Arthur Ransome: Remarkable story of the man behind Swallows and Amazons

The University of Leeds is home to a huge archive collection relating to Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome. Chris Bond went to find out more.

Rich archive: Ann Farr with some of the archive papers in the Brotherton Library, Leeds. (Picture: James Hardisty).
Rich archive: Ann Farr with some of the archive papers in the Brotherton Library, Leeds. (Picture: James Hardisty).

WITH its summer idyll of campfires and children playing pirates Swallows and Amazons is one of those adventure stories, like Peter Pan and Treasure Island, that has stood the test of time.

But while Arthur Ransome’s much-loved book evokes genteel images of a bygone era, the author himself was a far more intriguing character than any of his own creations.

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For behind his thin-rimmed spectacles and smart, bookish appearance was a man who reported on the 1917 Russian Revolution, fell in love and later married Leon Trotsky’s personal assistant and found himself embroiled in the world of espionage - not exactly your average children’s author.

Ransome has been back in the news recently thanks to a new film adaptation of his Swallows and Amazons tale, which hits the big screen next weekend.

His own story is a fascinating one and his diaries, along with a huge tranche of archive material including over 3,500 photographs and scores of letters and telegrams are held at the Special Collections library at the University of Leeds, where the writer one studied.

Ann Farr, who used to work at the library and is an Arthur Ransome Society trustee, believes collections like this are a rarity. “It’s a very important archive because he was a man of so many different parts and this covers them,” she says.

Among the treasure trove of material are his original line drawings, which will be familiar to all those who have read the books. Although, interestingly, they nearly didn’t happen. The publishers had initially commissioned illustrators to come up with the artwork for the book but Ransome didn’t like it. “They weren’t what he saw so in the end he did his own illustrations even though he’d had no training as an artist,” explains Farr.

“He had a clear sense of what he wanted and they were only line drawings, he never drew faces. People often say they are very child-like and aren’t very sophisticated but they were ideal for a children’s novel.

“He did them for every book though he didn’t always get them right and if you look at some of the drawings there are tipex marks where’s he made some changes.”

The letters, too, tell an interesting story. “Ransome had such appalling handwriting that he started using a typewriter and we’re very fortunate that he did because we either have the original or a carbon copy of a lot of his correspondence.

“In most collections like this you don’t get the letters they wrote to other people, but here we do and that’s quite extraordinary.”

The archive includes his diaries starting in 1909 and continuing right through to the sixties. “We also have the famous trunk which features in the title of the book ‘Captain Flint’s Trunk’ which Ransome used on his travels.”

Most of the letters were written to friends, relatives and some of his literary chums. “He was a prolific correspondent as a lot of people were at that time and we have something like 300 letters that he wrote just to his mother,” says Farr.

In amongst them he talks to her about writing Swallows and Amazons. “It didn’t sell very well to start with. It wasn’t an instant hit and the first edition wasn’t illustrated and it’s interesting to read his thoughts about it.”

Among the correspondence is a letter to Ransome from J.R.R. Tolkien in which the author reveals he’s changed some of the language in The Hobbit and that book sales have been slow.

The handwritten letter was sent in 1937, shortly after Tolkien had written The Hobbit. By this time the first of the Swallows and Amazons had been published and Ransome was the better known of the two writers and Tolkien thanked him for the changes he had suggested. He also promised to send Ransome a revised copy of the book “if there is a reprint”, adding somewhat gloomily that “sales are not very great”.

Tolkien wasn’t the only famous figure whose correspondence are kept in the archive. During his time in Russia he struck up friendships with leading Bolshevik figures including Trotsky, Karl Radek and Lenin himself - a letter from whom is held in the collection. “He found himself in a unique position and he had access to meetings and people that most other journalists couldn’t get,” says Farr.

Ransome was born in Headingley into an upper-class family. But despite the fact his father was a history professor, the young Ransome was a reluctant student – he studied science at Yorkshire College (which became Leeds University) but left before completing his degree after stumbling on a book about William Morris which inspired him to become a writer.

In 1913, having already published several biographies, he left his wife and young daughter and travelled to Russia to write fairy tales. When war broke out a year later, Ransome was recruited by the Daily News to report on the Eastern Front. He then found himself covering the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the Bolshevik uprising.

The Yorkshireman’s involvement with the 1917 Revolution has long been the subject of speculation, something that reached fever pitch in 2005 when National Archive records, made public for the first time, revealed he passed important information about the Bolshevik regime to MI6 and the Foreign Office.

It reopened the debate as to whether or not he was a spy and, if so, whose side was he on? It has long been a source of intrigue among Ransome aficionados, but Farr doesn’t believe he would have ever betrayed his country.

“He was investigated by Scotland Yard on his return here, but he was such an Englishman and he had a great sense of right and wrong. He was also a very honest person and I don’t believe he had the deceit in him. How could someone who wrote something so innocent as Swallows and Amazons be a Machiavellian agent?”

It’s now nearly half a century since Ransome’s death and yet since then the Swallows and Amazons books have never been out of print. But given the fact they might seem a bit twee by today’s standards, why has their popularity endured?

“They’re about children being allowed to do things out on their own and given the responsibility for themselves - of camping, cooking and making fires. There’s a sense of freedom that children don’t have today, but wouldn’t they love to?” says Farr.

“They’re also subtly instructive. People have said they’ve learnt how to sail purely from reading Ransome’s books. There’s this great sense of adventure in the books. Ransome was so good at creating this vivid world, as if he was writing for a child, and that’s why they still have such great appeal.”

And Ransome, she believes, still deserves our thanks and admiration. “He might not be quite as famous as say Roald Dahl or Beatrix Potter, but he’s certainly up there.”

International man of mystery

Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds in 1884, the eldest of four children. He grew up in the city and spent two terms studying science at Leeds University, before deciding to become a writer.

Ransome moved to London and translated a number of works before travelling to Russia in 1913 to learn about fairy tales. While there he became a journalist, reported on the Russian Revolution and fell in love with Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia, who he later married.

After spending time in Russia and Egypt he moved back to England during the 1920s and the first of his Swallows and Amazons books was published in 1930. In total there were 12 in the series.

Ransome died in 1967 at the age of 83.