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Our Collections: Arthur Ransome

May 18, 2013

Swallows and Amazons GodineWayne writes: When I finished my bibliography of Tolkien in 1992, my publisher, pleased with the result, asked which author I would like to tackle next. I replied at once: Arthur Ransome. Ransome (1884–1967) is by no means a household name; indeed, I have often had to point out that my subject was the writer Arthur Ransome, not the artist Arthur Rackham. But he is a significant figure in twentieth-century English children’s literature, and has long had a devoted following. Many of his writings are still in print. I did not myself read any of his books until I was in my thirties, when I came upon the attractive Godine edition of Swallows and Amazons. I was immediately swept up in the adventures of the Walkers and Blacketts and their friends, and by the quality of Ransome’s storytelling. It was also a pleasant coincidence that Ransome and Tolkien had admired each other’s work.

From an early age, Ransome had literary ambitions, and as soon as he could, he left his native Yorkshire for London, where he became a freelance writer. He took on assignments of all kinds and on subjects in which he was no expert, to make a living and learn his craft. Such a romantic adventure was still possible in those days, at the turn of the twentieth century. The earliest known book to bear Ransome’s name is, remarkably, The A.B.C. of Physical Culture, published in 1904. He also wrote articles and stories for a variety of magazines. Other books, written or edited by Ransome, soon followed, including A History of Story-Telling in 1909 and, most notoriously, his 1912 study of Oscar Wilde. For remarks in the latter, he was sued (unsuccessfully) for libel by Wilde’s sometime lover Lord Alfred Douglas.

In the meantime, Ransome married somewhat impulsively and, before long, unhappily. In 1913, he made his first trip to Russia, both to escape his failed marriage and to study native folk stories; this resulted in his popular Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916). In 1915 he became the Petrograd (present-day Saint Petersburg) correspondent for the London Daily News & Leader. He was not in Russia when the revolution began in November 1917, but quickly returned to his reporting, interviewed Lenin and Trotsky, and fell in love with one of Trotsky’s personal secretaries, Evgenia Petrova Shelepina. Though (in my view) he was never a Communist or Socialist himself, because he admired the Bolsheviks and recognized, in a world still at war, the value of Russia as a counterforce to Germany, Ransome sought to explain the truth about the Soviet republic as he saw it. His Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 (1919) and The Crisis in Russia (1921) were issued by George Allen & Unwin, whose enlightened director, Stanley Unwin, was willing to publish books with unorthodox views.

Ransome remained a journalist for nearly a decade longer, moving to the prestigious Manchester Guardian. He travelled in eastern Europe, to Egypt and the Sudan, and to China, and with Evgenia pursued his love of sailing. They were married in 1924, as soon as Ransome’s divorce from his first wife was absolute. Further books appeared, including the sailing classic Racundra’s First Cruise (1923) and The Chinese Puzzle (1927), and columns on his other love, fishing (‘Rod and Line’). In 1929, asked by the Manchester Guardian to become their regular correspondent in Berlin, Ransome instead became a freelance journalist and wrote his most famous book, inspired by a group of children he had known in his beloved Lake District and by his golden memories of sailing on Coniston Water.

Swallows and Amazons was published in 1930. Its great success was a turning point in Ransome’s life. Histories of children’s literature point to it as the model ‘holiday story’, or story of realistic adventures experienced by children during school holidays. Although some of the child protagonists are perhaps too ‘good’ by today’s standards, which is to say, they get along and are well-mannered, and no sexuality enters into the picture, they are nonetheless real, and so are their experiences, sailing and camping with adult supervision often only on the fringe, and not omitting real work and responsibility, and physical danger. From my adult perspective, the four Walker children and the two Blackett sisters are friends such as I wish I had growing up, and no doubt they were regarded as friends by the children who eagerly awaited a new ‘Swallows and Amazons’ title more or less annually until 1947. The first sequel, Swallowdale, followed in 1931, and ten more books in the series in Ransome’s lifetime. A thirteenth was left unfinished, but published with other material in 1988. The fifth book, Pigeon Post (1936), won the first Carnegie Medal. But Ransome’s masterpiece is the sixth in the series, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (1937).

When I was writing my Tolkien bibliography, I found that I had to collect Tolkien’s works in order to describe them, libraries having supplied only a fraction of the existing titles and variations. The result is a very large collection. When I began to write about Ransome, I vowed that I would not follow the same route, but would rely on libraries (which was more feasible for Ransome than for Tolkien) and on private collections; and I managed to do so, as far as the bibliography (Arthur Ransome: A Bibliography, 2000) was concerned. But strong admiration for an author, and strong interest in the variety of books produced by someone who was by turns a storyteller, critic, essayist, editor, foreign correspondent, fisherman, and sailor, were more than enough to lead me willingly, or at least without protest, into another avenue of collecting.

Ransome shelves 01Today our Ransome shelves extend to around thirty linear feet. Christina had, among the books she brought to our marriage, some early printings of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ titles, and I have been able to buy a few – again, I came to Ransome very late – but only a few, as they can sell dearly. Ransome is collected widely enough that his scarcer books can command prices more than I can afford; on the other hand, not all who sell Ransome know him very well, and bargains can be had. For example, I found the very rare A.B.C. of Physical Culture on abebooks for under thirty dollars, and Ransome’s second book, The Souls of the Streets (1904), for only twenty. EBay has been helpful as well, and odd volumes, such as Pond and Stream (1906) and The Book of Friendship (1909), have turned up at antiquarian book fairs or in secondhand shops.

Several of Ransome’s works have been published, or reprinted, along with many books about Ransome, by Amazon Publications, an adjunct to the Arthur Ransome Society (TARS), which I joined soon after its founding in 1990. The Society journal, Mixed Moss, is essential to the Ransome enthusiast. TARS has also been involved with audio versions of the books and with videos, most of which are likewise on our shelves, as are reasonably faithful and sympathetic film adaptations of some of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ stories.

Images, top to bottom: My first copy of Swallows and Amazons; a small part of our Ransome shelves.

  1. Mike permalink
    July 30, 2013 9:16 am

    You state ‘Ransome (1884–1967) is by no means a household name’ I take it you mean in the USA!

    Here in the UK he still is, and you will probably be aware the BBC have invested in a new film version due to start production in August (with a view to film version of the other books too if all goes well.)

    Though still well read in the UK his works have become a byword for examples of unrealistic middle-class children’s books presenting a rose-tinted view of childhood, thankfully this only tends to be case with lazy journalists looking for a page-filler!

    • July 31, 2013 8:27 pm

      I was thinking mainly of the USA, but Ransome isn’t known by everyone in the UK either, I’ve found, though the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books have never been out of print, I believe. When I first visited the Lake District in the eighties, I was astonished to find Ransome almost unrepresented in bookshops; Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter got all the glory. I made sure to dip my hand reverently in Coniston Water. . . .

      I’ve heard about the new film, and look forward to it. I thought the original one pretty good.


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