Swallows, Amazons and Coots
There are many adult enthusiasts of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series of children's novels, and some of us have waited a long time for someone to produce a detailed academic analysis of the books that would support and help to explain to those that have not read them his reputation and standing as an author.
Previous publications have dealt with not just the novels but with Ransome and his life before and during the writing of his children's books, most notably Peter Hunt's Approaching Arthur Ransome that also emanated from academia. Other, excellent, books dealing just with the Swallows and Amazons series have been written by very knowledgeable devotees such as the late Roger Wardale and established writers such as Christina Hardyment, but Julian Lovelock's study is the first academic work to tackle each of the novels in depth.
Lifelong readers of Ransome, such as myself, have anticipated this work but having now read it I'm rather saddened to have to admit that I found it disappointing and in my view did not do Ransome's books justice. This is not to say I disagree with Lovelock's analysis entirely, obviously everyone has their own view of the nature of them but there are some aspects of his study that I would strongly argue against.
In recent times, mainly since the nineteen-seventies, Ransome's books have been, unfortunately, dismissed by some as being very middle class and portraying a best forgotten world that ceased to exist many years ago and so having no relevance to children anymore. There are lengthy arguments to be had to refute this view, and a work such as Lovelock's has the potential to do so. Yet despite these criticisms all twelve of Ransome's books are in print and continue to sell in hardback and paperback editions, and in two-thousand and sixteen a new film version of Swallows and Amazons was released (though it is an adaptation, unlike 1974 film, that takes great liberties with the novel, so those coming to the book after seeing the film will wonder where much of the plot came from.)
Lovelock's study devotes a chapter to each of the books outlining the plot and then discussing them and aspects of the characters as they are portrayed, some of which are considered in more length than others.
For me, one of the strangest aspects in his analysis is that he seems able to see comedy in every one, sometimes making lengthy references to it, even describing Coot Club as a "...comic melodrama...”\" (p.92) and The Picts and the Martyrs as having "...laugh-aloud comedy..." (p.193). In all my readings of the books over fifty years I cannot say I have ever seen them as having a comedy element. Nor have I seen any such references to a comedic content in books written by enthusiasts or the many academic papers about them available Online. For example Hunt makes no reference to humorous writing other than a passage dealing with the pug William in Coot Club "This is about the only occasion in the whole canon where Ransome indulges his sense of whimsy..." (p.127)
Yes of course children's fiction can be humorous, as a child I was an enthusiastic reader of Anthony Buckeridge's "Jennings and Derbyshire" series and Richmal Crompton's "William" books all of which I found to be very funny as they were intended to be. In comparison Ransome's books though they have moments where something is said by one character that is then found comical by the others these passages have never struck me as humorous for the reader, they are just a natural observation of how the characters interact. This concentration of the supposed 'comedy' in every novel by Lovelock somewhat distracts from the analysis of each of the book’s plots and characterisation.
Ransome, as he made clear during his own lifetime, was not a children's writer and always maintained he never wrote for children. It is this aspect of his books that makes him a great writer of what gets classified as children's fiction and why he still maintains such a high standing. His greatest skills were to draw the reader in, to explain how things are done and to show that in dealing with adults children can be far more wise and sensible. Unfortunately, this aspect of his work is not explored to its deserved depth by Lovelock. For many, myself included, Ransome provided not only absorbing reading, explanations of many things of a practical nature but an escape from an actual childhood to one not burdened with issues that can blight that period of life.
Where I do agree with Lovelock in his analysis of the novels is that the books should be seen "...as products of their era;" (p.16) I have always argued in forums and other Online sites that they are all a snapshot of England (acknowledging that one book ventures in to Scotland and two are primarily set overseas) as it was in the nineteen-thirties and how Ransome viewed it along with his own childhood and how he wanted that to have been. Because of this, we have to make some allowances over the very occasional use of language that today would be unacceptable (fortunately rare, unlike other popular children's authors of the time), and attitudes in the social relationships of some of the adult characters.
Lovelock provides analysis of some of the characters as if we are able to see in to their minds and so understand their actions and motivations, this is a tempting idea for many which has led to a great deal of 'fan fiction' being posted on the Internet. The root of this kind of writing and analysis is easier than for some writers as Ransome based many of his characters on real people, and in the case of Dick and Dorothea Callum fictionalised versions of himself. The only ones we have carte blanche to do so with is Nancy and Peggy, as the former is a major character and driving force in nearly all the books it is a path that many have followed in such contributions to 'fan fiction' but it does make it more complex when analysing the original works.
As with most authors we have little or no idea what the writer had in mind when they created the people that populate their works, in Lovelock's book he attempts to do so to fit in with his own theory of the overall view Ransome is trying to convey. For Lovelock this seems to be "...that the novels reflect the dying British Empire and its values..." (p17)
To me this would seem to be a quite difficult position to argue for, Ransome is well known for being a journalist on the then Manchester Guardian, a newspaper that has always taken a left of centre view politically and for spending a lot of time in Russia with a close relationship with revolutionary leaders. But is this enough to assume that he had views that were supportive of the end of the British Empire and all it represented? It is possible to glean from the novels that he saw the decline of ways of life in the areas of the countryside that the books are set, and that he regretted it.
Despite my misgivings it is an interesting read for the Ransome enthusiast, but one where I was always wanting to argue back and felt an opportunity had been missed.
Reviewed by Mike Dennis, January 2017.
This article is ©2017 by Mike Dennis, and posted on All Things
Ransome with permission.
Back to the Index for Ransome Readers Recommend
Back to All Things Ransome