Difficulties with Amazons

SIGNALLING FROM MARS: The Letters of Arthur Ransome ed Hugh Brogan, Cape pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
Some day or other," the 33-year-old Arthur Ransome wrote to his mother from St Petersburg in 1917, "regardless of the advantages of a settled income, I shall fling my typewriter over the moon, catch it with a joyful yell on the other side, and spend three years in pouring out novels ... We will live in a farm. We will live on my boat ... I do so want to be at home and to go to Coniston, and to walk over Wrynose ... and to feel that there are other things in life beside exceedingly complex politics."

Ransome first visited Russia in the summer of 1913 to learn the language and study folklore for a book of Russian fairytales. His trip was also an escape from the vicissitudes of his life in England: his marriage to Ivy Walker had turned sour, and in the winter of 1912-13 he had been sued for libel by Lord Alfred Douglas on account of his book about Oscar Wilde. Although he was acquitted, the experience scarred him, and he seized on the idea of a Russian adventure.

This volume of letters opens with the outbreak of war, and swiftly follows Ransome's immersion in the drama of the Russian revolution as a political correspondent for the Daily News, and moreover one whose opposition to foreign intervention in Russian affairs landed him in trouble with the British Foreign Office. These Russian years transformed Ransome from a struggling writer into a professional journalist of no small repute; but he hated the prospect of becoming a "dry political old oracular idiot", and clung to his dreams of being a storyteller.

More than another decade was to elapse before he achieved his ambition. In between times, he took up sailing, cruising the Baltic in the Racundra, a 30-ton ketch built to Ransome's own specification, and wrote about fishing, his other great passion, in articles for the Guardian. He remarried, to Eugenia Shelepina, formerly Trotsky's secretary, and settled at Low Ludderburn in the Lake District. At last, in 1929, he began to write Swallows and Amazons, an account of the four Walker children and their holiday camping and sailing in the Lakes.

Swallows and Amazons was not an overnight bestseller. "The Queen, God Bless Her, pranced into Bumpus' shop and bought a copy of Swallows and Amazons," Ransome wrote soon after publication. "She paid cash for it - I asked. If only all loyal persons follow her Majesty's example ... " By 1934, however, the book had gone into its eighth edition, justifying the sequel, Swallowdale, and ensuring a readership of millions for Ransome's ten other children's books.

The secret of the success of Swallows and Amazons, like all great children's literature, is that nowhere does one get the impression that it is written explicitly for children. As Ransome, aged 54, wrote to one young American fan: "Unless I am writing something that is good fun FOR ME, not for somebody else, I cannot write at all. The children who read my books are never addressed. I don't even know they are there. They merely overhear me larking about for my own fun, not for theirs. It is just good luck for me that some of them seem to enjoy the same things that I enjoy. I can't claim any credit for it."

The great pleasure of Signalling From Mars is the way in which the reader is continually buoyed along by Ransome's reputation as a humane and widely gifted writer, but also his perfectionism. "IT WILL LOOK MUCH BETTER IN TYPE," an exasperated G Wren Howard of Cape wrote to assure Ransome in 1934, in one of a fascinating series of exchanges, pressing him to deliver that autumn's bestseller with the hallowed mantra so beloved of publishers.

The true Amazons of Ransome's story are the four women in his life: his mother, to whom the bulk of his correspondence is addressed, his wives, Ivy and Eugenia, and his daughter by his first marriage, Tabitha. Ivy is an almost faceless character here (she doesn't even merit a biographical note), and comes across as a vindictive character offstage, depriving Ransome of his library after their divorce (a loss, he said, which was comparable to losing an important part of his brain), and forbidding Tabitha to visit her father on the inexplicable grounds that he would drown her. In spite of Eugenia's tendency to be a discouraging critic of her husband's work (she described Picts and Martyrs as "hopeless", which made Ransome postpone publication), his letters portray her as a warm and stabilising influence.

Ransome's worsening relations with his daughter provide one of the few areas in which his customary optimism faltered. In the civil war between her parents, Tabitha's mind had been poisoned against her father, and as an adult she appears to have lost few opportunities to wound him. She informed him that Swallows and Amazons was churned out and tired, and he only learned of her marriage from a brief postcard in which she wrote that she married a dock labourer and her name was now Lewis.

These, though, are rare dark passages in a volume which overall reflects the subject's geniality. It is a wise and witty celebration of Arthur Ransome, and one, in keeping with its subject, that seems imbued with the taste of both salt and fresh water.