Reviews 2017

Swallows, Amazons and Coots: A Reading of Arthur Ransome

Swallows, Amazons and Coots: A Reading of Arthur Ransome. Julian Lovelock. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2016. 242 pages. £20.00 (paperback).

With no full-length academic study of Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books since Peter Hunt’s 1992 monograph, Approaching Arthur Ransome, the time would seem ripe for a new appraisal of these classic novels. Julian Lovelock’s Swallows, Amazons and Coots: A Reading of Arthur Ransome, however, more dips a toe in the water than dives deeply into its topic and, as such, it often seems to be drifting rather than steering a steady course.

Lovelock’s intention is to "challenge as much as reinforce the pervading attitudes of [Ransome’s] time" (3), and his main approach is to tie the writing (and content) of the series to Ransome’s own life experiences (hence, perhaps, the subtitle, "A Reading of Arthur Ransome," rather than "a reading of the series"), despite the inherent danger of trying to counter the intentional fallacy without presenting a depth of biographical and other information. Although Lovelock does belatedly note the need to "avoid the temptation to make connections that are too exact" (215), brief biographical references to, and speculation on, Ransome’s life are dropped in when needed to make specific, limited points about various moments in different novels. This kind of approach dissipates the book’s focus.

Lovelock devotes a chapter to each of the novels in turn although, for Ransome scholars and enthusiasts, the rather long plot synopses may prove redundant, and often they are not employed in order to make specific, analytical comments. This episodic structure means that information is often repeated in various places, which also means that the ideas that Lovelock emphasises from one book are not always followed up on in detail but simply re-appear from time to time in other chapters. This can be seen, for example, in the sporadically considered notion of play (and perhaps, the secret of Ransome’s ongoing appeal is that he understood, and represented in his fiction, how imaginary play in childhood can be simultaneously real and unreal, both aspects held in tension together). In addition, Lovelock is wont to throw in odd moments of Freudian analysis. One example of many is about a pre-pubescent Titty’s "sexual awakening" in Pigeon Post [1936] whilst holding a hazel water-divining rod, something Lovelock does not develop in any of his further discussions of Titty or the other characters as they grow up throughout the series, largely because, in this instance at least, close reading of later novels would not seem to support such comments.

In fairness, Lovelock has simplified and synthesised some of the existing Ransome scholarship, and those new to Ransome can therefore avoid any immediate scouring of available criticism, but it is not clear that this book goes much beyond what has already been said. For example, Lovelock does point to the development of the characters as they age although Hunt had already argued for the series as "a Bildungsroman" (87). Similarly, the argument for the novels reflecting "the dying British Empire and its values" (17) is a point already made, for example, by Hazel Sheeky Bird in her argument that the books offer "a sustained critique of the imperial geographic imagination" (100).

One broadly new idea presented here, however, is that the books are comedic. Unfortunately, support for this contention is done more by telling than showing. Consequently, the idea comes across more as personal opinion than reasoned argument. There is also a brief discussion of the metafictional elements of the storytelling, particularly in Peter Duck (1932), but Lovelock simply describes the technique rather than delving into the implications of this, either for Ransome’s children’s fiction or for the development of children’s literature more generally, which would have been a welcome discussion here in placing Ransome’s work as innovative for its time. Noticeable, too, is the lack of any comment of substance on Ransome’s maps and the academic scholarship on them even though the maps (and mapping within the novels) would seem to be a major feature of the books, having already garnered critical attention. Frustrating, too, are the numerous comments of the "many scholars" or "some critics" kind without a note of which critics have made the claims Lovelock suggests, thus presenting what appear to be straw man arguments.

Unfortunately, Lovelock never seems to overcome the problem of his uncertain thesis, and this requires him to take a post-colonialist hindsight approach, whilst also arguing the books are both of their time and progressive. Thus, he is caught in the quandary of having to acknowledge what are now seen as faults, while still wanting to celebrate the series’ success and so passing over (even seeking to excuse) some elements such as the, to modern eyes, awful pidgin English in Missee Lee. Perhaps this is why Lovelock does not really explore why the books retain their undoubted vitality today, despite their apparent "pastness" and despite the often lengthy description of things that modern (young) readers might tend to overlook, as Fiona Maine and Alison Waller have observed (364–65).

The book is less academic in form and substance than other work on Ransome (not all of which is acknowledged in the Select Bibliography at the end of the book, which is really no more than a works cited list in disguise). This rather incomplete list of critical work on Ransome’s novels is something of a missed opportunity to collect together an up-to-date list of criticism that could serve as a jumping off point for scholars new to Ransome (although this may well have been a publisher’s request). For readers totally new to Ransome, the book could certainly provide a gentle introduction to the Swallows and Amazons series, and it may well offer some grist to the academic mill but, overall, it is difficult to determine quite where this book fits.

What shines through the fog above all, though, is Lovelock’s affection for the novels and characters (he even, somewhat mawkishly perhaps, takes to imagining what the characters grew up to become beyond the childhood world of the books), and this is refreshing given how much academic work is produced simply because a given topic is in vogue. This affectionate tone is enhanced by the inclusion of a foreword by Sophie Neville, current president of the Arthur Ransome Society (TARS), who portrayed Titty Walker in the 1974 film version of Swallows and Amazons. In short, Lovelock offers us a fond glimpse of Ransome’s work rather than a fully charted course through its possibilities, a glimpse that may well be a prompt for new readers, but will probably not fully satisfy Ransome scholars or enthusiasts.

Anthony Pavlik
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden

Works Cited

Hunt, Peter. Approaching Arthur Ransome. Cape, 1992.

Sheeky Bird, Hazel. Class, Leisure and National Identity in British Children’s Literature, 1918–1950. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Maine, Fiona and Alison Waller. “Swallows and Amazons Forever: How Adults and Children Engage in Reading a Classic Text.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol.42, no.4, 2011, pp. 354–71.