Once upon a time, as they say in the best fairy stories, Arthur Ransome’s name was just THE byword for the top children’s adventure tales. Swallows and Amazons, which is both a dated and yet strangely timeless piece of fiction, continues to enchant new generations of readers, young and old. The Lake District setting provides a considerable part of the charm, along with the engaging characters with whom most of us have been able to identify at some point in our lives. Not a lot actually happens in that book: children camp on an island, go fishing, annoy a man living on a houseboat, get told off for sailing at night.
The real adventures come later: the wreck of the boat in Swallowdale, the secret hiding place of Picts and Martyrs, and best of all, the search for gold, entrapment in a mine, and a fellside fire in Pigeon Post.
Ransome recorded his own life in an autobiography, Hugh Brogan led the field with the first of the major biographies, Christina Hardyment enchanted us all further with her exploration of Ransome’s real and fictional worlds, and Roland Chambers expanded on the theory than Ransome was actually a secret agent, not just a chess-playing journalist covering the Russian revolution.
Now Alan Kennedy takes us into the world of what he calls The Other Arthur Ransome, in A Thoroughly Mischievous Person (Lutterworth Press). He’s at pains to stress that this is not another biography: there are already many of those. Instead he says: “The questions I wish to explore are more psychological than literary.” Ransome, according to Kennedy, was a complicated and secretive man who “deliberately set out to baffle those who sought to make sense of his life.” So we’ve all been looking in the wrong place?
Ransome deceived us with the story of his own life, says Kennedy, an autobiography which was “entertaining, wonderfully vivid but psychologically opaque…To read it is to discover an author hell-bent on giving nothing away.”
Maybe we should be looking to the psychological, says Kennedy. “What if, far from being some passing fancy, Ransome’s early commitment to symbolism endured and came to flower in stories for children which owe more to fairy tale than to the concerns of his contemporaries?….Powerful autobiographical themes can be glimpsed throughout Ransome’s fiction, albeit always slightly out of reach, fading like the pearls the Swallows left to dry on the margin of their lake.”
His characters, for certain, are of his imagination, and Kennedy highlights the “otherwise sober critics” who railed against John, Susan, Titty and Roger for their want of authenticity, “for their being too middle class, too much a part of a lost world of cooks, nannies and Great Aunts….Idle to point out that the complaint is as pointless as regretting the absence of bicycles in The Hobbit.”
In his argument, Kennedy concentrates much on the character of Titty and the estrangement of Ransome’s own daughter, Tabitha: “Like many a fairy-tale father, he easily convinced himself he would, one day, recover his lost girl. Perhaps he believed that, in Titty’s heroic deeds on Wild Cat Island, his daughter would find reasons to forgive him.” This much will be accepted, absorbed, by the many fans of Ransome, and the members of his appreciation societies.
It’s gets trickier thanks to sex, which is – of course – at the heart of much psychological discourse and theory, and the reactions to Kennedy’s take on the the work of John in creating the new mast after the wrecking of Swallow, for example, will do more than raise a few eyebrows. And from then on, from being a fascinating hypothesis about words and their meanings in so many contexts quite apart from the Ransome connection, some might find this too far-fetched. Sexual allusion and mythological realism are beginning to shroud what were, otherwise, jolly good stories. And in many minds, they should be left alone as such.
This is, nevertheless, a fascinating and very well researched (and referenced) narrative, bringing a new approach to the study of a series of children’s classics. But ultimately one wonders if the author is being deliberately provocative, that the “thoroughly mischievous person” is in fact Kennedy himself.
Alan Kennedy is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the university of Dundee. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, an Honorary Member of the Experimental Psychology Society, and a Member of the Society of Authors. He has published several articles in the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society.