‘Dated’ Books, Part Seven: Swallows and Amazons

A note for the benefit of those new to this series: ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be horribly offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be a bit . . . odd. I found Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome fell mostly into the ‘charmingly nostalgic’ category, apart from a couple of cringe-worthy scenes, which I shall discuss below. But first, have a look at the gorgeous old edition I read!

'Swallows and Amazons' by Arthur Ransome

I love how, whenever I reserve a children’s book at my library, they give me the most ancient edition in existence, which I imagine they have to dig out of a wooden trunk in the deepest, darkest basement of Sydney Town Hall. This is a 1949 edition from ‘The Australasian Publishing Co. Pty. Ltd’, with a fraying, faded olive-green cloth binding. It’s so old, it has one of those cardboard pockets in the back, containing an orange card with the book’s details handwritten in blue ink. It’s so old, it has a flimsy bit of paper stuck in for date stamps1. It’s so old, it has an illustrated ‘Ex Libris’ book plate in the front proclaiming the book belongs to the ‘City of Sydney Public Library JUVENILE SECTION’2. This book even smelled nice (not a nasty, mouldy old-book smell, but a nice, dry, old-paper scent).

Anyway, to return to the datedness of the story itself. The main reason I think this book is dated is the central premise. How many modern-day middle-class English parents would allow their four pre-adolescent children to sail off by themselves to a deserted island for an extended camping holiday, when the youngest is seven years old and CANNOT SWIM? True, the island is a short boat trip from the mainland, and they visit a nearby farmer each day to collect fresh milk3 and bread, and their mother sails over a few times to make sure they haven’t drowned, set themselves on fire or died of malnutrition, but STILL!

Of course, the children prove to be sensible, capable and independent, as most children in the 1920s were. The Walker siblings put up their own tents, cook their own meals (often consisting of fish they’ve caught themselves), sail up and down the lake, have a ‘war’ with a couple of local girls and their grumpy uncle, and even manage to outwit some (admittedly, not very bright) burglars. Actually, the detailed descriptions of the children’s life on the island were my favourite parts of the story. Among other things, I learned how to sew and erect a tent, how to turn a pine tree into a lighthouse, and how to build a camp fire. (The very detailed explanations of how to sail a boat were not as interesting to me, but children who can sail would probably love these bits.) I also enjoyed the descriptions of the lake’s wildlife, such as the dipper bird “under water, flying with its wings, as if it were in the air, fast along the bottom of the lake”.

However, the children’s constant talk of ‘natives’ and ‘savages’ quickly became tiresome. Some critics argue that this sort of talk isn’t racist, because the children don’t actually insult or belittle the ‘natives’, and anyway, the ‘natives’ aren’t real. I think that’s rather disingenuous, when it’s made clear that Mrs Walker grew up in Australia4, and the book contains dialogue such as this:

” ‘This is where the savages have had a corroboree,’ said Titty. ‘They cooked their prisoners on the fire and danced around them.’ “

Her mother goes along with this ‘joke’,

“telling how she had nearly been eaten by savages, and had only escaped by jumping out of the stew-pot at the last minute.”

This sort of talk was perfectly acceptable in 1930, but is not so funny now, especially when there are politicians in Australia who have used the supposed ‘cannibalism’ of Aboriginal Australians to justify racist policies.

The book also reflects the attitudes to class in 1920s England. In one scene, Nancy, the young daughter of a local land-owner, berates a policeman who is, quite reasonably, asking the Walker children if they know anything about a nearby burglary:

” ‘Sammy, I’m ashamed of you. If you don’t go away at once, I’ll tell your mother . . . Run away, Sammy, and don’t make those mistakes again.’ “

Apparently, it’s fine for a child to chastise and humiliate an adult who’s simply doing his job, if the child is rich and the adult is the mere son of a servant.

I was also a little worried at first that this would be a book where the boys did all the exciting stuff while the girls did the housework, and indeed, Susan does do all the cooking and most of the cleaning on the island (she and her sister also wear frocks, which you’d think would be a bit impractical for sailing). In addition, their mother, a competent and intelligent woman bringing up five children by herself while her husband is at sea, has to write to ask his permission when the children want to camp on the island. However, Nancy proves to be quite good at destroying gender stereotypes. She wears breeches, can out-sail, out-shoot and out-plan John, and generally bosses everyone around. Also, Susan’s unfortunately-named younger sister Titty5 ends up saving the day several times during the course of their holiday SPOILER ALERT! by firstly, capturing Nancy’s boat during the ‘war’ and secondly, finding the treasure buried by the burglars OKAY, SPOILERS FINISHED NOW.

Overall, I enjoyed the children’s adventures, which were exciting but plausible (well, more plausible than anything the Famous Five got up to). I liked reading about such competent, good-hearted child characters, and I know I would have loved this book to bits if I’d come across it as a young reader. (Although I’m pretty sure that even then, I’d have raised an eyebrow at the racism.)

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

_____

  1. This book was in great demand in 1957 (borrowed three times!) but left the library only six times between then and 2003.
  2. It’s been a very long time since the City of Sydney had only one library, and I’m pretty sure the term ‘juvenile’ went out of fashion a couple of decades ago.
  3. Unpasteurised milk, straight from the cow, poured into an unsterilised milk-can! Because I am a persnickety grown-up with a science degree, I kept thinking, “I hope those cows have been tested for TB.”
  4. Slightly off-topic, I was puzzled by one of Mrs Walker’s tales about her childhood, when she described “the little brown bears that her father caught in the bush, and that used to lick her fingers for her when she dipped them in honey.” What is she talking about? Koalas? Possums? But they’re grey, not brown (unless they’ve been rolling in red dirt). She describes kangaroos separately, and anyway, kangaroos are not very bear-like. Maybe wombats? Do they like honey? Would any rational person put his or her fingers anywhere near a wombat’s mouth?
  5. This seemed such an odd name, even for the 1920s, that I had to investigate further. Apparently, three of the Walker children were named after real friends of the author, the Altounyans. Titty’s name, “the nickname of the real life Mavis Altounyan, from Joseph Jacobs’s children’s story, Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse, has caused titters among generations of children, causing it to be changed to Kitty in the original BBC adaptation of the book”.

20 thoughts on “‘Dated’ Books, Part Seven: Swallows and Amazons

  1. Kate C

    I discovered the Arthur Ransome books at the age of eight, in a cottage where we were on holiday in England, which was kind of perfect timing! I absolutely adored the whole series, particularly the Swallows and Amazons books. My favourites were Winter Holiday (where the lake is covered in ice, and the children race to the ‘North Pole’) and We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea (where the Walker children are accidentally swept across the channel in an adult friend’s boat, and have to manage the crossing alone). Of course all these adventures are completely implausible now, but it was so inspiring to read about a gang of very capable, resourceful and imaginative kids, all with different strengths and weaknesses. There was even a place for book-loving, impractical Dorothea, which I found encouraging!
    I’m ashamed to say the racist elements went over my head at the time (though they jump out horribly at me now), but I was really captured by the strong, co-operative characters. Maybe someone needs to write an updated version…

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Thanks, Kate – I’ll have to look for those other books in the series. I’m not sure how Swallows and Amazons could be updated to be less racist, though, because the children’s imagined ‘natives’ are such a fundamental part of the story. And I guess it’s no worse than Enid Blyton’s books. (Actually, now I think of it, there is an updated, multicultural version of the Famous Five, a sort of Famous Five: The Next Generation.)

      Reply
  2. Kitty

    I have to leave a comment here, because Swallows and Amazons and the rest of the series were my absolutely favourite books as a child. We (my brother and sister and I, as well as the children of some friends of my parents who lived nearby) tried to plan a camping trip to the hills near my parents house (“There are big boys with motorbikes who might crash into your tent.”) and used to run in zigzags against the wind like Roger does at the beginning of the book. We also learnt to sail because of them, which was great.

    While I don’t think I read as old a copy as you did, it was certainly elderly – it used to be my mother’s when she was a child and has a sticker in the front with her name. The cover kept peeling off, and it had lots of wonderful illustrations in black and white by the author.

    As a child, I certainly didn’t notice the racism – and I think I assumed the bear was a koala. I’ve re-read some of them more recently, and it doesn’t worry me too much partly because Nancy at least (and she was very much my favourite character) was always much more interested in being a savage than an explorer, and the savages were never any particular race anyway – Mrs Walker talks about Australia, but they have stories of native people from around the world and all of their games seem to involve an amalgamation of different ideas of different people. Maybe I’m expressing my cultural background here, and would feel much more sensitive about it if it was me: please don’t feel I’m trying to belittle the horrible attitude towards Aboriginal Australians or indeed anyone else.

    I hadn’t noticed the policeman – I suppose partly because Nancy has something of a habit of bossing everyone around, regardless of who they are (it’s inherited). The class system of the time is definitely there, with a contrast between the children who can spend their summer sailing around the lake having ‘wars’ and the working class children who are helping their parents.

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Ah, these books are such favourites with so many people! I’m now surprised I never once came across them as a child, even though I was an avid reader. I should have mentioned the illustrations in the book, too – all done by the author, “with help from Miss Nancy Blackett”. There’s also a great coloured map with all the places marked, including “Octopus Lagoon” (filled almost completely with a giant octopus). And koalas do make more sense than wombats, regarding honey-covered fingers.

      Yes, I think sensitivity to this sort of racism does depend on the cultural background and personal experiences of the reader. I’m not white, and I remember wincing whenever I came across mentions of ‘gypsies’ and other dark-skinned ‘foreigners’ in the Famous Five books as a child, because this would usually be followed by some horrible, demeaning stereotype (although I think George eventually became good friends with one of the ‘gypsy’ girls). I’d just skim over those bits and enjoy the rest of the book, though. And really, racism in books was a lot easier to deal with than real-life racism – if a book was really bad, I could always stop reading it.

      Reply
      1. Kitty

        The books were favourites of my mother’s as a child, so she was keen to introduce my siblings and me to them as soon as possible! But I don’t think my father read them, so maybe they weren’t so common here (Mum’s English).

        Despite being white, I’ve certainly winced at racism in books, even as a child. I read the Narnia books and found it very awkward that almost all the bad characters were the darker-skinned people. There were maybe two exceptions in the series, but that didn’t stop it being obviously racist. I didn’t read many of the Famous Five books – my parents didn’t really approve of them.

        I think some of the different reactions to more subtle racism comes from a different knowledge of the history: racist associations will be remembered by those people who suffered from them – and passed on to their children – but to the culture/ race that was on the other side they’re not really known if they’re not still used. After all, why would history teach “these were all the really horrible things we used to call people of this race”? Racism and how that shaped everyone’s lives, yes, exact descriptions of the racist taunts…. isn’t that a bit like continuing the racism? Or giving a new generation nasty ideas? But it does mean that someone can either accidentally say/ write something offensive, or miss seeing something as racist that someone else does.

        However you look at it, old books do show how much things have changed since they were written – and changed for the better (despite the motorbikes etc.). When Swallows and Amazons was written, Nancy was seen by many people as a nasty, unfeminine hoyden who would clearly come to a horrible end: instead she was an inspiration to many girls that it was perfectly possible to be better than the boys. (As to Mrs Walker – she’s trying to decide if it’s a good idea to let four kids, one of whom can’t swim, go and camp on an island – shouldn’t she ask her husband what he thinks? If she thought ‘no they can’t possibly’ she wouldn’t have asked him, but she’s not sure, so she sends a letter. He thinks they should be fine and it’ll be good for them, and assures her they’ll be fine.)

        Reply
        1. Michelle Post author

          Yes, that’s a good point about the selective version of history that’s passed down, when it comes to racist behaviour. There are some people who argue old books with outdated values should be kept away from today’s children, but there was often a reason those books became classics (strong storytelling, for example), and as you say, the books often demonstrate how much life has improved over the past century or so. I don’t have any problem with children reading these books on their own, although I can understand why teachers wouldn’t use them as class texts (especially when there are so many great modern books to choose).

          Reply
  3. Mike Dennis

    An interesting view of AR’s first book of his series. The book draws strongly on Ransome’s own childhood and later life, written in the 1930s and 1940s they reflect life in middle-class England in the 1930s. The issue of racism and sexism is a difficult one, it as been much discussed by Ransome fans on the online forum TARBOARD. One view is that the books are a ‘snapshot’ of life at the time and not a reflection of Ransome’s lifelong views.
    Curiously the incident of Nancy sending the policeman Sammy away with a flea in his ear is an entertaining one, as it shows a child dealing with an adult who does not believe a child who is telling the truth! Many a child could identify with this.

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Mike. Yes, I think one of the reasons the books were so popular was that Ransome was able to portray so well how children feel, living in a world ruled by grown-ups.

      Reply
  4. Kelly

    They refer to natives because they are imitating Robinson Crusoe. I’m not saying whether or not that justifies their behaviour, I just wanted to add that to this conversation (from 2 years ago 🙂

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Kelly. Yes, Robinson Crusoe is definitely an influence on the children – and at least saying ‘natives’ is better than that other term they use a lot, ‘savages’.

      Reply
      1. Sorrell

        Also natives = adults, including their parents who they’re all very close to. But interesting to see it from another perspective. I also read them as a child and have re-read frequently enough never to see them with strange eyes.

        I suppose the problematic thing is that designating grownups as ‘natives’ has the effect of fading them out, making them into background which doesn’t disturb the explorer game. Good for children’s stories to keep the adults out but disturbing when you think of what it’s mimicking. Nancy and Peggy are pirates – they only pick up the ‘native’ thing when they join forces with the Swallows.

        Reply
        1. Michelle Post author

          Thanks for your comment, Sorrell. Actually, the notion of ‘playing pirates’ is problematic, too, when you think about it! Real-life pirates did despicable things to their victims – they’re not exactly ideal role models. Good thing most readers, even young ones, can separate fantasy from reality…

          Reply
  5. Fenny

    Another reader for whom these books were firm favourites. I got Pigeon Post from the library when I was 7 and then discovered my Dad had several Ransome books, including Swallows & Amazons and was happy I wanted to read them and talk to him about them. Looking back at them now, I see they were birthday presents from his aunt when he was a boy, followed later by a set of Hornblower (another favourite of Nicola Marlow).

    I agree that they reflect the society of the day – middle class white kids playing out the stories of the books they read that were themselves written in earlier times, although the Walker children were mostly fairly respectful of the adults they came into contact with, most of whom were local farmers, charcoal makers and other tradesmen. Nancy would have stood out anyway for her “tomboy” ways.

    It’s interesting to see that in the recent film version, Titty’s name was changed to Tatty to avoid to much sniggering from today’s youth.

    As for the ancient version you were presented with – that’s another link to a future Nicola Marlow foible!

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Thanks, Fenny – so interesting to see all these links to Nicola Marlow! Although I guess it makes sense, given her obsession with sailing and the Navy.

      Reply
      1. Sorrell

        Actually it’s interesting that the S&A series is never referred to in the Marlow books, though they’d have been just the right age/ type to read and love it. I wonder if AF (with Jewish/Irish roots) objected to them too? Of course mostly AF had the Marlows read things she’d read herself as a child or adult, but not exclusively – Ginty reads The Greengage Summer in Attic Term. They sold massively so she must have been aware of them.

        Actually I haven’t read Marlows and the Traitor for donkeys ages so it’s possible they’re mentioned there – don’t recall it though.

        Picts and Martyrs is my personal favourite – think the use of Picts is OK…

        Reply
  6. Mike

    Having re-read this thread two years on (and in that time read all the S & A books in depth in an academic way) I would still argue that Ransome is only reflecting his view of the 1930s and his childhood looking back from the 1940s.

    Certainly the use of ‘savages’ could be questioned, but in my own case in the 1950s I was brought up in a very liberal household so heard the term used in a purely descriptive way and not in a judgmental and/or racist way. As language changes over time through usage and cultural meaning (for example the way ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ have changed in use) it is difficult to argue that Ransome was ‘wrong’ to use savages in the way he did. Natives is not so difficult, if thought of in the pure sense of original inhabitants of a settlement or country then that is how the Swallows used the term and soon had the Amazons using it in the same way.

    In a couple of the later books in the series Ransome certainly could be questioned in some of his language usage, but again the notion that he is providing a snapshot of his time applies – in ‘Peter Duck’ the titular character talks of ‘niggers’ (my apologies to anyone offended by this) when describing black pearls (pink ones are called ‘rosies’) as this was the terminology of the time.

    I remember my maternal grandmother grew up in the 1900s and still referred to dark brown paint by this term with no racist reference whatsoever. Curiously the term got re-appropriated by some black musicians and others in the 1990s etc, but here I am in danger of moving in to a completely different area of discussion!

    Overall, despite one or two lapses perhaps, Ransome never intended any racism or insult by his writing – whereas there is a whole area of debate that could be entered in to on the works of Enid Blyton.

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Mike.

      I agree that Arthur Ransome wasn’t trying to be offensive or insulting – he was probably a lot less racist than many of his contemporaries – but I do believe this particular book is a product of its time, containing period-typical racism. I’m not suggesting it should be banned, burned or bowdlerised, but I’d hesitate to recommend it to children, especially non-white children. They have to deal with enough racism in real life – do they really need to read stories that falsely claim that Indigenous Australians were savages who ate white people at corroborees? (Although it depends on the particular child – some might not be too bothered because it’s clearly depicting imaginative play or they might enjoy it in a ‘this is how people thought in the olden days’ way.)

      I haven’t read the later Ransome books, but I’m guessing his use of the word ‘nigger’ to describe objects is simply his unthinking use of a word that was then common and unremarkable in his society. I was a bit taken aback to read ‘nigger brown’ in one of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books, set in 1930s England but written in 1990. It’s used by one of the most sympathetic, compassionate characters in an offhand description, and I don’t know if the author was trying to make the point that it was a completely different world back then and even ‘good people’ had appallingly racist opinions OR that the author genuinely didn’t see any problem with using that term (which could easily have been avoided in that context). I’m surprised her editor didn’t make her change it – or maybe the editor did try and EJH refused?

      Anyway, that’s why Swallow and Amazons is in my ‘Dated Books’ series! At least Ransome had the excuse of writing this stuff nearly a century ago!

      Reply
      1. Mike

        Michelle

        Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post.

        Once again, I’m put in the position have thinking again about Ransome’s work. As a ‘white old man’ (well, sixty-three) it is hard to fully understand how such books can be viewed by those who have to suffer racism and other bigotry on a regular basis, something I do find appalling and try to combat.

        Whenever I re-read Ransome’s ‘Secret Water’ I do cringe at the end where the Swallows’ father speaks to them all in ‘pidgin’ (sic) English and at various passages of ‘Missee Lee’ for similar reasons.

        Reply
  7. Robin

    I just came upon this post today and was heartened to see your recent comments, so I know you are still looking at it. I loved the S & A books from the first time I saw them (about age 12 (c. 1970)) and considered Nancy Blackett to be a perfect role model in her competence, independence, and in not spending all of her time mooning over that “cute John Walker.” Though at times, her boorishness was a bit much, but I attributed much of Ransome writing from his perspective of how a tomboy would behave.

    Nicola Marlow is another wonderful role model as a competent, independent girl. I also love sailing and the sea, and appreciate that in both of them. Enjoyed your recent blog on AT.

    I’d love to hear of more stories with these kind of role models for girls.
    In reading these books, I always took the word natives to be parents, teachers, policemen–people with rules about brushing teeth, eating vegetables, and doing homework. Susan gets into native moods at times. I didn’t associate it with any particular class of parent. And savages I always took to be the other residents around the lake who went about their work (charcoal burners, loggers, farmers) who had no particular interest in seeing that the children behaved “natively” and often had interesting bits of information to share. Savages were wise about things (banking a fire to keep the coals alight, The Billys’ poultice) that were far more important than vegetables or schoolwork. I always thought they admired the savages. I didn’t see any racism implied in the word.

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Robin. I’m amazed that people are still reading this blog post nearly four years after I wrote it!

      Yes, I did like Nancy’s bold, independent nature and I’m looking forward to reading more about Nicola Marlow. As for more stories about independent girls, I should point out my own Montmaray books, featuring a family of smart, brave, independent girls! (I also like Hilary McKay’s Casson family books, Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea and John Verney’s Friday’s Tunnel for their strong girl characters.)

      Reply

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