This is a question I sometimes try on people. He ran away from home at the age of 18 to take part in the artistic Bohemia of London in the 1900s. He wrote a literary biography of Oscar Wilde that included the first publication of any part of Die Profundis, which attracted the second great Criminal Libel suit relating to Wilde, and which made him a cause celebre. He ran away from his wife and daughter to be a Foreign Correspondent in Russia, and was an eye-witness to the Russian Revolution. He wrote an account that is regarded as second only to John Reed’s classic Ten Days that shook the World, he played chess with Lenin and married Trotsky’s secretary. For years he was exiled from England and regarded as a dangerous Bolshevik. After his return, he was dispatched to China, where he met Sun-Yat Sen, and wrote a weekly fishing column. But what is he famous for?
They never get it, which is hardly surprising, although the more widely-read may get an inkling from the mention of the fishing column. He is famous for writing Swallows and Amazons, and inventing the Children’s holiday adventure story, for this is a potted version of the life of Arthur Ransome, until the age of 44. It always comes as a surprise.
The title of this essay is the original dedication to the book, which has been suppressed now for over half a century. In part, this essay is the story behind that dedication.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Ransome a hero of mine, but he’s someone who has always fascinated me. I was introduced to his books before the age of 10, ironically being given the last of his twelve Swallows and Amazons novels to read before any of the others. Though the books are indelibly wedded to their era (though written between 1929 and 1948, the children talk as products of the 1920s throughout, and the dozen novels cover a fictional period of only four years), underneath the “Look here”s and the middle class stiffness of Captain John Walker (one of two characters in the series who stood for Ransome himself), the books still stand up as intelligent and serious stories that do not look or write down to the audience.
Ransome wanted to be a writer from a very early age. He lost his father when only 13, (the news conveyed to him with typical British callousness by the Headmaster of Rugby), but in his teens adopted a father figure in the form of the historian and writer W G Collingwood, formerly secretary to John Ruskin. Ransome found himself absorbed into the Collingwood family as an extra son, and indeed at one point proposed to become a son-in-law, suggesting an engagement to Dora Collingwood. Thankfully for literature, she turned him down, recognising his immaturity and lack of purpose, and went on to marry a half-Syrian Doctor, Ernest Altounyan.
Arthur would go on to marry, most unwisely, one Ivy Walker. Ivy was an excitable woman, eager for adventure and excitement, and very much a fantasist, pretending all manner of dramatic things. Arthur, who was dedicated to writing and to Story, soon found what he had let himself in for, though the couple had a daughter Tabitha that they both loved.
Ransome wrote profusely and prolifically in the first dozen years of the century. His biographer, Hugh Brogan, has read these books, of which only two remain in print and, in Brogan’s estimation, quite rightly so. They say that every writer has hundreds of bad stories in him that he must write before he can get to the good stuff, and reading Brogan’s sometimes quite detailed descriptions of Ransome’s works, it seems that most of Arthur’s went into print. The one that he regretted most was, however, not among these. Not only did Ransome wish to write Story, he was an avid student, and a skilful technical analyst of Story itself. In 1912, he wrote the aforementioned literary biography of Wilde, and was allowed to quote extensively from the then-unpublished Die Profundis. Wilde’s fall had come from a famous and unsuccessful criminal libel trial against the Marquess of Queensbury, father of Wilde’s love, Lord Alfred Douglas, who abandoned Wilde after his committal to Reading Gaol. Die Profundis is a long cry of despair and rage by Wilde at his abandonment. The former ‘Bosie’, now himself Marquess of Queensbury, and perennially in need of money, sued Ransome.
Ivy was in her element, Ransome in despair. The trial lasted several weeks, with attendant publicity comparable to the excesses of our own age, and though it ended in acquittal for Ransome, the stress had opened his eyes to the state of his marriage. Taking a Foreign Correspondent’s position in Moscow, he left England for many years.
There, in addition to his journalistic duties, which he pursued with enthusiasm and intelligence, honing and clarifying his prose style, Ransome also studied Russian Folk-Tales with intensity. The first of his books to remain in print, Old Peter’s Russian Tales, collects Ransome’s interpretations of a dozen Russian children’s stories, about night, the forest, aloneness and the life of the Russian peasant. Ransome created mediators in the form of Old Peter, who tells these stories to his grandchildren, Maroosa and Vanya, guiding them in learning the folklore of their land.
More should and would have followed (a second volume, of just tales, without Old Peter and his kin, were published in 1984, long after Ransome’s death in 1967), but the Revolution intervened, and for several years it became the central focus of Ransome’s career and his writing.
It’s been suggested that Ransome was working as an Agent for MI6 during this period, and he would not have been the first nor the last journalist to take on such an auxiliary role but, as Brogan details, the longer the Revolution went on, and the closer Ransome got to the dominating Bolsheviks, the more his writing begins to unconsciously reflect their influence: hence his denouncement privately in the Foreign Office. The truth was that Ransome, whose ideal at heart was England’s interests, was on the ground and unable to see the circumstances of Russia, whereas the Foreign Office were utterly opposed to the idea of the Bolsheviks, and continued to oppose them long past the point at which they were the only stabilising force in Russia (even if the lack of alternatives was deliberately created by themselves).
It was during this period that Ransome’s life was, again, changed, by the tall, forthright Evgenia Shelepina, the elder of two sisters working in Trotsky’s office. The two became acquainted, struck up a friendship and then came an incident when Evgenia, descending from the Russian equivalent of a tram, slipped and almost fell beneath its wheels. The emotions of that moment confirmed for the couple their feelings for each other, though it was to be many years before Ransome could negotiated a divorce from Ivy, playing the part of the scorned woman to the hilt, and permission to bring Evgenia to England as his wife. It would cost Ransome dear, financially and emotionally. Ivy insisted on retaining his extensive Library of carefully collected books, thinking that a career in which literary criticism played a leading role would be killed by such selfishness. Worse still, she set about poisoning Tabitha against her father, including such things as telling the girl to turn down a holiday with her father as his only intention in asking his daughter was to drown her.
By now, Ransome had long been in the service of the Manchester Guardian, where he was close friends with Ted Scott, son and heir of the legendary C P Scott, and destined to step into his father’s shoes as Editor. Ransome would be one of Ted’s closest allies in the battle to assert himself when the time came, but, in the meantime, he was concerned about his own career. He was a success as a Foreign Correspondent, but his aspirations towards Story were being frustrated, and he was beginning to fear being trapped forever as a journalist. Despite feeling it to be a betrayal of his friend at a time when he needed allies, Ransome resigned from the paper in the spring of 1929, to avoid being sent abroad once more. At that time, he had no idea of what he would do instead.
As mentioned above, Dora Collingwood had married Ernest Altounyan who, jointly with his father, owned a hospital in Syria on the banks of Lake Aleppo. The couple had had five children, Tacqui (a girl), Susan, Mavis, Roger, and the baby Bridget. The coincidence in names is, of course, not a coincidence.
The Altounyans were holidaying in England, at the Collingwood family home near the head of Coniston Water, with Arthur and Evgenia living at Low Ludderburn, above its secluded eastern shore. Between them, the Ransomes and the Altounyans bought two fourteen foot boats in which to sail on the Lake throughout the summer. At the end, each family would take one, and it was agreed that the Ransomes should keep the boat that was the favourite of all, Swallow.
It was an idyllic summer, of sun, sailing, exploring, fishing and games. The party often visited Peel Island, near Coniston’s eastern shore, a wooded island with an easy bay on its eastern shore at which to land, and a ‘secret harbour’ at its rocky southern end, with only one safe route into its harbour.
But September came, and with it the Altounyans’ departure drew near. Ransome had to take some decisions about what he was to do next with his life. Whilst this was worrying him, Ernest Altounyan rung to ask if he could call round the following afternoon. Ransome agreed, but grumpily insisted that Altounyan should come alone, and not bring the children. At the appointed hour, with Ransome in his first floor study, the car pulled up, disgorging all the children. Ransome stumped downstairs, ready to give Altounyan a piece of his mind, only to be greeted by Tacqui and Mavis, each carrying an ornate red leather Turkish slipper. It had been Ransome’s birthday the previous day, though he hadn’t noticed, and these were a gift. A splendid afternoon was had.
Ransome remained abashed at his ungracious temper and, once the Altounyans had returned to a dry desert land, with no chance of sailing (Lake Aleppo had temporarily slipped his imagination), he wanted to give them a gift in return. A present of the summer they had enjoyed, for them to keep forever. What he devised became Swallows and Amazons.
Much of the book is drawn from the Cumbrian countryside and the adventures of that real-life summer. Peel Island went into the story as Wild Cat Island, but Rio and its Bay was borrowed from Windermere, and the Lake, in size and shape, is a hybrid of the two lakes. As a perhaps unconscious gesture of reconciliation with his first wife, the children took Ivy’s surname of Walker, whilst Ransome wrote himself deliberately into the book as Captain Flint, aka the Amazons’ Uncle Jim: a balding, perspiring, much-travelled man whose treasure is the manuscript of his book (that’s not Mixed Moss that is stolen by the Bigland crooks, but Swallows and Amazons itself!). But that wasn’t Ransome’s only place in the story.
The Swallows are the Altounyan children, down to Mavis’s unusual, and now very uncomfortable nickname of Titty, though Dora Altounyan was somewhat puzzled to find herself transformed into an Australian. But the most significant problem for Ransome was the eldest child, Tacqui. Given the times in which Ransome wrote, it would be unusual to have a girl as the leader, and it was undeniably more commercial to have a two-boy, two-girl balance. But as Brogan argues, it is likely that the ultimate decision lay in Ransome’s subconscious: if the eldest child was a boy, he could himself participate in the adventure, play more than the outside role of Captain Flint who, in the book, exists primarily as a spoiler to the children’s holiday. And in the character of John Walker, stuffy, somewhat priggish, serious but, above all, anxious for the approval of his too-often absent Naval Commander father, there was indeed a role for Ransome, denied at a cruelly young age the chance to gain his own father’s approval.
Thus Swallows and Amazons began. I’ll be looking next at the books themselves, the relationship between them and the events of Ransome’s life, and the premature end to his writing career, almost twenty years before his death.