Saturday, 23 May 2009

REVIEW by Adèle Geras

THE LAST ENGLISHMAN : the double life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers. Faber August 2009 £20.00

I have to confess to NOT loving the Swallows and Amazons novels by Arthur Ransome. I tried one once and didn't get further into it than about the fifth page. This was when I was a child. I tried one again as an adult and still the result was the same. I gave up. I did, however, love Old Peter's Russian Tales both as a child and as an adult and recently Marcus Sedgwick's novel about Ransome alerted me to the fact that there was a whole lot more to this man than what was generally known.

Now Roland Chambers has written a very detailed account of the many different Arthur Ransomes who seemed to coexist in the same body: writer, journalist, possible spy and all-round enigma. At the time when he was an apologist for the Bolsheviks, he was reviled in this country and only narrowly escaped being tried for treason. Later, as the author of the Swallows and Amazons series he became a national treasure. His second wife, Evgenia, was Trotsky's secretary. His relationships with his first wife, Ivy and his daughter by her, Tabitha, as well as with his mother, Edith, are carefully described here and remain mysterious in many ways. His dealings with his daughter in particular are most odd. He seemed to show no interest in her or her child for years together. The book is full of fascinating detail and extracts from Ransome's letters and diaries. It's a good deal shorter than lots of biographies and will interest anyone who loved or loves his children's books. For everyone else, his life is intricately woven into the fabric of all the important events of the early twentieth century and you finish reading it with the sense that you've learned an enormous amount,and not only about Ransome but about the history of the early years of the century and the Russian Revolution. Ransome remains a bit of a mystery, I think. As he said himself: "I seem to have led not one life but snatches of a dozen lives."
This biography reads well and is never boring. It will be invaluable for anyone studying the Swallows and Amazons books or even for anyone who is a devoted fan of the series. The fact that there are still so many of these is the best tribute to Ransome that there could possibly be.

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