The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome Roland Chambers

Faber, pp.390, 20

In the last couple of decades or so, a plenitude of biographers have provided us with studies of 20th-century literary celebrities, from Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw to Evelyn Waugh and T. S. Eliot. Roland Chambers now treats the life and works of Arthur Ransome, a lesser mortal than these grandees.

Ransome was born in 1884, the son of a professor at what would become Leeds University. Chambers gives a clear account of Ransome’s driving ambition to be a writer. After leaving Rugby he took a job as an office boy in a publishing house at eight shillings a week. Within a few years he had become a figure in London’s literary Bohemia. Capable of dashing off 40,000 words in a few weeks, he wrote on such diverse subjects as ‘The Things in our Garden’ and a critical work on Edgar Allan Poe.

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In 1912 came his study of Oscar Wilde. Written in the flowery prose of the time, it established Wilde as a persecuted genius, doomed and destroyed by his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. (By 1938 Douglas was no longer an attractive man. Introduced to Douglas by Simon Asquith, the prime minister’s grandson, I met him alone during my first year at Oxford in the lounge of the Randolph Hotel. After telling a few stories about literary celebrities he started to fondle my neck. As a boy from a mixed secondary day school, where girls with the most ample bosoms were the objects of our gropings, I knew nothing of homosexual affairs — though they were common enough at Eton and Winchester — and, disgusted, fled from the Randolph into Beaumont Street.)

Chambers chronicles Ransome’s disastrous marriage to Ivy Walker, an intelligent, eccentric but essentially self-centred woman, who disturbed his ferocious concentration on his writing. To escape her clutches, he travelled to Petrograd, arriving in December 1914. With brief interludes, he worked in Russia as a journalist until 1923, by which time he had wearied of turning out stuff for the Manchester Guardian, found Russians maddening and longed to return to England and resume his career as a creative writer.

But in 1914 he had written to his mother, ‘I love Russia more and more’; he learned the language and translated its folk tales. He regarded the revolution of March 1917 and the overthrow of the Tsar as ‘the greatest moment of liberty the world has ever known’. He welcomed the Bolshevik seizure of power in November as inevitable and desirable and made friends among its elite. The leading journalist Karl Radek was a boon companion; having come to consider Ivy ‘as the incarnate devil and nothing else’, he began an affair with Evgenia Shelepina when he decided to marry, Trotsky’s secretary. Bruce Lockhart, who was responsible for Britain’s diplomatic relations with the Bolsheviks, was a warm friend, though he regarded Ransome as a sentimental romantic. Lockhart protected Ransome from idiots at the Foreign Office who dismissed him as a traitor, a Bolshevik stooge and a coward, ‘who tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’.

But there was something in this. Chambers sees Ransome as leading a double life, even as a double agent working for the Bolsheviks. But if he was to get Evgenia back to England he needed the help of both the Bolsheviks and the Foreign Office. Conservative in his tastes, he admired John Masefield as a poet. He seems to have disliked the thought of any socialist revolution in England, yet he saw Lenin as the greatest statesman of modern times, a titan with a dry sense of humour, a man of iron capable of executing swathes of rivals in order to save the revolution as he conceived it. His views have an uncomfortable similarity to those later propounded by the Webbs, with the intelligent Lenin replaced by the brutish Stalin.

British and American historians of the Soviet Union make no mention of Ransome. The Oxford Dictionary of English Quotations has 17 entries for James Barrie but none for Ransome. (I was dragged by Margot Asquith, the formidable widow of the liberal prime minister, to two performances of Peter Pan. Being at the time a Marxist fellow traveller, I regarded the play as a piece of bourgeois escapism into Never Never Land. My late wife was one of Barrie’s godchildren. She found his childish talking down to her distasteful). Compared with Barrie’s fantasies, Ransome’s most successful novel, Swallows and Amazons, came as a breath of realism. It concerns two groups of children who, in their summer holidays, become the masters and crew of two boats; at the end of their holidays they return to normal family life. Ransome loads his books with nautical terms; he sailed in the Baltic and, at the end of his life on his beloved Windermere. He was an expert fisherman, writing extensively on his favourite sport, which he practiced in the Lake District.

Chambers has not yet a complete mastery of his sources. This is a readable account of Ransome’s life, written by a novice historian.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Biography, Non-fiction