Arthur Ransome: The Might-Have-Been

In 1931, fresh from the completion of Swallowdale, Arthur Ransome conceived of an idea that he confidently boasted to friends would be “his very best book!!!!”. It was about “an old schoolteacher and a fisherman and a boy and a river.” It was to be set in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and would be called The River Comes First.
But Ransome took no steps to realise the book then, wanting to let it “ferment”. It had fermented for a dozen years, and now it seemed time to brew.
Evgenia’s objections to The Picts and The Martyrs had done worse than almost prevent its publication. Throughout his life, Ransome had been trying to make-up for the lack of faith, of approval, that his parents, and particularly his father who had died too soon, had instilled in him. No matter how successful he was, how good the reviews, how overwhelming the response from his audience, Ransome needed encouragement, and never more so than during the writing of a new book that, to one extent or another, always seemed dull, flat, bad, unimaginative, in some combination whilst being composed.
This time, the response had been so negative, so savage, that it had reflected all his weakest fears. Worst still, his wife’s hurt at her instructions being ignored, her bitterness and temper, had made Ransome’s life, and health, very unhappy.
And in this time of trouble he returned to The River Comes First.
The book was to tell the young life of Tom Stainton, a 12 year old boy who, like the Swallows originally, and like Peter Duke, was the portrayal of a real person, Tom Staunton, keeper of the River Bela in Westmorland, a fishing river that was a great favourite of Arthur’s father. Ransome wanted to tell the story of how young Stainton (the name change was to represent a gentle distancing from the real man, and from the restrictions of his actual history) reached the life that gave him such contentment.
Brogan outlines the story in the Biography. Tom is the son of the local gamekeeper and a lad already well-tuned to his countryside. He is also bright enough to be a successful scholar. When he and enemy-turned-friend, poacher’s son Bob Lidgett prevent a massive act of poaching in the district, Tom’s qualities are recognised by a visiting gentleman, who takes him off to London, where he can better himself. But Tom ends up neglected, working in a tackle-shop, until he realises he is being set up for a robbery: Tom runs away and gets himself back home, where he is rewarded by being made keeper’s assistant, and setting himself on his right road.
Ransome did all the usual things, a complete, detailed outline, divided into chapters, and set about things in his old fashion, writing whatever chapters seemed easiest at the time. At first, he wrote in the first person, capturing the ‘voice’ of old Tom with great skill. But to maintain this over thirty-one chapters felt perilously like artistry for its own sake, plus the unlikelihood of the keeper writing an autobiography, so he began recasting it in the third person.
And one day, he stopped. The River Comes First died on that day.
Why was this? The finger has largely to be pointed at Evgenia. She had cut through the roots of what confidence Ransome had had in himself by her fervour over The Picts and The Martyrs. She had never had the slightest confidence in The River Comes First, because it was so radically different from what had always been, and because she believed Ransome’s audience was attracted to something that they could possibly do themselves, and would turn their backs on something set at a time almost a century gone.
She had even placed ‘a local veto’ on the idea of writing more books at all!
All of which drained Ransome’s crippled confidence. Even the fact that two publishers were eager to publish the book, and that Cape’s had already contacted a leading nature artist over illustrations, did not help. His insecurities betrayed him.
Does this all matter? After all, it was not until Hugh Brogan’s Biography that the vast majority of Ransome’s audience were even aware of this abandoned project. But once they knew, they clamoured for some sight of it. And they were rewarded when Brogan went on to edit a miscellania of work by Ransome, and included what was publishable of what had been written: the opening four chapters recast into the third person, and a complete episode in the first person.
No other fragments of the book were capable of being published without far too much supporting material. But Brogan refers in the Biography to a third section, set during Tom’s long return from London, when he falls in with a gypsy girl of similar age, and the two banter.
In this unpublished fragment, Brogan detects the unmistakable tang of burgeoning sexuality, as in Hull and Whitlock’s Maurice in The Far-Distant Oxus. It’s an element rigidly excluded from the Swallows & Amazons books, in which there is no sense that these are boys or girls in their mid-teens: ultimately, the Walkers, Blacketts and Callums are frozen children, denied the ability to grow (though it would have been really interesting to see the post-We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea Swallows in a proper book once more).
But even in the parts we can read, the evidence is of Ransome in peak form. He’d written eleven books featuring the same children in varying combinations, he was nearly sixty, and he was finding it difficult to conceive of more things to do with them. There is enough here to hold out the very real hope of rejuvenation of his imaginative abilities and, if Brogan is correct, to begin to grow with his children of fiction.
It was a Might-Have-Been that never was. Evgenia did not kill off The Picts and The Martyrs. But by the implacability of what she did, both to that book, and to The River Comes First she did achieve what she so wrongly feared The Picts would do: she killed Ransome’s career.

2 thoughts on “Arthur Ransome: The Might-Have-Been

  1. Hi I dont know how to get in touch But I have read and enjoyed tempus fugitive and enjoyed it and would like you to visit our reading group (sifi) to discuss it and writing in general its to day at the libary 5.30 minor hall failig that this time next month please contact me on


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