Plenty of writers have addressed Arthur Ransome’s life in enormous detail, recreating to the last sentence the intimate Lake District world of Swallows and Amazons, the 1930 book by which Ransome is remembered by most people.
Still others have narrated Ransome’s marriage to Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina — his second wife and none other than Trotsky’s personal secretary. As a consequence of the relationship Ransome was regarded suspiciously by the British authorities and acquired a notoriety that greatly exceeded his real danger, except as a naïf and part-time foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (and the fact that he swallowed the Bolsheviks’ cause like a greedy trout swallowing a mayfly, as Hardyment puts it.)
Hardyment’s contribution is to bring together all the strands of Ransome in a new synthesis, gloriously brought to life by countless photographs and illustrations that are either the product of due diligence or derive from the Arthur Ransome Literary Estate, to which Hardyment has had full access. If you merely wanted to find out everything you need to about a fascinating literary figure, and to really get a feel for the landscape and the boats that form the backdrop to the enchanting children’s books, then here it is.
It might be trendy to refer to the result as literary geography, as the dust jacket does, but the book actually reads as an updated literary biography, albeit one realised imaginatively. The geography merely ascribes an appropriate weighting to Ransome’s preoccupation with, for example, boats – so that cutaway plans are produced of several of his vessels in the wonderful chapter 4, At Home Afloat. In fact the succession of beautiful cruisers and sailing yachts that Ransome owned make fitting parentheses for a literary life; one that craved anchorage while shunning stasis. Every vessel had a writing desk as graven and permanent as the tropical hardwood it was fashioned from, yet within a structure designed to float indefinitely.
On a local note, there was more of an Oxford connection than birth in Leeds and death in Manchester suggest. Born in 1884, Arthur Michell Ransome was named after two Oxford contemporaries of his father, Cyril: Arthur Acland, a politician and political author, and W.C. Michell, a house master at Rugby. Briefly, the family even lived at St Chad’s Villas in the Otley Road, Headingley, today the Ascot Grange Hotel.
Although there is something in Ransome’s biography of our own ideal of the Twenties, as idyllic and slow-paced, the ruthless fact is that Ransome’s father died when he was young from a malady that could have been remedied by today’s NHS. And Ransome, the college drop-out turned writer, moved constantly, not just as a self-fashioned bohemian: he worked with a ferocious energy, against the backdrop of indifferent health and a torrid first marriage that ended in divorce. A perfectly twenty first century tale.