“Unless you try to do something
beyond what you have already
mastered, you will never grow!”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today’s post is about books that are loved and famous because their authors had deeply felt emotions of love for nature, freedom, adventure, imagination, and the talent to put those feelings into words. The readers who know those books will agree, those who still are planning to read them, are in for an unforgettable treat.
1884 – 1967
Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds in 1884, the oldest of four children. His father was a history professor at what is now Leeds University. Ransome was educated at Rugby. Until his father’s death, when Arthur was 13, the family would spend every summer holiday in a house on Coniston Water. His father inspired Arthur’s love of the outdoors A few years later when Ransome was struggling to earn a living as a writer in London, he snatched a brief holiday in Coniston and met a near neighbour, a celebrated writer and Lakeland artist, W.G. Collingwood.
Coniston Water in the Lake District
It was a watershed in his life. He was taken in by the Collingwoods and more or less adopted into their family. Their son, Robin, and two daughters, Dora and Barbara, taught him how to sail. In due course, he proposed to both in turn, and although both turned him down, Ransome remained close to them. Dora went on to marry Dr Ernest Altounyan; the Swallows and Amazons were the children Ransome would have wanted to have.
Instead, he married Ivy Walker, a melodramatic aspiring writer. She would send telegrams to herself, and empty plates of eggs over her head to gain her husband’s attention. Aged 24, Ransome had proposed to her half as a joke, and when he tried to break off the engagement, there were histrionic scenes that made him feel, he said, ‘at the same time a villain and a rabbit.’
He became a reporter for the Daily News, in London, for whom he was a Russian correspondent during the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Mostly to escape Ivy, Ransome took off for Russia in 1913, though not before they had a daughter, Tabitha. Poor eyesight and ill health made him unfit to join the British Army in 1914, so he was able to stay in Russia as a correspondent through the days of the revolution and the founding of the Soviet Union. It is thought that Ransome was the only Englishman to play chess with Lenin.
Alexander Bogdanov playing chess with Lenin
He was recruited into MI6 and filed regular reports on the Soviet leadership to the Secret Intelligence Service. He was far too dreamy to be a proper spy, but courageous nonetheless. Twice he bluffed his way through the front lines of the Russian civil war to carry peace proposals from Estonia to Kremlin. Walking towards the lines, he clenched his pipe in his teeth and puffed furiously, trusting that nobody would shoot a man with a pipe in his mouth. He won over the soldiers who threatened to kill him and went on his way. Walking back through the lines, he was challenged three times by different warring bands, and survived the last challenge when an officer recognised him as a chess partner.
Back in England in 1924, he concluded a harrowing divorce from Ivy. While in Russia, he met Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia, and now free, married her. He returned to England and with Evgenia, they settled in the Lake District, where to pay off his alimony, Ransome wrote fishing pieces for the Guardian. Then came Swallows And Amazons, and Ransome’s financial problems were over.
Evgenia Shelepina, later to become Ransome’s wife, whom he called Topsy or Dear Old Top.
He and Evgenia had no children of their own. Ivy refused to let him see Tabitha, who bitterly resented her father’s evocations of the idyllic childhood she never had, especially since he gave her mother’s maiden name of Walker to his invented family. In old age, he turned against the Altounyan family, thinking, unfairly, that they were taking the credit for inspiring his books. Ransome had never really ceased to be a child himself; he was protecting the private world of his imagination.
Arthur Ransome died in 1967 and was buried in St. Paul’s Church, in Rusland in the Lake District, where fans still write in the visitors’ book, “Swallows and Amazons Forever!”
In 1925 he bought an old farmhouse near Cartmel Fell and the area would provide the setting for his classic “Swallows and Amazons” series of novels for children. His novels have been published all over the world, inspiring many tourists to visit the location he described with such affection.
Low Ludderburn in Cartmel Fell, where Ransome lived
SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS
A pair of red Turkish slippers started it all. In 1928, Arthur Ransome, then 44, spent the summer sailing on Coniston Water in the Lake District. With a friend, Ernest Altounyan, he bought two 14ft dinghies, and with the five Altounyan children, he explored the islands and lakeshore he had known as a child. After summer was over, the children came round to present “Uncle Arthur” with the Turkish slippers as a parting gift for his birthday. In return, Ransome began writing a story for them with the dedication, ‘For the six for whom it was written in exchange for a pair of slippers.’ The story was Swallows and And Amazons.
Three of the Altounyan children who inspired Ransome
Dora Collingwood, who married Dr Ernest Altounyan
It was the first in a series of 12 books written over the next 18 years that would enthrall millions of children and make even duffers want to learn how to sail. Taqui Altounyan (the tomboy Nancy Blackett in the books) remembered Ransome as a ruddy-faced man who played penny whistle and had round glasses and a rather long moustache. If he had been no more than an overgrown schoolboy who loved fishing and messing about in boats, he would still be among immortals – but his background was more bloodcurdling than any of his adventure stories.
On the first day, Ransome writes,
“…they had seen the lake like an inland sea. And on the lake they had seen the island. All four of them had been filled at once with the same idea. It was not just an island. It was the island, waiting for them. It was their island. With an island like that within sight, who could be content to live on the mainland and sleep in a bed at night?”
When Mrs. Walker sends a letter informing her husband, an officer in the Royal Navy, of the children’s desire to sail out and camp by themselves on the island called Wild Cat, he responds by a terse but empowering telegram:
“Better drowned than duffers.
If not duffers won’t drown”
That sets the tone for much of what follows in this enchanting book; children left to their devices to manage their days and make their own fun. After piloting the catboat Swallow to the island, the Walker children camp amidst the glorious outdoors. They fish and then cook their supper on an open fire. They gather wild garlic and spinach leaves to go with the freshly cooked fish and wild mushrooms. They sing and they tell stories and laugh around the campfire.
Having made friends with the Blackett sisters, Nancy and Peggy, who live locally and sail a dinghy named Amazon, they engage in friendly competition and join forces against the Blacketts’ unfriendly uncle James, whom they nickname Captain Flint. Adventure ensues when the Captain’s boat is burgled, but all comes right in the end, setting the stage for ten delightful sequels that similarly celebrate the resourcefulness of young people allowed to get their hands dirty as they master real skills – boating, camping, fishing, and the like – in a delightfully imagined but recognisable wonder of the natural world.
The book has had several adaptations, a recent one being the 2016 feature film, directed by Philippa Lowthorpe.
An extract from Swallows and Amazons:
“Next morning the whole of Swallow’s ship’s company bathed before breakfast. The landing place, with its little beach, on the eastern side of the island, was a good place for bathing. There was sand there, and though there were stones, they were not so sharp as elsewhere. Also, the water did not go deep there very suddenly, and after Susan had walked out a good long way, she said that Roger might bathe too. Roger, who had been waiting on the beach, pranced splashing into the water.
‘You are to swim as well as splash,’ said Mate Susan.
‘Aye, aye, sir,’ said Roger. He crouched in the water with only his head out. That, at least, felt very like swimming. John and Susan swam races, first one way, and then the other. Titty, privately, was being a cormorant. This was not the sort of thing that she could very well talk of to John or Susan until she was sure that it was a success. So she said nothing about it. But she had seen that there were lots of minnows in the shallow water close to the shore. Perhaps there would be bigger ones further out, like the fish the cormorants had been catching yesterday. Titty watched them carefully. The way they did it was to swim quietly and then suddenly to dive under water, humping their backs, keeping their wings close together, and going under head first. She tried, but she found that unless she used her arms, she did not get under water at all.”
“Wilderness is not a luxury
but a necessity of the
1860 – 1937
J. M. Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland, the son of a weaver. He was educated in Dumfries and Glasgow. He studied for an MA at Edinburgh University. He found work as a journalist on the Nottinghamshire Journal then, in 1885, moved to London to work as a freelance writer. His home town became the setting for a series of stories and novels, including the successful “The Little Minister.”
Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies
His first play, Richard Savage, was performed in 1891 and was followed by Quality Street and The Admirable Crichton. On the death of his close friends, Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, Barrie became legal guardian to their five sons and Peter Pan was developed from stories he used to tell the boys at bedtime. It was first performed as a play in 1904, then published in book form in 1911.
Both Arthur and Sylvia died of inoperable cancers since in those days there was nothing, like chemotherapy, that could help them.
Arthur Llewelyn Davies and his sons
Barrie donated the rights for stage productions of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, so that sick children continue to benefit from its success to this day. He was made a baronet in 1913, received the Order of Merit in 1922, and wrote many more successful plays before his death in 1937.
The gardens created by volunteers to give the sick children a “green” view, to help with their wellbeing.
One of his interesting quotes is: “The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.”
Everyone must be familiar with the classic Disney film about the boy who doesn’t want to grow up, but J.M. Barrie’s book provides an altogether more poignant tale of the lives of Peter and the Lost Boys. Everyone certainly knows the story of Peter Pan and the Darling children – Peter’s loyal fairy, Tinker Bell, or his mates in Neverland, the Lost Boys, or their fierce foe, Captain Hook – through the many justly popular stage or screen adaptations of J.M.Barrie’s tale.
The novel, adapted from the original theatrical presentation, is a winning mix of drama and fantasy and has fueled many productions, including a perennially appealing Disney animated film. Like its flying protagonist, Peter Pan is a story that may revel forever in never growing up.
Despite your familiarity with the outline of the story, reading it for the first time, you will find excitement and adventure on every page – Peter trying to stick his shadow back on with soap, teaching Wendy how to fly, alongside the intricacies of fairy lore and some scary adventures amongst pirates and redskins in the colourful world of Neverland.
We all know characters like Peter Pan; irresponsible, forgetful, fiercely independent and living only for the moment.
Will, they always stay the same? If so, what will become of them? Part of the attraction of Barrie’s magical world is the authenticity of the intense human emotions he explores. The story will astonish you with its sophistication, allusiveness, and compelling, yet paradoxically reflective, storytelling. For all its fantasy and adventure, the book is very much written from an adult perspective: it is, in a way, a long meditation on the inevitability of leaving the magical precincts of childhood.
“All children, except one, grow up,” it begins, and while Peter is the ageless wonder who soon charms us, his endless youth cannot sustain the reality of life.
“Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day.”
There follows an extraordinary disquisition on the “map of a person’s mind” that will amuse young readers with its whimsy and fill older ones with wonder, and probably a few tears, as they reach its conclusion, that nothing will stand still.
Uniquely targeted, with perfect aim, at both children and adults, Barrie’s masterpiece is the perfect vehicle to introduce a family to the pleasure of reading aloud, for it allows each audience to lose itself in its own transporting reverie.
An extract from “Peter Pan”:
“All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’
This was all that passed between them on the subject, but hence-forth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end. Of course, they lived at 14, and until Wendy came her mother was the chief one. She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more, and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner.
The way Mr Darling won her was this: the many gentlemen who had been boys when she was a girl discovered simultaneously that they loved her, and they all ran to her house to propose to her, except Mr Darling, who took a cab and nipped in first, and so he got her.”
“In every walk with nature one
receives far more than he seeks.”
1660 – 1731
Daniel Defoe was born in London, the son of a butcher. His father wanted him to become a minister (priest), but he preferred to go into a trade as a hosiery merchant, among other money-making schemes. He took part in Monmouth’s rebellion against James II in 1685, and while hiding in a churchyard he noticed the name, Robinson Crusoe carved on a gravestone and later gave it to his famous hero.
Defoe first achieved notoriety for a satirical pamphlet, The Shortest Way With the Dissenters (1702), which landed him in prison for seven months, but this failed to deter him from political writing. He had trouble finding a publisher for Robinson Crusoe (1719), but it was later to become his most famous work and is now claimed by many critics to be the first true novel.
The first edition of the novel
Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724) followed, and altogether he wrote an astonishing 560 works in his lifetime, including travel guides, journals, and many more inflammatory pamphlets. He died in 1731 at his lodgings in Ropemaker’s Alley in London’s Moorfields.
Defoe’s monument grave in London
In one of the world’s most famous stories, Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked on an island somewhere in the Pacific and wrestles with loneliness and despair as he struggles to stay alive. With the ingenious use of some supplies and utensils salvaged from the ship, he manages to build a house and then a boat, and forage enough food to live on.
One day, years later, he finds a footprint in the sand and realises he is not as alone as he had thought.
The story is simple and compelling: against the advice of his father, a young man eschews the boring certainties of a comfortable life and runs off to sea in search of adventure. Despite misfortune on his first voyage, he persists in pursuing the promise of travel, until at last, he finds himself on a desert island, the sole survivor of a shipwreck.
Crusoe overcomes his despair and applies himself to creating a home in his unfamiliar surroundings. For the next two decades, in solitude, he re-creates in his island wilderness as much as he can of the civilised world.
From the book’s opening sentence, Crusoe addresses, Crusoe addresses the reader in a voice – direct and declarative in a manner of casual speech, that was something new in literature. But it is only when Crusoe begins building his lonely habitat, narrating in matter-of-fact detail his projects and activities, that Defoe’s genius truly takes hold.
As Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee has observed, “For page after page – for the first time in the history of fiction – we see a minute ordered description of how things are done.” What Coetzee terms Defoe’s”pure writerly attentiveness” highlights what he describes with unexpected presence:
“By being a great artist and forgoing this and daring that in order to give effect to his prime quality, a sense of reality – Defoe comes, in the end, to make common actions dignified and common objects beautiful. To dig, to bake, to plant, to build – how serious these simple occupations are; hatchets, scissors, logs, axes – how beautiful these simple objects become. Unimpeded by comment, the story marches on with magnificent downright simplicity.”
And we march with it, until, like Crusoe, we are brought up short by a footprint on the beach:
“It happened one day about noon,” we read, “going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand.”
With this startling discovery, Defoe’s story opens out to welcome first “my man Friday,” whom Crusoe saves from cannibals, and then the victims of another shipwreck. By the time he is rescued himself after twenty-eight years, Robinson Crusoe can embark for England from the midst of a small community that has taken root in the long-lonely precinct of his ordeal.
But not before, alone on his island, he has cast a narrative spell that has enthralled readers for over three centuries. The book has had many film adaptations over the years.
An extract from Robinson Crusoe:
“September 30, 1659. I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing, came on shore on this dismal, unfortunate island, which I called ‘The Island of Despair; all the rest of the ship’s company being drowned, and myself almost dead.
All the rest of the day I spent in afflicting myself at the dismal circumstances I was brought to – vis. I had neither food, house, clothes, weapon, nor place to fly to; and in despair of any relief, saw nothing but death before me – either that I should be devoured by wild beast, murdered by savages, or starved to death for want of food. At the approach of night I slept in a tree, for fear of wild creatures; but slept soundly, though rained all night.
October 1. In the morning I saw, to my great surprise, the ship had floated with the high tide, and was driven on shore again much near the island; which, as it was some comfort, on one hand – for, seeing her set upright, and not broken to pieces, I hoped, if the wind abated, I might get on board, get some food and necessities out of her for my relief – so, on the other hand, it renewed my grief at the loss of my comrades, who, I imagined, if we had all stayed on board, might have saved the ship, or, at least, that they would not have been all drowned as they were; and that, had the men been saved, we might perhaps have built us a boat out of the ruins of the ship to have carried us to some other parts of the world.
I spent a great part of this day in perplexing myself on these things; but at length, seeing the ship almost dry, I went upon the sand as near as I could, and then swam on board. This day also continued raining, though with no wind at all.”
Statue of Alexander Selkirk in Fife, Scotland
Defoe based his novel on the true story of Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), a Scottish sailor who was put ashore on the uninhabited South Pacific island of Juan Fernandez in 1704, and was marooned for four years there until 1709. His extraordinary first-person narrative is a convincing psychological study of an individual in extreme circumstances, and Defoe’s great talent is to make you feel as if you are there, experiencing it alongside Crusoe.
With his parrot and parasol, the castaway Crusoe is an emblem of survival, self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that shapes civilisation from the raw materials of nature.
PS As a child, I was so under the spell of this book that Crusoe’s method of working became mine for life. If you remember my post about cow hugging, my method of “building” the farm there, was pure Crusoe. Although I built it then on paper only, I now already know the price of bricks and the cost of labour, and where to get a ready-made, huge wooden house (from Germany).
This will have to wait until the horrific situation in India is over, and this wonderful country will rebuild its life back to normality. It will take time, but they will.