Thursday, 1 May 2014

Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

Another month, another cold... and I still haven't written properly about the book that got me through the last cold.  I did tell you that Swallows and Amazons (1930) by Arthur Ransome was being my solace - battling out with another 1930 book, actually, Diary of a Provincial Lady - and what a perfect solace it was too.  Thank you Vintage for sending me this stunning copy a year or so ago.  Not a word of it came as a surprise, devotee as I was of the film (watched when ill as a child), but that wasn't really the point.


If anybody doesn't know the book at all (can this be?) it is the first of a series about John, Susan, Titty, Roger, and various others (in this novel, the Blackett sisters) who join them or war with them in their boating adventures.  It kicks off with that famous message of parental care, telegrammed by their father: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN.  There are those namby-pamby types among us who will argue that children are not better drowned than duffers, but I suspect we aren't supposed to take his words entirely seriously.  The father knows whose side the novel is on, and that no calamity will befall the children - even if they are sent off as young as seven to fend for themselves (albeit in striking distance of home).

One advantage the film has over the book is that you can just watch them doing things to boats, and all is clear - I ended Swallows and Amazons as ignorant as I began, despite Ransome's valiant effort to immerse the reader in the minutiae of sailing. Tacking this and gunwale that.  It didn't matter that I hadn't a clue what was happening.  It was all such fun.

But... I think Swallows and Amazons is probably best enjoyed as a child, or in a sickly state such as I was.  Something I've noticed while reading or re-reading classic children's books as an adult - be it E. Nesbit, A.A. Milne, Richmal Crompton, or whoever - is that they are often funny in a way that is intended for the adult.  The child will still love the story, but something more sophisticated is going on too.  Well, unless I missed it completely, there is nothing at all sophisticated in Swallows and Amazons.  Ransome tells the story in tones of breathless excitement; the narrator is every bit as childlike as the children.  There isn't really any humour (besides a good 'ruthless' pun), and there certainly isn't any wryness or winking to the reader.  Everything is ingenuous and cheerful.  I don't think I could have a reading diet which consisted just of this boys'/girls' own variety of adventure, but, my goodness, it was perfect for my sickbed.

31 comments:

  1. Great cover! I must confess I still enjoy rereading Ransome, not least for the wonderful settings (and the sailing), and partly because the stories are straightforward yarns, but maybe I'm revisiting the childhood enjoyment, and wouldn't like them so much if I encountered them now for the first time - hard to guess. The relationship of Peter Duck and Missee Lee to the rest of the books is not quite so straightforward, though! I love that the children go off and look after themselves without thinking anything about it, though there is just the occasional hint that Mother is perhaps a little more concerned than she shows. I wish poor old responsible Susan weren't so boring - but I suppose she has the edge over CS Lewis' similarly unfortunate Susan in that her very sensibleness is what allows the whole adventure to happen at all. The real Ransome sailing tutorial, complete with diagrams, is We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea.

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    1. What IS it about Susans? They are both a bit tedious, aren't they? But Susan is a world away from the horror that is Peter, to my mind...

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  2. I love Swallows and Amazons! I read the whole series as as a child ... it's odd that they have two meta-fictional novels Missee Lee and Peter Duck although their role is never properly explained. My favourites are The Picts and the Martyrs and We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea but the first one is a classic. Rereading as an adult, I always found the parental relationships intriguing, with how excited Mrs Walker was whenever there was a chance that they might see Cmmdr Walker, then Mrs Blackett's health problems that seemed to be linked to her sadness over her husband's death. Plus the plain odd Mrs Turpin who read Dick & Dorothea's letters and just asked no questions. I agree with the above comment about Susan, I always felt that Susans Walker and Pevensie were rather similar but Susan Walker is a useful girl to have around. This is such a fun series ... ah, I want to reread again.

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    1. A lot of people are cheering on We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea - I'll have to keep an eye out for that one.

      And very good point about the parental backstory...

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  3. I found this book as an adult to read aloud to my children. We all loved it! I find that children's books read as an adult are usually enjoyed best as read-alouds or audio books. (The Railway Children was another that I had not read as a child and listened to as an audio book.) Often when I am trying as an adult to read a children's book, I find myself skimming the story because of the easiness of the read and therefore missing a lot and probably giving it up.

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    1. That would be so fun! Mum read quite a few children's books to us but I don't think we had that one. We did have The Railway Children, though, and that book is even better.

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  4. I think we *definitely* respond differently to children's books we're re-reading, rather than coming to for the first time. I admit that makes me a little uncertain about approaching Ransome, though I've always intended to. Maybe if I ever have time to be poorly that would be when to approach this one!!

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    1. I think it's definitely a good time - it makes one's quality controls sink a bit, and less bothered about whether or not something is high literature!

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  5. "the narrator is every bit as childlike as the children"
    Exactly. Therein lies Ransome's cleverness as a writer - he gets inside his character's heads.

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    1. I suppose that's true, yes! It is an impressive skill.

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  6. Yes, I too noticed the plunky, straightforward language without a satirical or even figurative use in sight. I read it for the first time (fairly recently actually) as an adult and was not, that I remember, in the midst of a cold. My notes on it show that as I began reading, the language made me question whether I would be satisfyingly drawn into the characters and the environment, but that, by ‘somewhere in the middle’ I was ‘completely happy and engaged with it all.’

    I was thinking about what Arthur Ransome says in his author’s note … that the book ‘almost wrote itself’ since his memories were so strong of the experiences he had at Coniston when he was a child … and I wonder if the voice of the writing lacks that wry nod to adults because it is coming so immediately from Ransome’s perceptions as a child before he moved into his own adulthood.

    Perhaps I’ll wait until I’m sniffling to read the next one - I can imagine it would be quite comforting while under a blanket, knowing that I was not going to have to deal with all that boat hauling, rock swimming and watch keeping when feeling a little shivery ….

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    1. It is a book you just have to enjoy, isn't it? Definitely no attempts to be fancy with language or anything - but perfect for what it's trying to be.

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  7. On the other hand, if you get to them first as an adult then the sexism and classism (?) probably don't affect your worldview so much (yes, poor Susan, indeed, stuck with the drudgery of being the "mother"). I too am impervious to sailing knowledge. I've read all the Patrick O'Brian books several times, some of the Forrester books, and almost all of the S & A's, and would probably drown in the first 10 min of leaving shore. I do wish Ransome had let someone else illustrate the books. All those drawings of people from the back!

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    1. I didn't find it particularly sexist - for Susan on one hand there's the Blackett sisters and Titty on the other, who are every bit as adventurous as the boys.

      I hadn't spotted how all the drawings were from behind!! How funny. (Apparently there was a different illustrator initially, but Ransome illustrated the reprints.)

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  8. I didn't read the Ransome books as a child, but I have a 9 year old son now and we are listening to the series. We're up to "Pigeon Post," and loving it! I do pause frequently to talk about the sailing stuff because I do know how to sail. There certainly is a lot of it. What my son likes about the books, aside from the novelty of the kind of independence kids had then, is that Ransome never glosses over anything. It's never, "They went to get milk." No. He tells you every detail of how that happened. It's all in real time. The stories are like a scouting guide, told as a story. I worried at first about the sexism, but I haven't detected as much as I expected. Susan *wants* to play mother. The other girls, Titty, Nancy (Ruth), Peggy, and Dorothea aren't at all like Susan. I'm a little annoyed by Dorothea's hero worship of her brother, but her wild imagination and clear future as an author help make up for that. And both of the mothers seem pretty independent and resourceful. I don't know that I would have enjoyed these stories as an adult without also enjoying it vicariously through my son. But as it is, I think we'll probably read them all.

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    1. I agree with you about the girls, definitely. And I love how everyone has such insightful views about what makes the books good - I hadn't thought about the not-glossing-over-things aspect, but you're so right.

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  9. I do rather love these reissues with their delicious covers, but have my full set from childhood still: notably the first books I read after completing my English degree. I never much liked Peter Duck and Missee Lee, certainly not as much as the others - my favourites are We Didn't Mean to go to Sea, Great Northern? and Winter Holliday, I think. I MUST re-read them again!

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    1. The old editions have beautiful covers too, but I have completely fallen for this one.

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  10. I loved Swallows and Amazons - the whole series, and was so looking forward to reading them with my children (I thought they would love them even more, being boys), but the sailing terminology got to them in the end and we never finished the book. It just kind of petered out, but I might try another one. Maybe they can relate more to Winter Holiday or We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea

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    1. What a shame! I suppose I could skim over those bits. And as a child I'd definitely have worried more about not knowing what was going on!

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  11. Ransome is probably the greatest English writer writing in English for children of the 20th century, and what makes him so is that he writes for children by seeing the world as a child and he does so by drawing upon his own childhood. I read them all as a child and have re-read them ever since (I’m now 60.) What made them appealing in childhood is very different from now, but not any change in quality. My all time favourite then and now is Winter Holiday. As a child I couldn’t get on with We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, I am now in my second re-reading of it in 12 months (I am fortunate to live in the area it is set along with Secret Water.) There is no other writer writing for children that I read in childhood that I still read.
    Mike

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    1. I like your enthusiasm, Mike! Ransome really does have a great insight to the child's mind.

      I'd still put AA Milne, Richmal Crompton, and E. Nesbit above Ransome on the list of English children's writers from the 20th century, but he'd be on the list somewhere :)

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    2. Milne and Crompton I'd agree for various reasons, but still not at Ransome's level - to me a true childrens novelist!

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  12. I had a similar experience to Marina Sofia's with my niece - the book just died in my hands. We loved them as children but even I found it clunky. Re-reading childhood favourites when ill reminds me of my father who used to read and re-read a book by Clare Mallory called "Leith and Friends" when he was a bit down. He never tired of it!

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    1. I seem to remember Leith and Friends... I think I used to have it somewhere, but not sure I still do. I love these ways of remembering simpler times :)

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  13. Ransome actually taught me to sail. I was so convinced after reading the series as child that I could sail with no difficulty that when I stepped into a boat for the first time at the age of about twenty I really was equipped at least to be an adequate crew if not to skipper the dinghy myself. Maybe it was as much to do with confidence as expertise, but whatever the reason Ransome was certainly the cause.
    By the way, do you know his back history as putative spy during the First World War and friend of Lenin? It's worth digging up if you don't

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    1. Wow! Impressive! I, on the other hand, read all manner of adventures as a child without having any intention of replicating them.

      I didn't know about his history as a spy! How interesting.

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  14. I loved this book as a child and desperately wanted to go and live in the Lake District and sail boats. I'd love to read it to my 10 year old son but am afraid that a character called Titty would invite too much sniggering. Maybe I should just reread it to myself.

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    1. Eek, yes, that might be an issue...

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  15. I read some of them as a child but have read more of them recently as I've collected most of the 70's Puffin paperback editions. I really don't like We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea. I much prefer the books with the Blacketts and Dick and Dorothea. My favourite is Coot Club, which doesn't feature the Walker children at all!

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  16. p.s. Do you find it a little poignant that World War 2 is looming in the near future, and the boys are certain to join the Navy?

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