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In this biography, Chambers traces Ransome's life back to his earliest childhood, his struggles as a hack writer, and his flight from a disastrous marriage, then on to the decade he spent in Russia during that country's violent, formative years, ostensibly as a journalist, but more accurately as a spy (albeit a sympathetic one). The book's genius lies in Chambers's complete understanding of the Revolution's complexity, the rise and fall of the factions, the extreme personalities who guided it and were often sacrificed to it. He explores the tensions Ransome always felt between his allegiance to England's decencies and the egalitarian Bolshevik vision, between competing romantic attachments, between the Lake Country he loved and always considered home and the lure of the Russian steppes to which he repeatedly returned. What emerges is not only history, recorded by someone who was there to witness it, but also the story of an immensely troubled and conflicted human being not entirely at home in either culture or country.
Ransome's conscious life began early, at the age of two, aboard the deck of a steamship after a night crossing, held high in his father's arms so that he could see pigs being loaded onto brightly painted schooners in Belfast harbour. He remembered how in Ireland he had slipped out of his mother's arms, through the tunnel of blankets he was swaddled in, and sat down hard in the road. He remembered snowdrops, and in the distance, across a wide stretch of grassland, a man riding a bicycle along an avenue of trees. Much later his father told him that he had imagined it, but he protested indignantly and described the place in such detail that it was eventually identified as the park of Sir Nathaniel Staples, near Cookstown in County Tyrone.
In 1887, when Ransome was three and a half years old, round-faced and heavy, he attended celebrations for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee at a tithe barn in Wold Newton in Yorkshire, where his uncle had a parish. He remembered the blue mug he had clutched in his hand on the way and the old ladies, who had seen the coronation half a century before, sitting on a raised platform in their smocks and linen sun bonnets. But when his father introduced him to a man who could remember Trafalgar and had been seventeen at the time of the Battle of Waterloo, he re collected the incident only to illustrate the difference between personal and borrowed memory. As an old man himself he concluded that it was not these 'chance touchings of the skirts of history' that formed the deepest impressions, but 'quite simple things, drifting snowflakes seen through a melted peephole in a frosted nursery window, the sun like a red-hot penny in the smoky Leeds sky, and the dreadful screaming of a wounded hare. That last I can never forget.'
Arthur Michell Ransome was born on 18 January 1884 at 6 Ash Grove in Leeds, where his father Cyril was Professor of History and Modern Literature at the newly instituted Yorkshire College. It was, according to Ransome, 'a mean, ugly little building', but his father's books were doing well, and over the next few years the family's situation improved rapidly. By 1890 they were in Balmoral Terrace, Headingley – a smart neighbourhood on the outskirts of town – and Ransome had a younger brother and two sisters, born conveniently in alphabetical order: Cecily, Geoffrey, and Joyce. They had a cook, a housemaid and a nurse, lived next door to the editor of the Yorkshire Post, who kept apples in his desk, and had long since taken their place amongst the small number of families who presided over the academic and public life of the city. Later, Professor Ransome would adopt Kitty Woodburne, the daughter of a wealthy, recently deceased local solicitor, whose governess, Mrs Sidgemore, or 'Sidgie', gave the youngest children their first lessons in French and arithmetic. But as the junior head of the household, Ransome grew up slightly apart, conscious that what was expected of him was expected of him alone.
At home his mother read to them: William Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring, Edward Lear, a good deal of Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies and all of Andrew Lang's fairy tales, which Ransome collected 'one by one at Christmas and on birthdays'. It was not an extensive library, but it was a good one. Edith Ransome never read her children a book she didn't like herself, and so she read well, with an enthusiasm that communicated itself to her children. 'We were never conscious that the bad was being withheld from us,' Ransome would remember, 'but in fact it was. I think our parents' principles in this matter were those of Tennyson's Northern Farmer who told his son "Doänt thou marry for money, but goä wheer money is." We did not know that we were forbidden to read rubbish but we were given every opportunity of reading the best.'
Professor Ransome started teaching his eldest son Latin when he was barely out of the cradle, with little success, later sharing the cost of tutors with another local solicitor, Octavius Eddison, whose coachman used to drive the young Ransome to his lessons every morning and enquire anxiously if he had eaten enough bacon for breakfast. Edison's son, Ric, became his first close friend and made a powerful and lasting impression on Arthur – ever the hero worshipper – by fiercely resisting any attempt by adults to bully or patronize. Ric's uncle, by lucky coincidence, was Andrew Lang, whose fairy tales adorned the bookshelves in the Ransome nursery, while his next-door neighbour was Isobella Ford, a prominent Fabian, a pioneer of women's trade unions and a generous hostess, not only to young scholars tired of grammar and arithmetic, but also to political refugees from every corner of Europe. It was here, at Isobella's home at Adel Grange, that Ransome met his first revolutionary, the anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, who taught him how to skate on a frozen pond at the bottom of the garden.
Ransome understood from the earliest age that the world stretched a long way beyond his house between the Three Horse Shoes and the Skyrack Inn. Both his grandfathers married twice and left a great number of aunts, uncles and cousins. On the Ransome side was a line of Quakers stretching back to the Restoration, spawning parsons, teachers, doctors, industrialists, scientists, two missionary aunts and a family business, Ransome and Rapier of Ipswich, specializing in agricultural equipment. Ransome's paternal great-grandfather, who had founded the company, went on to become a famous surgeon, a friend to Brunel, and was commemorated with a bust by the Manchester School of Medicine. Ransome's autobiography contains several pages recounting his exploits and those of other relatives, including Edith's father, Edward Baker Boulton, who had a sheep farm in Australia and brought back emus' eggs, sharks' teeth, exotic shells and boomerangs, which Ransome stored lovingly in a small museum he had established in a bathroom washstand drawer. Collectively, these ancestors represented the solid backbone of Victorian middle-class society, and Ransome was proud of them. But his favourite grandfather was not the farmer but the wayward eccentric, Thomas Ransome, an ingenious inventor and natural scientist popular for his magic-lantern shows and conjuring tricks, but condemned after the death of his first wife for marrying the children's nurse, for his failures as an industrial chemist and for his catastrophic dabblings on the stock exchange.
The 'mean ugly little building' Arthur lived in as a boy, and which Cyril and Edith shared with various lodgers, was a symp - tom of an early struggle to free the family from inherited debt. Professor Ransome never forgave Thomas, either for his reckless marriage or his imprudence with the family fortune, cautioning his own children against any similar flights of fancy: 'I need not enlarge here but if either of my sons wishes to know how to ruin himself and his friends he had better examine the history of the whole transaction which exists in my handwriting amongst my papers.'
Ransome, however, was inclined to take a more sympathetic view. Where his father saw greed and selfishness, he saw the misunderstood romantic, a dreamer trapped by circumstance. One of his earliest memories was of being held up by his step-grandmother to see a light out in the dark over Morecambe Bay and hearing her say, 'Do you know what that is? That's your grandfather late with the tide and stuck on the sands again.'
* * *
Long before Ransome could weigh the advantages of middleclass respectability against the pleasures of cheerful nonconformity, he had taken a ride on his father's shoulders (the joy of being carried) up to the summit of the Old Man to see the whole of the Lake District laid out before him. 'I was a disappointment to my father in many ways,' he wrote in his autobiography,
but shared to the full his passion for the hills and lakes of Furness. He had been born on the shores of Morecambe Bay, within sight of the hills, held himself an exile when in Leeds and, to make up as far as he could for his eldest son's being born in town, carried me up to the top of Coniston Old Man at such an early age that I think no younger human being can ever have been there.
Professor Ransome started taking his family to the Swainsons at Nibthwaite the same year Arthur was born, 'a farmhouse at the foot of Coniston where we have spent some of our happiest hours and the children enjoyed an early taste of country life'. He fished and walked out with his pointer, Carlo, taught his children to row and hold a net, and on rainy days sat inside and wrote: a guide to Shakespeare, a book on the British colonies – How We Got Them and Why We Keep Them – an introduction to Thomas Carlyle's Frederick the Great, and a great deal more besides. Ransome recalled these holidays half a century later with a lucidity born of frequent repetition, losing any non-essential details that might obscure the ritual of an ideal return.
Long before they set out, Ransome's father prepared his fishing rods and tackle, laying the newly made casts over wooden candlesticks in his study. Meanwhile, Ransome's mother patched clothes, replenished watercolours and wrote long lists of necessities that finally found their way, on the day before departure, into a monstrous tin bath that doubled at Christmas as a present chest.
Then came the great day itself, and the railway journey, written up to match the rhythm of pistons and sleepers:
Through the outskirts of Leeds, through smoky Holbeck, past the level crossing on by Wharfedale to Hellifield, my father's guns and rods on the rack, ginger-nuts crunching in our mouths, noses pressed to the window to watch the dizzying rise and fall of the telegraph wires beside the track. By the time we reached Arkholme we could feel my father's mounting excitement. There were well-known landmarks as the train ran slowly round Morecambe Bay. There was the farmhouse that was built like a little fortress against invading Scots. There was Arnside Tower. There were our own Lake hills, and Coniston Old Man with a profile very different from the lofty one it showed us at Nibthwaite. Then at last we were at Greenodd, where the Crake and the Leven poured together to the sea not a stone's throw from the railway line. There would be John Swainson from Nibthwaite, or Edward his son, with a red farmcart and a well-beloved young lad with a wagonette.
The last leg of the journey was finished by cart: up the Crake valley, down by Lowick Green, over the river at Lowick Bridge, and finally, after a steep climb, 'there we were at the farm, being greeted by Mrs Swainson and her daughters, and getting our first proper sight of the lake itself – Coniston Water'.
After tea, the children – Arthur, Cecily, Geoffrey and Joyce – were released to explore, or rather to renew an acquaintance broken off the year before. But before joining his brother and sisters, Ransome liked to go down to the lake on his own.
'I had a private rite to perform,' he recalled.
Without letting the others know what I was doing, I had to dip my hand in the water, as a greeting to the beloved lake, or as a proof to myself that I had indeed come home. In later years, even as an old man, I have laughed at myself, resolved not to do it, and every time have done it again. If I were able to go back there today, I should feel some discomfort until after coming to the shores of the lake I had felt its coolness on my fingers.
* * *
Ransome felt more deeply than most that certain griefs and disappointments can only be resolved privately. When his brother Geoffrey died in the First World War, he never mentioned it in his letters or even his diary. When his mother Edith died in 1944, he regretted the many letters of condolence he received as well-meant intrusions. In the course of his life there would be many miseries, many anomalies, which he declined to explain, while deeply resenting those who attempted to explain them for him. But there was one loss that he went out of his way to understand, because it lay at the root of so much of the anxiety that dogged him throughout his life: the death of his father when he was thirteen years old. 'I have been learning ever since how much I lost in him. He had been disappointed in me, but I have often thought what friends we could have been had he not died so young.'
When Professor Ransome was courting Edith in 1882, he wrote her a series of letters declaring his love for her and advising her on every topic, from the composition of watercolours to politics, housekeeping, the history of British democracy and the merits and demerits of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Church. He himself was a Protestant and a Liberal, and was delighted to find Edith a Liberal too. 'I like you to be independent and think for yourself,' he told her. 'I know among weak conventional people it is assumed that wives think just like their husbands and it is thought so nice and so pretty, while I think it is simply degrading to one and demoralizing to the other.' Ransome's father went on to explain how at Oxford he had met his first Liberals and formed his views on class, the equality of 'men as men and women as women' and the importance, above all things, of moral character. 'The main thing that I learned is this,' he confided, 'that there are two great classes of people who pervade all sets, all politics, all religions, all ranks of society viz those who look at things from a high point of view, and those who look at things from a low point of view.'
Professor Ransome's career, since boyhood, had been a shining example of the 'high'. It was thought at first that he would be a clergyman, but instead he decided to be a teacher, a vocation that he pursued with all the zeal of his Quaker ancestors. As a scholar at Oxford, he studied mathematics, then history, and took his first teaching post at the Military College in Cowley, where he met Sir Arthur Acland, a 'truly great man'. Cowley, however, was run by philistines, and both men resigned soon afterwards. Acland – later Arthur's godfather – embarked on a career in politics, while Professor Ransome took an interim position at Rugby school as private tutor to Prince Alamayu, son and heir to the late Emperor Theodorus of Abyssinia. In 1878, he accepted his chair at the Yorkshire College, where, in addition to his other duties, he lectured at the working men's clubs, founded a reading society, and at the request of Queen Victoria's personal secretary, took Alamayu back into his care. But Alamayu was a reluctant student, and never more so than when, after falling asleep in the outdoor lavatory, he caught pneumonia, and refusing medication, died soon after. Recalling the incident in his memoirs, Professor Ransome confessed that he had found the boy 'a great nuisance', and regretted that he had shown so little gratitude for his Rugby education. Prince Theebaw of Burma proved far more satisfactory. At Nibthwaite, in 1892, he survived a midnight attack from Arthur's furry fox-moth caterpillars with admirable equanimity.
* * *
Ransome's autobiography, in so far as it deals with his father, is a mixture of calculated humility, nostalgia and bitter reproach. Professor Ransome had tried to teach his eldest son to swim by throwing him over the side of a boat, and had the pleasure of watching him sink like a stone. He had given him a copy of Robinson Crusoe at the age of four as a reward for having read the book from cover to cover, but found him tearing through Walter Scott's Waverley novels so fast that he insisted on quizzing him on each one before he was allowed the next. The boy had no ear for Latin, no appetite for serious study or reflection, and at home entertained himself with one futile project after another. Ransome later recalled:
I spent every penny I had on coloured paper, made spills for Leeds, for all Yorkshire, for all the world, and put the match factories out of business. In this my father saw at once something of a foreshadowing of my grandfather's disastrous venture as a manufacturing chemist. It seemed to him (and indeed it was) a miserable, mercenary ambition, and in a small boy of six or seven he saw already the man who threw away in exchange for empty husks the prospect, open before him, of a useful scientific career.
Excerpted from THE LAST ENGLISHMAN by ROLAND CHAMBERS Copyright © 2009 by Roland Chambers. Excerpted by permission of DAVID R. GODINE PUBLISHER. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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