Who Was Arthur Ransome?
Arthur Ransome, 1884 – 1967, is probably best known for writing those classic children’s adventure stories, the Swallows and Amazons series. Five of those books, and an unfinished sixth, are set on a fictional ‘lake in the north’ inspired by a careful mix of Coniston Water and its surrounding woods and fells, and Windermere.
But during his lifetime he published over 40 books, ranging over literary criticism and biography, covering the Georgians, and attempting his own New Romantic approach. His early fairly florid style was finely honed later by journalism, especially his work as foreign correspondent covering the Russian Revolution for The Daily News and The Manchester Guardian: his dispatches were sent by telegram, necessitating concise, precise but colourful wording, as exemplified perhaps in: ‘BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN’.
Ransome himself once wrote that he had ‘lived not one life but snatches from a dozen different lives’. That is probably an under-estimate!
So who was Arthur Ransome?
- Literary Critic?
- Story Teller?
- War Correspondent?
- Patriotic Amateur Diplomat?
- Suspected Spy?
- The Man Who Changed Children’s Literature For Ever?
He was all of those and more. Just read his books [over 40 in all], his 1500 plus articles for newspapers and magazines, his autobiography, or the various biographies which are in print. [The Ruskin Museum Shop stocks a wide selection].
Whatever else he was, he was a Yorkshire man by birth, whose heart lay, from the very earliest infancy, in the Lake District.
CONISTON was probably once the centre of a small Norse ‘kingdom’, stretching from Turstini Watter [Coniston Water] and the Crake valley to the Brathay in the north and the eastern shores of Windermere to Cunsey. It is also Swallows and Amazons country.
As a newly-born babe in arms, Arthur Ransome’s first visit to the Lake District took him to the summit of The Old Man of Coniston, the magic mountain that, later, was to feature as the Matterhorn and as Kanchenjunga. As a small boy he spent idyllic summer holidays at Nibthwaite, at the foot of Coniston Water. He met shepherds and charcoal-burners, shredded his shorts on a ‘Knickerbocker Breaker’, and learned to fish. His family met the Collingwood family for a picnic on Peel Island; the historians Cyril Ransome and W.G.Collingwood had enjoyed a lengthy correspondence - and Arthur Ransome’s favourite book at this time was W.G. Collingwood’s Norse adventure, Thorstein of the Mere. Ransome was sent to prep school in Windermere. In 1895, Windermere froze over, and the poor-sighted boy astonished his sporty class-mates by excelling at skating, as he had been taught by the exiled Russian Anarchist, Prince Kropotkin. As a young man living in Bohemian London, Ransome returned each summer to visit friends [including the Collingwoods], talk and write.
He visited Russia to research story-telling as exemplified in fairy stories and folk tales, taught himself Russian from children’s books, became embroiled as a foreign correspondent during the Russian Revolution, playing chess with Lenin and Trotsky, eventually marrying Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia Shelepin as his second wife. In the late1920s, facing a mid-life crisis caused by trying to choose between a well-paid career as a journalist and gambling on the dream of becoming a successful author, Ransome bought a house in the Winster valley. In 1928, his old school-friend from Rugby, Dr Ernest Altounyan brought his wife Dora [nee Collingwood] and their young family home on leave from Aleppo in Syria. Altounyan and Ransome conspired to purchase two sailing dinghies from Walney Island, Barrow, so that the children might learn to sail on Coniston Water. Watching their exploits in Swallow and Mavis made Ransome remember his own youthful adventures when Robin and Ursula Collingwood had taught him to sail in another Swallow. In this reminiscent, autobiographical vein, inspired by his love of the Lake District in general and Coniston in particular, and in the midst of his extended surrogate family of Collingwoods, he began to write. Swallows and Amazons was originally written for, and partly about, the five Altounyan children - Tacqui, Susan, Mavis known as Titty, Roger and Brigit, who were staying at Bank Ground Farm, [which was fictionalised as Holly Howe]. Ransome ‘borrowed’ the secret harbour from Thorstein’s Peel Island for the fictional Wild Cat Island.
That sailing dinghy Mavis, with its centre-board, at least partly inspired the fictional Amazon, and can now be viewed at The Ruskin Museum in the centre of Coniston.
The Ruskin Museum was founded by Arthur Ransome’s mentor, W.G. Collingwood, ‘the Skald’, who had taught him that the unique spirit of a place is due as much to layers of memory and cultural heritage as to the strata of rock. Collingwood’s daughter, Barbara, [wife of Oscar Gnosspelius, ‘Squashy Hat’, to whom Pigeon Post is dedicated], served as Hon. Curator for many years.
The Ruskin Museum’s Cabinet of Curiosities explores Coniston’s geology, especially the slate quarries and copper-mines of Pigeon Post; examines S.Y. Gondola, partial inspiration of Captain Flint’s Houseboat; proves that feral billy goats once frequented the Yewdale Crags; and presents W.G. Collingwood’s model of Peel Island, made to provide context for his mediaeval archaeolgical finds. Collingwood believed that interest in history could be stimulated by making archaeology and documents - and Norse sagas - more readily accessible through fiction, hence Ransome’s boyhood hero, Thorstein of the Mere.
John Ruskin described W.G. Collingwood as his ADC. Collingwood recognised Ruskin’s greatness and his present and future influence, writing the first biography of Ruskin, and the first critique of his teaching on art; for many years it was Collingwood who almost single-handedly kept alive Ruskin’s reputation as the greatest ever pundit on aesthetics and ethics. Collingwood planned and delivered The Ruskin Museum as Coniston’s permanent memorial celebration of its most famous resident; he selected the exhibits with the greatest care to illustrate how Ruskin worked out his complex ideas through drawing close studies of the specific before speculating on general principles and fundamental ‘laws’. Until his death in 1932, Collingwood readily assisted the first generation of Ruskin scholars; The Ruskin Museum’s collections continue to inform contemporary scholars.