The World of Arthur Ransome

Christina Hardyment

ISBN 978-0-7112-3297-6 – Published by Frances Lincoln Ltd

A book weighing 2lbs 8ozs and measuring 10 1/4 by 10 1/8 inches appears and feels, at first glance, as if it is a coffee table book – fortunately it is much better than that.

This book details, with considerable scholarship, the progression through Arthur Ransome (AR)'s life closely linking the strands of AR and his wives, his literary output, his residences and his boats.

This progression is overlaid with the heath concerns about his continuing stomach problems – only those who have suffered intermittent long term painful illness know how debilitating it can be and AR did well to cover as much as he did. Perhaps he was able to take advantage on the introduction of the National Health Service in 1947 although the level of his royalty income should have enabled him to remain a private patient should he have chosen so to do.

In addition the increasing loving dominance of his second wife Evgenia made a compliant life the easiest course in his later years.

Whilst AR and Evgenia were abroad in the Baltic region, they missed the British post-war depression of 1920-1 leading to the General Strike in 1926. However when AR started writing S&A in 1929, it was a brave decision to refuse a paid job at the start of the next recession following the Wall Street crash. The book explains, in a prior chapter, how health might be a major factor in this decision.

Having the book carefully laid out in sequential order enables the reader to take a wider view of AR's writing and see patterns developing. In particular in the five Lake District stories, AR seems to have used an example taken from real life then substituted it with another person or object in his stories.

We read in the Winter Holiday chapter that bathing huts at the head of Windermere provided inspiration for the North Pole. However the building illustrated and described is unlike any bathing hut with its large windows that people could see into as well as out and thus may have come from elsewhere.

The layout also allows the reader to speculate that whilst the Swallows were initially based on the Altounyan children they (and the Amazons) may have evolved into the families that AR never had with his two first loves Barbara & Dora Collingwood. It may be that if Evgenia came to recognise this it could account for her ongoing hostility to the later books especially when she was beyond the age when they could reasonably expect children of their own.

AR relied on input and feedback from others to hone his stories to their finished perfection. Always a master of describing actions such as sailing or camping in realistic detail; the book details clearly the contributions of others although the feedback from the children, to whom he read his drafts, must remain elusive. Although it does show photographs of children acting as models for his drawings and the request to Dick Kelsall to devise the pigeon-activated alarm system.

Perhaps the lack of children's feedback made Great Northern? less satisfactory to many of its readers although written after a four year break. However his later fishing books needed little outside comment as they were written with his aforementioned realistic detail and were fact based.

The book recounts how the majority of demand from his readers was for more Lake District stories. It is possible that AR would have written more had he had a plot. Perhaps a holiday of typical lakes rain, day after day, would have provided a challenge to even Nancy's inventiveness!

When he was in the Lake District, AR seemed to have no need of a sea going boat although he could have kept such a vessel on the Kent or Duddon Estuaries. Every time he came south, he searched for and bought such a boat until he was too old to sail.

Mention is made of AR selling houses at a loss. Up to the mid 1950's houses were usually sold at a loss (like used cars and boats) because of the increased wear and tear during occupation. The price increases, which we now consider normal, because of mortgage-fuelled demand and building land shortage, had not yet taken hold. However to sell at a considerable loss usually demonstrates impatience in either buying or selling.

Considerable care has been taken with the pictures to make them relevant to the accompanying text and to maximise the quality of reproduction. Good to see a picture by Alfred Heaton Cooper, whose Lake District paintings are evocative of the S&A era, in the Nibthwaite chapter. This picture was one of a series commissioned by the Furness Railway for their postcard advertising. It would have been interesting to see the "Skating by night on Windermere" by this artist in the same series of pictures included in the Winter Holiday chapter.

There are a number of photographs that have not been seen before and the book format allows photographs to be printed so that they can be studied if need be. There are also pictures of nearly all the covers or dust jackets of the books AR wrote that were published in his lifetime. Wisely the Cape multi-imaged hardback dust covers, familiar to all AR enthusiasts are excluded although the front of the dust cover of this book does pay tribute to the Cape format.

Only some reference is made of the posthumous books which have been published since 1967 containing his writings and drawings as assembled by various editors. Perhaps a list of these could have been usefully included with some annotation in the final chapter.

Overall this is a fascinating book, with its logical layout and readability which will enable the reader to return to it frequently and use it as a reference for further investigation into AR's life. It is a worthy complement to the author's earlier book Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk which focussed more on the places AR incorporated in his novels.

Reviewed by Owen Roberts, November, 2012

This article is ©2012 by Owen Roberts, and posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

Additional Material on All Things Ransome

There are several references in The World of Arthur Ransome where additional information or material is available on the All Things Ransome website. Of particular interest:

On pages 30-31 Ms. Hardyment mentions Ransome's "three little nature books for children, which were published in 1906, and later appeared in one volume as The Imp, The Elf and the Ogre (1910). PDFs of the three original books are available at Nature Books for Children.

Pages 101-103 "The Northern River Pirates" discusses holidays on the Broads in 1938-39, and mentions George Russell's "lively log of the 1938 voyage". The originals of Russell's logs for these voyages, together with transcripts, are available at The Logs of Cochy and Fairway. In particular the 1938 log of Fairway is the "lively log".

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