Fictional Inspirations for Arthur Ransome's Characters

Hugh Lofting's 'Dr Doolittle' Characters

Peter Hyland

Hugh Lofting (1886-1947) wrote a well-known series of books about a fictitious doctor, 'Dr Dolittle', who could speak to animals. A series of these stories was published during the 1920s, ending around 1930 at the time when AR's Swallows and Amazons series started. Both Lofting and Ransome had the same publisher, Jonathan Cape. Comment has been made from time to time on the remarkable resemblance between some of Lofting's animal characters and Ransome's human characters

Peter Duck

Although the real-life Captain Sehmel has a good claim to be the inspiration for the character of Peter Duck, the way in which Peter Duck is introduced into the book named after him has noticeable similarities with the introduction of a character in Hugh Lofting's book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, published in 1922, ten years before Peter Duck.

In Lofting's story, as in AR's story, an experienced sailor turns up unannounced at the quayside where, respectively, the cutter Curlew and the schooner Wild Cat are tied up. Each introduces himself politely. In Lofting: "Good morning, Captain, I heard you was in need of hands for a voyage. My name's Ben Butcher, able seaman". In Ransome: "Cap'n, can I have a word with you? . . . I'd like to ask you plain out if it's in your mind to be shipping a crew? . . .I'd be glad to sign on as an A.B."

Ben Butcher argues his case by claiming that the Curlew is under-manned, but his offer is refused. He gets round this by stowing himself away. When he is discovered he warns "You'd never have got home alive if I hadn't come. Why look at your mainsail, sir – all loose at the throat . . . Look at the compass now: you've let her swing a point and a half off her course." Butcher is justified in his criticisms, as we have already been told that the Curlew, steered by Dr Dolittle, "bumped into one or two other boats" on the river and "got stuck on a sandbank".

In Ransome's story, Peter Duck also is critical of his future ship: "There were one or two things up there that could do with some little attention." Duck follows up his criticism with immediate uninvited action: "if it's all the same to you, I seen a block up there that's like to come adrift, and . . . I might as well be putting a whipping on it." He then does so.

From here on, the two plots diverge considerably. Peter Duck is of course taken on the Wild Cat crew and becomes the quiet hero of the book named after him, while Ben Butcher is locked in the cabin of the Curlew, dumped at the next port and is not heard from again.

The Swallows

There is also a striking similarity between the characters of Dab-Dab (who is a duck and features as Dr Dolittle's housekeeper in Lofting's books) and Susan Walker. Both are an essential part of a large family, and although neither of them are actual mothers, both are motherly, capable, stern, and somewhat obsessed with food and hygiene. The two characters frequently scold the youngest and least responsible member of their respective families, i.e. Gub-Gub the pig, or Roger Walker, both of whom have a habit of getting into trouble and are noticeably fond of food.

The earliest published comment that I know of concerning this intriguing Lofting-Ransome connection occurs in the monograph Arthur Ransome by Hugh Shelley, published by Bodley Head in 1960. Shelley comments that the line drawings in Peter Duck are startlingly like Lofting's, and that he would not be surprised if, in AR's illustration 'THE VIPERS COME ABOARD', he saw "Dab-Dab's anxious beak peering out of a porthole". Shelley then adds: "How like Susan she is!"

This theme was developed by (among others) an American AR devotee, the late Ellen C. Tillinghast of Burlington VT. Ellen visited the UK in 1991 and I met her at a TARS Literary Weekend that year. She had devised a chart, comparing just about every Lofting character with what she saw as their Ransome counterparts. Alas, I do not have a copy of the chart, but I recall that as well as Dab-Dab–Susan and Gub-Gub–Roger, Ellen matched Too-Too the owl with Dick Callum, as they are both calm and wise, and she matched Jip, Dr. Dolittle's ever-faithful dog, with John Walker the loyal elder son. Some of the other comparisons were, I felt, a little forced, and I don't remember Nancy being matched with anybody, which is hardly surprising.

Ellen and her young daughters had visited the Ransomes in London in 1957, and her memorable account of having tea with them is available in the literary pages: Tea with Mr. & Mrs. Arthur Ransome. Ellen's conversation with Arthur and Evgenia was wide-ranging but apparently did not include any query about a Lofting influence (this might have been thought undiplomatic). However, by 1960 AR must have been aware that Lofting comparisons were being made, as he read the draft text of the Shelley monograph in January of that year. He made a few text corrections to send to Bodley Head but wrote in his diary (18th Jan.) that he had felt he ought not to alter "the silly things Mr Shelley says". Did that apply to the Dab-Dab–Susan comparison? One might think that if AR had felt that this linking was complete nonsense, he would have deleted it.

In 1968 Bodley Head published a revised version of Shelley's text and it is believed that Evgenia was responsible for many of the alterations and omissions. There is no written record of these, but Evgenia's own copy of the 1968 edition has survived, complete with her text annotations. Tantalisingly, she drew lines alongside the paragraph in which Dab-Dab and Susan were linked but she made no comment. Did she think Shelley had gone too far, or had she recognised a shrewd observation? It seems unlikely that we will ever know the answer, and therefore the strange co-relation between Lofting's and Ransome's characters will continue to be the subject of argument. Was it a case of cross-fertilisation or, maybe, just coincidental parallel invention?

(Much of the above is based on information contained in the reprint of Hugh Shelley's Arthur Ransome which was issued by Amazon Publications (TARS) in 2007 by permission of the Random House Group Ltd.)

This article is copyright © 2015 by Peter Hyland and published on All Things Ransome with his permission.

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