In the middle of the first decade of this century, there were, of course, rumours of wars, and Russia had just been convulsed by revolution. Though German lager was a well-loved tipple in London nightspots, Britons were bound to wonder if Germany wasn’t winning the worldwide battle for markets and whether conflict with her could be avoided: meanwhile, the British Empire seemed at its zenith and Kipling and Newbolt were the most flourishing poets of the day. After ‘much falling’, Lionel Johnson had made his legendary descent to death from a bar stool, and Yeats’s other companions were no longer to be found in the Cheshire Cheese. The ‘Nineties’ were well over; Ezra Pound had not yet arrived in London, but a protean new movement, which would later be called ‘Georgianism’, was spawning in the Edwardian metropolis, where a great newspaper and periodical press, in its heyday before broadcasting and movies, made it possible for aspirants to literary fame to hack their way to a modest living.
At this propitious moment, a North-countryman in his early twenties who had defied sound counsel to become a writer met an Anglo-Welshman – a native of London, six years his senior – in the same line. They lived for a time in adjacent lodgings. For a week they subsisted on cheese and apples, till Edward, the older man, unexpectedly got a cheque for £25. They had a good meal in a Soho restaurant, crossed the street and sat down to another. Half a bottle of wine could then be had for tenpence. They went on to port in a friend’s room. When they got back to their lodgings in the small hours, Edward, who was usually melancholy, sat on his friend’s bed singing Welsh songs at the top of his voice, while his friend accompanied him on a penny whistle.
Edward Thomas must have remembered his companion’s musical habits a few years later, when naming one of his most effective poems ‘The Penny Whistle’. Arthur Ransome in turn may well have recalled that poem, which evokes a charcoal-burners’ camp at night, when in 1930 he had the four Walker children, his ‘Swallows’, meet the two Billies, an ancient man and his elderly son, at work in the woods above their holiday lake. But recounting the tale of their night out in 1907, in his first ‘real’ book, Bohemia in London, Ransome couldn’t have guessed that of those two struggling young literary journalists, Thomas would become a major poet, and he himself the author of children’s tales loved by millions – nor that his liking for the verse of W.H. Davies, from which he quoted at length in Bohemia, was the portent of a shift in taste which would dominate middlebrow readers for decades.
Young Ransome – 23 when he published Bohemia – did realise that he lived in a phase of transition. He evokes, with long anecdotes and quotations, the literary history of London, implying rather successfully that Steele and Hazlitt and Lamb, those cardinal models for the ‘Georgian’ essayist, anticipated a concept of Bohemia taken from Paris. But he sees that the internal combustion engine is set to transform London, and the gusto with which he writes is mixed with nostalgia in a way which now seems typically ‘Georgian’. ‘The little villagery [sic] of Chelsea has been engulfed in the lava stream of new cheap buildings.’ In Fleet Street he muses, ‘Lamb walked past while those offices were still cradled in their scaffolding,’ but the colourful horse buses, ‘gay old survivals of the coaching days’, are ‘soon to vanish ... Already the great motor buses whirl past them down the narrow street, and dwarf them by their size.’ One key to the success of Georgianism was the readiness with which passengers in motor buses and dwellers in suburban sprawl responded to those who told them of the delights of ale in old taverns and the fresh air of the far green hills where charcoal-burners continued their ancient craft. But Ransome’s prentice work has much documentary fascination and ample precocious charm. The pleasing sentiment probably owes as much as Puccini’s had done to Murger’s Vie de Bohème, but there are moments of uniquely English awfulness when such rugged, unhappy characters as Jonson, Johnson and Carlyle are Georgianised into proto-Bohemians, and Ransome’s very English sexual prudery would remind us, even if he didn’t point it out himself, that in this era it was still an affront to leave Tom Jones on your mother’s drawing-room table.
To read Bohemia, then look again at Swallows and Amazons, might make for a sense of eerie discontinuity. Ransome’s first original fiction for children retains an air of complete mastery. The story, slight in itself and now, through incessant imitation, hackneyed, is so deftly told that one can’t stop turning the pages – and picking up many sensible hints about how to sail, fish and camp. The descriptive prose is never tinged with purple, the dialogue is superbly lifelike and economical. And, as Hugh Brogan points out in his biography, while Ransome ‘did not live to encounter that marvellously self-serving critical doctrine according to which the only subject of art is art and even such works as Emma are concerned chiefly with their own writing ... his tale comes close to exemplifying it.’ ‘Captain Flint’, a bald, fat man like Ransome himself, sits in his houseboat typing a book and shaking his fist at children who disturb him – but in the end the imagination of little Titty Walker enables her to rescue his manuscript, which burglars have hidden like Treasure on an Island. A post-structuralist might turn without professional harm to Ransome’s tales from those of Conan Doyle and Fleming. After all, they have been similarly successful.
Swallows and Amazons appeared in 1930, when Ransome was 46. By 1948, one million copies of it and its 11 sequels had been sold. The Puffin edition of Swallows and Amazons has been reprinted 18 times since 1962. Success on this scale against so much competition cannot be attributed merely to the preference of middle-class parents for books about genteel children. As Brogan reminds us, Ransome could write with real sympathy about lower-class children and adults, and his middle-class ‘Swallows’ surely appeal to many precisely because their imaginations release them from the restrictions of convention. That said, the books are hardly subversive. Father is in the Navy, where John and Roger expect to follow him. Mate Susan, caring and cooking, is training herself for middle-class wifehood. Her mother, though reared in the Australian outback, is (unlike Ransome’s remarkable second wife) very content to employ servants. Through Slump and Hitler, World War, Cold War, Vietnam, Flower Power, Reagan, Swallows and Amazons has beckoned millions into an essentially stable world. On the ‘real’ seas, Britannia still rules, thanks to Daddy. ‘Real’ natives are governed elsewhere by ‘real’ white intruders. But the Lake District ‘natives’ comply with the whims of children. The lake, while vast as the globe in imagination, is in holiday-reality small and shallow. Though one might just drown in it, if one were what Daddy calls a ‘duffer’, there is no reason why young Roger, learning to swim, should ever be caught out of his depth.
In Chapter Three of Swallows and Amazons, the children mimic ‘true British sailors’ and sing ‘Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies.’ Ransome had used this song long before. In Bohemia an artist whom he calls ‘Gypsy’ (modelled, it seems from Brogan, on an American, Pixie Colman-Smith) entertains guests in an atmosphere of incense, and after she has chanted some Yeats, they sing ‘Spanish Ladies’, which ‘nearly all’ know by heart. Ransome’s early book ends with the explicit recognition that ‘Bohemia’ is for young people, and youth’s a stuff will not endure. ‘It will be something to remember, when I am become a respectable British citizen, paying income tax and sitting on the Local Government Board, that once upon a time in my motley “I have flung roses, roses, riotously with the throng.” It will make a staid middle age more pleasant in its ordered ease to think of other days, when a girl in blue sleeves rolled to her elbows cooked me a dinner from kindness of heart, because she knew that otherwise I should have gone without it ...’ And didn’t (one understands) join him in bed. In 1930 Ransome’s literary values were much what they had been in 1907. Being young is fun. One has to grow old and sensible. But books are and should be fun. Like the world of Swallows and Amazons, that of Bohemia is pre-sexual – and pre-political.
The mystery, then, is really that, between the youthful belletrist and the middle-aged yarn-spinner, there was an apparently very different man called Ransome who lived through the 1917 Revolution in Russia, and, while reporting its progress for British Liberal papers, became an active minor participant. He played chess with Lenin and briefly tried to share in an abortive domestic commune with his friend Radek. Though Reds sometimes suspected him of being a British agent – and he did in fact report directly to the Foreign Office on occasion – anti-Bolsheviks in Britain came to regard him as a thorough Communist. He had escaped to Russia just before the war from a very unhappy marriage, and it was difficult for him to return to Britain afterwards because, not yet divorced, he was living with Trotsky’s former secretary. He had taken her with him on an astonishing walk through the White lines to get to Estonia, following which they sojourned in the Baltic states, sharing the sailing which he described in Racundra’s First Cruise. After more than a decade in exile, properly married to Evgenia, Ransome settled with her in the Lake District and worked as a leader-writer and foreign reporter for C.P. Scott’s Manchester Guardian. What became of that Ransome who had condoned the Cheka, and whose opinions on world affairs were later read gravely by politicians?
Brogan’s compassionate and intelligent book doesn’t answer that question. Perhaps it couldn’t have done so. Perhaps an intractable problem is faithfully represented by the biography’s imbalance. The heart of the book – 190 pages – is devoted to 1913-24. Brogan scrupulously and at times minutely sets Ransome’s actions and writings in the contexts of British diplomacy and Russian politics, and Ransome’s role seems very creditable indeed. He was an English patriot, devoutly anti-‘Prussian’, who nevertheless loved Russia and its ordinary people. He had the insight to realise that the Bolsheviks were only human beings, but that their regime would survive, and that British military intervention in Russia was a mistake. Why didn’t he join the likes of Pares and Maynard as an informed interpreter of Russia?
Is a crucial clue provided by the way in which he sentimentalised, even Georgianised Lenin, writing in 1919 of ‘this little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another ... Every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry.’ Was he, after he had idealised Bolshevism, simply unable to come to terms with the reality, unromantic at best, hideous at worst, of Stalin’s kingdom? Or was it just that he feared for the safety of his beloved Evgenia’s relatives if he expressed his verdicts in print? Perhaps his ‘Amazon’ captain, Nancy Blackett, is his indirect homage to the spirit of 1917; perhaps while imagining her he remembered Evgenia’s sister, Eraida Shelepina, a big woman who, as he wrote to his mother from Petrograd, ‘succeeded in extracting over a million poods of corn from the South under the very nose of the Germans, she at the time commanding an expedition of 300 wildly devoted sailormen’.
As a grumpy old man, deprived by infirmity of his fishing and his sailing, Ransome became convinced that Taqui, Susan, Titty and Roger, the children, now grown-up, of his old friend Ernest Altounyan, were claiming undue credit for having inspired Swallows and Amazons – though in 1930 he had made sure that they got an advance copy of the book which he had dedicated to them, and had been deeply gratified by their approval. He replaced the dedication to them with an Author’s Note in which he alleged that the book grew out of memories of his own childhood holidays in the Lake District. ‘I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself.’
Yet Ransome’s own childhood had been unhappy. His father, Professor of History at Yorkshire College, which later became Leeds University, was a kind man, devoted to shooting and fishing, but he did not understand his son, who suffered, like Rudyard Kipling, from the failure of adults to recognise that he was extremely short-sighted. Cyril Ransome died when Arthur was in his early teens, as the result of a trivial-seeming accident while fishing, which led to the amputation first of a foot, then the whole leg. Arthur (Hugh Brogan reckons) remained a virgin till he was 24 and then, after umpteen calf-loves, succumbed to a neurotic young woman, Ivy Walker. Estrangement from her, then divorce, pushed him away from their daughter Tabitha, yet he gave Ivy’s maiden name to the Swallows. Evgenia joined with gusto in his sailing, and evidently devoted herself to him, but they never had children. He stood in some awe of her rages, and Brogan believes that her brutal criticisms of drafts of his books were a terrible trial for an insecure man, and eventually stopped him in his tracks in his early sixties. The catalogue of Ransome’s illnesses is horrible: piles, for years in his youth, a duodenal ulcer in middle age, then ruptures to carry with him towards senility. He fished and sailed with untameable glee, reaching a kind of apotheosis just before the Second World War when he commanded a fleet of boats manned by child-friends on the Broads: yet Brogan’s narrative overall conveys an impression of a man constantly holding misery just at bay.
Perhaps deaths determined that we should remember him as the author of a dozen brilliant books for children. Had his old Bohemian friend Thomas survived the trenches to enjoy recognition as the finest poet of his generation, might not his fame have lured Ransome back to belles lettres? After all, his book on Poe (1910) had been well received, and its successor on Wilde had made him famous when Lord Alfred Douglas had sued him for libel and lost. Had Trotsky succeeded Lenin, or had the latter lived longer, might not Ransome, in spite of himself, have remained a prime Western expert on Eastern affairs, with exceptional contacts? Finally, his closest friend, Ted Scott, died in 1932 not long after his father, old C.P., had at last passed on to him the Guardian’s editorship. (Ransome had taught him to sail, his boat capsized in Windermere, and the icy April waters brought on a heart attack.) Had he lived, Ted could well have corralled Ransome into the role of foreign correspondent, or made him content to work as the Neville Cardus of fishing, with a regular column. As it was, the Swallows series took flight and by 1938 Ransome’s annual income from it, £2000, was nearly twice what the Scotts had offered him in 1929 to stay on as temporary Berlin correspondent with a promise of the literary editorship in due course.
It is interesting and important that so many key books in 20th-century English culture have been written for children, or been such as they can enjoy – from Kipling and Grahame and Doyle and Buchan to Tolkien and White. Imagination has flinched from the adult reality of British decline, so that one sees even Orwell struggling with one foot in the Georgian swamp. Ransome (like Edward Thomas) deserves credit for getting beyond sentimentality. Perhaps his years in Russia gave him the needed perspective, an instinct that Englishness wasn’t universality. Swallows and Amazons, unlike some of Orwell’s writings, isn’t at all embarrassing to read now, because it’s not merely a work of fantasy, but a book about the power of fantasy, in which any reader, child or adult, securely knows where invention stops and fact begins. An incident at the end of the book demonstrates Ransome’s quality. His children are local heroes because they have recovered the manuscript stolen from ‘Captain Flint’. As Swallows and Amazons part until their next holiday, their boats are spotted by the passengers on a crowded lake steamer, who wave their hats and cheer them. One of Ransome’s inferior imitators would have trusted that as a climax and scunnered us. But Ransome’s boy skipper knows damn well that there’s something phoney afloat. ‘They’re cheering at us,’ he says, turning red, ‘How horrible ... It’s a good thing we’re going away. They’ll have forgotten by next year.’