Arthur Ransome

From Academic Kids

Arthur Ransome (January 18, 1884June 3, 1967) was a British children's author. He is 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 Norfolk Broads areas of England, and mostly involving small sailing boats. They remain popular to the point that they are a basis of a tourist industry around Windermere and Coniston Water — the two lakes that Ransome used as the basis for his fictional lake.

Earlier in his life, Ransome was involved in the literary and artistic life of London and wrote "Bohemians in London" about some of the personalities he knew. He married Ivy Constance Walker in 1909 (divorced 1924) and they had one daughter. Among his other books was one on Oscar Wilde which embroiled him in a libel suit with Lord Alfred Douglas. The alleged libel dealt with Wilde and Douglas' homosexual affair and as a result was considered to be 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.

In 1916, he published Old Peter's Russian Tales, a collection of 21 folktales from Russia. After the start of World War I he became a reporter and covered the war on the Eastern Front for a radical newspaper the Daily News. He also covered the revolutions in 1917 and developed some sympathy for the Bolshevik cause and its leaders Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky and met his second wife, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, who was Trotsky's secretary. He provided occasional intelligence information to British officials but MI5, the British Security Service, kept watch on him. Later he was searched and interviewed but by 1937 MI5 concluded he was loyal to Britain. 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 Comintern.

After the war he 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.


Swallows and Amazons

He then returned to England and settled in the Lake District while continuing to write for the Manchester Guardian. He decided not to accept a position as a foreign correspondent and instead he wrote Swallows and Amazons in 1929. This was the first of the series that made his reputation as one of the best English writers of children's books.

The Walker (Swallows) children in the book were apparently based on the Altounyan family, whose mother and their Collingwood grandparents were old friends of Ransome's. Later he denied the connection, claiming he only gave the Altounyans' names to his own characters, as he appears to have been upset by people thinking that the characters were not original creations.

Ransome's writing is noted for his very accurate descriptions of locations and activities in his books. His move to East Anglia brought forth a change of location for four of the books. 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. This was described in his book We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea, where the fictional "Goblin" was actually based on his own boat Nancy Blackett (which was in turn named for a character in the series).

There are two (or possibly three) of the Swallows and Amazons books which are not completely realistic. Peter Duck was originally intended to have been a story made up by the children themselves but this introductory passage was dropped from the published book (though Peter Duck himself is mentioned in Swallowdale as a character who the children created) and it appears to be a straightforward story except that the plot is much more fantastic than most Swallows and Amazons books.

Similarly, a trip to China as a foreign correspondent provided an imaginative springboard for Missee Lee, in which the Swallows and Amazons, sailing around the world in the ship Wild Cat from Peter Duck, together with Captain Flint (the Amazon's uncle Jim Turner), are captured by Chinese pirates.

There is more controversy over the final book of the series Great Northern?. The plot and action appears to be realistic but the internal chronology does not fit the usual run of school holidays.

Awards and Appreciation

Arthur Ransome was the first winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children's literature. This was awarded for Pigeon Post in 1936. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by Durham University. His books became very popular in surprising countries such as Japan and Czechoslovakia where thriving Arthur Ransome appreciation societies exist. Recently a Czech astronomer named an asteroid after Ransome (6440 Ransome). There is also a British based Arthur Ransome Society with a worldwide membership.

Ransome and his wife are buried in the churchyard of St Paul's church, Rusland in the southern Lake District.

"Swallows and Amazons" Bibliography

  • Swallows and Amazons (published in 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 (1943)
  • Great Northern? (1947)
  • Coots in the North (unfinished at the time of his death, but published in its incomplete form in the 1990s)

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