Always the most imaginative of Ransome's characters, she is typically depicted dreaming of being marooned like Ben Gunn, attempting sorcery on the wax image of a particularly oppressive great aunt and doing her best to prospect for water with a dowsing twig. She is also shown as being as brave and resourceful, opting at only nine years old and with tears in her eyes to stay at lonely night guard on the island where the children were camping rather than return to home comforts with mother.
The children first met Ransome in 1928 when visiting their grandfather for a long stay in the Lake District. Their father, Ernest Altounyan, a half-Irish, half-Armenian doctor based in Syria, was married to Dora Collingwood, daughter of Ruskin's biographer W.G. Collingwood. Ransome and Altounyan bought two boats that summer, Swallow and Mavis, and set about teaching the children to sail on Coniston Lake.
Many of the family's adventures were to work their way into Ransome's subsequent fiction. Before leaving for Syria, the children presented him with a pair of red Turkish slippers. In return, they eventually received through the post a copy of Swallows and Amazons bearing the dedication "For the six for whom it was written in exchange for a pair of slippers". Ransome later stayed abroad with the family in Aleppo, using more of their ideas and joint sailing experiences for Peter Duck (1932) and Winter Holiday (1933). But like Lewis Carroll before him, he did not always appreciate the way that treasured child companions would insist on growing up and thinking for themselves. The relationship cooled over time, and when Swallows and Amazons was reissued in 1958, Ransome suppressed his original dedication, adding another denying that anyone other than himself possessed responsibility for the story.
This act of petulance, encouraged by Ransome's wife Evgenia (formerly Trotsky's secretary) was manifestly unjust. As a child, Mavis in particular had genuinely loved her "Uncle Arthur", writing him many long letters full of potentially useful detail, and sometimes helping him with his drawings. There is a story that he at one time wanted to adopt her, but this fantastical suggestion could not have been offered seriously. Mavis's father always had a particular regard for her, particularly when it became clear to this art-loving doctor that she was going to develop into a gifted painter.
Mavis later studied at Chelsea School of Art under Henry Moore, interrupted by a war-time stint working for a news agency in Jerusalem. She was a star pupil, and much was expected of her but such great hopes worked against an adult personality always inclined to lack self-confidence. Although a practising artist for the rest of her life, a stubborn perfectionism never allowed her to value the work she did. The portraits were usually given away for nothing; her abstract paintings remained unappreciated. She never attempted to go commercial in the way she could easily have done, having returned to the Lake District and bearing a name that still meant so much to fans of Ransome and of the Lakes in general.
By this time Mavis had married Melkon Guzelian, a refugee from Armenia whom she had met in Syria while she was helping run the hospital founded by her grandfather. Political pressures grew, and father and daughter were ordered out of the country they had done so much to serve with only 24 hours notice.
Back in Britain, Mavis and husband moved with her parents back to Lanehead, her childhood home in the Lake District. Melkon worked as a motor mechanic in Windermere and the couple had three children. One daughter, born with Down's Syndrome, had permanent problems walking and talking. She was doted on by her parents, and was an inevitable drain on the time Mavis could have been painting. She died aged 29.
In later life, Mavis turned against her British as opposed to her Armenian roots. She sometimes said she would prefer living the simple life back in Syria, and came to dislike the Lake District particularly when it was sunny and, to others, looking a treat. She also lost her love of sailing, and regretted her early identification with the golden child of Ransome's imagination, increasingly resisting being what she described as "Tittyish" in order to satisfy the expectations of others. But her sister Brigit Sanders insists that as a child she was just like the Titty of the books with her fierce intelligence and lively imagination.
Mavis Guzelian was strongly self-critical and like her brother Roger severely asthmatic. Her life was not fulfilled in the way most wanted, which was to become an artist of the highest rank. But she leaves a legacy of kindness to others and devotion to those most close to her. During her last four difficult months she was looked after by her husband, to whom she was married for 44 years, after a bad fall following severe heart problems had returned her to the childhood state with which, in the public imagination, she will always be associated.