Arthur Ransome in the Baltic

I know it’s not the Lake District, but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the place of the Baltic region in Ransome’s life, and maybe wonder whether it had any particular influence on the novels, and the ‘lake country’ books in particular. It’s also a region where I’ve spent a fair bit of time.This wasn’t on specifically Ransome-related business but I did seek out a couple of significant locations along the way.

Ransome first went to Russia in 1913. He was four years into an ill-advised marriage, and had a young daughter. While he adored her, he coped poorly with disturbed sleep and the other trials of having a new baby in a small household. He had also faced a libel case brought by Lord Alfred Douglas, arising from his book on Oscar Wilde. Though acquitted, he found the experience traumatic.

Among more positive reasons for the visit, he was interested in folk tales and was keen to explore Russia’s rich literature. He learned Russian mainly by devouring children’s books. He reckoned to gain the equivalent of a year’s reading level in a week.

A year later he returned, now with a commission to write a guidebook to St Petersburg. He attacked this with gusto, finishing in a couple of months. Having written guidebooks myself, I find this impressive but not outrageous. Having written guidebooks myself, there’s a big difference between how much you can see and how much info you can amass if you approach it as a full-time job rather than as a tourist. For example, I spent four days in St Petersburg in 2008, while working on a Thomas Cook Guide to Baltic Cruising (incidentally, I hadn’t then and still have never spent a single day on a cruise ship. The guide was really all about the ports that cruise ships visit. I reached most of these by air but travelled from Rīga to Tallinn and then to St Petersburg by bus.) In those four days I had a good look at all the main sights and a good sampling of restaurants and bars (it’s a tough job).

_DSC9742St Petersburg

During Ransome’s second visit, Europe was lurching into the Great War. His short-sightedness made him ineligible for military service and he remained in Russia. He soon began work on Old Peter’s Russian Tales. Then he was offered the position of Russian correspondent for the Daily News, initially as stand-in for an ailing incumbent.

Thus, almost accidentally, Ransome found himself in the thick of things as Russia spiralled towards Revolution. Now a good Russian speaker, he enjoyed better access to the Revolutionary leaders than any other Western correspondent. He played chess with Lenin, but most significantly, Trotsky’s secretary was a ‘tall jolly girl’ called Evgenia Shelepina, with whom Arthur soon became close.

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St Petersburg’s Smolny Institute, where Arthur and Evgenia met

Ransome’s relationship with the revolutionary leaders has been widely examined, with some accusing him of complicity and even espionage. I don’t propose to go into this here; there’s a thorough discussion in Roland Chambers’s book The Last Englishman.

During the war, travel to and from Russia was difficult and Ransome also visited cities such as Stockholm and Helsinki to meet significant individuals. He spent most of the years 1916-1918 in Russia. In 1918 he returned via Estonia to Moscow, now the headquarters of the Reds. During this journey he crossed through the front lines of both opposing armies on foot. He approached the Red lines carrying his typewriter and puffing on his pipe: “Nobody, I reasoned, was going to shoot at a man walking slowly across and obviously enjoying his tobacco”. It obviously worked.

When he next left Russia, he took Evgenia with him. It’s thought that messages he carried on these hazardous journeys helped Estonia to achieve independence. (It was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, regained its independence in 1991 and is now a member of the European Union).

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Tallinn

Ransome was still married and his wife Ivy was refusing to divorce him. He and Evgenia set up home in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, then mostly called Reval. Later they moved to Rīga in neighbouring Latvia. Ransome was still an active journalist but had more free time and in these ports on the shores of the Baltic he resumed his acquaintance with sailing.

His prior experience consisted of little more than dinghy sailing on Coniston Water, and Evgenia was a complete novice. However, his enthusiasm was irresistible. In 1922 they had a new boat built, which they christened Racundra. With an elderly seaman, Carl Sehmel, they undertook a cruise around the island-strewn Gulf of Finland to Helsinki (then generally called by its Swedish name, Helsingfors). The resulting book, Racundra’s First Cruise, became a yachting classic. Carl Sehmel is regarded as the original of Peter Duck in the novel of that name.

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Rīga

While living in Rīga, Ransome also had several meetings with the great Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen’s exploits as an explorer had made him, for Ransome, ‘a hero since my childhood’, but by 1921, when these meetings took place, Nansen was engaged in humanitarian work. He was 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. Ransome called him ‘the most civilised person of his generation’. It’s no wonder, then, that Nansen, not Shackleton, Scott or Amundsen, is the inspiration for Winter Holiday.

In 1924, Ivy finally agreed to a divorce. Arthur and Evgenia were married at Tallinn, and they arrived in England in November. And that was really the end of Ransome’s Baltic period. He was also now trying to break away from journalism, which he had stumbled into – but which certainly helped to hone the clear and economical prose style which is one of the great strengths of the twelve novels. Within five years he and Evgenia were settling into Low Ludderburn, in the southern fringes of the Lake District, and Arthur was settling down to write Swallows and Amazons.

The Baltic years, then, stretch from1913 to 1924. Ransome was 29 at the start of this period, and already 40 by the end. This was a significant chunk of his life – as it would be for anyone. Apart from, presumably, general life-experience and maturity, he drew several specific influences from this period, which find expression in the books.

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Helsinki

For a start, there was Evgenia. Not just a loyal companion for the rest of his life, she was the first reader of each book as it developed – and by no means a sycophantic one. Her influence as ‘critical friend’ and pre-editor must have been substantial.

But Evgenia is important in another way. Many people think she provides at least part of the inspiration for the character of Nancy Blackett. In a letter to his daughter, Arthur described Evgenia and her sister Iraida as ‘huge young women… who prefer pistols to powder puffs and swords to parasols’ – that certainly sounds like Nancy! And they were young, about 20 and 18 at the time.

Nor is it fanciful to suggest that the Baltic period gave Ransome another of his major characters – Captain Flint. Flint, of course, is an avatar of Ransome himself; when we first meet him in Swallows and Amazons, he appears to be much the same age (around 45) as Ransome was at the time, and is tall, stout and bald, also much like Ransome. He doesn’t appear to have followed a conventional career path and has spent much of his life knocking around the world, getting into various scrapes along the way. And he, too, is writing a book, albeit a memoir of his wandering life (Mixed Moss) rather than a novel.

Of course, there is also Carl Sehmel/’Peter Duck’ – and one can’t help wondering if any of Ransome’s revolutionary friends and acquaintances also fed into any of his other characters. Is there a well-disguised Lenin or Trotsky lurking in the pages?

Finally, it was in the Baltic that Ransome extended his experience of sailing beyond the Lakes (plus a little in the Kent Estuary and Morecambe Bay). Racundra’s First Cruise was his first, too. His time among these waters, with their virtually uncountable islands, and in the historic ports of the region, coloured his views on ships and sailing. Tallinn and Rīga had both been important ports of the great trading alliance, the Hanseatic League. So, to a lesser extent, was Great Yarmouth, which features in The Big Six. Ransome was just in time to see some of the last of the great sailing trading vessels. Peter Duck decries their disappearance and replacement by steam, and near the end of We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, the Swallows and their father catch sight of one of the last of them all – the great 4-masted barque  Pommern, built at Glasgow in 1903. ‘They listened to Daddy telling them of the tidal harbour of Mariehamn in the Baltic to which the barque belonged’. Pommern doesn’t get about so much these days, but she still resides at the lovely port of Mariehamn, capital of the Åland Islands.

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The mighty Pommern at Mariehamn

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The Influence of Nansen

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.

I know where she means,’ said Peggy. ‘It’s the country on the fells above the tarn. It’s as wild as wild.’

I know where she means,’ said Peggy. ‘It’s the country on the fells above the tarn. It’s as wild as wild.’

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.

Statue of Nansen below the Fram

Statue of Nansen below the Fram

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.

The Fram now resides permanently in a museum in Oslo

The Fram now resides permanently in a museum in Oslo

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.

On board the Fram

On board 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.

On the deck of the Fram

On the deck of the Fram