Arthur Ransome created his own geography. Windermere and Coniston Water became one. There were real-life equivalents of Cormorant Island, Wild Cat Island and Houseboat Bay. They weren’t quite where you might expect them to be. In fact, when Arthur Ransome visited the Lakes in his later years, he experienced a sense of momentary dislocation. His imagined, utopian world had such a strong hold on him that he found it difficult to adjust to the actual world before his eyes.
The world Ransome created, those idyllic adventures of lucky children in a world ruled by fair play, was a nostalgic throwback to innocent Edwardian days, the days of his own childhood before the First World War.
It was not the world he had known. He suffered as a short-sighted boarder at Windermere College, failed as a scholar at Rugby and lasted only six months with a London publisher when he fled to the Lakes for a holiday. There, lying motionless on a rock after falling asleep dreaming of poetry, he was taken for dead by the redoubtable W. G. Collingwood. Collingwood had been Ruskin’s secretary, but more importantly for Ransome, he was the author of Thorstein of the Mere, a favourite novel of his childhood. Collingwood became like a second father and Ransome immersed himself in the history, poetry and lore of the Lakes. It was to lay the foundation of his later work.
In the interim he became a journalist and started writing books on seemingly anything and everything from Physical Culture to Fairyland and Bohemian London.
In 1909, Arthur Ransome married Ivy Constance Walker. Her father seriously proposed that they elope to Gretna Green to save the expense of the marriage. The marriage was not a success. Their characters were incompatible. The mother in law was domineering and venomous, but within a year, a little girl was born and christened Tabitha after the cat. She was Ransome’s only child.
By 1917, he had become Russian correspondent for the Daily News and Manchester Guardian. He seemed to have adopted the Bolshevik cause. He had a love affair with Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, and was on intimate terms with the leading members of the Communist government. In one article, he compared Lenin with Oliver Cromwell. Inevitably he was seen as a threat to British security and he came very close to being prosecuted for treason.
Ransome, dreamer, utopian and man of action, was, at the same time as he was praising the Bolsheviks, offering his services as a spy to the British government. Roland Chambers suggests that “It was a remarkable high-wire act as British Agent and mouthpiece of the Bolsheviki”.
The post war years were spent with Evgenia moving between Suffolk and the Lakes seeking “the perfect combination of gardening, fishing and sailing”.
Arthur Ransome was buried at Rusland Church, which lies half way between Windermere and Coniston Water, a place that was very much his spiritual home.
Roland Chambers sees Ransome as a conflicted person: “Was he the romantic hero of his adventures or was he, on the contrary, a prisoner of fortune? Was he responsible for his life or was he an innocent? Arthur Ransome was not a romantic idealist, but someone who lacked convictions, a constant double agent who found it very difficult to belong to either side.
The simple world of Swallows and Amazons, an eternal summer holiday among the perfect Lakes, may have provided some resolution for a very restless, troubled man.
Roland Chambers, in this searching biography, shows how the intoxicating years in Russia played an important role in shaping Ransome’s novels of innocent childhood. Those novels were a spectacular success in the middle decades of the last century and have come to typify something particularly English.