Best known for his Swallows and Amazons series of lighthearted adventures for children, penned in the 1930s and ’40s, Arthur Ransome is thought by many to have been a mild-mannered Englishman who lived a placid life in the Lake District. Roland Chambers offers a vastly different portrayal of the author in The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome, due from David R. Godine on April 22. This biography for adults, first published in the U.K. in 2009 by Faber and Faber, tells of Ransome’s life as a journalist living in Russia between 1917 and 1924. During this period, his pro-Bolshevik stance granted him unusual access to the leaders of the Revolution, which in turn led to his recruitment by the British Secret Intelligence Service. Ransome became a close friend of Lenin’s chief of propaganda and was the lover, and later the husband, of Trotsky’s private secretary.
Chambers says that his interest in writing a biography of Ransome was sparked by the British National Archives’s 2003 release of documents revealing the journalist’s involvement with MI6 during the Russian Revolution. “This was surprising and controversial,” he explains. “If Ransome was known at all for his work for the Revolution, it was as an apologist for the Bolsheviks. But these documents proved that he was betraying them all along to the British secret service. That was enough to get me looking into the history of it all. I discovered that his story was much more complicated than I expected because of his involvement with Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky’s private secretary. He was genuinely in love with her and genuinely sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, but on the other hand considered himself a British patriot doing his best to broker a kind of understanding between the British and the revolutionists at a time when their interests were radically different.”
Of the many sources Chambers drew from during his extensive research for The Last Englishman, three were especially useful: Ransome’s journals and letters, part of his sizable estate housed at the University of Leeds; the British National Archives in London; and the Russian Archives in Moscow. “I had limited access to the Russian Archives, since Putin has made it more difficult for all foreign researchers,” he says, “possibly because as a former KGB officer he came up through a culture in which information and power are the same thing. He is extremely cagey. That said, neither the UK nor the U.S. would allow a Russian researcher to come snooping around their own secret service archives, so one shouldn’t be greedy! I’m lucky to be quite well connected, since I have been a private investigator and have done a lot of work in Russia. I also had a wonderful research assistant, Daria Lotareva, and I was also helped by Luba Vinogradova.”
Closely Connected Dual Lives?
Though Ransome’s personas as children’s book author and double-sided political operative may seem at odds, Chambers views the author’s two lives as less inconsistent. “The Swallows and Amazons books are really all about doubleness,” he says. “The young characters are constantly fighting, drafting secret treaties, and making peace. It’s all there, though in a benign world – Ransome had drawn the poison from it all. I think that’s why his books were so successful in England. If you look at Britain as an empire, it has a history of doubleness. There’s the Englishman at home sipping tea in front of the fire, and there’s the high-seas adventuring Englishman in the colonies creating an empire. The two are contradictory in a way, but they do live side by side as part of the culture – and as part of Ransome himself.”
Publisher David R. Godine, whose list includes paperback editions of all 12 of the Swallows and Amazons books, points out that Ransome’s erroneous take on the outcome of the Russian Revolution may well have precipitated his subsequent role as author. “His literary life might not have happened if he hadn’t had his political life,” he observes. “While in Russia, Ransome lived under the deluded belief that the Bolshevik government would turn into a parliamentary democracy. He spoke fluent Russian and knew from the beginning what was going on from the inside, but he read the evidence in front of him in all the wrong ways. ”
By the time Ransome returned to England in 1924, adds Chambers, “much of his early, rosy assessment of the Revolution had already proved ill-founded, and part of the pleasure of writing Swallows and Amazons [the first book in the series] in 1929 was putting Russian politics firmly behind him. The only hint in that novel he’d ever visited the place is a travel label on Captain Flint’s travel trunk reading ‘Moscow.’ The British Foreign Office, however, was slower to forget, not removing Ransome’s name from a list of suspected Bolshevik agitators until 1937, the year Jonathan Cape published We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea [the seventh book in the series].”
As a writer, Chambers himself has a bit of a double life. The author and illustrator of an earlier picture book, The Rooftop Rocket Party (Roaring Brook/Porter, 2003), he had very different considerations while writing The Last Englishman. “With a children’s book, the challenge is to be as clear and concrete as possible – and of course to make it good,” he says. “With this biography, the challenge was to show how complicated Ransome’s life was. The fallacy was that he was a simple, straightforward guy. A lot of people who love his books love the idea of his moral simplicity. But he lived through a period when the world was ripped to pieces across all lines. I wanted to show some of that kaleidoscopic complexity without losing the integrity of his emotional experience – to show history but keep to the human scale.”
Chambers’s additional book endeavors include creating fantasy maps for the endpapers of Lev Grossman’s The Magician and The Magician King. “I’ll be doing maps for a third book in the series in a year or so,” he says. “I’ve never drawn that sort of thing before and I love it.” He is also writing “in the evenings, as a form of truancy,” a children’s book called The Secret Knitter. “It’s a bit Ransomian in a way,” he says. “It’s about a girl who sets off to find her lost father in a boat with knitted sails.”
In addition, Chambers is currently writing a novel set during World War II, centering on a girl who is evacuated from London, where she lives with her grandmother, to go live on her parents’ farm in the Cotswolds. “This is told by an old woman who is remembering her life as an 11-year-old, and she’s constantly flickering between the two personas,” says Chambers. “Ransome always wrote for himself – he didn’t realize that he was writing for children. I think I’m writing this novel for adults, but I love to think that children might read it as well.”
The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers. David R. Godine, $29.95 Apr. ISBN 978-1-56792-417-6