Swallows, Spies and Secretaries: the strange story of Arthur Ransome

By Patrick Walsh

The books we read as children often leave an indelible impression. All of us can remember those much loved authors and books, which we read over and over again, the characters we met, and the places we travelled too. We rarely, however, think too much about the people who spun these stories. Our favourite authors could often be identified only by the long list of other books still to read (more annoying still were those who only wrote one book, or worse still wrote grown up books!), or else by author photographs on the back cover, or dust jacket. These often portrayed a particular image, for male authors they were avuncular old men with a slight twinkle in their eye; think here of Roald Dahl or C.S Lewis. Their female counterparts were often more than slightly bookish, and often pictured with a pet. The overall impression, certainly of writers of a particular generation was one of safe, even staid, respectability, whose only adventures were those presented to us on the page!

One such avuncular looking favourite of my childhood was Arthur Ransome, author of the celebrated and still read (just about) Swallows and Amazons series set in the rural idyll of the Lake District. His author photograph, illustrations and most importantly, stories, gave the impression of a quiet life, given over to inventing tales about the fictional Walker and Blackett children. Ransome’s own life was, however, far from quiet. He had written his first and most famous children’s book, Swallows and Amazons, in 1930 at the age of 45, but as his latest biographer Roland Chambers points out, the most interesting episode of his life was already over by this point. Ransome wrote his books in his beloved Lake District, where he lived with his second wife, Evgenia Petrovna Shelapina, Leon Trotsky’s former private secretary.

How had Ransome ended up married to the famous Bolshevik leader’s secretary, and what was she doing in Britain? They had met during what Chambers rightly describes as the most interesting part of Ransome’s life; the eleven years between 1913 and 1924 that he spent in Russia first as a writer and collector of folk tales, then as a journalist, first for the Daily News and latterly for the Manchester Guardian.  During this period he witnessed the build up to, and then the two revolutions of 1917, becoming one of the best informed western journalists in the process. Indeed he became perhaps too well informed, becoming a close associate first of Alexander Kerensky and then Lenin and Trotsky. His intimacy with the Bolshevik inner circle was cemented by his relationship with Trotsky’s secretary, while his proximity to the leading revolutionaries led to him being accused of becoming a fellow traveller. Ransome was probably not a communist, although his political views moved more and more leftward as his time in Russia progressed.

The Bolshevik inner cabal were not, however, the only group that he became increasingly associated with. His local knowledge and obvious expertise led him to be recruited by the then nascent MI6. The journalist had become a spy, and possibly even a double agent. This is the fascinating story investigated and told superbly by Chambers in his recent biography The Last Englishman. Ransome eventually, and with some difficulty returned to England after the Russian civil war, as the Guardian’s distinguished foreign correspondent, and with grand plans to write a history of the revolution, a task for which he was eminently suited. He never completed this magnum opus, and instead turned to children’s literature, something which had always fascinated him, and to a landscape, both real and imaginative, which had haunted his memories and correspondence throughout his Russian sojourn. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien banished the memories of the First World War trenches by retreating to the Shire and Middle Earth, or George Bowling in Orwell’s superb, and often neglected, Coming Up for Air escaped to the fishing ponds of his youth, Ransome created an orderly fictional alternative universe, where time stood still. Wildcat Island, High Topps, the lake itself, and even the author’s own alter-ego Captain Flint were more than just places and characters in much loved children’s books; they were part of a world where the chaos and uncertainty of the early twentieth century had not penetrated. Ransome, far from being an avuncular, slightly staid author, was a man trying to escape a fascinating and adventurous past, which would have seemed far-fetched even by the standards of his most exotic books. Roald Dahl would later do the same, but that is a story for another day.

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4 Responses to Swallows, Spies and Secretaries: the strange story of Arthur Ransome

  1. Ciara says:

    Patrick, a very interesting post. Sounds like Chambers’s biography could be a fascinating read; thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Pingback: Swallows, Spies and Secretaries: the strange story of Arthur Ransome (via The Little Review) | Eoin Purcell's Blog

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  4. Maurice Wilkins says:

    This a rather belated reply to this post, but I was trying to find out whether or not Arthur Ransome is still read by children. We were brought up on the S & A series in the 50s and 60s and had them all in hardback – I have dipped into them over the years but lost track of them eventually. Recently, while clearing out my mother’s bookshelves as she’s no longer able to read, I found that she still had them all, with the exception of Peter Duck which she never liked! I brought the whole lot back to Scotland with me and am throughly enjoying them all again, taking care to read in sequence! I am now in the middle of ‘Coot Club’ It seems to me, reading them after a long period, that they are written in a way that makes them quite acceptable to adults too; I couldn’t say the same about Enid Blyton!

    So let’s hope that modern kids, in the spaces between texting, phoning and playing computer games, get the chance to sample these wonderful books and realise what it’s like to be a child again!

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