T H E L A S T E N G L I S H M A N
The double life of Arthur Ransome
by R o l a n d C h a m b e r s
Times Literary Supplement, 21 August 2009
Hugh Brogan’s The Life of Arthur Ransome (1984) revealed that Ransome, the popular children’s author of the 1930s and 40s, had been an eyewitness to the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and to the civil war that followed. Roland Chambers goes further; he tells us in The Last Englishman that, by the end of 1918, Ransome was “the only Englishman welcomed by the Bolsheviks who was also in a position to speak to his own government”. Ransome was apparently so well informed that the British government did not know whether to turn to him for advice or arraign him on treason charges. The Foreign Office steered a middle course and recruited him to MI6.
Ransome had become the Petrograd-based Russian correspondent of the London Daily News in November 1915. By early 1918, he was having his articles syndicated in the New York Times. He had access to Trotsky and Lenin, and the entire Bolshevik administration, and his reports encapsulate, in casually brilliant detail, both Soviet policy and the precipitous entropy of post-Revolutionary society. Chambers writes that “No other journalist so effectively blended the rhetoric of conventional democracy with the radical doctrines of Marxism-Leninism”. He interviewed both Trotsky and Lenin numerous times, writing of Trotsky that “I do not think that he is a man to do anything except from a conviction that it is the best thing to be done for the revolutionary cause that is in his heart”. Lenin, he believed, was greater. “He was the most Russian of them.”
In London, Ransome was rapidly viewed as a propagandist. When the Terror started he found himself on the defensive, forced to fall back on the claim that “Terror depends on terror in the executioner as much as terror in the executed” and other justifications which lost him credibility with Russia-watchers (though almost none of them was as near to the action as he was). He recoiled from the killings (and suppressed mention of them), but always refused to deny the Bolshevik Revolution’s potential – “These men who have made the Soviet government in Russia, if they must fail, they will none the less have written a page in history more daring than any other which I can remember in the history of humanity”. (It is a shame that Ransome’s account of his return to Petrograd in 1919, Six Weeks in Russia, has never been reprinted. It is as revealing of what the Revolution felt like as John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, and is better written.)
Ransome first went to Russia at the age of thirty-two, in 1913, escaping from literary stagnation and an unhappy marriage in England. Throughout his twenties, he had worked in London as a ghost-writer, anthologist, social commentator and literary critic, but his various publications sold badly. Tweedy, with a wary stare and large moustache, he embraced the “pot-house nights” of bohemia, but from the publication of his first commission, an ABC of Physical Culture, when he was twenty, he seems to have been an example of someone wanting “to be a writer” rather than “to write”.
There was something similar in his relations with women. According to Chambers, Ransome tried to “learn” relationships by reading Nietzsche and Schiller. His father, a loving but moralistic tyrant, died when Arthur was thirteen, and his son grew up with a “diffidence clumsily concealed”. In 1909, he married the unstable Ivy Constance Walker, because he wanted to be married (and because other girls turned him down). But his escape to Russia provided a clue to what might inspire him. Collecting folktales for adaptation into English, he found himself seduced by the stories and by the Russian language and temperament. Four years later, he met twenty-three-year-old Evgenia Shelepina, Leon Trotsky’s personal secretary, who became his second wife.
Chambers sees Ransome as one of the bourgeoisie yet not of it, a misfit uneasy in England and so intuitively sympathetic to the excluded Russian proletariat. Yet somewhere between Russian drama and London bohemia, there was a conservative Englishman, an impersonation of his dead father: a lover of the Georgians and hater of Cubism, who was anti-modernism, anti-Freud, a lover of nature, dismissive of politics. It is tempting to consider the years between 1917 and 1924, when he thrust himself into one of the biggest political episodes of the twentieth century, as in some ways the objective correlative of his inner turbulence.
Chambers writes that he started his biography “as a brief and colourful exposé” and antidote to the “whitewash” surrounding the public figure of Ransome. In the writing, it has turned into something longer and more troubling. The release in 2005 of classified papers show that Ransome was recruited by MI6 but they shed no light on whether he was a double agent. The archives of the Federal Security Service are closed, but Ransome had almost as much access to the Soviet Secret Police and to its leader as he did to Lenin. When he and Evgenia left Russia in 1919, she was carrying more than a million roubles in diamonds and pearls to help finance the Comintern. Soon afterwards Ransome was having his lavishly specified yacht, Racundra, built at Riga.
Beyond such circumstantial detail, however, proof is missing. Chambers’s credible suggestion is that the First World War and the Revolution “tested all notions of identity” and thus all loyalties “to the limit”. His account, with its well deployed new material, hints that Ransome’s Russian adventure happened because he was an innocent abroad at a time when good manners could get you across frontiers, and when a mixture of hedonism, self-invention, nerve and lack of restriction created possibilities incomprehensible now that most people’s lives are ruled by bureaucracy. Ransome was certainly no Red idealist. He had begun by siding with the liberal Constitutional Democrats, then with Kerensky, before finally supporting Lenin. Like a good imperialist, he wanted to be on the winning side. But he also wanted the complacent British to take notice of Russia and of him. “Shouting in daily telegrams across the wires from Russia I feel I am shouting at a drunken man asleep in the road in front of a steam roller”, he wrote in a 1918 pamphlet, The Truth About Russia.
Two hundred of Roland Chambers’s 352 pages are devoted to Ransome’s Revolution years; the Swallows and Amazons period fills only thirty-six of the rest. But the balance feels right. Chambers does a brisk and effective job of placing the first of the Walker children’s adventures in the context of post-First World War literature: a small world “tactfully rearranged . . . in which the rules had not been broken; in which parents loved and trusted their children; in which children . . . set out on their own [and returned to] the prospect of repeating the adventure year after year . . . as though the real war had not been fought at all”. For the rest, concentrating on the melodrama of the Russian years allows Chambers to focus on Ransome’s character at its most ambiguous, his writing at its most vivid. It is a shame that such a well conceived book has editorial errors: with so many sources it should offer references, and it is always hard to know from the text which year you are in. More of a pity is that Chambers doesn’t venture further into analysis of character: his Arthur Ransome is still oddly opaque at the end.