children’s books from feminist readers: Anna (part 1 of 2)

A guest post by Anna (aka the feminist librarian), a historian, librarian, and writer. Anna lives in the Boston metropolitan area with her wife, two cats, and over one thousand books. When she was six, her mother provided her with a blank diary in which to spill her overflowing thoughts. Nowadays she spills her thoughts onto the Internet, where she blogs about books, history, sex and gender, books, and life.

Because she never learned how to keep it short, this post is brought to you in two parts. This is part one.

a beloved book from childhood

When I told my mother about this blogging assignment, she pointed out that of all the noteworthy books from a seriously bibliophilic childhood, there was really only one book (or, rather, series of books) that I could choose: the Swallows and Amazons novels by eccentric Englishman Arthur Ransome.

Swallows and Amazons book coverI hemmed and hawed for a bit — I’ve already written about Ransome at length, back when I had one of his illustrations inked into my skin, and I didn’t want to bore people by being repetitive. But in the end, I agreed with her: there really is no other fictional world that had as deep and lasting effect on my life as Ransome’s. I also think that Swallows and Amazons appealed to me for nascent feminist reasons, making it an appropriate topic of conversation here. And while Ransome is something of a national treasure in England, his work is still relatively unknown here in the United States — so while the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Lewis, Astrid Lindgren, and countless others deeply shaped my girlhood, I feel somewhat obliged to serve as an literary evangelist for a lesser-known author.

Swallows and Amazons and the eleven subsequent novels were first published in England between 1930-1947. They were a distinct break from Ransome’s earlier work, which included a youthful foray into autobiography (Bohemia in London, 1907), a collection of Russian folktales in translation (Old Peter’s Russian Tales, 1916), and news stories he wrote for the Daily News and Manchester Guardian, many of them from Russia during the First World War and Russian Revolution. His first unhappy marriage ended while he was abroad, and he fell in love with a Russian who worked as a secretary for Leon Trosky. He smuggled her out of Russia by sea, sailing her home to England through the Mediterranean. They married and settled in the Lake District — of which Ransome had fond childhood memories, and where he could easily indulge his love of sailing and fishing. It was at this point that Ransome found himself writing the manuscript that turned into Swallows and Amazons. As he explained to his editor:

I was enjoying the writing of this book more than I have ever enjoyed writing any other book in my life. And I think I can put my finger on the thing in it which gave me so much pleasure. It was just this, the way in which the children in it have no firm dividing line between make-believe and reality, but slip in and out of one and the other again and again.*

Swallows and Amazons revolves around the outdoor adventures of several families of children: the Walkers, the Blacketts, and the Callums. While ages are not usually pinpointed, the eldest children generally have the presence and independence of early-to-mid adolescents, and the youngest child (baby Vicky) grows from being an infant in arms to active participation in the children’s adventures over the course of the novels. The opening novels — Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, and Pigeon Post – are very much a love song to Ransome’s beloved Lake District, while Later installments explore the Broads, the North Sea, the Hebrides, and other British locales. Two of the novels (Peter Duck and Missee Lee) are fantastical fireside tales told to (and co-created by) the children themselves.

Swallows and Amazons opens with the Walker family on summer holiday in the Lake District. The children are land-bound, waiting for a telegram from their Naval officer father either consenting or denying them the freedom to sail to an island on the lake and claim it for their own, while their mother and the baby stay behind. The telegram arrives agreeing with Mother than the children are old enough to venture out to sea on their own, and so they are off! The Walker children provision their little boat and set off on their grand adventure — an adventure soon made all the more exciting by the appearance of fierce rivals (sister Nancy and Peggy Blackett) who challenge their claim for the island, and a retired pirate (Nancy and Peggy’s Uncle Jim) who lives with his parrot in a houseboat and threatens to make them walk the plank.

While some later novels — particularly Pigeon Post and Great Northern? – take on more serious “adult” concerns such as the danger of drought and the importance of protecting endangered species, the stories remain child-centered and full of imaginative adventure. My only caution for parents would be that they are, as with all works of fiction, a product of their time — in this case early twentieth-century imperial Britain. The children imagine themselves as British adventurers in a world for of friendly and unfriendly “natives” (the adults), and like all children sometimes reflect the prejudices of their elders. Much like the presence of Native Americans in Laura Ingalls Wilders’ Little House books or the misogyny with which Susan Pevensie is treated in The Chronicles of Narnia, the problems with race (and to a lesser extent gender) in Ransome’s work can hopefully be treated with light parental skepticism that encourages critical thinking rather than serving as cause to dismiss the series overall. As a child for whom Swallows and Amazons fuelled literally years worth of imaginative outdoor play, I can’t but hope future generations will find as much pleasure in them as I have.

what that says about that child

While the impartial part of my brain and heart cannot believe anyone would not enjoy these novels, I do think there are ways that my own life set me up to get particular pleasure out of the series.

First, it is a series of stories that centers around families of children — around brothers and sisters, overseen by generally benign yet largely hands-off parents. And while real dangers (wildfires, broken limbs, boating accidents) are woven into the narratives the childrens’ essential safety is not usually called into question. When danger arises, the children’s resourcefulness, adult trust that they will make sound decisions, and the ultimate availability of helpful adults (parents, uncles, the local farmer and his wife, mysterious strangers) generally conspire to resolve the crisis in short order. These books presented me, as a pre-adolescent child, a model of independence that was thrilling but also did not require cutting ties with grown-ups; that grown-ups were capable of respecting children and their skills, supporting rather than obstructing them in the name of protection.

three children on a sailboat in the grass

Anna and her siblings playing Swallows and Amazons circa 1992

The Walkers, Blacketts, and other children who populate Ransomes novels are understood to attend school — but the stories themselves never take place in school. They take place on summer and winter holidays, or when circumstance (in one case, quarantine for measles) keep the children out of school. Therefore, the daily life of unstructured imaginative play — play which intersected at times with the adult world and adult concerns (draught, war, international politics, environmental degradation) — resonated with my own childhood experience as part of a homeschooling family. My primary playmates were my siblings and other families of siblings, boys and girls, across a range of ages. The world of my imaginative play existed fairly seamlessly alongside, at times interwoven with, the “real” world of grown-up life and practical activity.

Finally — this is a feminist parenting blog, after all! — as a twelve-year-old girl I was certainly drawn to the wide range of female characters in Ransome’s novels. Perhaps influenced by the Bohemian circles in which he moved, Ransome wrote characters with a surprising degree of gender independence for a man who came of age in late Victorian England. It is true that Susan Walker, the eldest Walker girl, is essentially a stand-in mother, telling the younger children when to go to bed and taking over the responsibility for camp cooking. Yet she is also a skilled sailor, and has as her maternal model her own mother who teaches them how to erect a tent and tell the children of her overseas adventures as young wife. Nancy and Peggy, who sail the Amazon, are openly encouraged by their own mother who commands Rattletrap (one of the few town motorcars) and aids and abets the girls in defying their traditionalist great aunt, even when it might reflect poorly upon her. Girls and boys alike are expected to be prepared and resourceful, equally above to build a fire, heat the kettle for tea, sail a boat safely through dangerous waters, and “buck up” in the face of adversity.

* quoted in In Search of Swallows and Amazons, by Roger Wardale, p. 32

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