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!
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
- This book was in great demand in 1957 (borrowed three times!) but left the library only six times between then and 2003. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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.” ↩
- 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? ↩
- 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”. ↩