way by accident to their great uncle's house in Devon and lifting a curse is beautifully toldâ¦' â
Adrienne has had a longstanding love of children's literature and currently works part-time at Muswell Hill bookshop in London.
I was about ten when I discovered this book in my local library. It was the original title
Linnets and Valerians
that first enchanted and captured my imagination. After many years, I suddenly remembered the book; but the memories were impressionistic. My recent re-reading has brought back the details, and given an adult perspective and appreciation.
In the 1967 afterword to my paperback edition, the author speaks of the countryside in which she lived and how the stories and superstitions she was told about it inspired the richly magical and other-worldly elements and characters of her story. She has written descriptive passages of great beauty, both of the natural world and the immanence of this magic.
An imaginative child, I accepted completely the co-existence of real life and magic. There is a rather wonderful passage in Chapter 11, expressing the point of view of ten-year-old Robert:
Robert’s clear voice once more took up the narrative. He, like all children, could use exquisite tact when telling a true story to grown-ups. He knew one must not ask too
much of their credulity. Things are seen and heard by the keen senses of the young which are not experienced by the failing powers of their elders, but as powers fail pride increases and the elders do not like to admit this. Therefore, when told by the young of some occurrence outside the range of their own now most limited experience, they read them a lecture on the iniquity of telling lies. This can lead to unpleasantness all round…
There follows a summary of those occurrences omitted from his otherwise eventful tale.
is also an adventure story, involving four resourceful children; assorted adults, both ‘good’ and ‘wicked’; a dog; a monkey; a cat; an owl… and of course, the bees, the children’s protectors at all times. It is about the effect of past malicious actions, and how those actions are finally redeemed.
A thread of gently ironic humour runs throughout, and each child is beautifully drawn with that humour and insight; flawed individuals with complex inner lives and their different perspectives and responses to
and loss. Nan the eldest, practical and reflective, with a strong sense of responsibility for her younger siblings, is movingly given her first experience of
in the chapter ‘Nan’s Parlour’. Robert: inventive and impulsive, with an amusing and engaging sense of self-importance. Eight-year-old Timothy, a
, more intuitive boy, and six-year-old Betsy who ‘always emerged from anywhere as though shot from a catapult’ but who reveals a touching and instinctive generosity.
As an adult, the story ends for me with the chapter ‘Singing in the Wood’ and its last line, ‘Deep inside the hives the bees could be heard singing’. I don’t think I needed the ‘Happy Ever After’ chapter as a child either, as I initially found I couldn’t remember the ending as an adult. However, there are those who will want the ending as it is. Enjoy!
– Adrienne Byrne, Winner of the Hesperus
‘Uncover a Children’s Classic Competition’, 2013
Robert gave the boxroom door a resounding kick, merely for his own satisfaction, for he knew that only the kick of a giant would have made any impression on its strong oak panels, and sat down cross-legged on the floor to consider the situation. Betsy was roaring in the
, Timothy was yelling in the broom cupboard, Nan was sobbing in the linen room and Absolom was barking his head off in the small cupboard where the boots were kept. None of them could get out, for everything in ihis house locked firmly on insubordinate children. Grandmother said they were insubordinate; Father only thought them high-spirited. But it was what Grandmama thought that counted now, for Father had gone to Egypt, on his way back to India and his regiment, and they had to stay behind and live with Grandmama.
They had no wish to live with her, for she was a very autocratic old lady, a grandmother of a type that was to be met with in 1912, the date of this story, but is now extinct. She believed that children should be instantly obedient and she did not like dogs. She said that Absolom had fleas and must be given away, and if that was not enough, she had arranged for Robert
and Nan to go to boarding school while her companion Miss Bolt taught Timothy and Betsy at home. The
were in despair. They did not want to be educated and they did not want to be separated, either from each other or Absolom.
Robert listened. He was not disturbed by Betsy’s roars, for she liked roaring and there was a window in the bathroom, but Timothy’s yells had a hysterical note. It was dark in the broom cupboard and he didn’t like the dark. Nan’s sobs he could not actually hear, for she was a quiet person, but he guessed she was sobbing. Absolom was now not only barking but hurling his body against the door of the boothole with resounding thuds. It’s like the Bastille, thought Robert.
And then suddenly he knew what they would do and it was so simple that he wondered he had not thought of it before. Escape. People always escaped from prison if they could. The question was, could they? Robert was ten years old, stocky and strong, and he had a penknife, green eyes and red hair, and when a question like this presented itself to his mind he did not ask it twice. He had heaved a small tin trunk on top of a larger one, poised a hatbox on top and mounted to the summit while the question was still passing through his mind. The high window had not been opened for a long time and it was covered with ivy outside, but the penknife and obstinacy got it open and clear. To get himself off the hatbox and through it called for both agility and courage, and he was pleased with himself when after a considerable struggle he landed outside on the flat bit of roof that made a platform for the rainwater tank.
He decided be would he a burglar of international reputation when he grew up. Until this morning he had been going to be an engine driver, but he realised now that he could do better than that. Any man of normal intelligence can drive an engine, but only a superman can be a master burglar, and there was probably more money in it.
But great gifts take their toll and after the struggle through the window and the ivy Robert found he was hot, and breathless, and he sat down to cool off. It was comfortable with his back against the rainwater tank and the spring sunshine was warm on his face. And from up here on the roof of the old house there was a grand view. He had not known it was like this beyond Grandmama’s house. Four years ago Father had brought them all home from India to visit her, but he had only been six years old then and in the
and confusion of being in a new country he had not noticed his surroundings very much, and this time they had been kept within the large enclosed garden, except when they had gone for short walks through the town with the Thunderbolt. There had been the train journeys from the boat to London and from London to Grandmama, but the knowledge that Father would go back to India without them, cutting short his time in England because of a selfish desire to go exploring in Egypt, was so dreadful that again he had not noticed much. He had had no idea that England was like this.
The town was an old one, with attractive crooked houses and winding narrow streets, and beyond it was a green land of meadows and woods and streams that
glinted in the westering sun. And beyond the greenness and the glinting rose the ramparts of the mountains. They were really no more than high hills, misty and blue, but they seemed to Robert higher than they were because they rose so abruptly from the green plain, and because their blueness was almost lost in the blue of the sky. They were mysterious and exciting and their silence called louder than any trumpet. The
on the church tower told Robert that they lay due west.
He stood up and looked around him to get his bearings. He remembered that Elsie the housemaid’s bedroom was beside the boxroom. Behind him and the tank was the boxroom window, to right and left sloping roof, in front of him the sheer drop down to the garden. It made him feel dizzy to stand above that drop and look sideways, but he saw the dormer window only a few feet away from him and the gutter below it looked strong. All the same he never knew how he did it. And yet there was not much to it really, and if it hadn’t been for that drop it would have seemed a mere nothing, for it only meant stepping on to the gutter and then, facing inwards with his body leaning against the sloping roof and his fingers gripping the irregular tiles, edging along step by step until he came to the window, whose
opened inwards and were mercifully wide at the time. After that it was just a question of taking a header on to Elsie’s dressing table. It was that stepping on to the gutter that was the worst bit.
Nevertheless, lying on Elsie’s bedroom floor all mixed up in her brush and comb and a crochet mat that had
been on the dressing table, and damp because a bottle of violet scent had smashed all over him, Robert found he was sweating profusely and trembling like an aspen leaf. He did not know what an aspen leaf was, but he knew it was what you trembled like when a moment of supreme crisis was safely passed. At first there was only one thought in his mind: was there more money in burglary or acrobatics? How much did these fellows get who walked on tightropes in circuses?
Robert’s thoughts ran on money so constantly because he wanted a pony, and though he had been saving for it for a long time he still only had sixpence. That was because he kept seeing other things he wanted, like the penknife, and Absolom, whom he had bought in London when Father’s back was turned from a waiter in a hotel where they had stayed, only half a quid because he was a mongrel.
Robert staggered to his feet and went out into the passage, where he found to his satisfaction that all the keys had been left in the doors; which just showed that the Thunderbolt had not yet realised that Robert was a force to be reckoned with. Betsy and Absolom were still roaring and barking, but Timothy wasn’t yelling any more, and Robert let him out first because he didn’t like the dark. He was eight years old and supposed by Father to be delicate. ‘Come on out, you little blighter,’ said Robert kindly. ‘Keep your mouth shut and run straight downstairs and out to the rubbish heap.’
Timothy flicked himself up from among the brooms and sped down the stairs as though airborne, for he was very lightly made, with smooth gold hair and very blue
eyes. But these effeminate embellishments were not his fault and were no indication of weakness of character. He could yell, kick and bite with the best and it was only the dark that frightened him.
‘Stop that row, Betsy,’ said Robert as he cautiously unlocked and opened the bathroom door. Caution was necessary with Betsy, for she always emerged from anywhere as though shot from a catapult and her small round body was very hard. Robert side-stepped
and she landed out in the passage on her nose, her roars soaring to a fine crescendo. Robert lifted her up by the gathers of her smock with one hand and clamped the other over her mouth. Her face was crimson and her green eyes shot sparks. Her rough red curls were as angry as they could be all over her little bullet head, and she kicked out at Robert’s shins with all her strength. Robert kicked back, but gently, for she was only six and he was fond of her because she reminded him of himself when young. ‘Another screech out of you, Betsy, and I’ll skin you alive,’ he said. ‘Go straight down to the rubbish heap and wait there till I come.’
She made for the stairs, thumping down from step to step as though she weighed a ton. She was always very heavy on her feet when she was in a passion, for anger does weigh heavy. But she did not roar any more, for where she trusted she was obedient and she trusted Robert. All the children trusted each other and their father, and he them. To be separated from him was the most awful thing that had ever happened to them, for Mother dying five years ago was now a little dim to everyone except Father, and Betsy did not remember it
at all. But they understood that they had to be parted from Father, for he had explained about the new place where his regiment was going being too hot for
, and they knew it was not for always. Nevertheless Betsy, as she thumped downstairs, was calling over and over inside herself, Father, Father. But it didn’t do any good. He was in Egypt by this time and he didn’t hear.
Robert let Nan out next. She had stopped sobbing and was counting the linen to see how many
Grandmama had. She was twelve years old and, as the eldest of the family, of a domesticated turn of mind. ‘Come to the rubbish heap, Nan,’ he said. ‘I’ve an idea.’
Nan nodded and followed him, waiting while he let out Absolom and stowed him under his arm. ‘You smell dreadful,’ she said.
‘Elsie’s violet scent. I smashed it all over myself.’
She nodded again and ran with him down the stairs. She did not ask him why he was drenched in Elsie’s scent, for after long experience she had found it best not to know what Robert had been doing, so that when questioned by authority she need not lie. Nan was truthful, loving and serene and it was hard that her hair was sandy and straight and her nose too large, for she was such a dear person that she deserved to be beautiful, but people do not always get their deserts in this world. She and Robert ran down the stairs shoulder to shoulder, very companionably, for they got on well together. Though he was two years younger, the number of ideas that he had made him seem older than his age. Nan did not have many ideas of her own
because it was she who had to deal with what happened after Robert had had his.
To gain the garden door they had to pass the drawing room where Grandmama was entertaining a tea party with the Thunderbolt to help her, but there was such a clatter of cups and saucers and voices that there was no danger of their footsteps being heard. It was this tea party that had been the cause of their all being put into the Bastille. Grandmama had arranged it to show off her grandchildren, of whom, had they but known it, she was extremely proud, but they were not socially minded children and they disliked parties. It had been Robert’s idea that they should barricade themselves in one of the hen houses at the bottom of the orchard, with rhubarb stalks for weapons, and the Thunderbolt’s idea, after she and the gardener had found them and overcome the defence, too late for them to be cleaned up for the tea party, to lock them up until they should apologise; which they would not have done had she left them there all night, for they were not apologising children.
And here it should be said that neither the Thunderbolt nor Grandmama were really as bad as the children thought they were. Grandmama could be charming to those who obeyed her, and three of her four sons, the children’s father among them, were devoted to her. Only her eldest son Ambrose had not from his father that yielding gentleness which Grandmama found so pleasing in her younger sons. The children had not seen Uncle Ambrose, for he lived some distance away and did not like either visiting or being visited. Also he had
been a schoolmaster and upon retirement had been heard to remark that he hoped never to set eyes on a child again. But even he could appreciate Grandmama from a distance, and the children would perhaps have done so close to, had they given themselves time.