The Elixir Of Life

Arthur Ransome

Some thoughts on "The Elixir Of Life"

Arthur Ransome's The Elixir Of Life sank without trace soon after it was published in 1915. It would be almost impossible to find a copy today if H.P. Lovecraft had not praised its "darkly excellent effects" in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and inspired Hippocampus Press to reprint it in 2009 with a fascinating introduction by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi. Even in the Internet age, it seems to attract little interest from Ransome's own admirers, which is surprising given that it is his only full length novel other than the S&A series.

Having written his earnest critical study of Edgar Allan Poe, it was logical that Ransome should try his hand at a horror story of his own. As Christina Hardyment has noted, the result is "pacy and well constructed" and Ransome's trademark attention to detail suggests a fascination with the occult that might have disconcerted 1930s parents. Nevertheless, as Walter de la Mare recognised in a contemporary review, Ransome was too much of an optimist to let Elixir reach its full macabre potential. Although his idea of how an alchemist might pay for immortality is indeed "darkly excellent", somehow we are never in any doubt that there will be a happy ending. Poe or Lovecraft would surely have made Stanborough sample the elixir himself before he discovered its monstrous secret.

Elixir has several interesting connections with Ransome's later work. The fishing-enthusiast uncle who abandons his duffer of a nephew at the side of a deserted highway and the ingenuous but courageous hero are both obvious prototypes for S&A characters. The episode where Dick retraces a servant's distinctive footprints could have been re-enacted exactly by his 1930s namesake. The plot also foreshadows Ransome's own life – the adventurer who would rescue Evgenia and bluff his way out of Russia, and the curmudgeon who would disinherit his daughter.

Horror is not a theme that is commonly associated with the S&A books, yet they contain a handful of moments that hint at Ransome's less wholesome interests. In Swallowdale and Pigeon Post, Titty is terrified by the delusion that she has unleashed supernatural powers. The description of the vile cannibalistic crabs in Peter Duck could easily have been used as the starting point for a Lovecraftian nightmare. Then there is the Faustian theme in Great Northern. Having learned the horrible truth about Jemmerling, how pure are Dick's motives when he persuades the crew to return to Lewis? As in Elixir, knowledge has a dreadful cost.

Two final thoughts: By writing the S&A stories and allowing himself to relive the "best of childhood", was not Ransome creating his very own elixir of life? Was his estrangement from his daughter and the grown up Altounyans part of the the price he paid?

Reviewed by "JB", March, 2012

This review is ©2012 by the author. It was originally posted on the TarBoard, and now appears on All Things Ransome with permission.

The Elixir of Life is available from as a combined edition with The Lady Who Came To Stay:

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