Swallows & Amazons was, as Ransome intended, the story of the summer just past, but presented for and to the Altounyan children. Adults are, for the most part, removed from the story, until the soothing post-storm final chapter, when they turn up in boatloads, literally. Mrs Walker is Mother, a calm and wise presence just outside the children’s experience, ready to step in and resolve things if it proves necessary, whilst Captain Flint, the supposedly-retired pirate, is at heart nothing but a big kid himself. At a stroke, Ransome had invented a new form of Children’s Literature, the Holiday adventure, where the children are allowed to go off and create their own amusement and enjoyment. It’s a form that’s been ubiquitous since, and which seems so right and logical that it is amazing that it had not existed before then. But in this instance, it was Arthur Ransome who invented the form.
The Swallows are the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, in order of seniority, with baby Vicky (so-called for her resemblance to the late Queen) not yet given her proper title in honour of the baby Altounyan daughter. The Walkers are on holiday at Holly Howe, on the eastern shore of the Lake, whilst Commander Walker is on active service overseas. The farm has Swallow in its boathouse, the Lake has an island of the right size, in the right place and the children want to camp there. Consent is required from the head of the family, and the book begins with the famous telegram that gives consent in an oblique way: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. So off the Swallows go in their little boat to create their own little world, part real, part made-up out of the ingredients of the Lake, including the man on the houseboat in the next bay, who has a cannon on board (in reality, a starter cannon for races), who they immediately name Captain Flint.
The first hundred pages of the book depict the Swallows settling in, and exploring their environment, naming places left, right and centre. Their future partners in crime, the Amazons, are glimpsed, but not introduced: two girls in red stocking caps, sailing a white-sailed fourteen footer out of Houseboat Bay, having let a firework off on the roof of Uncle Jim’s boat: the Swallows sail out in curiosity and are blamed by Captain Flint as they are the only boat in sight. They return to camp only to find that strangers have been there in their absence, leaving a green-feathered arrow stuck in the middle of the camp.
The parties soon come together, in a truce that immediately ends in a declaration of enemyship and a challenge to each side to capture the others’ boat in order to become Admiral of the Fleet. The Amazons, who were based on the image of two girls wearing red stocking caps and messing about in a boat, are Nancy and Peggy Blackett, daughters to a widowed mother, living near the head of the Lake, Properly they are Ruth and Margaret, but Peggy is a diminutive of the latter name and, as for Nancy, she has chosen the name herself, loathing Ruth, and anyway, as Uncle Jim pointed out, Amazon Pirates were ruthless (groan!). The middle of the book focusses on the great battle to capture Swallow or Amazon, which is won, accidentally, by the Swallows, or rather Titty, left alone on Wild Cat Island to hang the leading lights for night sailors to make harbour, and nicking Amazon when the Amazons get there first.
Titty’s night alone in the boat provides the key to the little bit of melodrama that Ransome feels obliged to introduce to the book. It seems that some lads down at Bigland, at the foot of the Lake, have been wondering what’s so valuable that Mr Turner keeps locked up on his houseboat. They conduct a raid on the night of the great battle but, finding the trunk locked, they stash it on the small island to which the sleepy Titty is moored in Amazon. The trunk contains the manuscript of Captain Flint’s memoirs, Mixed Moss (by A Rolling Stone), and the eventual discovery of the trunk cements the growing relationship between Uncle Jim and the Swallows after he realises he has been very wrong in attributing the burglary to, first, his nieces, and then the wholly innocent Swallows.
With all done and dusted, the Amazons join the Swallows at camp on the island, only for everyone to be caught in a severe storm that blows away the Swallows’ Australian tents. Everyone gathers in the Amazon’s tents, taking off into pure fantasy, constructing a story around their being ship-wrecked, the terrors they’ve been through to get there, and the long Robinson Crusoe-esque future ahead of them: far from the case when all the adults descend to rescue the children the following morning, with hot porridge and lifts back to shore. all that remains is a holiday picnic afternoon in another feature of the lake that the local Amazons know and the visiting Swallows are introduced to, and then the holiday is over, and everyone goes back to school.
Swallows & Amazons was not an instant hit. It was published by Jonathan Cape & Co in 1930 and sold slowly, but steadily, drawing upon word of mouth to eventually sell its initial impression of 3,000 copies. For the next impression, the book’s appeal was enhanced by adding a map on the endpapers, twenty full-page illustrations by Clifford Webb. Ransome was not satisfied by Webb’s work, which concentrated more upon visual appeal than on fidelity to the settings, and in due time would replace them, and the map, with his own work. My copy, bought like most the series from the bookstalls at Shudehill in Manchester, during the first half of the sixties, has Webb’s work, which is splendidly atmospheric.
Though it would still be some time until Swallows & Amazons was established as the best-selling classic it would become, its sales were sufficient to have Cape’s commission a sequel. Ransome was already working on one.
What he had in mind was taken off Swallows & Amazons‘ penultimate chapter, the children’s own made-up adventure in the tent at night. Ransome wanted to go the whole hog, write a book that would come from the children themselves. Indeed, the book would include the children’s making up of the story, as the abandoned beginning demonstrates. It’s the winter following the summer of S&A and Captain Flint has hired a static Norwich wherry as a holiday for the children. There, they begin to invent their story.
Evgenia, however, did not like it. Not for the last time, she would prove an influence over Ransome’s writing, and though at this time, her objections to the story ended up with positive results, in time, her gloom and discouragement about the standard of each new work, her fearful concern for the possible effect upon their income, would undermine Ransome to the point where he could no longer worked. This time, her objections were that it was too different to S&A, and that it broke the implicit promise of a direct sequel that Ransome had made in the closing pages of the first novel, with the children promising to meet up the following summer. Under Evgenia’s influence, Ransome abandoned his new book, and the potentially unsustainable structure of the children making things up as they went along. But he would not abandon his idea completely.
The sequel was entitled Swallowdale. It’s the longest book in the series, and also the one in which the least conventional adventure happens. Famously, Ransome had already begun getting letters from excited readers who believed – perceptively – that the Swallows and Amazons were real people, and anxious for a sequel. Ransome asked one eager young fan what he thought should happen in a sequel. The boy suggested that, with Captain John’s somewhat smug confidence in himself as a sailor, it would be a good idea for him to have a crash, and sink Swallow. The delighted Ransome, whilst not giving anything away, heavily hinted in return that he had already thought of this.
Swallowdale takes place in the school holidays of the second summer. The Walkers arrive at Holly Howe, with a surprisingly articulate two year old Bridget (no longer called Vicky because she no longer looks like the Queen – Ransome had, by this time, holidayed at Aleppo and seen for himself). They expect to carry on where last summer left off, but are disappointed not to find the Amazons meeting them at the station, nor at camp on Wild Cat Island.
It seems that the Amazons’ time is being strictly controlled by their Great Aunt Maria, a very Victorian spinster lady with strict and outmoded views on the behaviour of children. The GA, as she is quickly termed, brought up Mrs Blackett and Uncle Jim, who are just as afraid of her as everyone else, indeed more so. The Amazons are towing the line less out of fear for themselves than out of a determination to do as little as possible to give the GA cause to reproach their mother. In the meantime, it’s going to put a crimp in summer plans.
Unfortunately, there’s an even bigger crimp on the horizon. Waking late, rushing and careless to get down to Horseshoe Bay for a meeting with the Amazons, Captain John loses control, and smashes Swallow into an underwater rock. Exactly as Ransome’s fans had wanted to see! But once the mistake is over, seamanship instinct asserts itself. As his siblings swim ashore, John throws Swallow’s anchor as far towards the beach as he can. Then, as a fire is quickly lit to dry the wet Walkers, he dives into the bay to locate the anchor, trace it back to Swallow and, in successive efforts, remove its ballast and redeem himself somewhat by getting the boat raised and beached before adult help is to hand.
Adult help is Captain Flint, who takes command, tows the damaged Swallow to the boatbuilders in Rio and, still indebted to the Swallows over the rescue of Mixed Moss, undertakes the costs of repair. But in the meantime, the Swallows are off the water and the holiday is potentially ruined.
Smart work by the Amazons gets the Wild Cat Island camp transferred to Horseshoe bay before Mrs Walker arrives to do a headcount of her children and authorised their continued camping. They are, at least, on land, though the wrong side of the Lake for her. But Titty and Roger have a surprise for the Swallows.
On an earlier visit to Horseshoe Bay, the youngest children had followed the beck upstream, to discover a compact, hidden valley, with waterfalls at each end, and a glorious cave in one flank (a cave unknown to the Amazons, though Captain Flint remembers it from his childhood). The camp moves to the valley, which is named Swallowdale, and the Walkers settle down to their new surroundings.
The weeks pass, waiting for Swallow’s repair. The Amazons conduct an overland raid, unsuccessfully, but get into trouble for being back late. Titty, in a very weird sequence, tries to make a voodoo doll of the GA, to make her ill enough to go away. But sooner or later, the GA’s visit ends, and the children celebrate with an expedition to climb Kanchenjunga (otherwise known in real life as Coniston Old Man).
This achieved, the story takes its only venture into the dramatic. The walkers have crossed the moor to reach Beckfoot for the expedition, leaving ‘patterans’ to guide them back. Titty and Roger insist on returning by that route, whilst their elders complete their journey by boat. But fog descends on the valley, and the two youngsters get lost, end up in the wrong valley and Roger sustains a sprained ankle. He sleeps overnight in a charcoal burner’s hut, his ankle wrapped in a poultice, Titty is given a lift back to Horseshoe Bay by the Woodcutters and there’s time in the morning for Mrs Walker, arriving at Swallowdale before the ‘stretcher’ with Roger on it is back to get entirely the wrong idea and panic.
This mild flavour aside, there is nothing of drama or melodrama in this book, as there will be in the rest of the series, but that doesn’t make Swallowdale a dull book. Ransome maintains his audiences’ interest throughout with deft ease and a growing assurance in his craft. Swallowdale was published with more maps and pictures from Webb and its young audience snapped up the awaited sequel in sufficient numbers to secure Ransome in his career as a children’s author. Now it was time to tell the children’s fantasy.