“I have under my arm the best children’s book of 1937.”
“Oh? When did you finish it?”
The above words were an understandable exchange between Arthur Ransome and his polite publisher, Jonathan Cape. But Ransome was not referring to his forthcoming Swallows & Amazons novel (in respect of which he would have been entirely justified in self-aggrandisement) but a work that is perhaps the strangest, and most wonderful part of the entire story of Ransome’s work.
The book to which Ransome referred was The Far-Distant Oxus, which Cape would indeed publish, as well as its two sequels. And it was a Ransome novel in all but a couple of details. That it was set on Exmoor rather than on the Lake, and centred upon ponies, not sailing. And that it was written by two teenage school-girls, Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock.
Hull and Whitlock went to the same boarding school but, being in different houses, did not encounter each other until caught in a rainstorm. They discovered a shared interest in ponies and Arthur Ransome books, and decided to write their own story: “for children, about children, by children”.
Unlike the enthusiastic but amateur Dorothea Callum, the girls planned their story in a most professional manner. They discussed their characters, their setting, the Ransome-esque fantasy of Exmoor as Persia, and the river around which the adventures would be set as the “Far-Distant Oxus” of Matthew Arnold’s epic poem Sohrab and Rustum.
Then, their story planned, the girls took turns to write a chapter at a time, swapping their work at the end of each chapter for the other to revise. And in this manner, which was as unusual, but as effective in practice, as Ransome’s own approach, The Far-Distant Oxus was written.
(Ransome’s practice, after Swallows & Amazons itself, was to plot each novel in great detail, then, on any given day, pick up and work on whichever chapter he felt most interested in writing, creating his books like a crazy quilt, in far from chronological order.)
Oxus is an enthusiastic, vibrant book, whose antecedents are not hard to guess. There are, once again, six children, this time balanced equally between boys and girls, and split across three families: the Hunterleys, Bridget, Anthony and Frances, arriving at Cloud Farm for a summer holiday, whose parents are in Sumatra (a rubber plantation?), the Clevertons, Peter and Jennifer, who live not far away with their (widower?) father, and there is Maurice. We’ll get back to Maurice.
As a story, Oxus is far less structured than any of Ransome’s novels. The Hunterleys love ponies and want to ride. A note from Maurice invites them to a late night get-together at the watersmeet, where they team up with him and the Clevertons for the summer. There’s no story, really, just a rush and tumble of things done.
The children build a log hut (in a single afternoon, complete with windows), run away with prizes at the Village Fête and win a pig (which they name Sohrab, most unfairly). Maurice acts in an amateur play, they ‘adopt’ a wild foal which they name Ruksh, and when it’s caught up in the round-up, they set it free at night.
The second half of the book is taken up with a week-long expedition down the Oxus to the Aral Sea on a home-made raft, and an overland journey back. Then it’s back to school, though not without a quite intriguing, and mysterious ending.
That the authors are children is quite clear from the bravado with which they go at everything, the implausible skill everyone has at everything, and the airy dismissal of the adult world and its concerns for their well-being. Mr Cleverton is impossibly complaisant, allowing Peter and Jennifer do anything they want, even to the point, when Jennifer develops a heavy cold on the last day, of allowing her to go out at night to climb in the dark onto Mount Elbruz, the highest point around, where the children are setting off a beacon.
He also disappears off all the time, indulging his pastimes with his friends, and leaving his already unsupervised children completely free of any adult oversight.
On the other hand, the Hunterleys are under the nominal care of the Fradds of Cloud Farm, except that when they do things the Fradds don’t approve of, like set off behind their backs for a week-long expedition, they never have to face any comeback.
The children’s effortless superiority at everything is excusable in itself, but it is attached to the book’s least appealing trait, and one that does not come from Ransome. Whether at the Lake or on the Broads, Ransome’s worlds are completely democratic. That there is an ingrained class system can’t be doubted, but in his world everyone is an equal, of value whatever their role or station. If there is a hierarchy in Ransome, it is of skill, not class.
In contrast. Hull and Whitlock’s children are opinionated, and constantly aware of their superiority. As the book goes on, and they travel to and from the Sea, their patronising comments, and their distaste for working people who aren’t on farms, becomes ever more noticeable.
But let’s remember that this isn’t a social novel, and that, just as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were superior to everyone around them, Hull and Whitlock, in their lack of experience, are in this respect a product of their times. It’s an indication of how much Ransome is the better for his refusal to go down that path.
On a more positive note, Hull and Whitlock are far freer with their characters than Ransome, mixing and splitting the families with irreverent abandon. Like Ransone’s children, the Huntertons and the Cleverlys are in thrall to a moral code that, strictly, derives from an older era. But they can discuss their future, and their ambitions, without being tied to family duty as are the Walkers, and their fantasy of converting Exmoor into the Persia of Arnold’s Persia is ultimately more of a sideshow to the sheer joy of what they are doing for the moment.
And there is an element to The Far-Distant Oxus that is never even dreamt of in Ransome: sex.
It’s never on the surface, never overt, but it’s an ever present sub-text, a product of Hull and Whitlock’s subconsciouses at the ages of 14 and 15 respectively, from the very moment Maurice is seen, at a distance, in the opening chapter.
Who is Maurice, and what is he? Maurice is a Mystery, with a capital M. He’s 14, sunburned, dark-haired, lithe. He’s hypercompetent, and the other children look up to him, especially the girls. He is the great unknown of the book: Peter’s friend from the year ahead at (boarding) school, surname unknown, the boy without a tie. He sleeps out on the moor throughout the summer, first in the woods, then in the miracle hut the children build. He avoids questions, and the one time he is directly confronted and challenged to explain who he is, he flares up in anger and runs off.
At the end of the book, Maurice, the unquestioned leader, sets the children to building the beacon on Mount Elbruz but disappears for the afternoon. He’s back for the beacon-burning, but rides off abruptly as the fires die down. In a memorable sequence, as the children await his return, four more beacons flare into light across the tops, one by one, until the night ends it dark.
There’s no sex in Ransome, not even the merest trickle of sexuality among the older boys and girls as they start to grow up, but it’s here in Maurice: the ideal boy, at the cusp of turning into a man, an unapproachable hormone-stimulus about which an adolescent girl could imagine almost anything. Ransome couldn’t have written anything like that, but Kathleen Hull and Pamela Whitlock could, out of their own senses, with a patent lack of calculation.
The Far-Distant Oxus, with Ransome’s backing, was enough of a success for two sequels to be written and published, Summer at Oxus and Escape to Persia. Whereas Oxus has been republished twice in the last two decades, its sequels have yet to escape from rare book heaven. The girls wrote a fourth novel together, Crowns, before ending their partnership.
But its a testament to Ransome that he inspired such enthusiasm, and an even greater testament to Kathleen Hull and Pamela Whitlock that they rose to enthusiasm to produce a genuine book, an odd, but deserved addendum to the Swallows & Amazons series.
“I have under my arm the best children’s book of 1937.”