a born bystander’s deliberate legacy:

Ransome played chess with Lenin (and beat him). As a young geezaesthete in bohemian Chelsea, Ransome hung out with G. K. Chesterton’s brother, as well as future war-poet Edward Thomas. Ransome’s second wife had been Trotsky’s secretary: her father was one of the Tsar’s gardeners. Ransome’s mentor was W. G. Collingwood, heir to Ruskin’s intellectual domain. Ransome’s at the time well-regarded book on Wilde’s critical theories got him sued by notorious vexatious litigant Lord Alfred Douglas (Douglas lost); it also contained ideas developed by pioneeering “New Critic” IA Richards. As a child Ransome had been shy lieutenant in pranksterdom to the cheekier and wilier Ric Eddison, later – as E. R. Eddison – author of one-of-a-kind fantasy The Worm Ouroboros. “Missee Lee” was based on the personal character (but not the biography) of Soong Ching Ling, wife of founding Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat Sen, and one of the three remarkable Soong sisters. In 1895, during the ‘great freeze” which inspired Winter Holiday, AR was taught to skate, on Windermere, by saintly anarchist Prince Kropotkin

Only two of Ransome’s run of 12 children’s books – Peter Duck and Missee Lee – are full-on Stevensonian adventures, where children engage with pirates and win. In all the rest, the adventure on offer is conspicuously less romantically implausible: they may invest their holiday activities with the imagined language of Treasure Island, but the perils they face, and their dilemmas of honour and honesty, are “realistic” in a way which seems almost mannered when compared to the scrapes and issues of Ransome’s own life. Which is not to say that the perils aren’t serious – most often drowning, obv, but also being buried alive in an abandoned mine or caught in a fell fire. In the somewhat feebly titled Coot Club, the twins Nell and Bess (known as Port and Starboard) accept a series of riverboat lifts from complete strangers across the Norfolk Broads to catch up with their friends in another boat: Ransome as ever keeps the sense of parental worry at such risk-alden behaviour turned right down, but it’s never turned OFF.

In a curious way, i think the complaints that his work is class-bound and parochial, bland cosy fun for the middleclasses, is a sign of his achievement: his will to create a non-magic space where children could look after themselves and learn to cope with problems without heavy-handed adult intrusion. His relationship with his own daughter, Tabitha, was fraught at best, and ended sadly – largely as a result of his own inability to trust her, or see her as a person in her own right (as distinct from his besotted but slightly mad first wife Ivy). He deals with family tensions almost subliminally: the parents he gives his child heroes are mostly the BEST OF ALL NATIVES, and yet – and this is surely the point – there really are still problems of trust and fear to be negotiated (I haven’t reread We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea yet, cz it was shelved in the wrong place at my parents’ house and I didn’t find it till the last day: this most attractively titled of the series is the one where these elements are most toughly tested, I suspect). And of course, though the Walker father is merely off somewhere with the Royal Navy, the story of fatherless children having somewhat to bring themselves up is central to the larger tale of the 1920s, in the lee of the Great War.

i read these books when small without evolving any yen at all to take up boating or mountain-rambling, or to move to the Lakelands or the Broads: what i liked then and what i like now is the exploration of the principle of relative autonomy — its possibilities and its difficulties — and its settings are just pretexts. It’s silly not to admit these books are indeed dated – the far-from-well-off Blackett family has both a maid and a cook – but complaining that Ransome decided to make his subject what he DID make his subject is surely a bit like complaining that the main problem with Treasure Island is that it isn’t set in a future where a ghetto child flies to the moon.