BOOKS / Treasure for Ransome: True literary 'finds' are rare, but a brown paper parcel that lay forgotten for 80 years has revealed a lost book by Arthur Ransome, a tribute from one great writer to another
Sunday 27 March 1994
I had known the link might exist ever since I wrote a book about the people, places and books which inspired Ransome's Swallows and Amazons novels. In 1913 Ransome wrote to his mother that he was 'tinkering with a book on Stevenson', but such a book was unknown. A few years ago, in a talk to the Arthur Ransome Society, I said: 'In the canons of English literature, the missing book I most regret is Arthur Ransome on Robert Louis Stevenson.'
In 1992, Ransome's only child, Tabitha, died at the age of 83. Among her papers lodged in a London solicitors' office, a substantial package came to light. The wrappings are a period piece in themselves, secured with black and scarlet wax, double-stamped with a seal in the form of a collared eagle. Written on it in a flowery, generous hand is the address of a London bank, and the legend: 'To be delivered on demand to Arthur Ransome Esq. or Mrs Arthur Ransome. May 4th 1914.'
Inside are 387 small quarto manuscript pages of Russian watermarked paper. Different handwriting this time, cramped and purposeful, varying in size, neatness and colour of ink, but unmistakably that of Arthur Ransome. And on the title page are the most famous three initials in English literature: RLS.
Ransome had returned to England from a stay in Russia in the winter of 1913, but in May 1914 (probably fleeing his unhappy marriage) he returned there once again with a quick commission for a guide book on St Petersburg in his pocket. It must have been then that the Stevenson manuscript was placed in the bank for safe-keeping, quite possibly by Ransome's wife, Ivy. But in July 1914 Russia mobilised, and the outbreak of war led to an abrupt transformation in Ransome from would-be romancer to foreign correspondent. In the upheavals of war, and the subsequent break-up of Ransome's marriage to Ivy, the Stevenson book seems to have been quite simply forgotten, or perhaps believed lost - until last September, when it was deposited in the Ransome archive in Leeds University's Brotherton Collection.
At almost 400 pages, it is far more substantial that anybody had imagined. It is scrappy, incomplete and unrevised, but the shape of the work outlined on the opening page is clearly recognisable. 'The book as I see it now, should be really two books,' Ransome begins. 'The one should be the plain tale of an adventurous romantic's progress through life in the 19th century; and the other should be a kind of log book, kept by the clerk of a workshop, retaining perhaps a little of the hurried character of notes made in the whistle and hum of machinery . . . It should I think retain the sharp clean smell of new sawdust.'
That Ransome should have written a book about Robert Louis Stevenson will surprise those who know him only as the perennially middle-aged author of a dozen books full of children messing about in boats. In most of these, Ransome accurately caricatures himself as the Amazons' uncle Jim Turner, overweight, balding and moustachioed. But the children's nickname for their irascible though essentially sporting uncle was Captain Flint, and he lived in a piratical-looking houseboat with a cannon on her foredeck. Swallows and Amazons and its sequels are peppered with references to Treasure Island. Nancy presents Captain Flint with the black spot when he accuses John of lying. In Peter Duck, the children actually head for the Caribbean to hunt buried treasure on Crab Island; black-hearted villains in the Viper chase after them with as much determination as Long John Silver and his ghastly crew.
Anyone who has read Hugh Brogan's excellent biography of Ransome will already know that 'Captain Flint' had a literary past as well as a pirate one. What was not clear until now was how much of that past was a dedicated parody of the author of Treasure Island.
When Robert Louis Stevenson died at the age of 44, exactly 100 years ago, Arthur Ransome was 10 years old, 'a cheerful small boy of action' whom accident had just turned into a writer. 'We were all playing at ships under an old dining table (which had) a heavy iron screw pointing down in the middle of it. It was my watch below. Suddenly someone shouted 'All hands on deck]'. I started up. That heavy iron screw made a horrible dent in the top of my skull . . . I crawled out much shaken, played no more that day, but took a small blue notebook and wrote in it my first story, about a desert island. I have been at it ever since.'
His autobiography shows that his interest in Stevenson began early. 'Treasure Island we knew and loved, but I remember my father's shocked astonishment when I did not realise that The Black Arrow was in comparison a poor, machine-made thing.' At Rugby he graduated to 'a great deal of Shakespeare, a good deal of Carlyle, a lot of Stevenson, and every bit of folk tales I had been able to get hold of'. A pious attempt to placate his mother's financial anxieties by studying science at the Yorkshire College came to an end, he claims, when he discovered a life of William Morris, and 'read entranced of lives . . . in which nothing seemed to matter but the making of lovely things and the making of a world to match them'.
What AR on RLS provides are the clues that it was Stevenson, much more than Morris, whom Ransome took as his model when he set up as a man of letters in London. In 1904 he moved into a Chelsea garret and wrote a book about his adventures, Bohemia in London, which is obviously influenced by Stevenson's essays on the Parisian Latin Quarter's Vie en Boheme two decades earlier.
Other enthusiasms echoed those of Stevenson. The high moors and the high seas were both men's chosen literary landscapes. Stevenson's essay on 'Walking Tours' is echoed by Ransome's 'Two Tramps'. Even their mottoes have the same ring about them. 'Acts can be forgiven; not even God can forgive the hanger- back,' wrote RLS. 'Grab a chance and you won't be sorry for a might-have-been,' wrote his pupil.
There is more than a passing resemblance between Stevenson's Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882) and Ransome's History of Story-Telling (1909). Ransome could have described his book as Stevenson did his: 'the readings of a literary vagrant'. Both idolised Hazlitt, Hawthorne, Borrow and Lamb, and the great French story tellers from Villon to Flaubert; both analysed the development of narrative, both speculated on the definition of Life with a capital L and Art with a capital A.
They also had chronic ill-health in common. Stevenson was tubercular, constantly chasing climates that would make his life halfway bearable, and ending up in the South Seas, as healthy as he could be but still far from well. Ransome's guts played him up all his life, combining with his poor eyesight to make him unfit for military service, requiring a sequence of operations and limiting his cruising ambitions to local coastal adventures.
There were differences. Stevenson found his soulmate Fanny Osbourne ('trusty, dusky, vivid and true') early and stayed with her all his life. The marriage between Ransome and the fascinating Ivy (Constance) Walker, she of the eagle's-head seal, was a failure, although at first the prefaces to the anthologies on love and friendship they composed together celebrate a marriage of true minds.
Stevenson was halfway through what Ransome describes in AR on RLS as 'the stern, clean drawing of Weir of Hermiston' when he died, aged only 44. 'In the history of writing there are few more romantic tales than this of the man who knew himself when all his efforts failed, and dies at last, suddenly, in the full glow of a book which would perhaps have been perfect.' As he wrote those words, Ransome himself was at a crossroads. In 1913 he had left Ivy and his adored baby daughter Tabitha and gone to Russia. He was 29, a sobering age, and the 16 books he had written were of very varied quality. They ranged from winsome nature stories for children and eminently forgettable pagan papers like Hoofmarks of the Faun (1911) to perceptive critical analyses of Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde. His style was hard- hitting and sinewy at its best, but marred by an addiction to baroque metaphors. He had read too much and done too little. In short, he was an author desperately in search of character.
Why Russia? Partly to escape that unhappy marriage, partly to research Russian folklore (Old Peter's Russian Tales was finally published in 1916), partly to work on a book about Robert Louis Stevenson. In a peaceful dacha on the Baltic, he settled down to think.
Until the phoenix-like appearance of AR on RLS, all we knew about his thoughts were a few notes and quotes in a notebook with pink endpapers bought in Paris, and a single page tantalisingly titled Conclusion.
'It was about this time,' it reads, 'that Stevenson became 'a great penny whistler before the Lord' . . . The instrument is unjustly disfigured, even laughed at, but it is capable of great things. Stevenson and his stepson played duets: it led him to study the techniques of music; he even composed for it. And, somehow it is symbolical of his career. A grown man playing the instrument of youth, playing it with a skill not often dedicated to it, and, in larger matter, playing a penny whistle in the orchestra of English literature.'
That passage could just as well apply to Ransome, also a great whistle-tootler. Since the two men had so much in common, and now that we have the book in which one celebrated the achievement of the other, it is clear what a cathartic influence RLS had on Ransome's own development as a writer.
Why was the book never finished? Perhaps there was something bruising in reading Stevenson's opinion of critics - 'wreckers of the press, who earn a little bitter bread by the condemnation of trash which they have not read, and the praise of excellence which they cannot understand' - for, quite suddenly, Ransome decided to have done with criticism and try his hand at a novel. As he set to, writing 40,000 words in two weeks, he must have recalled what he had just written about Treasure Island: 'the speed of its composition was only made possible by the years of slow, meticulous labour that had preceded it'. The Elixir of Life (1915, and never reprinted) is sheer romance, the first fruit of Ransome's own long literary apprenticeship, and highly derivative. 'For my part,' wrote Stevenson in 'A Gossip on Romance', 'I liked a story to begin with an old wayside inn where, 'towards the close of the year 17--', several gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls.' His unfinished romance about a gentlemanly highwayman does just that. The Elixir of Life also opens on the Great North Road, where a young fop with a taste for philosophy but more beef in his soul than his appearance suggests takes refuge in a wayside inn. It was written in the first person, as Stevenson advised, and features a mysterious gothic castle, a sugary heroine and a timelord intended to be as horrific as Mr Hyde.
Ransome was delighted with it. Methuen accepted and published it immediately; visions of a comfortable existence on pot-boilers danced ahead of him. Fortunately for generations of children, events intervened.
After the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, Ransome turned out an excellent crop of wartime despatches from Moscow and St Petersburg, and found a new wife: Trotsky's secretary, Evgenia Shelepina. After the war, he came home to England to a career as a journalist, travelling to China, Egypt and the Sudan, writing two or three workmanlike books on Russian and Chinese politics, a small classic of sailing (Racundra's First Cruise) and a volume of fishing essays from his Manchester Guardian column (Rod and Line).
It was not until 1929 that he sat down to write the first of the books that were to make his reputation: Swallows and Amazons. He took a gamble. Rejecting the security of the job of literary editor of the Manchester Guardian ('All the little things, which cannot be helped when you write for a major newspaper, make book-writing proper impossible'), he shut himself up in a barn overlooking the southern hills of lakeland, and wrote the book for a family of five children whom he had taught to sail in two small lug-sailed dinghies on Coniston Water.
But Ransome was also writing it for himself, and in his head were echoes not only of his own childhood holidays on Coniston, with his brother and two sisters, but of the making of Treasure Island. 'Never were circumstances more apt for such a tale's production,' he writes in AR on RLS. 'Stevenson, himself a boy, with his young stepson aged 13 and his father, children both in the simplicity of their imaginative tastes; the drawing of a map in playful imitation of the ancient way, in which maps were not cold-blooded plans but living pictures, with ships sailing, full-rigged upon the sea, and mountains visible, not merely marked, upon the land.'
Ransome also began with a map. 'Wild Cat Island was marked, with its lighthouse tree,
its landing place, harbour and camp, then a fish was drawn in Shark Bay, where they went perch-fishing . . . North and south of the part of the lake they knew were dotted lines and the words 'Uncharted waters', or 'Unexplored' . . . 'There ought to be a Treasure Island,' said Titty.'
While The Elixir of Life is the work of an amateur literary cook faithfully following an expert chef's recipe, Swallows and Amazons is a newly invented medium; it is a homage to Treasure Island, but not a pastiche. Its author had come into his kingdom.
RANSOME ON STEVENSON
ON LITERARY TECHNIQUES
'His ideas were always those of the craftsman, not the systematic falsehood of the philosopher . . . Stevenson as craftsman knew how, but he did not always know why.'
'Perhaps the reason why Stevenson remained a charming, a skilful writer, and in life a delightful but not a commanding personality, lay in his attitude toward life and towards art.'
ON 'TREASURE ISLAND'
'I open it to remind myself of some detail of technique, and, from that page I read willy- nilly to the end. My edition is dated 1894 and is one of the fifty-second thousand. In the last twenty years I must have read it at least twenty times. And now I cannot write of it as of a literary achievement. No: I speculate upon the fortunes of Long John . . . I wonder what became of the three maroons who were left on the island as a punishment for their wicked mutiny. I hear Long John cursing the flies on his large red face, or see him smoking silently with Captain Smollett, as in the picture of the loghouse door. And then there are delicious perilous moments, up the mast, with Hands climbing from below, and jerking his dagger murderously through the air to pin me - or was it Jim Hawkins? - to the mast. And then the characters, Livesey, and the squire and Gunn in the end of the book keeping a gate - oak and walnut characters like those of the eighteenth-century novels.'
ON THE ESSAYS
'Style is so far a man's personal rhythm that it is as difficult to analyse as a personality.'
'Adventure was what Stevenson cared for in life . . . adventure is what delighted him in his own books, and it is after a course of Dumas that the Scottish novels of Stevenson appear in their true colours . . .'
'Here I think we are near the secret of at least one kind of literary charm. It depends not on the description of circumstances pleasurable in themselves, but on a tenderness exhibited by the writer for his subject, on the infectious quality of a mood in which a man can look affectionately upon his past.'
ON 'A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES'
'A child's voice in literature has never been achieved before . . . The sun in the morning, the lamplighter at night, the rustle of an aunt's skirts, play more serious than life . . . These things are the real furniture of childish psychology . . . and give us back our babyhood.'
'I count myself fortunate that I was born late enough to be among the children whose mothers have read aloud to them A Child's Garden of Verses. For me, now they have something of the loveable quality that I suppose everybody attributes to his own childhood. They were translated into my life, and episodes of it seem to have been known to Stevenson although not always quite accurately characterised by him . . . When I read it now, two distinct persons are looking at the print, a bald-headed person who has read too many books, and a small boy . . .'
All copyright in unpublished material belongs to the Ransome Estate.
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