Cover of Arthur Ransome's
Arthur Mitchell Ransome (January 18, 1884 – June 3, 1967), was a British author and journalist, best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons series of children's books, which tell of school-holiday adventures of children, mostly in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads areas of England. Many of the books involve sailing, with other common subjects including fishing and camping. The books remain popular to the point that they provide a basis of a tourist industry around Windermere and Coniston Water — the two lakes that Ransome used as the basis for his fictional North Country lake.
Ransome was born in Leeds, where his father lectured as a Professor of History. His father died in 1897, which had a lasting effect on Ransome who always tried to overcome his belief in his father's lack of confidence in his abilities. Ransome received his formal education first in Windermere and then at Rugby School (where he lived in Lewis Carroll's study room) but did not entirely enjoy the experience - due to his poor vision, lack of athletic skill, and limited academic achievement. He attended Yorkshire College, his father's college, for a year studying chemistry. However, he abandoned the college and went to London to become a writer. He took low-paying jobs as an office assistant in a publishing company and as editor of a failing magazine while writing and becoming a member of the literary scene of London.
Before Swallows and Amazons
After Ransome had become involved in the literary and artistic life of London, he wrote Bohemia in London (1907) about some of the personalities he knew. He married Ivy Constance Walker in 1909 (they divorced in 1924) and they had one daughter, Tabitha. Among his other books, one on Oscar Wilde embroiled him in a libel suit with Lord Alfred Douglas. The alleged libel dealt with Wilde and Douglas' homosexual affair and as a result became very scandalous. Ransome's wife's behaviour in attending the trial, and apparently enjoying the notoriety, added to the stress on their marriage. Ransome won the suit, but in 1913 he left his wife and daughter and went to Russia to study folklore.
They sailed away once more over the blue sea.
Frontispiece of an edition of Old Peter's Russian Tales
In 1916 Ransome published Old Peter's Russian Tales, a collection of 21 folktales from Russia. After the start of World War I in 1914 he became a reporter and covered the war on the Eastern Front for a radical newspaper, the Daily News. He also covered the Russian revolutions of 1917, developed some sympathy for the Bolshevik cause and became personally close to a number of its leaders, including Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. He met the woman who would become his second wife, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, who at that time worked as Trotsky's secretary.
Ransome provided some information to British officials and the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) considered him loyal, if not an agent. MI5, the British Security Service, kept watch on him because of his opposition to the Allied intervention against the Russian revolution. On one of his visits to England the authorities searched and interviewed him and threatened him with arrest.
By 1937, MI5 appeared satisfied of Ransome's loyalty to Britain. However, evidence uncovered in the KGB files following the break-up of the Soviet Union seems to indicate that Evgenia Ransome, at least, was involved in smuggling diamonds from the Soviet Union to Paris to help fund the Comintern.
After the Allied intervention, Ransome remained in the Baltic states and built a cruising yacht Racundra. He wrote a successful book about his experiences, Racundra's First Cruise. He joined the staff of the Manchester Guardian when he returned to Russia and the Baltic states. Following his divorce, he married Shelepina and brought her to live in England, where he continued as a journalist writing for the Guardian, often on foreign affairs and (for the "Country Diary" column) on fishing.
The Swallows and Amazons series
Main article: Swallows and Amazons series
Ransome settled in the Lake District. He decided not to accept a position as a full-time foreign correspondent with the Guardian and instead wrote Swallows and Amazons in 1929 - the first of the series that made his reputation as one of the best English writers of children's books.
Ransome apparently based the Walker children (the "Swallows") in the book in part on the Altounyan family: he had a long-standing friendship with the mother and Collingwood grandparents of the Altounyans. Later he denied the connection, claiming he only gave the Altounyans' names to his own characters; it appears to have upset him that people did not regard the characters as original creations.
Ransome's writing is noted for his detailed descriptions of activities. Although he used many actual features from the Lake District landscape, he invented his own geography, mixing descriptions of different places to create his own juxtapositions. His move to East Anglia brought forth a change of location for four of the books and Ransome started using the real landscape and geography of East Anglia so that it is possible to use the maps printed in the books as a guide to the real area. Ransome's own interest in sailing and need to provide an accurate description caused him to undertake a voyage across the North Sea to Flushing. His book We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea reflects this, and he based the fictional "Goblin" on his own boat Nancy Blackett (which in turn took its name from a character in the series).
Two (or possibly three) of the "Swallows and Amazons" books have less realistic plots. Peter Duck originated as a story purportedly made up by the children themselves, but Ransome dropped the introductory passage clarifying this from the published book (though Peter Duck himself features in Swallowdale as a character whom the children created). Peter Duck comprises a relatively straightforward story, but with a much more fantastic plot than the more conventional "Swallows and Amazons" books.
A trip to China as a foreign correspondent provided Ransome with the imaginative springboard for Missee Lee, a story in which readers find the Swallows and the Amazons sailing around the world in the schooner Wild Cat from Peter Duck. Together with Captain Flint (the Amazons' uncle Jim Turner), they become the captives of Chinese pirates.
More controversy attaches to the final book of the series, Great Northern?. The plot and action appear realistic, but the internal chronology does not fit the usual run of school holiday adventures. Myles North, an admirer of Ransome, provided much of the basic plot of the book.
The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis was published posthumously in 1976. It only covers his life up to the publication of Peter Duck in 1931.
Other authors after Ransome developed the formula of children's sailing adventure books, notably Gilbert Hackforth-Jones who published 10 books in the Green Sailors series from 1951.
Awards and appreciation
- Ransome became the first winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children's literature for Pigeon Post in 1936
- Durham University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters
Translations of his books have appeared in a number of languages. As a result, Ransome has become very popular in countries such as Japan and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), where thriving Arthur Ransome appreciation societies exist.
- The Arthur Ransome Club was founded in Japan in 1987
- The Arthur Ransome Society was founded in England in 1990 and now has a worldwide membership
Recently a Czech astronomer named an asteroid after Ransome (6440 Ransome).
Ransome and his wife Evgenia lie buried in the churchyard of St Paul's church, Rusland, in the southern Lakes District.
"Swallows and Amazons" bibliography
- Swallows and Amazons (published 1930)
- Swallowdale (1931)
- Peter Duck (1932)
- Winter Holiday (1933)
- Coot Club (1934)
- Pigeon Post (1936)
- We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea (1937)
- Secret Water (1939)
- The Big Six (1940)
- Missee Lee (1941)
- The Picts And The Martyrs: Or Not Welcome At All (1943)
- Great Northern? (1947)
- Coots in the North (unfinished at the time of Ransome's 1967 death, published in an unfinished form in 1988 with some other short works)
- The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, Jonathan Cape, 1976
- The Life of Arthur Ransome, by Hugh Brogan, Jonathan Cape, 1984
- Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk, by Christina Hardyment, Jonathan Cape, 1984
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