There was recently a good deal of indignation on Facebook’s The Arthur Ransome Group about a Guardian online essay by Julia Eccleshare under the title Best sisters in children’s books. After quite an outcry, the offending passage has been removed and I’m told a revised version may be inserted – though it’s been a few weeks now and there’s no sign of it.
What was the fuss all about? Two sentences. After referencing books in which girls play a leadership role, Eccleshare wrote that this is:
…in contrast to Arthur Ransome’s four-child Blackett family in the Swallows and Amazons stories or CS Lewis’s Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In both of these, written when tradition dictated that boys led and girls followed, it is the boy who is the oldest and therefore the leader with the girls playing important but distinctly submissive roles.
Cue jaws on floors from Ransome afficionados everywhere. Leaving C S Lewis aside (I’m no great fan, and anyway this is a Ransome blog), there are multiple errors here in relation to Ransome:
2: The Walkers (Swallows) are a family of five, not four, children. This is a more forgivable error, as the youngest, Bridget, has a very minor role in Swallows and Amazons (when she is just two) and Swallowdale and is absent altogether in Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post. It’s only in Secret Water that she really becomes an active protagonist.
3: “the boy … is … the leader with the girls playing … distinctly submissive roles”. This, of course, is a whopper.
No-one who has actually read all the way through Swallows and Amazons, let alone the rest of the books, could write this. It’s simply inconceivable to cast Nancy Blackett’s role as a submissive one. She is, consistently, a leader, not a follower.
This much is indisputable (at least if you’ve actually read the books). However, I’d go further. I’d argue that it’s also a mistake – or, at best, a very superficial reading – to brand the other young female characters in Ransome’s books as ‘submissive’. All of them are – at the very least – more complex than that.
We should of course remember that Ransome wrote the books between 1929 (Swallows and Amazons was published in 1930) and 1947. Just for context, 1929 was also the year in which women first voted in a General Election on equal terms with men. It was regularly and disparagingly called the ‘flapper election’. The idea of females in leadership roles was widely viewed as daring and often ludicrous. In this context, it seems to me that Ransome does something noteworthy and forward-looking in creating female characters who are as strong and independent as they undoubtedly are. And it’s not just Nancy. It’s also worth noting that in Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale, the main cast consists of two boys and four girls. Winter Holiday introduces two additional characters, Dick and Dorothea Callum.
There’s a whole array of other young protagonists in the two novels set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six, as well as in Secret Water, although I’d argue that most of them are of secondary importance to the series as a whole. The major female characters are all in place by the time we reach Winter Holiday. And there’s no real question which of them we should consider first.
‘I am Nancy Blackett, master and part owner of the Amazon, the terror of the seas. This is Peggy Blackett, mate and part owner of the same.’
This is how Nancy introduces herself – and her sister – to the Swallows. Even before this – though details only become clear later – Nancy and Peggy have played a prank with a firework on the cabin roof of the houseboat belonging to their uncle (later dubbed Captain Flint) and then challenged the Swallows by unfurling a pirate flag. These are not the actions of a shrinking violet. And at the time, according to Ransome’s own notes, she is 12.
Nancy appears in four more of Ransome’s novels apart from the five ‘lake country’ titles, but these will serve as primary exemplars. As time goes on, she regularly takes charge. In Swallowdale, her style (and Peggy’s) is cramped during the visit of their domineering Great-Aunt, but she still manages to set the agenda much of the time – even sending a message by bow and arrow almost under the Great-Aunt’s nose. In the next of the ‘lake country’ books, Winter Holiday, she is again sidelined much of the time; this time it’s because of mumps. Quarantine regulations mean none of the children can return to school and this gives time for the lake to freeze and the story to develop – and Nancy continues to call the shots, even from her sickbed, through coded messages. At the end, though still not quite fully recovered, she sets out in search of the missing D’s – on ice-skates, quite alone, as a snowy night draws in. By this point she’s 13 or just turned 14.
Again, in Pigeon Post, Nancy sets the agenda – the story this time revolves around prospecting for gold (though, in the end, they find something else) – and drives the action forward, not only acting as the principal leader among the children but pushing against restrictions emanating from the adult world. In the last of the ‘lake country’ books, The Picts and the Martyrs, she is again sidelined to a degree by the unexpected and highly unwelcome arrival of the dreaded Great-Aunt. In any case, this story revolves mainly around Dick and Dorothea. Still, Nancy plays a decisive role, determining that Dick and Dot must hide away as ‘Picts’ while she and Peggy do their utmost as ‘Martyrs’ to keep the Great-Aunt happy. Still only 15, she also proves very effective in enlisting (browbeating) other adults into keeping the secret and even aiding the Picts.
There’s a kind of paradox about Nancy’s place in Ransome’s books. On the one hand, it’s often said that she was his favourite character, and she is certainly the only one for whom he named one of his own boats. On the other, the story is hardly ever told from her point of view. Across the whole series, the most important point of view characters are Titty and Dorothea, whose inner worlds are therefore laid open to us. Unlike them, we hardly ever see inside Nancy’s head. It only really happens when the plot requires her to act alone – for example, in Winter Holiday, when she sets out on her own for the North Pole. It’s intriguing to speculate why this might be so, but maybe that’s for another time.
Nancy is often cited as one of the most famous fictional tomboys. The term perhaps seems a little dated nowadays, but may be in need of revival. However, 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. And maybe this is why it’s so shocking when – to placate the dreaded Great-Aunt – she does conform to the norms of her time. When they see her and Peggy in ‘flounced frocks,’ even the somewhat more conventional Swallows consider it ‘a dreadful sight.’
At these times we might indeed say that Nancy is playing a submissive role – but it’s abundantly clear that she does so with great reluctance and very much against her nature, and mainly to protect her mother.
At first reading the opposite of Nancy, Susan is second-oldest of the Walker children and Mate of the Swallow. Susan (often along with Peggy) is the one who principally organises stores, manages campsites and does most of the cooking. She is probably the most conventional of all the main child characters. And yet, to dismiss her as a submissive or domesticated character is too glib and superficial.
For a start, the domestic role adopted by Susan and Peggy is explicitly linked to their position as Mate in their respective crews (John regularly addresses his sister as ‘Mister Mate’). It is clear, to be sure, that she is comfortable with this role, but she is also quite capable of taking the helm of Swallow or pulling on an oar. And I think there’s more to her than dutiful homebody. She is also the practical and pragmatic member of the crew.
“I put all my trust in you, Susan,” said Mrs Blackett. “And you too, John,” she added. John grinned. It was kind of her to say it, but he knew she didn’t mean it. On questions of milk and drinking-water and getting able-seamen to be on time, Susan was the one the natives trusted. (From Pigeon Post.)
The focus on practical issues makes Susan – often an underrated or overlooked character – a vital element in the stories, balancing Nancy’s wildness and Titty’s imagination. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this: what makes Ransome’s stories special is the interplay of imagination and reality. Susan, more than any other character, grounds the stories in solid reality.
Unlike Nancy or Susan, Titty is one of the main ‘point of view’ characters in almost every book in which she appears. Although Roger gets the opening chapters in Swallows and Amazons, from then on the point of view is mostly shared between John and Titty. The same is largely true in Swallowdale. She is less prominent in Winter Holiday, which shifts focus onto the new characters, Dick and Dot (‘the D’s’), but she returns to centre-stage for some crucial passages in Pigeon Post.
Titty is a sensitive child with a very active imagination and a strong romantic streak – in the true sense of the word. This quality brings colour and excitement to many passages of the books. Titty, more than any of the others – in fact, more than any but a handful of characters in literature – vividly embodies the capacity of the child to inhabit real and imaginary worlds at the same time.
As one of the younger members of the cast, she has fewer chances to play a leadership role, but when they arise she doesn’t shy away. In Swallows and Amazons, she’s left alone on the island during the ‘war’ with the Amazons and when they in turn make a nocturnal raid, she slips past them, captures their boat, paddles it out onto the lake and drops anchor, thereby capturing the prize and winning the war. It’s worth noting that she is nine at the time. (And that her mother visits the island, finds Titty alone and, after asking a few questions, rows off and leaves her!)
She’s often put in charge of Roger, who’s a couple of years younger. In Swallowdale the two of them trek back to the valley across the moors while the older ones sail down the lake. They get lost in mist and Roger twists his ankle, and Titty has to decide what to do. In Pigeon Post she has to master her own fears after an experiment with dowsing, and later takes charge after Roger and the D’s venture into an old mine working, which then collapses behind them – although here she’s very much helped by Dick’s rational mind.
After Nancy, Titty may well have been Ransome’s favourite and she is a favourite of many readers too. While she’s certainly not in the buccaneering mould like Nancy, she is a genuinely original, complex and endearing character. She may be gentle and fanciful, but she is also, especially in the first four lake country books, very much a child with a mind of her own.
Dorothea, or Dot, is also one of the most important point of view characters. She, too, is highly imaginative but, while Titty often seems to inhabit stories, Dorothea consciously makes them up – and writes them down. Ransome has a good deal of fun with her somewhat florid prose style – very much in the vein of some well-known writers of the early 20th century, but in marked contrast to the very direct, unadorned style which Ransome himself developed.
For the most part, Dot is a follower rather than a leader, spending much of her time in Winter Holiday wanting to be useful but struggling to find an active role. However, as a kind of proxy narrator, she helps to open up the characters of all the others. 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:
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. (From The Picts and the Martyrs.)
Again, in Pigeon Post, she is primarily an observer – albeit a perceptive and sympathetic one – not a leader. The Picts and the Martyrs 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 story 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, while Dick takes command when they sail their new boat, Scarab. Domestic, yes, but submissive? Perhaps, but who – apart from the Great-Aunt – does not at least occasionally submit to the will of Nancy Blackett?
However, we see another side of Dot in the two Norfolk Broads books, and especially in The Big Six. This is, in essence, a detective story – and it is Dorothea who largely orchestrates the investigation, even if her strategy is almost entirely based on stories she has read.
One might argue that, if there is a genuinely ‘submissive’ character in the stories, it’s not Susan but Peggy. However, she’s subordinate not to a male leader but to her own older sister, and with a sister like Nancy it would be well-nigh impossible not to be overshadowed. It’s precisely for this reason that Peggy seems to me the hardest of the eight key characters in the ‘lake country’ books to pin down.
Still, when she gets a chance to lead she’s quite capable of taking it. This is most apparent in Winter Holiday, when Nancy is sidelined by mumps, and Peggy becomes effectively a joint leader with John, though he is both a boy and a bit older. Of course, you can argue that she is acting as Nancy’s proxy, but there is certainly no sense that command of the seven left ‘in the field’ falls automatically to John. Indeed, there are several references to the ‘three leaders’, i.e. including Susan as well.
Peggy was doing her best. She knew what had been in Nancy’s mind when she had first planned the expedition to the Pole. None of the others had been born on the shores of the lake and now, with Nancy ill, Peggy was trying to fill her place. (From Winter Holiday.)
Minor female characters
It may seem dismissive to tag these as ‘minor characters’, but in the context of the series as a whole they are of much less importance than those we’ve already discussed.
Port and Starboard. The Farland twins (aka Nell and Bess) only appear in Coot Club. They have a lively enough role in that book, sailing and having other adventures of their own, but don’t appear again; in The Big Six they’ve been despatched overseas. I suspect this is because Ransome found, as many readers do, that it was hard to tell the two apart.
Daisy. Daisy appears only in Secret Water. She’s another feisty child in the Nancy mould, seemingly dominating her (apparently older) brothers. The problem is, in what we see of her, she seems altogether too much like a slightly watered-down imitation of Nancy herself.
Missee Lee. Not a child character, of course, but worth a mention, not least as she gives her name to one of the books. The book itself is usually read as a fantasy or metafiction, a story invented by the children, but Missee Lee is still a vivid and highly original character: a female pirate who dominates male rivals mainly by force of character, yet yearns for classical studies at Cambridge.
Ransome the Sexist?
In discussing whether Ransome’s books are sexist or not, we must again remember that they were written between 1929 and 1947 – and they are all, as far as we can tell, set in the early 1930’s. This was not a world of equal opportunities. The Second World War, for all its horrors, did create many new opportunities for women and it’s possible to imagine some of the characters – all of whom would have been young adults by 1939 – grasping these with both hands. But then it’s possible to imagine many futures for the Blackett, Walker and Callum children. Very little is said about what any of the girls are likely to do when they grow up. John, and possibly Roger, seem destined to follow their father into the Navy. Apart from this, little is said about the expectations of any of them. They live, quite naturally for children, largely in the present. At the end of a lake country summer, they look ahead to next year, not to the misty prospects of adulthood. And this seems fine to me. Ransome doesn’t close doors for them or limit what their futures might be.