We’re properly into Winter Holiday season now. Of all Ransome’s books it’s the one in which the theme of exploration is strongest. It pays clear homage to true stories of exploration, but it’s striking that there is no mention of two men who would have been household names when Ransome was writing, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, or of the great Norwegian Roald Amundsen.
Winter Holiday was published in 1933, and set in the early weeks of 1932. Amundsen and his Norwegian companions reached the South Pole a little over two decades before, in December 1911. Scott’s party, of course, reached the Pole just a few weeks later, and perished on the return trip; it’s a well-known story which has entered British folklore. Shackleton’s story is not quite so widely known today. He had led a previous attempt on the Pole and turned back. In 1914 he returned, aiming to cross the Antarctic via the South Pole, but the ship Endurance was crushed by the ice. Shackleton led a desperate retreat to Elephant Island and then with five crew members set out on an extraordinary voyage in a small boat, crossing 1300km of the Southern Ocean to South Georgia. This is often considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, small-boat voyage in history. Three of the six, including Shackleton, then crossed the fierce mountains of South Georgia to a whaling station to secure rescue for their companions. Every single one of Shackleton’s crew survived.
Amundsen, meanwhile, is often, and with ample justification, called the greatest polar explorer ever. That he and his party were the first to the South Pole is well-known. He had already become the first to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage, and in 1926 reached the North Pole by airship during a crossing from Spitzbergen to Alaska. As previous claims by both Cook (1908) and Peary (1909) to have reached the Pole were disputed, this may well be one of the first genuine visits.
There is no doubt that Ransome would have known all about Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, but he mentions none of them in Winter Holiday. For him the inspiration is the other great Norwegian explorer of the times, Fridtjof Nansen.
There may be several reasons why Ransome made Nansen the model rather than any of the others. I think one is that Ransome often draws on influences from his own childhood. Look at the dates. Ransome was born in 1884. Nansen’s first great journey was a crossing of Greenland in 1888, a pioneering venture in every sense, taking the use of skis to a new level, developing other equipment such as lightweight sledges, and displaying a new willingness to learn from the indigenous people of the Arctic (in fact two of his companions on this journey were Sami).
Nansen’s book The First Crossing of Greenland was published in 1890. He then began planning for an attempt on the North Pole. From observation of polar currents he envisaged that a ship could be frozen in the ice and carried close to the Pole by the drift. That ship became the Fram, specially constructed and said to be the strongest wooden ship ever built. The expedition departed in 1893 and after almost a year had passed 81 degrees North. Realising that it would take many years to reach the Pole this way, if it was possible at all, Nansen then set out on skis with one companion, Hjalmar Johansen, towing sledges, to make a dash for the Pole over the ice. This was ultimately unsuccessful, although they did set a record northing of 86d 14m, and was followed by a desperate retreat – it was over a year before they encountered another human being. The book Farthest North was published in 1897.
Both books are on the bookshelf in Captain Flint’s houseboat and we can be sure that they were on Ransome’s own shelves too. He almost certainly read them when he was young – he would have been 13 when Farthest North was published – and they made a deep impression on him. In fact, he later described Nansen as ‘a hero since my childhood’. All this, of course, predates the exploits of Shackleton, Scott or Amundsen. It’s therefore completely logical for someone of Ransome’s generation to focus on Nansen rather than the following generation. It would perhaps be less logical for the Swallows, Amazons and D’s – none, probably, born before 1918 – to think only of Nansen. But they are Captain Flint’s books and Flint is in many ways a surrogate for Ransome himself.
On a simpler reading, using Nansen as the model is logical because the story centres on a sledge journey to the ‘North Pole’, and because Captain Flint’s houseboat can play the part of the Fram.
In fact, there is a more personal connection between Ransome and Nansen, as the two men met on more than one occasion. These meetings occurred in 1921, when Ransome was living in Rīga in Latvia. By this time, Nansen had turned his back on exploration and was deeply engaged in humanitarian work, concerned with the repatriation of prisoners of war and then with wider refugee issues, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.
It is worth mentioning that Nansen was also a notable scientist, conducting pioneering work on the nervous systems of marine invertebrates which attracted international attention. His first forays into diplomatic activity came during the first years of the 20th century as Norway moved to full independence from Sweden. Nansen opposed the most belligerent of the nationalists and was instrumental in inviting a Danish prince to assume the throne of Norway. (And as the new Queen was British by birth, this helped to cement strong links between Noway and the UK).
Even this only scratches the surface of Nansen’s life and it was with good reason that Ransome called him ‘the most civilised person of his generation’. It’s interesting to picture the two of them, both tall and walrus-moustached, deep in discussion by the shores of the Baltic. It’s no wonder that little more than ten years later Ransome was keen to honour Nansen in one of his novels – and the exploits detailed in The First Crossing of Greenland and Farthest North inform almost every aspect of the efforts of the Swallows, Amazons and D’s in Winter Holiday.