Sunday, June 10, 2012

better drowned than duffers

I've been reading books meant for young readers since the late 1980s. Back then, I began managing a cataloging operation which included something called the Children's Literature Team. The leader of that group would go to professional meetings and bring back reading lists. Starting with some books by Diana Wynne Jones it didn't take me long to get hooked. All the same, somehow, 'til now, I've missed out on the Swallows and Amazon books by Arthur Ransome. I've just finished the first of them.

It's well loved and has been discussed at length by admirers and some detractors. A review on Amazon by an eleven year old reader pins down one of the books main attributes: Its story is set in place that feels real and its characters feel just as true. Their adventures involve great amounts of imagination but everything they do might easily be done by any other children in their situation. The eleven year old writes: "What's best about their adventures is that all of them are possible! They don't do impossible things like ride on dragons or become invisible. Their adventures really could happen! I loved this book from the start, and have read it again and again. I would also recommend the other books in this series. They are all super, and will become treasures to pass on to later generations. Thank you, Mr. Ransome, for writing such a wonderful book!"

The defects found by detractors also bring out interesting attributes of the book: It contains lots of lore — particularly lore related to some leisurely summer weeks on a large, well-situated lake. The children (and occasional grown-ups as well) swim, row, fish, and most of all sail. With exception of a pair of fascinating charcoal burners there's little information about doings on the shores of the lake. But there's much about its islands and about what it takes to sail upon it. With so much description of managing a sailboat and so much plot devoted to the imagination-sprung adventures of sub-teen children, the book disappoints readers whose taste bends more toward dragon-riding coming-of-age stories.[1] Here are excerpts from reviews by two such disappointed readers: (1) "The vocabulary is VERY sophisticated, quaint, and old-fashioned. Also, it's hard to understand all the sailing terminology. It has sentences like this: 'Is there a cleat under the thwart where the mast is stepped?' Who talks like that???" (2) "The real problem is in the lack of plot. The kids just go and do their thing. There isn't any problem or climax."

The author's passion for things-on-the-lake-as-they-are shows in a short description of a bird as observed by one of the children:

The eldest of the children is 12, the youngest 7. They are distinctly their own selves, different from one another, yet each, for his or her age, is admirably competent and well informed. In the passage quoted above Tilly, who is barely 9, knows her pirate literature well and it is she who recognizes that a lookout point above the lake must be their Darien. Ransome writes so skillfully that the reader (this reader anyway) does not question her extensive though apparently narrowly focused book learning.

His skill also keeps you from wondering why the children do not bicker; there's no whining, pouting, name calling, tale telling, or similar behavior and this is one of the reasons reviewers overwork the word "idyllic" in discussing the story. The idyllism is there, but it's not idyllic pleasures in the normal sense that concern the children (not picturesque nor redolent with pastoral simplicity). For them, the story of this brief part of their lives is one of self-directed adventure, of invented games, of a childish freedom that gives full rein to their separate imaginations. It's idyllic largely because the responsible adults — two mothers, an absent father, and some neighbors who inhabit the lake's shore — all watch over the children's doings from a distance; they provide care and nurturing while keeping themselves apart.

The only adult exception is Uncle Jim, alias Captain Flint. He's a responsible adult who has not lost the ability to join in childish imaginings with a wholehearted enthusiasm. As an adult he takes offense at a prank and a later burglary which he assumes (based on reasonable evidence) to have been committed by the eldest, John, and the other Swallow children. This adult side of him is too quick to condemn and, he soon finds out, is wholly wrong to do so. He handsomely apologizes and, in making amends, plays host to the children in a climax to their summer adventures. Ransome handles this character so deftly that it doesn't seem odd that this one adult is so different from the others.

In the passage shown just below Uncle Jim has just come back on board his house boat having been overcome by two gangs of pirates and made to walk the plank. Before the attack he had had the foresight to obtain materials for a feast which he and the children now sit down to enjoy. (Rio is their name for the nearest village and Mate Susan is second in age rank among the four Swallows.)

After Titty has observed the dipper her mother rows across to the island where the Swallows are camping. She, Titty, has been left behind as lookout while her brothers and sister are off adventuring in the little sailboat. Mother is a "native" in the children's way of seeing the world, that is to say an adult who's not part of their game of exploration and pirating. Left all alone on the island Titty imagines herself to be Robinson Crusoe and her mother instantly realizes that she herself must be Man Friday. (The Blackett children are a pair of sisters, both tomboys, says their mother. They are the Amazons of the title and it is they for whom Titty has been on watch.)

In her conversation with Titty, Mother talks about her own childhood in Australia and, in doing so, reminds Titty (and the reader too) that life is not all summer holidays. The ocean, as first seen from Darien, might seem pacific, but it is not always so peaceful. Here's the brief chat between the two. Note the snake, an adder kept by a charcoal burner for good luck, and the drought in the Australian sheep ranches.

All this interested and pleased me while reading the book, but what I paid most attention to was the children's self-assurance. They know what they're doing. They know how to set up and maintain camp, to make fires and cook out, to swim, to fish, to row, to sail. They know how best to treat one another, the elders among them watching out for the youngers and the youngers pulling their weight and respecting the older ones. When one of them does something well the others give credit and praise.

They do not just observe middle-class conventions, they honor them. Twelve-year-old John behaves much like his Navy Commander father, providing his siblings with an easy and unquestioned leadership. Eleven-year-old Susan is like her mother, tending to the needs of the Youngest (Roger) by (for example) sewing on his loose buttons, as well as organizing food, preparing meals, and keeping the campsite tidy.

I'm sure the children's confidence comes from the ascendancy of families like theirs (the English middle class of the time) and its shared values.

All 6 children, the 4 Swallows and the 2 tomboy Amazons, are well-spoken, considerate even when in mock-fierce competition with each other, and share a set of values that need not be expressed to be evident. The two sets — the 4 and the 2 — meet for the first time at the beginning of the story, but they have no trouble recognizing themselves as social equals: by upbringing and education they share with each other much more than they do with other children who inhabit the lake. These other children must be present, but they are never mentioned. The only local whom they encounter who has a child-like personality is a local policeman, entirely grown up but still easily cowed by the elder of the two Amazons.

In the exchange shown here, Ruth is the elder Amazon (though called Nancy while adventuring on the lake) and she's berating Sammy, the policeman, for interviewing John about a burglary that John is wrongly supposed to have committed (it's this false accusation that Uncle Jim has to answer for later in the book). There's no difficulty in seeing that Ruth and Sammy are social unequals. Sammy, in fact, is the son of the woman who was nurse both to Ruth's mother and to herself. I infer from this conversation that it's almost unthinkable that local children have any common ground with the 6 children whose story is being told.

This passage is not typical of the book. It jars in the same way Uncle Jim's hasty accusation jars and, since Ruth/Nancy is stepping in to right that wrong, her outburst is the mirror her uncle's. And it shows the divide between the Ruths and Sammys of 1929 England. This divide was the subject of my last blog post. The families of the Swallows and the Amazons are not literally "gently born" as I use the term in that post, but they possess the same social qualities. They are well spoken, sure of themselves, and well-versed in a shared set of social conventions which they do not question. There's a gulf between them and those of "mean birth," like Sammy and his mother, and like the somewhat exotic yet kindly charcoal burners.[2] You can see this in the contrast between the forthright and articulate apologies that Uncle Jim makes and Sammy's stammered ones. Although he has done no more than follow orders, Sammy is abject and cringing.[3]

Sammy is a descendant of Bottom and Shakespeare's other clowns. He is a large, ungainly fellow. Like Uncle Jim he is an adult who's retained childhood habits, but in him the adult does not seem to be in control of the child. He is awkward and clumsy and retains a childhood fear of his mother's anger. It's this last trait that enables Ruth to command him. Ransome shows the great distance between this large adult creature and the bright, agile, adventurous young Swallows and Amazons.

Sammy lacks their poise and it cannot be pleasant for him to contemplate his second-class status. While he is not in the same crowd as a pair of outsiders who drink at the pub and provoke themselves into burglarizing Uncle Jim's houseboat, you can nonetheless imagine him — at some point in his life — becoming outraged at the attitudes of his "betters" (sorry for the scare quotes) and striking back.

Ransome's Sammy is an individual, not a type. But if you take him as representative of a class, it's easy to see a main source of the massive grudge held in common by that class during the 1920s. This grudge famously exploded in the general strike of UK trades unions of 1926. The book makes no reference to the strike but since it was published only a few years later and since it presumably takes place at about that time, many readers would easily be able to recall it.

The families of the Swallows and Amazons do not exploit workers as the great industrialists exploit them, but they are found together on one side of the social divide I'm trying to describe. The members of these families have an unassuming grace of manner, are cultivated, live comfortably, and of course speak well. The exploited ones either do not have these traits or are not thought to have them. The family of the Swallows has a nurse who minds the youngest child, infant Vicki. Unlike Sammy's mother, who is given a name, this servant is simply called "nurse." She is generous and kindly. Her interactions with Mother are cordial, but it's pretty clear they are employer and employee and just as clear that there's no point in referring to her by name.[4]

The presence of this nurse does not mean the family of the Swallows are well to do. You can tell they just comfortably sufficient because they live on a naval officer's salary and because they do not have their own holiday villa but rather rent rooms in a lake-side farmhouse. The family of the Amazons are better off. The mother, who is a widow, owns the villa in which they spend their summers and they have been coming to the lake for long enough that they are treated as rather high-placed residents by locals. But it's obvious the two families have much more in common with each other than with any locals. They share a familiarity with each other which they do not offer to people not so privileged as they.


You might think Arthur Ransome to have been something of a snob, or at least ridden by unconscious assumptions of place and class. There may be some truth in this, but it is also true that he approved of the Russian Revolution and supported the Bolshevik regime.[5]

{Arthur Ransome; source:}


When I was studying British History in the 1960s a professor, G. Peter Browne, told me two anecdotes that touch on this subject. First, he said when Oxford began admintting more than a token number of lower class students the upper class ones would sneer at them in a cultivated sort of way. The example he gave was a request by one of the uppers in the dining hall. Glancing at one of the lowers nearby he said "Do please pass the vege..., oh excuse me, please pass the greens." It sounds innocuous but was vicious all the same.

Brown also told me, however, that on going to an American dentist's office for the first time, he was surprised when the assistant said "Hi, I'm Jennifer and I'll be cleaning your teeth today." He told me it would never occur to him to address her by any other name but "nurse."

---------- is a good place to learn about the setting, protagonists, and plot. It contains a short description and some extended reviews.[6]


{Film still (1974) of John, Susan, Titty, and Roger in the Swallow; source:}

{Endpaper map from the first edition; source:}

{Dustjacket of the first edition (wikipedia) and cover of the Puffin edition of 1974 (}


About the title of this post:
In Swallows and Amazons, the Swallows all write letters to Daddy at Malta (but under orders for Hong Kong), asking for his permission to sail Swallow to Wild Cat Island and camp there.

Daddy replies in the famous Duffers telegram:


Susan says that he added the won't drown to comfort Mother.

John says that Daddy thinks we shall none of us get drowned, and that if any of us do get drowned it’s a good riddance. He is particularly keen not to let Daddy down. Hugh Brogan comments: John’s father’s telegram is famous. John’s comment is enormously significant: ‘Daddy knows we aren’t duffers’. It was something that the boy Arthur could never have said to himself with any confidence; yet how much he wanted to! Now, in fiction, all could be arranged.

-- Arthur Ransome Wiki

Duffer (OED)
A person who proves to be without practical ability or capacity; one who is incapable, inefficient, or useless in his business or occupation; the reverse of an adept or competent person. Also more generally, a stupid or foolish person.
1889 J. K. Jerome Three Men in Boat 171 ‘Is it all right?’..‘Lovely..You are duffers not to come in’.
1891 A. Lang Angling Sketches 8 Next to being an expert, it is well to be a contented duffer.


Some sources:

manners unfaulted

Swallows and Amazons, 45 editions First published in 1930, on Open Library

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (London, Random House, 1930) on WorldCat

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, work description on LibraryThing

Swallows And Amazons by Arthur Ransome (reprint Godine Publisher, 1986) on Google Books

Swallows and Amazons series on wikipedia

Arthur Ransome wiki, a wiki maintained by fans

Nancy Blackett on wikipedia

"'Which One's the Mockingbird?' Children's Literature from the 1920s to the Present" by Sheila Egoff in Theory into Practice, Vol. 21, No. 4, Children's Literature (Autumn, 1982), pp. 239-246 (Taylor & Francis, Ltd.) Stable URL:
I was working at the Toronto Public Library during the 1940s and I can still remember the excitement engendered in the children by the appearance of a new Ransome book. In the Ransome books we have the between-the-wars and post-war children healthy, happy, sane, self-reliant, friendly-and yet they aren't prigs in any conceivable way. These children are allowed to go off adventuring without adult supervision, the youngest being only seven years of age. Yet Ransome does not strain our credulity. First of all, the children have been trained in various skills and what they don't know, they soon find out. They pore over maps, charts, plans, books; they can cook over an open fire, mend a net and tickle trout ("Tickle trout?" said a friend of mine. "You made that up." "It's in a Ransome book," I said, "therefore it must be true."). Above all, the children can sail. It has been pointed out to me that you could actually learn to sail a boat by reading the Ransome books. It is quickly noticeable, I think, that the children fall into adult patterns as do the children in the Narnia books when they become kings and queens, which was what the society of the time expected from children. Susan, for example, takes on the mother's role. But the point of reality here is that without adult supervision, would anyone allow their children weeks of sailing and camping alone? Susan is an anchor in a world of high adventure that helps the reader believe it really could happen-independence from adult supervision-if Susan will supervise toothbrushing.

Small-boat sailing; an explanation of the management of small yachts, half-decked and open sailing-boats of various rigs; sailing on sea and on river; cruising, etc by Edward Frederick Knight (New York, E. P. Dutton & co., 1902) was Ransome's bible

Arthur Ransome on schoolnet

Arthur Ransome and Communism

Swallows, Amazons and Bolsheviks ‘The Last Englishman,’ by Roland Chambers a review by Ken Kalfus, NYT, May 25, 2012

Arthur Ransome Russia in 1919

V. I. Lenin Interview With Arthur Ransome Manchester Guardian Correspondent, October 27 - November 5, 1922

Arthur Ransome 1884-1967 on

These two Marxist (and critical) reviews are both by the same author:
The Family as an Ideological Construct in the Fiction of Arthur Ransome by Ian Wojcik-Andrews in The Lion and the Unicorn, Volume 14, Number 2, December 1990, pp. 7-15
Excerpt: "As Marx and Engels note in The German Ideology: "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas." Familiar family hierarchies set up in the opening scenes establish the Walker parents in traditional work and sex-related roles which they (and the children) maintain as the novel comes full circle—it opens and closes with the same characters in the same place bound by the same parental/child hierarchy. ... In short, Ransome uses the Walker family to paint a powerful portrait of middle-class family life, one that foregrounds conventional work and heterosexist ideologies."

Introduction: Notes Toward a Theory of Class in Children's Literature by Ian Wojcik-Andrews in The Lion and the Unicorn, Volume 17, Number 2, December 1993, pp. 113-123
Excerpt: "Arthur Ransome wrote the quintessentially middle-class Swallows and Amazons. Complete with nurse, the Walker family (actually the mother and children) are on holiday in the idyllic Lake District whilst Navy Commander Mr. Walker sails the high seas, symbolically defending the British Empire."

Behind the scenes at Radio 4 by Clarissa Maycock 10:30, Monday, 23 April 2012
Excerpt: "Crawford Logan has voiced a new 5-part recording of Swallows and Amazons for BBC Radio 4 Extra. He writes:
Look at the comments for 'Swallows and Amazons' on Amazon(!), and you'll find very polarised opinions, almost all either five stars or one. For the fives it's a vivid childhood memory with characters they loved, a picture of a world which has disappeared, if indeed it ever really existed at all. But for the ones, Swallows and Amazons is an easy target for every modern brickbat--it's old-fashioned, dull, middle-class, sexist (Susan does all the cooking), slow and in serious need of editing. Worst of all: "nothing happens".

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (London, J.M. Dent and sons, 1889)

Diana Wynne Jones on wikipedia.

Diana Wynne Jones, the web page of British fantasy and science fiction writer Diana Wynne Jones.

The Many Worlds of Diana Wynne Jones

Accessible Adventure in 'Swallows and Amazons' by Nicholas Thomas in Anthropology Today, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Oct., 1987), pp. 8-11 (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) Stable URL: .



[1] I don't mean to imply that readers can't like both dragons and swallows (I'm one) but some do like a great deal more tension in their narratives than this book provides.

[2] I put "mean birth" in quotes because it's a term used in the seventeenth century. People of Ransome's generation might have said "lower classes." I think "mean birth" to be a little more expressive, particularly in contrast to "gently borm."

[3] Lovers of his novels have made an Arthur Ransome wiki for us. Its entry on Sammy's mother, Mrs Lewthwaite says: Mrs Lewthwaite used to be Mrs Blackett's nurse, and that of the Amazons when they were young. ... Sammy, her eldest son is a policeman. He is afraid of Nancy.

[4] I expect Sammy's mother is named because she belongs to the lake-side community, the way the charcoal burners (who are also named) belong to it. The nurse of the Swallow family, being of no special community, can be treated a bit like an appliance.

[5] Ransome was a journalist in Russia during the Communist Revolution. While there he was was recruited by the British espionage office, MI6, as a spy. However, he showed such great sympathy for the Communists that when he returned to England in 1919 he was arrested by the police under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act. He convinced the police that though he was sympathic to Communism he was not himself a revolutionary.

[6] Here are brief extracts from LibraryThing reviews:

"Swallows and Amazons, a paean to children’s make-believe play and exploring their surrounding world, is a very pleasant story that involves the great outdoors, boats, fishing, and camping, with rich characterization, vivid descriptions, wholesome reading, and old-fashioned ideals. It includes a good deal of everyday Lakeland life in the early twentieth century, from the local farmers to charcoal burners working in the woods. Seldom have I ever come to the end of a book and felt sorry that it was over."

"One thing that the book does really well is to explore the imaginative life of children, taking the everyday world around them and turning it into something much more exciting and exotic."

"The Walker and Blackett children are given an amazing amount of freedom and use that gift to its fullest. They are adventuresome, curious, imaginative, and mischievous. Oh to be able to spend weeks on end sailing and camping and exploring. Even though Ransome was writing in the 1930s, the girls and women he created are strong and capable: good swimmers, good sailors, smart, fearless, and reliable. It's no wonder that this series was among my favorite childhood books. Here is a quote that has stayed with me since I was in fourth grade: "Her real name isn't Nancy," said Peggy. "Her name is Ruth, but Uncle Jim said that Amazons were ruthless . . . [so] we had to change her name." (p. 119)