Unearthing the true story behind former British spy and treasured children’s author Arthur Ransome
PUBLISHED: 08:30 23 October 2016
Arthur Ransome’s tales of boats and adventure - many of which were set in Suffolk - changed the course of children’s literature.
But, says Julian Lovelock, who has written a book about Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, the author was a complex character whose novels were inextricably bound up with the times he lived through and the sadnesses of his own life.
For generations, Arthur Ransome’s classic Swallows and Amazons series of books have represented the sort of carefree childhood dreams are made of, full of adventure, fresh air and freedom along with mild peril but nothing to threaten the knowledge that everything will turn out all right in the end.
It might be the childhood Ransome, who as a schoolboy holidayed in the Lake District with his family, wished for too. But in truth, his own growing up was also marked by tragedy and periods of unhappiness.
Likewise, the thoroughly English, middle class lives and values the Walker children, their mother and naval officer father represent in the books are about as far removed as it’s possible to get from the politics Ransome was associated with.
As St Petersburg correspondent for the radical Daily News at the start of the First World War he witnessed the downfall of the Russian Tsar and championed the Bolshevik cause, fraternised with the leaders of the 1917 revolution, played chess with Lenin and had an affair with Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, whom he went on to marry in 1924.
Ransome was also a spy, recruited by the British secret service and operating as agent S.76, advising the British on Bolshevik policy.
“It was quite a life,” says Julian Lovelock, author of Swallows, Amazons and Coots, the first critical book devoted to Ransome’s series of 12 novels, many of which are set in Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, where the author and his wife lived just before the Second World War.
Julian, a former head master and lecturer in English literature at the University of Buckingham, was one of those children who was captivated by Ransome’s tales of derring-do. He began reading the Swallows and Amazons novels in 1960, first from his hospital bed as he recovered from an asthma attack and later in his bunk on the sort of boating holiday the Swallows - John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker - would have loved.
“We were lucky enough to holiday on a motor yacht, the Margaret Mary III, which my grandfather had designed,” he says. “He was an architect and the boat was built at Wivenhoe and kept at Brightlingsea. A favourite place was Pin Mill on the River Orwell. We also went across the North Sea to Holland, which was exactly the route that was taken by the children in his book We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. I felt I was a ‘Swallow’ myself.
“The books continued to be in my mind when we had school trips to the Norfolk Broads and later when I went to university in Norwich. After that, I suppose they got a bit forgotten.”
But when he left teaching and became a university lecturer Julian remembered the Swallows and Amazons books set in East Anglia and thought they would be perfect for a research project. After retiring 18 months ago he revisited and expanded that project to become Swallows, Amazons and Coots.
The book explores the themes that run through Ransome’s novels - the colonial imagery of ‘explorers’ and ‘savages’, virtues of honesty, courage and leadership; the absent father; the nature of girlhood and the place of women in society; growing up; the shadow of war; and Ransome’s storytelling skills.
Its publication coincides with the release of a new film adaptation of Ransome’s original Swallows and Amazons tale, set in the Lake District just before the Second World War. And although the plot was altered slightly to make it more appealing to a 21st Century audience Julian believes the updating - which casts Captain Flint as a spy using Ransome’s own S.76 codename - was cleverly done.
Ransome, who died in 1967, moved from journalism to writing children’s adventure stories in 1929 and the publication of his books spanned a turbulent period of history, from 1930 to 1947.
Julian believes that to fully appreciate the novels modern audiences must read them as products of their time, bound up with Ransome’s life and times as the British Empire crumbled and the world descended into war for the second time in the 20th Century. In Swallows, Amazons and Coots he explores each Ransome novel and details how Ransome was a much more complex figure than casual readers of his idyllic stories could ever guess.
In 1893, aged nine, he left his native Leeds for boarding school at Windermere. But the move was a disaster with the young Arthur suffering bullying and loneliness. His professor father, Cyril, died of tuberculosis in 1897 when Ransome was just 13, a catastrophe that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.
“He never really got on with his father,” says Julian. “He felt he couldn’t live up to his father’s expectations and then never had the chance to because his father died. There was always that question of what might have been. As he grew up, would they have shared the same interests? They probably would because his father loved the lakes and was a great fisherman.
“All the way through the novels there is this figure of Commander Walker, the absent father. The powerful emotions of his own life found expression in Swallows and Amazons.”
Ransome’s grief was undoubtedly complicated by feelings of guilt. In his autobiography he wrote that “as the earth rattled on the lid of the coffin” at his father’s funeral “I stood horrified at myself, knowing that with my very real sorrow, because I had liked and admired my father, was a mixed feeling of relief”.
The author’s first marriage, to Ivy Walker, was unhappy and volatile and in 1913 he left for Russia, beginning a life-long estrangement from his beloved daughter, Tabitha. His second marriage, to Evgenia, was not easy either, although it seems they were mutually devoted.
“This uncomfortable personal life was a likely factor in his seeking solace in seemingly escapist stories,” says Julian. “I suspect that the Swallows, although initially based on the real-life Altounyan family, are the children Ransome never had. They are called Walker, which was the surname of his first wife.
“He was a bit of a fantasist all round. Although he had Bolshevik connections we don’t really know what his politics actually were. He romanticised a lot of things. He was always challenging the status quo but in some ways he loved the colonial life. I think it rather suited him with his big ideas.
“There are people who worship him but the narrator of the books they know was not him in real life. People like this genial character who gives us the right values but it seems that in real life Ransome was full of himself and awkward. He was pretty impatient, even with children.”
In the mid-1930s the Ransomes, missing the thrill of sea sailing, moved from the Lake District to the Suffolk coast and rented Broke Farm on the Orwell, opposite Pin Mill. They bought the Nancy Blackett, a boat that, as Goblin, was to feature in We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea and Secret Water. In 1939, the couple relocated to Harkstead Hall on the Shotley Peninsula but, perturbed by frequent wartime air-raids, returned to the Lake District in 1940.
Some have said that Ransome’s novels ignored the troubled times in which they were written but Julian believes that’s not fair. Instead, he says, Ransome created a fictional world as a refuge and symbol. It was a world that was secure and free and where the conservative and the radical were held in tension. “But in his heart he was, I think, very much on the side of the Amazon pirates.”
By the time of the last Swallows and Amazons book, in 1947, the way of life Ransome depicted had disappeared but the relevance of the books endured. “If you listen hard,” Julian writes in the introduction to his book, “you will hear amid the escape, exuberance and adventure an elegiac note, as childhood, Empire and the rural idyll all come to an end.”
• Swallows, Amazons and Coots, published by The Lutterworth Press, is available now.