Swallows and Amazons
Background to Swallows and Amazons
Swallows and Amazons grew from many different strands in Ransome’s life.
Childhood memories and his spiritual home
Ransome had two main creative inspirations for Swallows and Amazons. The first was his early childhood experience of holidays at Nibthwaite, at the Southern end of Coniston Water. They gave him a lifelong fascination for the people and places around the lake, and a spiritual attachment to the lake itself. This was the place he used to dream about whilst wandering around the World. These powerful childhood memories were always likely to light a creative spark in a writer who had the desire to tell stories in his blood.
It was Ransome’s passion for Coniston that made him return in 1903, for a holiday during which he met W G Collingwood and his family. They soon became the most significant friends and creative influences of Ransome’s life. W G Collingwood had been John Ruskin’s devoted friend and assistant. He was also a highly-respected writer, painter, geologist, archaeologist and expert on Norse Sagas in his own right. His wife was a talented piano player, whilst his three daughters, Dora, Barbara and Ursula were keen artists and sculptors. Collingwood’s son, Robin, grew up to be one of Britain’s leading 20th century philosophers. Their home, at Lanehead, was a creative hive that welcomed, adopted, mentored and inspired Ransome. In addition to their whole-hearted support of his literary dreams, the Collingwoods also taught him to sail.
Within a few years Ransome proposed, in turn, to Barbara and Dora. Both turned him down and Dora eventually married Ernest Altounyan, an Armenian doctor. She moved with him to Aleppo, in Syria, where they had five children, Taqui, Susan, Mavis (always known as Titty), Roger and Brigit.
In 1928, the Altounyans returned to Coniston for a long sabbatical. They stayed at Bank Ground Farm, next door to Lanehead. By this date Ransome had settled at Low Ludderburn with his second wife, Evgenia. Ransome renewed his friendship with the Collingwoods and Altounyans. He helped Ernest to buy two small sailing dinghies, Swallow and Mavis, in which the Altounyan children could learn to sail on the waters where the Collingwoods had taught him, over a quarter of a century before.
The Altounyans returned to Aleppo in January, 1929. On the eve of their departure they gave Ransome a gift of red Turkish slippers. They kept Mavis, whilst Ransome inherited Swallow. Ransome was touched by the Altounyan’s gift and by memories of their stay, which reminded him of his own happy childhood experiences of Coniston, thirty years before. On 24 March, 1929, he sailed Swallow for the first time on Windermere, to inspirational effect. Later that day he began Swallows and Amazons, dedicating the book to the Altounyans in Aleppo as a reminder of the Lake District they’d left behind.
In 1928 Ransome wrote 43 Rod and Line fishing essays, 9 political leaders and 49 book reviews for the Manchester Guardian. He was busy, but not satisfied. In December he wrote to his mother: “I’d have liked to send you a new book by myself. But I haven’t written one and I have begun to feel that I never shall again… So many little jobs to be done makes book writing nearly hopeless.”
Early in 1929 his editor and close personal friend, C P Scott offered him the post of resident correspondent in Berlin. It meant a hugely increased salary. But Ransome was a political journalist by accident, not desire, and he yearned to escape. On 19 March, 1929, he resigned, giving three months notice.
The previous year, Ransome’s new publisher, Jonathan Cape, suggested it was time that he began to put together “some books” to support himself in old age. He had in mind collections of essays. Ransome agreed and began to work on what became Rod and Line.
In April, 1929, he took the completed Rod and Line typescript to Cape. By then he had also drafted over 100 pages of Swallows and Amazons. But he was nervous of showing this to Cape, lest the publisher reject it, so only showed him a brief chapter outline. To his great relief, Cape took one look and said he’d publish it, thus opening the way to the most successful books of Ransome’s career.
Whilst on holiday in a fictionalised Lake District, John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the children of their absent father, Commander Edward Walker, RN, and Australian mother, Mary) set sail in a borrowed dinghy, the Swallow, to camp on an island. There they meet the Blackett sisters, Nancy and Peggy, the self-styled Amazon Pirates, and have to decide whether to fight each other, or the unfriendly houseboatman, Captain Flint.
Published by Jonathan Cape July, 1930.
I used at night to look for the North Star and, in my mind’s eye, could see the beloved skyline of great hills beneath it.
Also in Swallows & Amazons Series
- Swallows and Amazons
- Peter Duck
- Winter Holiday
- Coot Club
- Pigeon Post
- We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea
- Secret Water
- The Big Six
- Missee Lee
- The Picts and the Martyrs
- Great Northern?
- Coots in the North and Other Stories
- Illustrating Arthur Ransome
- The Swallows and the Amazons
- Ransome the Artist