Nicholas Tucker, author of The Child and the Book, argues that, despite his very considerable achievements, Ransome glosses over certain important aspects of childhood, and thus cannot be regarded as being in the very first rank of writers of children's literature. I am grateful to Nicholas for his permission to place this paper on the Web.
Arthur Ransome as a Children's Writer
by Nicholas Tucker
Children read for pleasure, and Arthur Ransome's stories principally deal in enjoyment. Although his young characters have to work hard for whatever they get, they always have a lot going for them, We see them on holiday rather than bowed down with uncongenial school work. Their parents are usually affluent, well able to afford ample leisure both for themselves and for their children, Surrounding villagers are acquiescent and approving, although never servile. Given this level of support, his young characters generally expect and manage to have as good a time as possible.
No wonder so many readers have always warmed to this picture. An economically and emotionally stable background enables these child characters to get on with their adventures without constantly having to check that everything is still all right at base. Child readers, sometimes aware of instability in their own lives, can forget such fears when reading about such blessedly confident and secure characters. They will also be reading a book about children doing things. The isolation and immobility of the child reader is therefore transformed in the imagination into a more flattering image of active adventure in a lively social setting. The actual adventures that happen are always just achievable rather than impossibly heroic. Like Ransome's own drawings, the repeated impression given to readers is look, you could do this too, given the right equipment and surroundings. So even in the unadventurous confines of a chair by the fire or a cosy bed at night, readers can still come out of a Ransome story feeling better and more positive about themselves. The book-derivative imaginative games they may sometimes play afterwards for real or else just in their own heads could well be about roughly similar personal achievements which if unlikely are never utterly impossible.
To get this positive image across, Ransome always stresses the true nature of the obstacles facing his characters and how exactly these must be overcome. Learning how to make a fire in the wild, skin and cook a rabbit or sail a boat – little is left out by way of all the necessary technical expertise required. Child readers can of course also imagine themselves doing some of the quite unreal things inspired by other favourite fiction, such as flying a magic carpet or turning invisible. But for older child readers, there can be something shame-faced about giving way to such exaggerated fantasies. Ransome's adventures are like those children's games that have some preparatory significance for their adult lives. Winston Churchill playing at soldiers as a boy, or Ransome's character John learning sea-craft are both in a sense anticipating a likely future career. Young readers at one step removed can still enjoy the special atmosphere of self-respect and of generally being taken seriously found in children's fiction that looks forward to adult skills rather than back to infantile fantasies of magical omnipotence.
All writers of children's adventure stories face certain technical problems. In real life parents make most of the important decisions affecting their children's everyday lives. This leads to greater safety but to much fewer adventures. How then can a writer portray loving, sensible parents in fiction who also allow their children to run risks that are fun to read about but hair-raising to contemplate in real life? Ransome solves this dilemma by packing off parents pretty smartly, with father called way for navy service and mother busy with baby. This is just as well for the stories: when father is present and active in the first pages of Secret Water there is much less sense of adventure all round. With parents absent, there are then fewer possibilities of disobedience or for the necessity of occasionally pulling the wool over their eyes. Problems of guilt or general unease between the generations are thus avoided. Minor rebellions against Great Aunts or Captain Flint are different, made more permissible by the comparatively remote family connection. Fairy tales also tend to feature step-parents rather than natural ones when it comes to describing serious friction in the family.
Perilous adventure is made possible for Ransome's young characters by the extraordinary insouciance shown by their parents even to the possibility of danger.
"We are going home at the end of the week. It would be a pity if two or three of you were to get drowned first." (Swallows and Amazons, page 257).
"It would be a dreadful pity and most annoying for us if you both got drowned before you have had the chance of teaching us to sail." (The Picts and the Martyrs, page 145).
It is not children who are at risk through taking such sentiments at face value. Any real danger, if it exists at all, is more likely to arise should any parent be foolish enough to adopt such irresponsible bravado for themselves when dealing with their own families. Imagine the scene: a coroner reading out the famous 'Better drowned than duffers' telegram at an inquest for children unequipped with safety jackets who had been involved in a fatal boating accident. Such a scenario today would attract the same adverse media attention reserved for parents leaving their small children in a 'home alone' situation while they themselves go off on holiday.
Later Ransome books are slightly more concerned with safety aspects, with mention of 'life-saving certificates' and more promises to be careful. But making parent characters behave irresponsibly, although this is never stated as such, serves to rid child characters of any charge in that direction. Once again, both they – and their readers in their own imagination – can emerge with heads held high. When "An arrow passed harmlessly above" in Swallows and Amazons, readers need not flinch at this dangerous practice. The chances are that the Blackett children have never been warned about eyes lost through accidents, or indeed about most dangers that haunt parents in real life.
Ransome's child characters are generally middle-class, with some exceptions like Joe, Bill and Pete in The Big Six. This selectivity did nothing to harm the popularity of his stories with readers of all classes. As the librarian quoted in Hugh Brogan's biography once wrote,
"The books are read so vigorously that they have to be replaced or rebound more often than the books of other authors. Few of these girls live in the world of nannies, cooks and private boat-houses. It would, therefore, appear that the young, as do their elders, read to escape from everyday life, and so prefer to read about the kind of people they are unlikely to meet." (The life of Arthur Ransome, page 400).
Malcolm Muggeridge was surely also right in another passage quoted by Brogan, For him, Ransome's books were:
"The very stuff of play. It is make-believe such as all children have indulged in: even children who have not been so fortunate as to have a lake and a boat and an island but only a backyard among the other semis of Suburbia." (ibid, page 315).
The privileged position of most Ransome child characters is in fact part of the fantasy that appeals to all children rather than to a mere few. From fairy tales onwards, there are not many poor, underprivileged leading characters in children's literature, and if they start in that estate the custom usually was that they did not stay there for long. If he were writing today, Ransome might feel pressure to widen his cast of characters both socially and racially. But at the time creating characters who had it all and thoroughly enjoyed it was an important factor in his stories' enduring popularity, politically correct or not.
Ransome also offers a great deal to female as well as to male readers. Broadly speaking, the hierarchy that binds his child characters together is naval rather than the gender or class-based arrangements that used to ossify so many children's adventure stories involving mixed sexes. This playing down of sex roles in favour of a uni-sex command structure also has the effect of making sexuality itself seem unimportant. This is just as well, given the potentially explosive situation where the healthy young adolescents of his stories sleep next to each other with never a hint of impropriety. As it is, the only possible expressions of sexuality creeping in to his stories tend to get there by mistake. As Gillian Freeman puts it in her study of those adult reader attracted to various types of pornography:
"Several people told me that when they were children an episode in one of the Arthur Ransome books aroused them erotically, although at the time they did not know why, or what the stirrings symptomised. The chapter in question, called 'Willing Prisoner' concerns the capture and tying up of a girl from the rival gang." (The Undergrowth of literature, 1967, page 156). (In fact, the chapter is called 'Eager Prisoner', and occurs in Secret Water).
Any full treatment of children's growing sexuality would have been impossible when Ransome was writing and still remains somewhat problematic in children's literature today. Child readers are themselves aware of their sexuality, but do not always want this reflected in fiction when this particular issue might get in the way of an exciting adventure. Ransome avoids sexuality by concentrating on child characters as proto-type seamen and adventurers instead. In this way, he hands young readers an image of themselves as crypto-adults when it comes to what they achieve while denying them an accompanying image of themselves as developing sexual beings. Half a loaf is better than no bread, and provided child readers enjoy reading about young characters who are as competent as any adult in some directions, they will not unduly resent it when other manifestations of their growing maturity are ignored. It is only an image that is both sexless and clueless that children dislike, such as the sentimental idealisation of childhood, at its peak towards the end of the nineteenth century and some way beyond.
Strict observance of naval hierarchy also enables Ransome to minimise any damaging effects of sibling rivalry in his stories, Real children know that it is quarrels that generally terminate even the best of games: the question normally is how long everyone keeps going before the inevitable spat takes place. Child characters who get by permanently without this occasional friction usually invite incredulity. But placed in an unfamiliar disciplinary framework, which all accept, such abnormally balanced personalities become more believable. Rather in the same way, his young characters' choice of language manages to be both convincing while curiously unreal. There is none of the adult-absent swearing of real life. But the children's contrived epithets ("Jibbooms and bobstays", "Barbecued billygoats", "Great Congers") do at least give a strong impression of departing from adult norms. Once again, Ransome presents his readers with characters close enough to children to be convincing but also sufficiently distanced from the more contentious aspects of childhood not to cause controversy, particularly with the parents and teachers of his young readers in real life.
In addition to naval models of discipline, Ransome's characters often adopt other imaginary frameworks in their adventures based on myth or stories from British history, such as those taken from Hakluyt's accounts of sixteenth century sea-faring. These frameworks ensure that ordinary mundane geography and its accompanying adult personages are invested with a new glamour once re-named in terms of an heroic ancient past. This type of substitution both builds up child characters by comparing them with giant-size figures of old and at the same time reduces them by the sheer bathos involved in the comparison. It is a skilful technique, with child readers usually more aware of the implied heroism and older readers more conscious of the bathos. The effect is like a game organised by an adult who, by taking everything ultra-seriously at the time, helps make the proceedings more convincing and memorable, even though he or she always stays aware that it is all a game and must ultimately be treated as such. But while good games – and Ransome's stories – are excellent for children, for me they do not have enough to qualify as all-round literary masterpieces. This is not inevitably the case with children's literature: consider Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows or in our own day, Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden and Nina Bawden's Carrie's War. All these books provide a child's eye view of life which is also permanently interesting for an adult. Ransome does not do this, and for this reason I consider his books major achievements but only in a rather limited genre. These limitations would stop me recommending his novels with confidence to any adult previously unacquainted with his work, although I would always press his cause with discerning child readers. Let me justify what I hope is not too heretical a view to appear under the auspices of the ever-hospitable Arthur Ransome Society.
While Ransome is good at portraying the occasional maturity of children he has little to say about their essential and necessary states of immaturity. When they get wet, cold or hungry his young characters rarely complain; when a crisis occurs, they usually cope with it superbly. All this helps the story along at a fine rate, and who wants to hear about whinging, incompetent child characters anyhow? But creating real, all-round characters in an adventure story while much harder is still possible. Failing to do so is not to meet the highest standards of art, within which we can see accurate reflections of all ourselves, albeit sometimes partially transformed by the particular needs of a story. It can also be hard on young readers looking for characters in fiction also sharing some of their own inadequacies or areas of confusion. Finding such characters in stories is confirmation that others like ourselves actually exist. For some such readers, among whom I have to count myself as a child, Ransome's characters always seemed like rather superior school prefects, untroubled by the ordinary concerns of everyday childhood and as such a slightly daunting reproach to the rest of us.
By departing, no doubt deliberately, from total honesty in his depiction of childhood, Ransome lays himself open to the charge of escapism. When one of the characters in William Golding's Lord of the Flies enthusiastically refers to their island in terms of Swallows and Amazons the implied irony is justified. Even if this chilling fable is considered too pessimistic an account of childhood, Ransome still provides us with an over-optimistic one if we measure his stories against the demands of truth. If we measure them differently, for example for their entertainment value, they emerge unscathed. But the highest art has to be judged by the highest standards, and on an absolute scale Ransome does not quite succeed. But it is a measure of his achievements that his work could ever be considered for such a test. Most children's authors would not even make it to the measuring-post, let alone come out as high as Ransome.
This is not to deny that he ever raises serious issues in his books, Take these telling moments of dialogue:
"Dorothea caught herself thinking it would have been better if Jacky had been right and the Great Aunt was drowned and done with." (The Picts and Martyrs, page 300)
"She's gone down to the water and tumbled in," said Susan. "Oh no . . . n . . . no. . ." said Titty." (Secret Water, page 208).
There is much to be said for understatement in literature: In Shakespeare characters often reserve their most laconic comments for moments of greatest stress. But while Ransome spends pages describing how to overcome a tricky technical difficulty, he turns near-silent about any of the more emotional problems facing his characters. This makes them strangely innocent of the occasionally turbulent world of pre-adolescent emotions. Overdoing the treatment of these emotions could ruin any action-based story, but ignoring them is still to sell his characters, and their readers, somewhat short.
As it is, Roger reminds me of Ralph in Lord of the Flies – the well-meaning boy character finally swamped by his inability to predict the destructive behaviour of an opposing gang of boys. Ransome himself knew all about the horrors of ultimate destruction from his experiences in Russia. A little more of this type of insight into the occasional ups and downs of life could surely have worked its way into his stories, just as he perhaps allowed it to do in the darker moments of his earlier book, Old Peter's Russian Tales. Dealing with the greater complexity of things is never easy, but surely worthwhile – particularly for those contemporary young readers trying at the same time to make sense of the ravages of World War 2 going on around them.
Escaping into a Ransome story to get away from such cruel realities can still be a wonderful relief, but writing adventure stories does not have to mean leaving behind all negative insights into the human condition: think of Treasure Island. But on the few occasions there is any behaviour that is genuinely and convincingly evil in Ransome's stories, for example the machinations of George Owden and his companion in The Big Six, the emphasis is on detection rather than understanding. The three falsely accused children very nearly have their lives ruined. But readers are kept firmly outside their most painful feelings of impotence, grief and rage at the betrayal by those adults who should have trusted them all along.
At best Ransome creates a world physically recognisable but psychologically less so. It would be silly to blame him for evasion in his books, given that he never claimed to write the whole truth about childhood. His decision to stay silent about all aspects of his previous experiences of a war-torn world in his stories reflects the general feeling in children's publishing at the time. As a writer, his books describe extended forms of play better than any other author before or since. That he did not also introduce his deeper knowledge of the human soul into his books does not rule him out from greatness in what he achieved. Only by the very highest standards is he found wanting. But when confronted by the enormous pleasure he has given to so many for so long, it is more appropriate to end by stressing his huge success rather than cavilling at any possible perceived failure.
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