Missee Lee has always been the lowest selling of the Swallows & Amazons series, no doubt because of its exotic and utterly unrealistic setting, on three islands off the South China coast.
It’s an obvious sequel, or companion, to Peter Duck, a children’s tale of themselves, although no details are ever given as to the time or circumstances of its composition, nor, unlike Mr Duck, is its title character mentioned anywhere outside its pages. Many readers imagine another Norwich wherry winter, and the same kind of shenanigans that produce the six children’s earlier adventure into self-mythologisation.
But it’s a shame that this fantasy, whose original title was Poor Miss Lee, has never reached the popularity of Peter Duck, for whilst it repeats the form, it provides a story that is quite original, and not a pallid, ultimately unworkable knock-off of Treasure Island. And it is at least authentic, Ransome having drawn upon his experiences of China as a Foreign Correspondent to write this book.
So: back for another outing, at least temporarily, is the schooner, Wild Cat, crewed by Captain Flint and the children, without the assistance of either Mr Duck or any other adult sailor. They’re on a voyage round the world, and have already got to the South China Seas, where they are becalmed for days. Unfortunately, for tranquillity and progress, if not for the plot, back too is Roger’s monkey, Gibber. One bit of business with a discarded Captain Flint cigar and an open petrol tank, and Wild Cat is burning down to the waterline and its crew taking to the lifeboats, which are, of course, Swallow and Amazon.
Separately, the two boats come ashore on the Three Islands, and separately encounter the Three Island Pirates. These Pirates once were in rivalry, until they were united by Olo Lee, of Dragon Island, a Twenty-Two Gong Taicoon (as opposed to the two subordinate chiefs and Ten Gong Taicoons, Chang of Tiger Island and Wu of Turtle Island).
Olo Lee had a strict policy: never take British prisoners hostage for ransom, as this will only result in the Royal Navy putting Three Islands out of business. Despite Captain Flint claiming to be Lord Mayor of San Francisco, and therefore ‘Melican, everyone is in danger of execution. Only a piece of schoolboy silliness from Roger, writing an execrable Latin pun in someone else’s Latin Primer, saves the day.
Because the Primer belongs to Missee Lee: daughter and heir of Olo, and now herself the Twenty-Two Gong Taicoon of Three Islands. And Missee Lee is an educated woman: a western educated woman. She is, in fact, a student from Cambridge, who gave up her academic aspirations for her duty to her father, to take his place.
And she is going to keep her English prisoners, in defiance of her father’s rule, because she greatly misses her life in Cambridge, and intends to re-create it here, with the Swallows, Amazons and Captain Flint as her private class. In which Roger is Head Boy.
It’s an original idea, without a shadow of a doubt, and Ransome should be congratulated for the sheer cock-eyed absurdity of it. Of course it can’t work, it’s completely unsustainable, but while it lasts it gives Miss Lee (whom Ransome based upon Madame Sun-Yat Sen, wife of Republican China’s founding father and first President) enough of her dream that, when she realises she cannot change reality to that extent, she has committed herself sufficiently to her students that she will ensure their escape rather than allow their death.
Indeed, for a deus-ex-machina page or three, long enough to pilot the escape-Junk through a tidal bore that only she can navigate, she plans to fly with them, back to the real Cambridge. But when Chang pronounces himself Twenty-Two Gong Taicoon, Miss Lee’s true nature reasserts itself, and she returns to once more rule Three Islands. And the children set sail for London, by Junk, and don’t tell anyone, especially the Royal Navy, where to find the Three Islands.
Missee Lee is imaginative, original, and authentic. Though its central concept, of turning the children into a Latin class in a pirate’s den, is patently absurd when presented baldly, this is already an unreal story, and Ransome builds his stepping stones carefully enough to make it believable inside the delivered suspension of belief. Believable, but sadly not plausible.
It doesn’t suffer in the same way from Peter Duck‘s collision between the children’s made-up adventure and the violent ‘reality’ into which they awkwardly intrude. The violence is kept at a greater distance, providing a menace that is authentic but confined to a background element.
And yes, I did say that Secret Water was the Swallows’ last appearance in the series, yet here they are, only two books later. But these are not the Swallows of ‘real life’, who have been through the fire and come out the other end, but instead their fantasy of themselves, mixed very thoroughly in with Captain Nancy’s unbridled (and undeveloped) imagination. They are stereotypes of themselves, none more so than the cheeky, regressed schoolboy Roger.
From the exotic, Ransome returned to the domestic: more than the domestic, he returned to the Lake.
The Picts and The Martyrs is the only book in the Swallows & Amazons series to have a subtitle, or perhaps an alternate title: Not Welcome At All. It’s an apt subtitle for the book, given its content, but those who know the circumstances under which this eleventh book of the series were published will see a wider, more personal and more appropriate meaning.
But first the book: The Picts and The Martyrs features the Amazons and the Ds. It is the beginning of the fourth summer, and the Swallows are due at Holly Howe in about two weeks time, and indeed Professor and Mrs Callum are coming up to Dixon’s at about the same time. The Ds have come ahead, to Beckfoot, at the invitation of the Amazons, and to collect their own little boat, Scarab, which is almost complete. Mrs Beckett is absent, leaving Nancy in charge: she has suffered a (probably long-overdue) nervous breakdown and has been taken on a convalescent cruise around the Fjords, by Captain Flint.
Nancy’s determined to live up to the responsibility placed in her hands, but that test abruptly becomes serious when the Callums arrival is followed, almost immediately by a telegram from the Great Aunt. Having heard that her great-nieces have been left home alone, Miss Turner regards it as her duty to take over the household in Mrs Blackett’s absence.
The Amazons determine that they will take the brunt of this disaster, and will give the Great Aunt the least amount of cause to criticise their mother. But the Ds are a complicating factor. If they’re found here, it will make things unbearable for Mrs Blackett. At the same time, they refuse to allow the Callum’s holiday to be spoiled in the way their’s will, so the Ds are swept off to a windowless stone cabin in the woods, which will become their home/camp until the GA is gone. The Ds become a secret tribe, like the Picts of old, whilst the Amazons martyr themselves for the cause.
What no-one expects at first is just how great the lie that Dick and Dorothea don’t exist has to become. It’s the greatest aspect of this book that Ransome, in calling up nearly every supporting or peripheral character that has previously appeared in the Lakes books, he shows not only how much a part of their world the Amazons are, and, by extension, the Ds as well, but integrates everyone into a community of equals.
A sequence of misadventures and narrow squeaks ensues, as the great lie is forced to travel wilder. To everyone’s relief, the Great Aunt, who has never heard of the Ds, develops a suspicion that the Swallows are about, which enables Nancy and Peggy to avoid direct lying. meanwhile the Ds take receipt of Scarab and practice sailing with and without the assistance of the Amazons (and find the latter to be far preferable).
Ultimately, the Great Aunt’s visit comes to its penultimate date. The Amazons are allowed bail for a day. They return to find Miss Turner missing: gone for a drive, the car runs out of petrol, when her driver returns she is gone.
It’s a disaster of tremendous proportion, and the entire district turns out to look for the missing lady, except of course for Dick and Dorothea, who, being the last people who must meet the Great Aunt, are sent to hide out on the Houseboat. Unfortunately, thanks to the kind assistance of Mary Swainson, the one person in the whole Lake country who doesn’t know that the Ds presence is a secret, that is where Miss Turner has been all night. And it is impossible for the Callums not to acceded to her request to be taken back to Beckfoot, in time to catch her train.
Once again, the enterprise balances on the edge of failure. But Miss Turner’s acid response to the spectacle that has been created by her absence – which, as far as she has been concerned, has been no absence at all – takes up so much attention that the Callums are able to let Scarab drift down the river, out of sight, and out of the need to accept Miss Turner’s thanks and give their names.
So all is well, the plot has worked, the Amazons have undergone a test of strength that might have been the equivalent of the Swallows’ trial in We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea – and the rest of the summer holidays stretch out ahead.
Unfortunately, we would never see what adventures might have resulted.
The Picts and The Martyrs was another critical and commercial success for Ransome, with reviewers praising him for the realisation that children enjoy recognition as much as discovery, and the comfortable friendliness of the Lake country of the early books was a delight to them. But for Ransome’s mother, however, it would never have been published at all.
Like many an author’s spouse, Evgenia Ransome enjoyed the privileged position of First Reader, once Ransome considered the book to be complete. Unfortunately, her naturally pessimistic (Russian?) temperament led her to abuse this role. Evgenia was a great supporter of Arthur’s work, full of confidence about it, avid in her praise and enthusiasm. But only after the book had been published, and become a commercial success. When the manuscript first came to her, she was cutting, pessimistic, continually downgrading its quality. ‘Not much worse than the worst of the earlier ones’ is about the kindest comment that biographer Hugh Brogan finds to reprint. But once this shoddy, inadequate, hopeless effort, that was sure to destroy Arthur’s career if he let it be published had been read and praised, then it became as much a classic, and a bar against which the next book would be measured as all his other works.
Ransome was happy with The Picts and The Martyrs. Entirely confident, he broke with his usual policy and sent a copy to Jonathan Cape’s at the same time as giving it to Evgenia. It provoked a perfect storm. Evgenia put her foot down. The book was bad, dreadful, it would destroy his career and their income, it was not to be published. If Cape’s had not already got it, and been eager to publish it, in all probability it would never have appeared. Even so, it took a long time to overcome Evgenia’s objections, and it took the intervention of Ransome’s mother, who had read and supported the manuscript, to get her to recant. Still, she saw it as a betrayal, and was miserable and savage about it for a long time. Not Welcome At All.