Arthur Mitchell Ransome (1884-1967) is best known for his twelve children’s books about groups of children boating in the Lake District, the Norfolk Broads and elsewhere. (Two of the books, Peter Duck and Missee Lee, are presented as fantastical stories — though not fantasy — told by the children themselves about their imaginary adventures in the Caribbean and the China Sea respectively.) But Ransome did also contribute to fantasy, as John Clute shows in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. The Stone Lady: Ten Little Papers and Two Mad Stories (1905) contains two or three stories about fairies, and Highways and Byways in Fairyland (1906) is a geography of fairyland. The Hoofmarks of the Faun (1911) contains stories which draw on classical and Nordic mythology. His two most substantial books of fantasy came at the very beginning of the Great War: The Elixir of Life (1915) is about an elixir which bestows immortality, which which requires those who take it to commit murder. Ransome’s first best-seller, written during his long stay in Russia, was Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916), a collection of fairy-tales told by a fictional old man to his grandchildren.
Ransome grew up in Leeds, the eldest of four children born to a professor of history at what became Leeds University. His mother (like the mother of his fictional Swallows and Amazons) was Australian. Ransome always remembered the idyllic family holidays (long holidays, because of university vacations) in the Lake District. When he arrived,
I had a private rite to perform. Without letting the others know what I was doing, I had to dip my hand in the water, as a greeting to the beloved lake [Coniston] or as a proof to myself that I had indeed come home. In later years, even as an old man, I have laughed at myself, resolved not to do it, and every tme have done it again (Ransome 26).
He remembered the Great Frost of 1895, when he was taught to skate on a small lake outside Leeds by the great anarchist theorist Prince Kropotkin. (When that memory eventually became Winter Holiday in 1933, there was sadly no kindly anarchist.) Ransome was educated in Windermere and at Rugby School, and then returned to Leeds to study science. After two terms he gave it up and went to London to seek his living. He survived in a state of some poverty, keeping himself going initially by being an office-boy and errand-boy, then by working for publishers, and later by writing; he wrote about his life obliquely in his entertaining book Bohemia in London (1907).
Whenever he could, he would go to the Lake District, to boat and to fish. He first met the Collingwood family in 1896, and would spend much time with them: the father —W.G. Collingwood, one-time assistant to John Ruskin, artist, antiquary, and enthusiast for Anglo-Saxon and Viking culture — and the children, Dora, Barbara (whom he hoped to marry at one point), Ursula and Robin (who, as R.G. Collingwood, became a distinguished philosopher and historian: the author of The Idea of History (1940) and the first volume of the Oxford History of England).
Ransome married Ivy Walker in 1909, although it never seems to have been a very happy marriage. Ransome’s woes were increased by the events of April 1913. He had written a book about Oscar Wilde, at the request of the publisher Secker, only to find that Lord Alfred Douglas sued him—and his publisher and the Times Book Club—for libel. Ransome found the trial very upsetting; and if anything he was most upset by the insistence of his wife that she attend the whole trial (even those segments when the judge suggested that ladies should leave the court room because of the unpleasantness of the evidence that would be presented).
It was in large part to escape his marriage that he abandoned Ivy and their three-year-old daughter Tabitha in 1913 and went to Russia: although he did visit England regularly, he stayed in Russia throughout the years of the War, experiencing the Russian Revolution at close quarters and leaving only in 1919.
From Russia he moved to Estonia, where he lived with Yevgeniya Petrovna Shelepina, who had been Trotsky’s secretary when he met her in 1917. His time as Russian correspondent for the Daily News ended in 1919, but after that he wrote for the Manchester Guardian until 1930. While in Estonia he had a yacht built for himself at Riga, and sailed around the Baltic in it with Ernest Boyce (his superior during the Great War: see War Experiences). Ransome wrote about this in ‘Racundra’s’ First Cruise (1923).
In 1924 the Manchester Guardian sent him to Egypt, and then to China. But Ransome wanted to write a “brat book”, as he called it: a children’s book. He had already bought a cottage in the fells above Windermere. In 1928 he spent an idyllic summer on Windermere, teaching the children of Dora Collingwood (who had married Ernest Altounyan) to sail a boat called the Swallow. The children were Taqui, Susie, Mavis (called Titty) and Roger: Ransome changed the eldest into a boy, John, and the four became the crew of the fictional Swallow, and the main recurring characters in the twelve children’s books: John, Susan, Titty and Roger. At first he acknowledged their role in the creation of the stories, but later in life he would deny any connection.
The first two Swallows and Amazons books, published in 1929 and 1931, were not as popular as his own book about fishing — Rod and Line (1929) — but the third book, Peter Duck (1932), brought him into the ranks of best-sellers. He won the Library Association’s first Carnegie Medal for Pigeon Post (1936). The last of the twelve, Great Northern?, was published in 1947 (Coots in the North was left unfinished) and his last book, Mainly about Fishing, was published in 1959. He died in hospital in Manchester in 1967.
Gillian Avery wrote the entry on Ransome in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ransome’s own autobiography, written between 1949 and 1961, was published posthumously in 1976 (edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, for Jonathan Cape in London).