Swallows & Amazons

Swallows and Amazons

 418309In April 1928 W G Collingwood’s daughter Dora returned from Aleppo to Coniston for an extended stay along with her husband Ernest Altounyan and their five children. Ransome renewed the friendship, and he and Ernest provided two small boats, Swallow and Mavis, for the children to sail. After the Altounyans returned to Aleppo, Arthur continued to sail Swallow, and compiled a selection of his fishing articles for publication under the title Rod and Line. At the same time he worked on a lake adventure which involved Swallow and Mavis (renamed Amazon) and a group of children loosely based on the Altounyans.

In the spring of 1929, Arthur Ransome submitted a synopsis and 50 pages of the story Swallows and Amazons to the publishers Jonathan Cape, who gave a favourable response. The book was published in July 1930, and received enthusiastic reviews. Later that year, Swallows and Amazons was published in America. From that time Ransome ceased to write for the Manchester Guardian and dedicated himself to writing adventure stories for children.His next book, Swallowdale, published in October 1931, was a sequel to Swallows and Amazons and featured the same characters, the sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett, born and bred in the Lake District, and the visiting Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, these characters reappearing in most of the subsequent books. Of these, Nancy Blackett, the girl-pirate, is Ransome’s most powerful creation and has become one of the classic characters in British literature. Although adults appear in the stories, they are kept largely in the background, with the exception of the Blacketts’ kindly Uncle Jim, known as ‘Captain Flint’.

In October 1932, the next story, Peter Duck, appeared – a ‘Treasure Island’ type of fantasy, set in the Caribbean. This was followed a year later by Winter Holiday, published in November 1933. This marked a change in approach by Ransome, as the story is set in mid-winter amid a frozen landscape, and two fresh characters are introduced – Dick and Dorothea Callum, city-dwellers from London. Ransome also rang the changes in his next book, Coot Club, published in November 1934, which is set on the Norfolk Broads and features the Callums and a range of local children, including three sons of boatbuilders.

In 1935 the Ransomes moved to Levington, near Pin Mill on the Suffolk coast, an event which delayed for a year the completion of his next book, Pigeon Post, a gold-prospecting story set in the Lake District and involving all eight of his principal characters. Soon after the move, Ransome bought a seven-ton cutter and promptly renamed her Nancy Blackett. His experiences aboard Nancy prompted the writing of his next book, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, published in November 1937, a North Sea adventure featuring the four Walker children aboard Nancy (renamed Goblin in the story). (Ransome owned a number of boats during his life. Nancy Blackett still exists and is now owned and sailed by the Nancy Blackett Trust.)

In November 1939 Secret Water was published, a story set among the islands and inlets of Hamford Water, on the Essex coast. Ransome returned to the Broads for his next book, The Big Six, published in November 1940, a detective story featuring the Callums and a full local cast, including one of Ransome’s classic ‘villains’, George Owdon. A year later Missee Lee was published, an adventure clearly based on memories of Ransome’s 1927 China visit and featuring a real adult female pirate.

By 1940 the Ransomes had moved back to the Lake District, and The Picts and the Martyrs, published in June 1943, features the familiar lake setting and many of the characters from the earlier books, including Ransome’s most feared adult character, the Great Aunt. His final book, Great Northern?, set in the Hebrides and based on a suggestion by Myles North, appeared in August 1947.