In most of the books the children camp, sail and climb with minimal supervision. In this context it’s worth reminding ourselves just how young they all are. In the books themselves, Ransome doesn’t give much detail about their ages, apart from the very first words in Swallows and Amazons – ‘Roger, aged seven…’.
However, from Ransome’s own notes, it’s clear that at the start of the series Roger is 7, Titty 9, Susan and Peggy 11, John and Nancy 12. The other main characters, whom we meet for the first time in Winter Holiday, are Dick and Dorothea – the D’s. Dick is about the same age as Titty, Dorothea maybe a year or so older.
The last of the books for which the chronology is clear isThe Picts and the Martyrs. The Swallows don’t appear in this, but by this time Nancy is 15, Peggy 14, Dorothea 13 and Dick 12.
Just to give a perspective, I looked at the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards, all of which involve overnight expeditions. The minimum age for Bronze is 14, for Silver 15 and for Gold 16. The Gold Expedition should take place in ‘wild country, remote from habitation, which is unfamiliar to participants.’ All expeditions ‘must be supervised by an adult who is able to accept responsibility for the safety of you and your team.’ Supervising adults are generally conspicuous by their absence in Ransome’s books.
From the start of Swallows and Amazons we see that the Swallows are allowed, once the famous telegram from their father arrives, to go off and camp on the island alone. They maintain contact with the adult world by rowing across to Dixon’s Farm each morning for milk, and have occasional visits from the ‘natives’, but still go long periods without any supervision and often without any adult having the slightest idea where they are.
Later, as the Swallows and Amazons get down to trying to capture each other’s ships, Titty is left on the island alone. She gets a visit from her mother – but then mother rows away and leaves her alone again. Leaving a nine-year-old alone on an island as night is falling: I wonder how many people would consider this good parenting today? And of course at the same time the rest of the children are sailing up and down the lake in the dark…
Almost at the start of Swallowdale Titty (now 10) and Roger (8) go off on their own:
After the Kanchenjunga climb, the same two are allowed to cross the moors back to the valley, but fog descends and they get lost, after which Roger sprains his ankle jumping across a stream. We see Titty taking her responsibility very seriously, working out whether to leave Roger in the care of an old charcoal-burner and hitch a ride with the woodmen to convey the news to the others.
Titty was not so sure, but after all the main thing was to let John and Susan know that Roger was all right, and of that she was sure enough.
Roger’s injury gives us one example where the children run genuine risks. There is a good deal of risk and hazard in the stories, and the parental attitude seems to be well enough summed up by the famous telegram in Swallows and Amazons, ‘Better drowned than duffers if not duffers wont drown.’
Compare this with a report in the Washington Post in January 2015, that a couple in Maryland were being investigated for ‘neglect’ for allowing their children, 10 and 6, to walk home from a park about a mile from home. Their parents had prepared them for this and were quite happy about it but the kids only got about halfway before they were picked up by the police after a concerned citizen reported the sighting. And, as chronicled on the Free Range Kids website and elsewhere, this was just the start of their tribulations, even if they were ultimately cleared of all charges. It’s worth taking a look. I’ll just leave it with the observation that someone felt it necessary not only to call the police but to use the emergency number, 911, just because they’d seen two children walking, perfectly happily, along a suburban sidewalk. But it’s not something we in the UK can feel smug about – read some of the comments on the story.
In Ransome’s books, while hazard is common, genuinely life-threatening situations are rare, at least outside the metafictions Peter Duck and Missee Lee. While night sailing is obviously risky, there’s no real sense of imminent danger to life in Swallows and Amazons. Early on in Swallowdale there is a shipwreck, although this happens very close to the shore and, though it’s shocking and dramatic, it never really seems as if anyone is about to drown. Roger’s fall on Kanchenjunga and Dick’s rescue of the sheep, already mentioned, look much more dangerous. This might be less clear to readers without a mountaineering background, although Dick himself recognises the danger:
The drop was not really so very great, but more than enough to break the back of a sheep, or a boy. He suddenly felt a little sick.
In Pigeon Post, Roger and the D’s go into an old mine working and, after Titty follows them in, the tunnel collapses behind them. However Dick reasons that they’ve seen the stranger they call ‘Squashy Hat’ emerge, so the level must go through the hill, and they are able to escape at the other end. It’s a frightening episode, if not imminently life-threatening. Later, a wildfire on the moor puts the four older ones, plus the mysterious adult they call ‘Squashy Hat’, in some peril but they are able to hide in the cave.
In Winter Holiday the D’s skate/sail north up the lake in a blizzard and there is the fear that they could blunder onto bad ice at the mouth of a river. In Secret Water Titty, Roger and five-year old Bridget are threatened by a rising tide. However by far the most sustained level of genuine risk is portrayed in We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea; four children, the oldest only 13, crossing the North Sea at night in an unfamiliar yacht.
Interestingly, the adult presence is most constant in the two, possibly three, metafictions – Peter Duck, Missee Lee and Great Northern?, all of which involve the children sailing on a larger boat with Captain Flint. Peter Duck also has the eponymous old seaman, and in Missee Lee the title character – Chinese pirate chief and would-be classical scholar – is very prominent. In these stories, adults are villains too – Black Jake and his pirate crew in Peter Duck and the odious egg-collector Jemmerling in Great Northern?.
In Coot Club, the D’s sail with the kindly Mrs Barrable, referred to as The Admiral, but much responsibility falls on the shoulders of Tom Dudgeon, who seems to be be about 12 or 13. In The Big Six they conduct the investigation themselves. The vital central passage of We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea has no adult presence at all, and the Swallows are once again left largely to their own devices in Secret Water, albeit trying to fulfill a mapping assignment set by their father. However, we can still say that in general the East Anglian books show greater integration between the adult world and the children’s activities. It’s in the Lake District books that the youngsters seem to be most fully in charge of their own affairs.
Again, this might have a good deal to do with the different psychological significance of the Lake District for Arthur Ransome. It also may have a lot to do with the character of one particular protagonist – Nancy Blackett. I’ve a good deal more to say about Nancy shortly, but we should just note that in Winter Holiday she pulls the strings of the exploration even when she is confined to a sickroom. In Pigeon Post she determines that the business of the summer is prospecting for gold and in The Picts and the Martyrs it’s she who decides that the D’s must be Picts while she and Peggy will be Martyrs. And the central, often dominant, role played by Nancy leads me on to say a little about gender roles and the importance of female characters in Ransome’s books.
Perhaps I should have headed this section ‘liberation’.
Exploration – not to mention piracy and so on – are often associated with muscularity and masculinity but in Ransome’s stories there are some notable female figures. In Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale four of the six young leads are girls; in Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post it’s five out of eight. The story is often told from the point of view of one of them and they all, to different degrees and in different ways, display competence beyond traditional female roles. This is, perhaps, especially true of Nancy, but I’d like to pay due heed to a couple of the others before I say more about her.
First there’s Titty, clearly one of Ransome’s own favourite characters and a first choice for many readers too. (And if you remember the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons, you may well think that Titty, played by Sophie Neville, steals almost every scene in which she appears). Although the opening of Swallows and Amazons is told from Roger’s point of view, from then on the point of view is shared, almost exclusively, between John and Titty. She’s clearly a child with a very active imagination and a strong romantic streak – in the true sense of the word. This quality, I think, is often vital in bringing colour and excitement to many passages of the books.
In Swallows and Amazons Titty comes into her own when she’s left in charge of the island during the ‘war’ with the Amazons. After her mother’s visit, which we’ve already mentioned, she resumes her duties as sentinel. Having outwitted the other Swallows, the Amazons land on the island; thinking quickly, Titty captures the boat, paddles away from the island and anchors out on the lake. During the night, she hears another boat passing nearby; it runs onto another island and the two men in it hide something there. It later transpires that Captain Flint’s houseboat was burgled that same night and Titty concludes – rightly, as it turns out – that what she heard was the burglars stashing their loot. But since her siblings are familiar with her inventive nature, they take some convincing:
“How you do romance,” said Susan.
Eventually, however, Titty and Roger do find the chest containing Captain Flint’s ‘treasure’. This is actually his typewriter and manuscript of his memoirs, which fits well with the idea that Captain Flint is an avatar of Ransome himself. The book is clearly precious to him, and the experience of writing Swallows and Amazons was both delightful and terrifying. When Flint says,
“Never any of you start writing books. It isn’t worth it. This summer has been harder work for me than all the thirty years of knocking up and down that went before it,”
it could be Ransome himself speaking.
Titty takes an equally important role in Swallowdale, starting when she and Roger discover the secret valley which they soon give that name. Her imagination gets free rein at times; Peter Duck is a kind of imaginary friend and there’s also a scene (which I personally find uncomfortable) in which she makes a kind of voodoo doll of the Amazons’ tyrannical Great-Aunt. She hopes that by toasting it over the fire its magic will make the Great Aunt uncomfortable enough to seek a change of scene – but she drops it into the flames and it melts. Titty is at least half-convinced that she has killed the Great Aunt. However, we also see a more practical side, as when she takes charge of Roger on the return across the moors and, when he has his accident, reasons out what to do.
She is less prominent in Winter Holiday, which shifts focus onto the new characters, the D’s, but returns to centre-stage for some crucial passages in Pigeon Post. This is arguably the most complex of Ransome’s novels; the eight children all have significant parts to play, along with several adult characters. The plot has two main foundations; prospecting for gold and a severe drought with associated risk of fire, but there is also a strong theme of communication – the difficulties this poses in an age when many houses don’t even have telephones, the use of carrier pigeons to overcome this, as well as misunderstandings that can arise even when people meet face to face.
The lack of water is hindering the prospectors’ efforts, so they all try dowsing, but nothing happens until Titty attempts it and the twig moves in her hands. At first this is such a shock that she runs off and then begs not to do it again, but eventually, after a struggle with herself, she overcomes the fear and tries again.
“She knew very well what she meant to do, but she did not want the others to guess. She must try the thing again… But not with anyone to see. It would be too dreadful if the others were watching and at the last moment she could not bring herself to touch the twig.”
She also takes responsibility when she follows Roger and the D’s into the old mine working, which I’ve already mentioned. Here she’s very much helped by Dick, who seems absent-minded much of the time but can also think logically even in frightening situations.
While Titty’s character develops strongly through the first four Lake District books, she seems to grow less obviously in later volumes. Although We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea is a tremendous book, it is very heavily focused on John. John rises to the occasion – almost to the point of growing up overnight – and this is a fascinating piece of character development. By contrast, however, his brother and sisters all seem to regress, or at best to have stood still since the year before. The Titty of Secret Water, or Great Northern?, is no more mature than the Titty of Pigeon Post. Which is a great shame, because she is a genuinely original, complex and endearing character – gentle and fanciful, but also, especially in the first four lake country books, determined, strong-willed and by no means a shrinking violet.
The other main female character to provide a point of view is Dorothea, whom we first meet, along with Dick, in Winter Holiday. Dorothea is also imaginative but, while Titty often seems to inhabit stories, Dorothea is consciously making them up and writing them down. Ransome has a good deal of fun with her somewhat florid prose style – it’s very much in the vein of, and no worse than, many well-known writers of the early 20th century, but it’s in marked contrast to the very direct, unadorned style which Ransome himself adopted in the 12 novels.
Dorothea spends much of her time in Winter Holiday wanting to be useful but, although she and Dick are better than the others at skating, she struggles at first to find an active role. However, as a kind of proxy narrator, she helps to open up the characters of all the others. The same might be said of her part in both Pigeon Post and The Picts and the Martyrs. This latter book is almost entirely told from her point of view, with only brief episodes from Dick’s and Nancy’s, and her insight and ability to see things from others’ perspective makes her, at times, seem more mature than the (two years older) Nancy.
However, her role in The Picts and the Martyrs is largely domestic. When she and Dick are bundled off to live by themselves in a hut in the woods, it seems to be tacitly and unquestioningly assumed that she will take charge of housekeeping and cooking. On the other hand, Dick takes command when they sail their new boat, Scarab. Still, I think it’s an over-simplification to see her simply as adopting a submissive role. Her relationship with Dick is more complex than that, and I think it’s a good reflection of many healthy sibling relationships, being more of a partnership than anything.
In any case, we see another side of Dot in the two Norfolk Broads books, and especially in The Big Six. Here Ransome draws on another genre, the detective story. And it is Dorothea who largely orchestrates the investigation, even if her strategy is almost entirely based on stories she has read.
For me personally, Dorothea is one of Ransome’s more original and most fully-developed characters. I suppose she resonates particularly with me, as I too was a voracious and fairly promiscuous reader and an aspiring writer (I still am!), but of all Ransome’s creations she is the most empathic, the one who tries to see things from others’ point of view. Here she’s reflecting on the difference between stories and real life (another metafictional touch):
‘If only it had been a story, things would have been simpler. In a story, villains were villains and the heroes and heroines had nothing to worry about except coming out on top in the end. In a story black was black and white was white and blacks and whites stuck to their own colours. In real life things were much more muddled.’
And undoubtedly she is one of the characters who genuinely grows up during the span of time covered by the stories.
I’m not sure the same can be said of Nancy Blackett, for all that she is probably Ransome’s most famous character. On the one hand, she springs vividly to life almost from her first appearance; on the other, she seems much the same three fictional years later.
Perhaps this is a little unfair, as there are a few hints of maturity in The Picts and the Martyrs, though she seems to regress in Great Northern? (but then most of the children do). The Picts and the Martyrs is predicated on Nancy’s resolve that the dreaded Great Aunt must never learn that the D’s had been invited to stay at Beckfoot while Mrs Blackett was away – because if she did find out, she would make life miserable for Mrs B. And at the very end, she rescues an awkward moment by accepting responsibility for her actions (summoning rescuers to search for the ‘lost’ Great Aunt). In between, too, she and Peggy (the ‘martyrs’) go to great lengths, sacrificing their own freedom, to keep the Great Aunt happy.
However, being a dutiful great-niece is alien to Nancy’s nature, as she regularly makes clear. She’s also at her most domineering, first packing the D’s off to the hut in the woods to become ‘Picts’, then browbeating a string of adults, including the local doctor and postman, to play along and keep the secret.
Nancy is sometimes bossy and always boisterous, but still essentially good-hearted, apart from one lapse in a scene in Swallows and Amazons in which she is simply vile to the village policeman. I’m glad to say she is never quite so arrogant again. She regularly shows concern for the younger children as well as for the adults in her family – as well as being martyrs to protect her mother, the motivation for prospecting in Pigeon Post is to find gold so her uncle, Captain Flint, will stay at home.
It’s harder to discuss Nancy’s character than Titty or Dot because, unlike them, we hardly ever see inside her head. It’s often said that she was Ransome’s favourite character, and she is certainly the only one after whom he named a boat but, perhaps paradoxically, the story is hardly ever told from her point of view. Even in Winter Holiday, when she sets out alone for the North Pole, we only see her point of view for a page or two.
There has been considerable discussion about Nancy’s character and whether she can be read as a feminist. Whereas the other main female characters, Titty, Susan and Dot, consistently wear skirts or dresses, Nancy and Peggy will always – given the choice – appear in shorts and shirts. Nancy’s reference in The Picts and the Martyrs to “these loathsome frocks” underlines the point.
The question of clothing may seem trivial today, but wearing shorts would have been much less usual, and more daring, in the 1930s. Many women of Nancy’s generation went through their lives without ever wearing trousers, or first did so under the duress of the Second World War (it’s an intriguing thought that Nancy would be 21 at the outbreak of the war…). It was equally unusual at the time for a girl to take the lead as she does, not only over the younger ones but often over John too. When first seen, she is described as being bigger than John, and may be some months older, but ostensibly they are equals, both captains of their own vessels. However, Nancy consistently drives the children’s activities, and the stories themselves, much more than any other character – even in Winter Holiday, when she is sidelined for most of the duration by mumps, she sets the agenda through coded messages.
When first seen in Swallows and Amazons, Amazon is flying the skull and crossbones. When they first meet the Swallows, a few chapters later, the Blackett sisters introduce themselves like this:
‘Terror’, ‘ruthless’, ‘pirates’; there’s a strong theme here. But there’s also a bit of a puzzle in the references to ‘Amazon pirates’, as they seem to conflate the Amazons of classical mythology – a tribe of female warriors who in some accounts live entirely without men and occasionally visit neighbouring groups for sexual purposes, or keep a few captive men as slaves – and the Amazon river of South America. There have been – and still are – pirates on or around the Amazon, but more specific stories that could be the basis of Nancy and Peggy’s assumed identity have eluded me. Perhaps this conflation is exactly what Ransome intended, as there’s a good deal of the classical Amazon in Nancy’s character, with its relish for war (at least in play). As Susan says in Swallowdale:
“‘That’s just Nancy . . . She always thinks there’s no fun without trouble..’”
To me, an even more intriguing glimpse into Nancy’s character comes in Peter Duck, when the eponymous old seaman observes of the schooner Wild Cat;
Consider those last few words again. “Some people don’t understand.” What, exactly, is it that they don’t understand? Some readers have speculated about Nancy’s sexuality but we should remember that, although Peter Duck is a metafiction, it still has a place of sorts in the chronology and Nancy at this time cannot be more than 12 or recently turned 13. That seems a little young, especially in the 1930s, to be a confirmed lesbian. It is not, however, too young to be aware of the contrast between her readiness to assume a leadership role, her sturdy independence, and her love of adventure (if not ‘trouble’), and the stereotypical female role of the time. She even rejects her own given name, Ruth, because Captain Flint said Amazon pirates were ruthless.
I see no reason to conclude that Nancy will grow up gay. But then again, neither do I see any reason to think she won’t. As critics like Peter Hunt have noted, the books coyly avoid any suggestion of sexual tension or even awareness of sex, even at the end of the series when both Nancy and John are at least fifteen. By comparison, at the same age, Harry Potter is fancying Cho Chang and Ron Weasley is riven with jealousy because Hermione goes to the ball with Viktor Krum. But bear in mind that there are 70 years between Swallows and Amazons and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Nancy is often cited as one of the most famous fictional tomboys – a term which perhaps seems a little dated nowadays, but may be in need of revival. But unlike the prototype tomboy character, Jo March in Little Women, we never hear Nancy complain, ‘I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.’ Similarly, another famous tomboy – George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books – seems to want to be a boy, answering to George rather than Georgina and appearing delighted when mistaken for a boy. There’s none of this with Nancy. She doesn’t so much transgress gender expectations as transcend them. Perhaps this is why it’s so shocking when – to placate the dreaded Great Aunt – she does conform to the norms of her time.
‘…two girls in flounced frocks… It was a dreadful sight.’
By a curious coincidence, another famous fictional Nancy also made her debut in 1930. Nancy Drew, however, is a very different creation, who manages to age only slightly over the course of more than 300 books, which continues right up to the present day, with many different ghost-writers. In fact you would have to say now that Nancy Drew is more of a brand than a character.
And Nancy Drew, while she may be (especially in the earlier books) independent and assertive, is always a girl. To my reading what is so unique and fascinating about Nancy Blackett is the extent to which she transcends gender roles and gender expectations altogether and stands out simply as an individual. It seems to me that this makes her much more original and even futuristic than Jo March or Georgina Kirrin. And personally I think we need more such figures in children’s – and adult – literature.
Swallows and Amazons and its successors were unusual in the 1930s in being written not for boys or for girls but for both. It’s still true today that vast swathes of literature, both for children and for adults, are markedly and often explicitly, gendered. Can you imagine Nancy Blackett reading chick-lit? And of course it’s not just books: consider the difficulty of buying a ‘new baby’ card that isn’t blue for a boy or pink for a girl. Consider the extensive and oppressive gendering of children’s toys – far more prevalent now than in, say, the 1970s – highlighted and challenged by campaigns such as Pinkstinks and Let Toys Be Toys.
Is there a successor to Nancy Blackett in today’s literature? It’s good to see that there are many strong female characters – we’ve already mentioned Hermione Grainger in the Harry Potter books. Sadly, some of her character, particularly her unconventional looks, is toned down in the films – and Ginny Weasley’s even more so. Then we could perhaps cite Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart, Katniss in The Hunger Games, and my niece would never forgive me if I didn’t mention Meggie in the Inkheart books.
But in all the recent books I’ve read, albeit not specifically for children or ‘young adults’, I think the truest successor to Nancy is Arya Stark in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. This of course has been televised as A Game of Thrones, but as I’ve never seen it I’m basing my comments entirely on the books. And as we are still awaiting the conclusion to this epic series, it’s hard to know how Arya will turn out – or even, given the body-count so far, if she’ll survive. She’s only 9 when the saga begins and still only 11 in the latest volume to date, but she has a feisty, even fierce, nature that I’m sure Nancy would relate to – and endures some hair-raising scrapes that make anything in Ransome’s books look pretty tame.
Just as Arya is probably my favourite character in A Song of Ice and Fire, as a young reader I responded strongly to Nancy. I didn’t feel that my own gender meant I had to identify with John or Roger. In fact I tend to find John – until his blossoming in We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea – probably the least interesting of the main characters. I should put that in perspective – he is still written with far more depth than anyone in Enid Blyton, or Dan Brown for that matter – but he’s a bit too conventional and conscientious to engage me quite as fully as Titty, Dorothea or Nancy.
This might suggest that Ransome is better at writing female characters than male. However, we’re in danger of forgetting Roger, who does develop nicely beyond the comedy character he is in Swallows and Amazons. And then, of course, there’s Dick, who seems to me (and to many other observers) to have much in common with Ransome himself as a boy. The shortsightedness is an obvious physical parallel. John, on the other hand, seems much more like a projection of the boy he wanted to be.
But it’s beyond argument that the female characters, at the very least, stand equal to the male, and I’m very grateful that books like Swallows and Amazons were there for me – not least as I suffered the twin deprivations of not having sisters and then going to a single-sex grammar school.
But that, for me, is just one of the ways in which these books have helped to shape me – and, as we saw from one or two quotes at the beginning, I’m far from alone in this. At the very least, they planted seeds, even if their development was shaped by many other influences. They didn’t turn me into a sailor – it took something like 40 years before I experienced a proper journey under sail. However, they did, I am sure, help to nurture a broader love for the outdoors and adventure. As we await the premiere of the new film next year, we can reasonably expect that it will bring a wave of new readers to the original, so it’s fair to hope they will continue to play a part in doing the same for future generations.