Your book The Runaway (1872) is a Victorian children’s novel that quietly subverted everything I normally expect from the genre.
The story revolves around a pair of children. The fifteen-year-old Clarice is the only daughter of a widowed merchant. One day, while strolling through her garden, she comes across a mysterious girl, Olga (the eponymous runaway), who claims she has fled from an unbearable boarding school for girls in Yorkshire. When Clarice agrees to hide Olga in the mansion, a story full of eccentric twists and turns gradually unfolds.
Clarice is our typical kind-hearted, conscientious, obedient Victorian girl – but with a twist. She is an imaginative and lonely child who secretly yearns to have the kind of adventurous life she reads about in books. “Oh that I had been born a knight and a hero, in the days when knighthood was a glory (…).” Charmed by Olga, Clarice seems to have found in her new friend the adventure she has always longed for. Olga comes in her life like a strong breath of wind: this vibrant, impetuous, mischievous girl has a gift for saying and doing the unexpected. Worse still, Olga is simply unable to keep herself – and, by extension, her friend Clarice – out of trouble: she climbs on the roof, hides on trees, impersonates people, and even successfully poses as a ghost.
Like Clarice, we cannot help but be charmed – and intrigued – by Olga. You keep us glued to the page by a constant tensioning and softening of the thread we are made to follow through: we cannot help but wonder whether or not Olga will be found out, and whether or not she is telling the truth about herself.
Furthermore, you introduce a critical subtext about the submissiveness Victorian girls were forced into. Without ever adopting a preachy tone, you manage to warm your readers to the plea for a way of life where girls can break the rules, cultivate their talents, follow their curiosity, and lead an unconventional, adventurous life. Like Olga, we begin to find it very odd indeed that more girls don’t run away from school.
I confess that I am frequently guilty of reading too much into a book, but this time I felt almost sure I even noticed a dash of queerness in your novel: the friendship between Clarice and Olga seems enveloped in seduction and flirting. Olga even says, at one point, that they should live together in an old cottage and “wear men’s hats.”
We are carried along not only by your daring, queer subtext and numerous plot twists, but also by Clarice’s constant self-questioning: is she doing the right thing? Is Clarice a victim of her bookishness, her longing for performing heroic deeds? Or is she the only morally correct character in the story? Should she follow her instincts, or should she follow the long-accepted social rules? Is she guilty of deception, or is deception sometimes morally necessary? Is the reason for following a rule more important than the rule itself? Can a behaviour be right and wrong at the same time?
In guiding us through these questions, you never shy away from ambiguity. Moreover, you play with our doubts, miss- and preconceptions, to the point of weaving them into a subdued satire of the so-called “grown-up” world. Populated by men and women who are more concerned with being perceived as good than with being good, this “grown-up” world is simply too childish and dull for our little heroine. Much like Miss Simmonds, her governess, a woman “whom it was easier to respect than to love”, with “few original ideas” and “a well-regulated mind”. While the adults in her life seem to move around in a black-and-white world, Clarice is inadvertently thrown into a much more complex and lively place: the grey zone.
“I think it’s such nonsense about being clever or stupid – that’s what they were always boring on at, at school. We’re ourselves, and what does it signify?” – The Runaway, by Elizabeth Anna Hart
“I wonder if you are one of those Norwegian spirits, who appear on the sea-shore after a storm, and marry the King of the country, and go on just like ladies, till some word or act dissolves the spell, and then they turn into wandering spirits again. With your name and your face, and your may of talking, I think you are more like one of them than a real girl. Are you a real girl, Olga?” – The Runaway, by Elizabeth Anna Hart
“Oh !” cried Clarice impatiently, “it is so easy to make anything seem as if it must be; anything can be described as if it was something else, and then can be described over again like itself, and nothing seem wrong or as if it wasn’t.” “Well, I suppose you understand what you mean by that wonderful piece of argument, but I confess I don’t; you are going quite beyond me now. Let me see. What is it? Everything is nothing at all, and everybody is somebody else. Was that what you said, Clarice?” – The Runaway, by Elizabeth Anna Hart
“I think that is the very oddest thing in life, Clarice. I never can fancy at the time: it always seems to me that whatever is happening must go on, and that we can’t go on, out of it.” – The Runaway, by Elizabeth Anna Hart