Reviews of Signaling from Mars - The Letters of Arthur Ransome (1997)

Selected & Introduced by Hugh Brogan


Daily Telegraph, 27 March, 1997 (Claudia FitzHerbert)

Better drowned than duffers


  SO reads the famous telegram sent by the Walker children's father at the beginning of Swallows and Amazons (1930). The telegram is Mr Walker's response to a request from the children that they be allowed to sail alone to an island in the middle of a lake, and set up camp there.

The telegram is read aloud by John to the others. Susan puzzles over the meaning of "duffers if not duffers". Her quicker-witted younger sister, Titty, puts her right - "It says that if we were duffers we might as well be drowned." John, the eldest, goes to the heart of the matter when he reflects, later, that "Daddy knows we aren't duffers."

Hugh Brogan, in his Life of Arthur Ransome, points out that the boy Arthur could never have said the same of his own father, an expert fisherman and professor of history, whom he worshipped and resembled in equal measure, but whose approval he longed for in vain. No more could Ransome's only daughter, Tabitha, make any such claim. Arthur Ransome reserved his vision of good fatherhood for his books - in life he did rather worse than he was done by.

Which is not to deny a wealth of mitigating circumstances. Tabitha Ransome was born in 1910, the only child of Arthur Ransome's brief and wretchedly unhappy first marriage. In his autobiography, Ransome described how, when he was living a hand-to-mouth hack writer's existence in Chelsea in 1908, he fell in love in a "horrible puzzled manner" with a Miss Ivy Walker, who "had an extraordinary power of surrounding the simplest act with an air of conspiratorial secrecy and excitement". He proposed to her half in jest, she accepted, and when he tried to break off the engagement there were "horrible scenes that made me feel at the same time a villain and a rabbit".

Arthur Ransome was 24, innocent, romantic, fired by literary ambition, underdeveloped and weak-willed. The two were married on April Fool's Day, 1909. Ivy's taste for fantasy did not diminish: she was unfit for ordinary life, addicted to melodrama. Ivy sent telegrams to herself, emptied plates of eggs on her head, and demanded her husband's attention when all he wanted was to be left alone with his books.

In 1912, entranced by a book of Russian folk tales he had come across, Ransome determined to escape from Ivy by taking off to Russia. Ivy was furious, and fired off letters demanding that he return at once. In the course of the next four years he did make several visits to the farmhouse in Wiltshire, where he and Ivy had set up home. But always, it seems, just to touch base with Tabitha - he never stayed long, nor hid his determination to return to Russia, where he worked as a foreign correspondent from 1914.

Ransome was enchanted by Tabitha as a young child, and the pictograms he sent from Russia make it clear that he did not immediately give up hope of retaining his daughter's affection. It is possible that the marriage would have continued, in form if not in substance for years, had it not been for Ransome falling for Trotsky's secretary Evgenia Shelepina, "a tall, jolly girl" whom he picked up in the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs shortly after his return to the newly named Petrograd in December 1917. A picture of Evgenia - described as "the big girl as big as Dordor who carries a revolver and a sword and is a fierce revolutionary" - was included in a letter to Tabitha the following spring.

Between 1919 and 1924 - when Ivy finally agreed to a divorce - Arthur lived first in Estonia, then Latvia, and began his life-long love affair with sailing. Tabitha, meanwhile, grew up, her father a stranger. After divorcing Ivy in 1924, Arthur married Evgenia and returned to England. They moved frequently, from the Lake District to Norfolk, and back again, and Genia appears to have had quite as ferocious a temper as her predecessor without driving her husband away.

Arthur still made trips abroad for the Manchester Guardian, but went reluctantly. He was longing to settle down to some book-writing, and resented the journalism he felt bound to produce in order to pay money to Ivy. He hardly saw Tabitha from one year to the next - and never succeeded in effecting a meeting between her and Genia. Tabitha seems to have enjoyed the worst of all worlds - abandoned to her mother's care, then blamed by her father for not resisting her influence. In an unpublished memoir of her childhood, she recalled her mother standing over her when she wrote to her father and dictating her replies. Arthur might have guessed at Ivy's interference - he had experienced her attempts to censor his correspondence during their marriage - but does not appear to have done so.

Arthur sent Tabitha a copy of Swallows and Amazons in 1931, a year after it was published. Tabitha complained that the book read as though it had been churned out and that she had been unable to "get beyond the first 12 chapters". It may well be that Ransome's brilliant depiction of an attractive and sunny group of children and their adventures during a sailing holiday touched a raw nerve with an adult daughter whose childhood had been dominated by her mother's bitterness over her father's desertion. That he gave Ivy's maiden name to his family of invented children may have added insult to the injury.

Tabitha's relations with her father had already more or less completely deteriorated. She had become embroiled in the feud between her parents over Arthur's library, which Ivy had refused to hand over at the time of the divorce. When, in 1929, Arthur made one of his periodic attempts to persuade Ivy to hand over the books, Tabitha had weighed in with an angry letter in which she referred to the library as "all I have ever got out of having a father". Arthur refers to this unlooked-for interference in the extraordinarily pompous blast which he sent to Tabitha to mark her coming of age. The beginning of this letter reads like a prelude to some attempt to heal the breach. Instead there is a lecture about money, and a thinly veiled plea that Tabitha should not repeat her mother's mistake of bullying a man into marriage, in terms which shows that Arthur had long since lost sight of his daughter except as a troublesome reflection of Ivy.

Tabitha had few further dealings with her father. But in 1940, broke and pregnant with her second child, she wrote to Arthur informing him of her decision to sell the library she had inherited on her mother's death the previous year and asking if he wanted to buy any of the books. When she received no reply she sold the hundreds of volumes for the pathetic sum of 25. Arthur was sent a copy of the catalogue put out by the gleeful bookseller and he bought back a few of his manuscript notebooks in a miserable rage. He never forgave Tabitha, cut her out of his will, and made no attempt to know his grandchildren.

Arthur Ransome died in 1967. There is no record of Tabitha having attended the funeral. Her first marriage broke up some time in the 1940s and she married for the second time shortly before her death in 1991. That so little is known of her life or character is testament to the strength of her breach with her father. In writing this article I tried, without success, to speak to Tabitha's daughter, Hazel. But I was told by an intermediary at the Ransome Society that Hazel had no desire to contribute to another article about the grandfather she had met on only two occasions, neither of them happy.

That Arthur Ransome, whom many still regard as this century's greatest children's writer, should have made such an abysmal mess of fatherhood is partly explained by the peculiarly difficult nature of his relations with Tabitha's mother. But Ransome did not, in general, enjoy easy relations with children for sustained periods and even came to resent the Altounyans, the four children with whom he spent a summer sailing before he wrote Swallows and Amazons and whom he used as a model for the Walker children.

Arthur Ransome was a difficult man, as querulous and irascible as he was wayward and exuberant. In his memoirs, Malcolm Muggeridge, an old acquaintance of Ransome's, offers this explanation of his genius: "Most adults like children because they are different from them: a child-like adult like Ransome dislikes them and is bored by them, precisely because he is like them. For that very reason he can understand their games and attitudes, and so his writings interest them."

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The Spectator, 25th April, 1997 (Juliet Townsend)

All Children But His Own

They are part of childhood for so many of us. Captain John, Mate Susan, and the rest, capably setting up camp, building igloos, sailing the lake without the encumbrances of grown-ups or life-jackets, and bringing a gust of Lakeland air and rain into thousands of nurseries and school rooms all over the world.

Arthur Ransome did not write Swallows and Amazons until 1932, when he was 48. The circumstances of his life up to that time were peculiar. He felt himself to be trapped, both in journalism and in his loveless first marriage. For 11 dramatic years, from 1913-24 Ransome's life consisted of the `vast detour' of his time as a correspondent in Russia, where his Bolshevik sympathies - his second wife Evgenia was Trotsky's secretary - caused him to be known as `The Red Journalist' and regarded with deep suspicion by the Special Branch on his return. Ransone's letters are charming and instinctive, especially those to his mother. Letter-writing was his natural method of communication; he did not own a telephone until he was in his fifties. We can see in his letters from Russia the descriptive qualities which made him a good reporter; in his picture of Russian soldiers leaving for the Front in 1914, for instance: They go off quite silently in the middle of the night, carrying their little tea kettles, for all the world like puzzled children going to school for the first time.

It was typical of Ransome that his own luggage for the front line included 'a compact collection of fairy stories for translation in idle moments'. He probably also took a fishing rod. For all his preoccupation with the political situation, his two first loves were fishing and sailing. Both of them were to play a prominent part in his children's books.

Ransome had only one child, Tabitha, and the record of their deteriorating relationship is the saddest part of this book. The child of his disastrous first marriage, she must have felt abandoned when he escaped to Russia when she was only four.

Ransome's estrangement from his wife was bitter and complete, and it is clear that she poisoned Tabitha's mind against her father and prevented them from meeting. There are glaring faults on both sides in their correspondence. At this time, Ransome seems to have had no idea of the appropriate way to address a child at a given age. Tabitha, at eight, must have been disgusted to receive letters whose charming illustrations are ruined by unctuous baby-talk: Ask Mum Mum to explain this and she won't be able ... That is because she is a good Mum Mum what knows all about witches and puddings and donkeys and babbas and nothing whatever about politics.

His eyes were opened by his friendship with the Altounyan children, inspiration for the Swallows, but it was too late for Tabitha. Similarly, it is hardly surprising that she was less than flattered by the gift of Dr Dolittle books when she was 14. It is pathetic to see the total lack of contact in his note on her 18th birthday: 'How tall actually are you? . . . What are you interested in?' In spite of all this, it is difficult to excuse the cold, dismissive tone of Tabitha's later letters, which Ransome fairly described as 'deliberately cruel'. Her reaction on being sent a copy of Swallows and Amazons, for instance, was to write saying that the book 'reads as if it had been churned out'. She could not get beyond the first 12 chapters, but (unkindest cut of all) 'she liked the artist'.

Ransome's stiffness and ineptness in communicating with his own daughter is thrown into relief by the totally different tone of his correspondence with other young girls - Taqui Altounyan, for instance, or Pamela Whitlock, co-author of The Far Distant Oxus, which Ransome helped to get published. Here all is bright, breezy and relaxed. 'I don't care what you say; we all think Capt. Flint is exactly like you, is you in fact', wrote Taqui, and it seems that it was among his close friends and their children that Ransome discovered the pleasures of family life.

The fiery Evgenia was as uncompromising a critic as Tabitha, although she wrote from love and was 'completely miserable' when her husband was upset by her verdict that The Picts and the Martyrs was 'hopeless . . the book as a whole is dead'. No wonder his publishers regarded Ransome as a difficult author with a very difficult wife, but he had much which was wise to say about children's fiction. 'Good books are not written for anyone, they are overheard.' His robust response to Janet Adam Smith's Spectator review, which questioned whether children 'outside the world of nannies, cooks and private boat-houses' enjoyed his books, was to ask whether this meant that 'none but birds can read Hans Andersen's Ugly Duckling' and only those 'of the blood royal enjoy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark?'.

Hugh Brogan's excellent earlier biography of Ransome gave him the background knowledge to make a representative selection of the writer's letters and elucidate them with clear introductory paragraphs and informative footnotes. The book sheds a fascinating light on a complex and interesting man.

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