A Re-assessment of the Children's Books of Arthur Ransome

Mike Dennis

The island had come to seem one of those places seen from the
train that belong to a life in which we shall never take part.
Swallows and Amazons Ch. 1

Those that have written extensively about the children's books of Arthur Ransome provide plentiful evidence to support the notion that he was the greatest children's author, writing in English, of the twentieth century in Britain, if not the world. Following my lifelong reading of his canon of children's books, and particularly following my recent re-reading of all of them and works about him, I would suggest that there is an even more convincing argument for another position for him in the literary world.

Though Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series is still in print and read by children I would propose that Ransome, in addition to this deserved position of greatest writer, was one of the most important writers, not involved in academia, to write about childhood – how it is to live and be a child in a particular group of children in a specific period of English history.

I use the word English here deliberately, only three of his fictional works for children are not set in England and two of those (and some argue the third as well as Christina Hardyment does (Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk, 2nd edition, p.22)) can be considered fantasies – the characters in the books imagine themselves going to the places described and having the adventures that take place.

It has been much argued over the years in books analysing children's fiction that Ransome's characters only represent those of one social class, this can of course be disputed as Ransome did himself; but it is not his observations on class that interests me. His books do occasionally raise such issues, but these in themselves would seem of little concern. What does need to be mentioned is that his books are often wrongly accused of being 'middle class', ignoring for this analysis exactly what this term may mean, the reason his books appear 'middle class' is because they are and he was – he wrote of what he knew. When he does stray in to the realms of working classes of his time the characters, in my view, often jar. Perhaps that is why they are never central characters – 'Of what we cannot speak we must be silent.' as Wittgenstein elegantly puts it.

For me, what makes him such an important and powerful writer is, obviously, his stories, but more importantly when re-reading the works as an adult the descriptions of what it is to be a child, and the relationships they have with the adults in the world they inhabit.

There is a vogue in some sections of children's literature, one that gathered momentum in the nineteen seventies, to write books for children that would explore issues that the children who read them may be experiencing in their own lives. Ransome was in many ways ahead of this trend, various aspects of family dysfunction, as it is now commonly described, can be found in his works; the absent father being a recurring theme. With of course the absent father you often have the strong mother, which also reoccurs, and he often writes of capable and independently minded female characters, more so than male ones.

Ransome also plays a secondary, but very important, role beyond writing to entertain children – when he describes how to do something, or how something works, he does so in great detail and correctly. Children learn things from his books. As Hardyment comments

'Ransome's books are well known to have taught many children to sail…'
Hardyment p153.

For myself, almost my entire knowledge of boats and sailing and much more comes from reading the Ransome canon, though I have never put it to practical use.

To expand upon my original proposition, Ransome not only writes about childhood but in writing about his own, weaving parts of it in to the stories, he is writing of the childhood he actually would have liked to have experienced.

It is well known from Ransome's autobiography and Hugh Brogan's biography that the death of his father during his childhood (he was thirteen years old) made him feel throughout his life he had never had the chance to live up to his father's expectations. Ransome's father's death clearly blighted his older childhood, and to me it seems that his work as a writer led him to spending much of his adulthood hoping to achieve something that his father would have been, if not just proud, then much admiring of him.

This idea is, of course, not a new proposal as most literary examinations never are. This one has been explored by, amongst others, Eric Pringle in his play The Voyage of the Swallow broadcast on BBC Radio Four in August 1992. In his paper Arthur Ransome as a Children's Writer, Nicholas Tucker touches upon the idea

'Child readers, sometimes aware of instability in their own lives, can forget such fears when reading about such blessedly confident and secure characters.'

It seems too that Ransome was aware of this in some way, in a letter to Helen Ferris of the Junior Literary Guild in the USA, quoted both in The Best of Childhood and Brogan's Signalling from Mars he states

'…writing for children. I know absolutely nothing about it, for the simple reason that I NEVER NEVER do it.'
20th March 1938 (emphasis AR's)

He is similarly dismissive in the same letter of those that 'write for children' as if the whole thing is a mere production line, with the latest book once read discarded and the next one picked up. He argues that he does not write 'for' children

'Books written FOR children of course don't deserve to be read even once…'
Brogan, Pimlico edition p255 (emphasis AR)

In Approaching Arthur Ransome Peter Hunt quotes from an introduction to Swallows and Amazons Ransome wrote to coincide with when the book was first published in the USA

'I began to understand that in writing about children one is writing about one's own childhood as well as theirs, and so, in a way, about childhood in general.'
Hunt, p171 (emphasis mine)

I read many years ago that the late Maurice Sendak, children's writer and illustrator, well known primarily as author of Where The Wild Things Are (1963), was accused in print and in person of not being able to write for children as he was not a parent. He had the most effective rejoinder to this nonsensical remark along the lines of – but I was a child once.

This simple fact also qualifies Ransome to write about childhood and being a child (though of course he was a parent, he had very little to do with the upbringing of his daughter Tabitha despite attempts to do so.)

Since the 1980s it has become almost fashionable for those with even a minor claim to celebrity to 'write a children's book'. As if this was something even the barely literate can do, a task requiring little talent or expertise, creating a product for an audience with simple needs and so assumed to have limited critical faculties therefore no effort would be required by the writer and easy returns will ensue (unfortunately, it often does thanks to the purchasing power of well-meaning but easily influenced friends and relatives.)

Ransome had shown the opposite of this situation fifty or so years before, writing for and about children requires skills, just as any other serious literary fields do, and Ransome almost uniquely possessed those skills –

'He knew exactly what he was doing when he turned to writing his novels for children, for novels they really are.'
Hardyment p198

Of the range of books I read in childhood (between roughly the ages of eleven and fifteen) only one author approaches the interest that I had at the time in Ransome – Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine books. For me, Saville only had one aspect of his works that had an edge over Ransome, he dealt with the fact that his characters were ageing and maturing and so began to have more adult feelings and ideas; but in contrast to Ransome this was easier for Saville as he continued to write and publish in the 1960s and 70s.

As Hunt points out, Ransome begins to show the differences between the more mature John and Susan in relation to Nancy in
Secret Water, but in Great Northern! they seem to have returned to their more childish ways. There are hints of this change for John in particular in Swallows and Amazons. It is an interesting contrast, though I'm not sure how relevant, that Saville's works have been mostly out of print until recent efforts by adult enthusiasts.

Of course, Ransome's greatest achievement, and the one he is most remembered most for, is the Swallows and Amazons series of novels, all of which draw upon both Ransome's childhood and adulthood. Each book recounts a set of experiences by a group of children; all of them are part of a larger group he draws upon so not all the children appear in every book. In each book there are always one or two adult characters that play important roles. These are adults who are nearly always sympathetic, understanding and willing to let the children take up the challenges they are presented with.

Through these books Ransome presents the childhood, though parts of which he did have, that he would have liked to have had.

Looking back on my reading of his works for nearly fifty years I realise that it is this aspect of his work that was the immediate appeal of them when I first read them (though I was unaware of it at the time) and in some degree remains so, along with the sheer quality of the writing. For me no other children's writer achieves this combination and retains their popularity in the way Ransome has.

My first reading of just a few of his books gave me an alternative childhood.

My own childhood of the 1950s, born and brought up in the Suffolk countryside with caring and loving parents, was, up to the age of seven as idyllic and tranquil as could have been. Beyond the age of seven things were different, my parents and myself were visited by tragedy when my brother and only sibling, three years older than myself, was killed in a road accident when he was knocked off his bicycle (curiously, his name was Geoffrey as was Ransome's brother who died in the First World War.) A year or so later after my brother's death I then had health problems that were only resolved with me undergoing major surgery, all of which impacted upon my childhood and growing up. My years at school for various related and unrelated reasons were not happy either.

Before his death my brother had been given at Christmases and birthdays a number of Ransome's books (four or five of them) so the green gold embossed bindings of the Cape editions were a familiar sight in our shared bedroom (unfortunately, the dust jackets had been dispensed with quite quickly!) I am reminded as I write this that my brother's best friend at this time was a girl a year of so older than himself named Susan. It was a few years after his death that I actually got around to reading them for myself.

The delay in me approaching them was mostly due to my slowness to begin more demanding reading. I now realise that I suffered with a mild form of dyslexia; fortunately I overcame this and became a reader who almost devoured books, and at some speed too! Ransome's works became my favourites and I sought out further ones from the library and received most of the others over the years as presents. The last one, this being done in no particular order, I acquired in a hardback edition was in middle-age (We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea.)

During childhood there was of course the pure pleasure of reading the books, the stories themselves, the characters – both children and adults, but in adulthood I have realised that they gave me a childhood gloriously unlike my own. In doing so they also gave me a refuge from the troubles of my real world, a world that I often wanted to leave behind in the sense of escape. I have memories of reading the books and wishing I was 'in them', that I was taking part, and that this would be unrelated to the life I was actually living.

Of course, the characters in the books lived seemingly normal lives. They went to school; but this was only occasionally referred to as something they had either just escaped from or were downhearted, though not unhappy, about having to return to in the near future. They seem to be free of being tormented, ostracised or bullied by other children, though not entirely, and if they were so treated justice in some form would usually prevail (interestingly though this aspect of life only occurs in the books set in the Norfolk Broads.) Fathers tend to be absent either through circumstances or death (though this is only ever referred to obliquely, so it is something of an assumption.) My own father died when I was fifteen, but I was still then an avid reader of Ransome but had also moved on to other writers writing for adults.

In the books adult characters are usually in the background almost just part of the scenery, sometimes they are taking part in the children's adventures but only one, Captain Flint, is ever fully involved. They are never constant observers or interfering deliberately with the children's plans for what they assume is 'their own good', though there are incidents of this in some of the books, Pigeon Post in particular.

Nicholas Tucker in his paper mentioned before (which essentially attempts to argue that Ransome is not a great children's writer but he tends to undermine his own argument. It seems he wants to regard Ransome as a great children's writer but cannot bring himself to so) touches upon two areas to do with the children in the books growing up – their safety in what they do and any awareness of their own physical and sexual maturity. In the matter of safety Tucker does point out that the books were written in the 1930s and 40s and are about the 1930s and 40s, so issues regarding safety as it would be considered today do not arise. It was assumed by Mr & Mrs Walker that as their children could swim, or most of them, capsizing and drowning would not be something to worry about. But I imagine that they also thought, as do most parents, such a thing would not happen to them. In my own life, my parents did consider the possibility of the dangers by my brother using a bicycle, but never imagined at any time it would lead to his death at such a young age.

Contrastingly, Tucker questions Ransome's ignoring of the possibility that the older children would be beginning to have an awareness of their sexuality, and the lack of swearing between them when no adults are around. Again, we have to remember these are works of the 1930s. It was not until the 1960s, thirty years or so later, that D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was published – the first widely available book in the UK to contain the English language's two strongest swear words and full descriptions of sexual activity, and of course it was a book for adults, not children.

This is not to say that sexual behaviour in teenagers in the 1930s was unknown. I possess a set of household help books published by Odhams in 1936 and purchased by my father at that time. One of the volumes, Real Life Problems And Their Solutions, deals with emotional and physical issues from childhood to old age, each chapter ending with a series of questions and answers in the style of problem pages or agony aunt columns. In the section on adolescents there are numerous questions on sexual behaviour, including a mother concerned about her teenage son who she has seen passionately kissing her home help, a woman in her mid-twenties!

Though Tucker acknowledges that in the 1930s and 1940s children's literature avoided the possibility of awareness of sexuality in teenagers it was more at the behest of publishers. At that time the role of books for children, and adults, had the place in our culture that television in particular has now (the Internet as an alternative has yet to totally supplant it.) The moral and behavioural standard expected in such dominating media does not always reflect society as it is but society as an influential minority would like to see or continue to be (in the present day the reaction of a small number of complaints about a television programme – sometimes less than one hundred – provokes action despite there being literally millions of non-complaining viewers.)

As for swearing, of course, even today, some children do not swear and find the constant use of expletives by others difficult to relate to. Tucker mentions Nancy's use of various pirate-like invented expressions, is it not possible that these are indeed euphemisms for swearing that would be acceptable in a children's book of the 1930s?

In his article Arthur Ransome and Problems of Literary Assessment published in edited form in Children's Literature: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends (2009) Tucker bemoans the lack of references to the toilet arrangements of the children when camping (I have to admit I noticed this myself as a child, but then none of the books I read at the time made any such references, camping or not!) It should be remembered that when Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas was published in 1973 he received letters of outrage and disgust from parents for depicting Father Christmas sitting on the toilet. What chance did Ransome have for mentioning such matters in his books in the 1930s?

Swallows and Amazons, the first book of Ransome's canon introduces us to the six characters that will dominate the series, and opens with the younger of the Swallows Roger (the youngest child of the family, Bridget, is still a baby and does not make a significant appearance until much later in the series in Secret Water.) Roger runs across a field towards his mother emulating the actions of a sailing ship to find out whether he and his brother and sisters have permission to camp on the island on the lake. The final permission for their trip is from their father, their mother has already agreed but on the understanding he does as well. He is a naval officer currently away from home, and his response to their letters of request is in the form of a telegram. Yet when he describes Roger approaching mother in the third person we know that it is Ransome who is crossing the field.

Already, within the first chapter of the first novel we have a description of what appears an almost idealised family; but much more importantly, parents who not only understand their children's desire to have 'an adventure' but are willing to discuss the matter not just between themselves but with their children, more in the manner of modern day parents than those of the 1930s and earlier. Here are the absent father and the strong mother, she has clearly given permission for the expedition to the island but I feel we can safely assume her letter to her husband is only seeking support and confirmation of her decision.

The 'permission' from the children's father is famously enigmatic –


and this immediately needs reinterpretation by Roger in asking his mother whether it includes him. His mother's response is more straightforward – yes, if his older siblings will have him and he does what he is told. Adult ways and trust are being placed on the shoulders of his oldest brother and sister.

In addition to the relationship between parents and their children there is another important element to the books that struck me reading them in childhood – they are believable. Like most other children I read stories which though set in the present day of the time (the mid 1960s) with scenarios that I would have been familiar with, there was always an element, usually the conclusion, that I just knew would not happen in real life; or my own particular real life. With the Swallows and Amazons books this never seemed the case. Yes, my chances of access to a boat on a wide expanse of lake or river were slight, if not non-existent, but the books always gave me cause to think that one day that this would be possible.

On arriving at the island for the first time the Swallows soon realise others have been there before them. The perfect camping site already has a fireplace complete with pothooks. The harbour, once discovered, has clearly been used before. Yet, the children come to terms with their disappointment with a level of understanding that most adults would have.

The relationship all the Walker children have with their mother is interestingly portrayed, and provides an example of how things should be rather than how they may be. After the Walkers have met Nancy and Peggy, the Blacketts, Mrs Walker is visited by Mrs Blackett, which is recounted to the Swallows next time their mother visits the island.

'There was silence. It was alright to talk to mother about their own affairs… But nothing could be said about the affairs of the Amazons. Mother noticed the silence, and at once began to talk of something else.'
Swallows and Amazons, Red Fox edition p197.

The 'affairs of the Amazons' being Nancy and Peggy's dispute with their Uncle Jim over his being 'too busy' that summer to take part in their adventures.

John, the eldest of the Swallows, on two occasions is put in a position where he has to 'confess' to his mother, and does so clearly from a sense that it is the right thing to do and that his mother should know the truth of the situation from him rather than second or third hand sources. He also knows that his mother will be fair and understanding of the situation, but this does not mean she will always consider that his actions were 'right'.

The second time John 'confesses' to his mother is over the matter of night sailing. When all but Titty are away from the island attempting to capture the Amazon from Nancy and Peggy, Mrs Walker pays a surprise visit to the island. In the comfortableness and closeness of her relationship with her mother Titty reveals the whereabouts of the others, she resists the opportunity to return with her to the farm and so, as we know, captures Amazon herself.

John, on his return to the island, knows it his responsibility to explain to his mother their actions.

With John's encounter with James Turner, he has yet to become known to them as Captain Flint (or even Uncle Jim as he is to the Amazons,) he is accused of lying – and is of course mortified at the accusation and that his attempt to defend himself is dismissed in a rude off-hand manner. Later in the book Captain Flint admits his mistake and apologies to John, a proper apology with recognition of a hurt inflicted; something most adults find difficult to do with children or even other adults.

A few years after my own first reading of the book I had a similar confrontation with a teacher at secondary school, I was not as fortunate as John – some class work I had done was incorrect and I was told to do it again, I did so and when this was reviewed I was told this too was wrong and I was asked why I had done it that way. I responded with honesty that he had me told to it that way. The reaction from the teacher was strong and unreasonable and my honesty clearly riled him, but this reaction was one that has stayed with me ever since, to compound the humiliation of the event my parents tried to persuade me that I may have been mistaken in his instructions!

Then of course there is the matter of Ransome and his second wife Evgina having no children of their own, and any attempt of a relationship with his daughter is thwarted by his first wife, often unreasonably and spitefully. In his books he creates portraits of the children he knew and the children he would have liked to have had, and the parental relationship he would like to have had with them. This too, I can relate to having endured a childless marriage. Like Ransome I can often view the world as children would from their perspective rather than that of a parent and so interact with them, I hope, sympathetically.

With the announcement of a new film version of Swallows and Amazons by the BBC there have been various comments and interviews in print and online by those involved in the production, one of which was commenting that the book was a 'rite of passage' work and this would be central to the script of the film. For the purpose of this piece I read Swallows and Amazons once more, despite being critical of the rite of passage idea I have to admit that on this reading I can see why the book can be thought of in that way. All the Swallows, in their own way, in the duration of the book, grow up; John and Titty in particular. In contrast the Amazons seem the same, but in some matters they are already more worldly-wise, particularly about the ways of the Lakes and rural life in general, so perhaps there is less opportunity or need for them to change.

The dealings with adults by the children are nearly always straightforward, and when they are not the children behave in an adult manner, as they have been brought up to, and the adult in questions treats them as they would another adult in similar circumstances.

Such exchanges leads to me to one of the most memorable, entertaining and enlightening scenes in the book. This is the confrontation between Nancy and the policeman Constable Sammy Lewthwaite when he goes to Wild Cat Island and challenges John about visiting Captain Flint's houseboat. Sammy questions John, who answers honestly but in Sammy's view he answers flippantly. His questioning becomes more serious and as it does so, Nancy arrives and hears some of the exchanges; she not only defends John's honesty but also puts the policeman in his place by threatening to tell his mother of his behaviour! Unbeknown to John, Nancy and the policeman have family connections and her threat works; Sammy ceases his questioning and leaves the island suitably chastised.

This particular scene is sometimes cited by critics as a weakness in Ransome's writing and an unrealistic part of the plot, yet this is taking it at its face value. The knowledge of the relationship between Nancy and Sammy reveals the motivation for her behaviour (and she knows the truth of the encounter between John and her uncle.) More importantly, it gives an example of where it is possible for children to question the established order and do so because they know they are correct. It is a scene of how the reader would like things to be rather than how they tend to be, where the honesty of a child is placed second to the lies of an adult.

Ransome wrote about what he knew and what he would have liked in childhood, and encouraged and helped children he met through friends to achieve these aims. I do not think, he ever set out to be a chronicler or sociologist of childhood, but through his observations and skills as a writer he has unwittingly become one. Most writers for children usually do so in the role of observer, or perhaps reporter; Ransome always seems more than that, as if he has immersed himself in the children's lives –

'…we know what Ransome's own characters are feeling, not because he has told us, but because he has shown us.'
Hardyment p199

As a writer about childhood he offers us little or nothing in the way of analysis, he is an observer, uncritical, providing us with evidence of a time very few of us know.

This article is ©2013 by Mike Dennis, and is posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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