Ransome's Missing Natives
A slightly amended version of an article which first appeared in Mixed Moss 2007, published by The Arthur Ransome Society.
One might expect that a series of children's books written in the 1930s and 1940s would portray traditional symmetrical family structures, in contrast to the fractured and frequently complex domestic arrangements which are all too common today. Missing parents, single parents, persons living alone, all-male households, all-female, "do your own thing" – they had none of that in Ransome's day. Or did they? Well, the Blacketts' missing father has been the subject of conjecture ever since Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale were published, but the Walker family is typically solid, with Ted and Mary and their five children, and the Callums are very much the "standard" family – mother, father and two children.
So with the Walkers and Callums in mind one might expect the large and richly varied "supporting cast" of natives who appear during the course of the Swallows, Amazons and Ds' adventures also to reflect this steady, symmetrical family matrix, i.e. both parents alive, some children, and possibly a surviving grandparent or two. What could be more reassuring for the young 1930s/40s readers who pestered their parents for the latest Ransome each Christmas? However, looking back at the stories as an adult, I had a distinct impression of families and other domestic set-ups appearing with key members, perhaps whole generations, missing. Was this correct? Let us now check this by looking at each family or personal unit (other than the S, A and Ds' own families) in the order they appear.
The first natives we meet in Swallows and Amazons are the Jacksons, of Holly Howe. Mr Jackson is a "very powerful strong native", but otherwise we are not told a great deal. Mrs Jackson seems a typically generous Lakeland host, although alas, the mind of this kindly soul "moved more slowly" than her neighbour Mrs Dixon's. The ages of the Jacksons are not indicated, but one gets the impression that they are no longer young, perhaps being in their 50s or 60s (Captain Flint describes Mrs Jackson on one occasion as "an old hen"). A young girl, Fanny, helps Mrs Jackson with her visitors, but there is no mention of the Jacksons having any children. Here, we come up against a common problem concerning "missing" characters in fiction: the fact that a character is not mentioned does not mean that he or she does not exist. The Jacksons' children may well be married and living elsewhere, but all we can note is that there is no son or daughter helping on the farm, which one might have expected.
Much the same can be said about the Dixons, whose farm is close to the shore opposite Wild Cat Island. Once again, there is no firm indication of their ages, but from Mrs Dixon's conversation one can deduce that they are both getting on a bit. By the time that we reach Winter Holiday, it is clear that AR has become fond of the Dixons and he gives them quite a starring role in that book. Mrs Dixon is bright and talkative, and AR decided to link her even closer to the children by mentioning that she had been Mrs Callum's nurse. The taciturn Mr Dixon is a brilliant characterisation and who cannot regard this old farmer with affection? But – they appear to have no children, or at least none is mentioned. The Dixons are surely old enough to be grand-parents. If descendants exist, none of them is helping on the farm, which again one would expect. The hand, "Old Silas", seems even older than Mr Dixon.
The next group of natives we meet are nomadic. As well as accurately describing a charcoal burners' camp AR typically brings in two unforgettable characters to occupy it, and it is made clear that we are looking at the top layer of a dynasty. Old Billy's son is Young Billy, and he has sons and grandsons of his own. Both Billies, then, had wives, but they are not mentioned. Charcoal burning was an itinerant occupation, and because of the need for round-the-clock supervision of a "burning" the burners had to live on site. If a burner's wife had lived in a more permanent building, a cottage say, then there would have been lengthy periods of separation. It is possible that Young Billy's wife was helping out in a large house or farm in the locality to supplement their income, but I feel that both Billies are widowers, and that that gives their life together in the woods beside the lake a particular poignancy. They would have done spells of duty alone, in turn, rather as on a ship – no wonder AR is able to empathise with them.
In Chapter VIII of Swallows and Amazons we meet for the first time an unfriendly native: the man on the houseboat, the "retired pirate" or, as we come to know him, "Captain Flint", the Amazons' Uncle Jim who in fact turns out to be the most essential and involved adult in the stories. To enable him to fulfil this taxing role AR did not burden him with a wife, nor any family ties other than his closeness to his sister Mrs Blackett. Bachelor uncles seem to have been familiar figures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and even later (I had one). They had a reputation for being mildly eccentric, but were enormous fun (mine was). Captain Flint is the uncle par excellence, always being on hand when really needed and (G.A. apart) not having any meal or bed times, which even the most good-natured wife would have insisted on. He is one of those types who "haven't really settled down". Here, we can easily see the logic: an untrammelled Captain Flint can be abroad whenever this suits the story-line and can return without notice, or at least not much, to steady the ship. He is a gift to a harassed author.
A great deal happens to the main characters in the ensuing chapters of SA, and it is not until Chapter XXIII that we encounter another native. Like Captain Flint, PC Lewthwaite is male, hefty and down to earth but the similarity ends there. Sammy is not very bright, but he is doing his best as a policeman and it is difficult not to feel sorry for him when Nancy threatens him with the one thing he is frightened of – his mother. We have to wait until Chapter XXIII of The Picts and the Martyrs to find out more. Sammy is the elder son of Mrs Lewthwaite, who is a friend of Cook and also "Mrs Blackett's old nurse". His younger brother Billy is evidently unmarried and lives with his mother. Cook finds him in the potato patch behind his mother's cottage when he is needed to drive Rattletrap, and we are told that he puts on his coat and old yachting cap for this purpose, the inference being that these personal items of clothing are kept in the cottage because he lives there. There is an indication that Sammy also lives at the cottage: after the G.A. has disappeared, Cook sends Billy home in case his mother is worrying about him, and Billy asks if he should say "owt to Sammy if he's at home?" This is supported by Captain Flint's request to Mrs Blackett, at Beckfoot, "Slip along and tell him [Sammy]" (Winter Holiday, Chapter XXV). Two bachelor brothers, then, still living at home, one of whom is dominated by his mother (as even the G.A. knew). In these circumstances, had their father existed one would have expected him to get a mention, but he does not.
In Swallowdale we meet another farming family, the Swainsons. The household appears to consist of "old Mr Swainson" and his wife, and their grand-daughter Mary, and no one else is mentioned. Mary is unmarried, but is romantically attached to a local woodman. We are not told how the farm operates or what livestock it has. More importantly, Mary's parents seem to be missing. Are they farming elsewhere and have "lent" Mary to their elderly parents to help them run things? There does seem to be a "settled" atmosphere at Swainsons which implies that the grandfather, grandmother, granddaughter team is a permanent one. Mary is still there by the time of The Picts and the Martyrs, and tells the nosey G.A. that "we've not been taking visitors latterly" (note the "we"). I fear Mary's parents are dead.
In Peter Duck, Mr Duck himself is quite open about his family. He has three daughters, all over 30 and married to farmers, with children, but his wife is dead, conveniently leaving him free to go to sea again with Captain Flint and his crew. That crew soon gains an extra hand, Bill, who also is up-front about his ancestry: mother died when he was a baby, father "lost in a gale a year or two back". In other words, there's no one to worry about him either. Nor, by the sound of it, is there anyone to worry over Black Jake, about whose antecedents we know nothing except that he unsuccessfully propositioned each of Peter Duck's daughters, raising the presumption that he is unmarried, although with Black Jake one cannot be sure.
We return to the real world with Coot Club. Mrs Barrable does not mention a "Mr Barrable", and once again we are given no clue as to what happened to him. He may be alive, but the fact that Mrs Barrable's brother, the "famous portrait painter", is soon coming to join his sister aboard Teasel for a lengthy cruise seems to point to widowhood. No children are mentioned.
Tom Dudgeon appears right at the start of this book, and here at last we actually have a "standard family" set-up: Tom lives with his doctor father and his mother who has just given birth to a baby son, so it is two parents, two children, all very much alive. His good friends, the twins Nell and Bess Farland ("Port and Starboard") live with their father, the solicitor Frank Farland, but wouldn't you just know it, their mother died "when they was babies", and we are given the slightly vague reassurance that Mrs Dudgeon "pretty near bring them up". AR does provide Mr Farland with an "old housekeeper", Mrs McGinty, who serves as a bit of a comic turn, but she also fits into the general pattern by being a widow.
We now encounter a classic AR villain – George Owdon. In true AR style, George's parents have been blown away by forces unknown, and he lives with his uncle. Perhaps for humanitarian reasons AR did not want to lumber any hard-working parents with a son like George, and siblings are also spared such an ignominy. On a more serious level one cannot help feeling that in modern parlance this is a boy "from a broken home" who feels he "has no stake" in Norfolk society. Whatever the reason, his bitterness is all too clear.
In the second part of Coot Club three experienced watermen appear. Jim Wooddall, skipper of Sir Garnet, has as his mate "Old Simon" but there is no mention of wife or family. On the other hand, Old Bob of the Come Along mentions a "missus" who might have taken care of Port and Starboard if they'd missed the bus, and the Thames barge Welcome is actually crewed by a married couple, Mr and Mrs Whittle – a family unit completed by their son Jacky, who is in the Navy. But what of 'Awk – Mr Hawkins, the Cockney mate? We are not told, but one somehow suspects that he is a loner.
The Carnegie Prize-winning Pigeon Post has a plot as taut as a bowstring, and maybe for that reason involves few natives who are not already known to us. One of these, Squashy Hat, is the mainstay of the plot. Timothy Stedding, to use his real name, is unmarried or at least we can presume so, as his lifestyle, involving travel abroad, is very similar to Captain Flint's. Of course, he is still young. We meet another local farming family, Mrs Tyson and her son Robin, and by this time the absence of a "Mr Tyson" scarcely raises an eyebrow. This is the Ransome world, and we're getting used to it.
If ever a film is made of We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea (and there should be), the most frustrating role will be that of Jim Brading, who only appears at the beginning and the end. Once again, the curse of AR descends: Jim has no parents and was apparently brought up by his uncle – just about the only thing he shares with George Owdon. Mrs Powell tells us that his uncle Bob "used to wade ashore…with Jim Brading kicking under his arm" and that uncle and nephew made sea voyages together, but she does not mention parents and surely would have done had they been alive or known. Jim is a typical unattached Ransome character, and as master of the Goblin he needs to be.
Another "loner" soon appears in The Big Six. Harry Bangate, the old eelman, complies with the Ransome default setting for a male native – he apparently lives and works alone and he was taught his craft by his uncle. What is it with AR and uncles? It is a relief to see that standard working families inhabit the rest of this book. We have already met the Death and Glories but now we learn that not only have Joe, Pete and Bill got boat-builder fathers but, praise be, all their mothers are still alive. The complement of natives is also relatively orthodox in Secret Water: the Mastodon has a mother and father, and the Eels actually have parents described as "an ordinary pleasant couple of grown-ups". Does this explain why Secret Water is sometimes seen as lacking electricity?
No shortage of energy in Missee Lee. The young female pirate is a brilliant creation, but she also fulfils the classic Ransome requirements: no mother, no father and no brothers. Her mother died when she was a little girl (this is also becoming a familiar pattern), but her father lived to see her grow up and taught her all she knew about sailing and piracy. There is no mention of sisters, and one would not fancy their chances if there had been any. The redoubtable Miss Lee has also apparently managed without an uncle.
On to The Picts and the Martyrs now, where we encounter the Great Aunt, who ticks all the boxes (and how she would hate that expression): unmarried, no children, and apparently no parents or brothers or sisters alive. Only AR could have dreamt her up. There is, however, good reason for her lack of relatives because she has to be seen as a solitary figure, hopelessly out of touch with 1930s lifestyles and incapable of tuning in to young people's wavelengths. There is, too, a suggestion that, driven by envy, she is prone to give a hard time to her widowed niece Mrs Blackett who, by contrast, has had a loving marriage and two lively daughters as surviving consolation. I have detected somewhat similar feelings in my own family on occasion. What a relief that the other native family we meet in this final "Lake" book is the Warriners: an everyday local sheep farmer, with a wife still alive and a spirited young son, Jacky.
The final book, Great Northern?, treads fresh ground in many ways as regards location and storyline, but its native supporting cast are firmly in the AR tradition. Jemmerling, probably the nastiest character we meet in all the books, has the usual Ransome villain's CV: no spouse, no children, no siblings, no parents alive. At least, none are mentioned, but all could in theory exist. However, what woman would marry him? He may have brothers and sisters but these would surely have disowned him, as even his parents might have done – perhaps they are another "ordinary pleasant couple of grown-ups" living somewhere in Surrey, but one doubts it somehow. In contrast, family ties mean everything to the inhabitants of the island and there is a powerful sense of long ancestry in the relationship between the McGinty and his son Ian. Inevitably, though, someone is missing – McGinty's wife. When Roger is snooping, he sees father and son "hogging" at a table, but no mother. Could they have banished Mrs McGinty from the room during mealtimes? Is this a local custom? Surely not, and in any case there is no sign of a mother to Ian when the clan is crowding round the prisoners. The most convincing evidence of all for the absence of this lady is that this is Ransome-land and by now we should know the form…
Let us now look at the statistics for all the books. Above I have examined a number of families and characters and here is roughly how they break down. Family units with members apparently missing = 9. Individuals with spouse or one or more close relatives apparently missing = 16. Standard "complete" families = 7. Of course these figures are not scientifically precise; for one thing I have omitted several characters whose impact on the stories is fleeting and who merely have "walk-on" parts, for example the postman, the railway porter, and even Col. Jolys. However, even if imprecise, what these figures do show is that AR, consciously or unconsciously, tended to shy away from tidy, symmetrical family set-ups and preferred to have spouses, relatives and even whole generations missing.
Why? Was AR reflecting the demography of the time? To check the typical make-up of Lakeland and East Anglian families in the 1930s would involve detailed and lengthy local research of a type I feel life is too short for. So perhaps a little guesswork is permissible here. There are a number of men in the rough age bracket 40-50 who are missing: Bob Blackett, Billy Lewthwaite's father, Mary Swainson's father, Mr Barrable, George Owdon's father, Mr Tyson, Jim Brading's father, Harry Bangate's father and Mrs McGinty's husband. These are all men who could have fought and died in the 1914-18 War or died subsequently from wounds or disease. With regard to Lake District inhabitants AR must have been aware of the effect of the war on a whole generation, as he could compare the Coniston of 1904 with the Coniston of 1928. The county regiment of Cumberland and Westmorland was The Border Regiment, which fought at Ypres, Somme, Arras, Cambrai and many other battle areas and suffered severe losses.
As to female losses, surely we need look no further than death in the influenza epidemic of 1918, or death in childbirth or from unspecified illnesses suffered before the development of anti-biotics during the 1930s. Both men and women could have died from industrial or agricultural accidents. There must be at least a hundred other possible causes for premature death.
However, although Arthur Ransome, as a writer devoted to realism, would no doubt have recognised and used this background of common family losses, I suggest that he had an extra, deeper, personal motive. AR's family was of a "standard" type – mother, father and four children, but it seems that for Arthur this orthodox set-up was not ideal and perhaps not a household he would really wish to promote. The problem was his relationship with his father. Chapter II of the Autobiography makes things plain: "I was a sad disappointment to my father…"; "I was a disappointment to my father in many ways…"; "'Back-water, you little idiot!'"; "He had been disappointed in me, but I have often thought what friends we could have been…" This last quote was, of course, after his father had died, and such was the pressure of expectation that Arthur admits to a momentary feeling of relief on his father's death.
I have a suspicion that Cyril Ransome was nowhere near as "disappointed" in his eldest son as Arthur thought, but that is not the point – what matters is that AR felt he had dismally failed to match up to his father's expectations and this, in my view, coloured his thinking as regards father-son relationships. It is believed by many that the total admiration and loyalty which John Walker shows to his father represents AR's heartfelt concept of how an ideal son should behave at all times. To prevent such a fiercely idealist relationship from dominating the stories, in his treatment of Commander Walker AR re-creates the distance between himself and his own father but in a physical way for a very practical reason: Cdr Walker is frequently away on active service. Thus AR avoids having to deal with too much father-son contact, which might have been too painful for AR to create, and for John Walker to live through. As it is, the meeting in Flushing nearly gets out of control at one point: "…John, for one dreadful moment, felt that something was going wrong with his eyes…he found himself biting his lower lip pretty hard…
Steady on! This is powerful stuff, because John's father is praising him. One can only imagine what feelings AR was experiencing when he wrote that passage. Did he, in contrast, relive his own "disappointment"? If so, one can see why such emotions are reserved to John only, and only on one occasion. For nearly all the other characters it was clearly better to avoid fathers wherever possible. Tom Dudgeon has a living father, but although the relationship is undoubtedly affectionate it runs at a much lower voltage. Furthermore, AR tells us that he began life with a "vast number of uncles" of whom at least two, according to the Autobiography, led eventful lives. Who better, then, than an uncle as a guide and a collaborator, offering affectionate support but imposing no huge unspoken expectations (in George Owdon's case perhaps no expectations at all)? A chapter heading in Winter Holiday says it neatly: "The Uses of an Uncle". Captain Flint has once again turned up, as a good uncle should do, just at the right moment and with no emotional fuss. This is observed by Dorothea with a curiosity derived from the fact that she and Dick have no uncles at all – yet another handicap the Callums have to overcome in the land of the Swallows and Amazons.
There are nowhere near as many missing mothers. AR was devoted to his own mother throughout his life, and seems much more relaxed about portraying mother-son and mother-daughter relationships. Mrs Walker stops just on the right side of "Mumsiness", while Mrs Blackett copes with her daughters in a much more down-to-earth manner but a charming one nonetheless. Mothers are not idealised: AR had no qualms about saddling Robin Tyson with a mother who could be excessively homely at times and even fierce. So perhaps AR omitted Port and Starboard's mother, and also Miss Lee's and Ian's, simply to balance the missing fathers elsewhere.
Of course, there are several instances where both parents are missing, but at this point consistent theories start to break down so it is time to stand back. Whatever the reason for their omission, the missing family members never seem to me to constitute any sort of loss or disadvantage to the stories. Quite the contrary: there is an all-pervading stoicism about these incomplete ménages which contributes some realistic "fibre" to the narrative. In real life people do die or leave home or break off contact, and those remaining simply do their best in what is basically a damaged world. So the likes of Mary Swainson, Robin Tyson and Billy Lewthwaite carry on their occupations cheerfully, their domestic arrangements not questioned or even mentioned by the children. Thus we see the writer's craft. John's bond with his father is supreme and unique. By comparison, Nancy, fatherless, operates on different lines altogether. Nearly all the other non-Walker families are quietly and undistractingly incomplete, free from any emotional detonator. And it all works.
This article is ©2007, 2013 by Peter Hyland, and is posted on All Things Ransome with permission.
Back to the Literary Pages
Back to All Things Ransome