BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
THE LAST ENGLISHMAN: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome, by Roland Chambers
, February 5, 2011
Children's author who supported the Bolsheviks
THE LAST ENGLISHMAN:
The Double Life of
by Roland Chambers
(London: Faber and Faber/
Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 400 pages
Rec. price: AUD$24.95
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Generations of children have grown up with and loved Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series of books. His idyllic children's literature, set mostly in England's Lake District and Norfolk Broads, is a world away from contemporary children's literature with its morbid preoccupation with kids with "issues".
However, don't be fooled! Less well known is the fact that Ransome was a British agent in the nascent Bolshevik Russia.
In this new biography, Roland Chambers explores the double life and, to a lesser extent, the legacy of Arthur Ransome. Such a study is a welcome addition to the scholarship on Ransome, because it is the first which has drawn on Russian and British intelligence archives, which became accessible only at the end of the Cold War, some years after a previous major biography was published in 1984.
Ransome was born in 1884, the son of a university history lecturer who died when Arthur was a teenager. He left school without having completed his secondary studies and moved to London to work for a publisher.
Although he is best remembered for his children's books, which he wrote in the 1930s and '40s, he commenced his literary career many years before that as a young man. One of his earliest works, a study of the flamboyant playwright Oscar Wilde, became a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre. However, it attracted a libel suit by Wilde's one-time homosexual lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, which Douglas lost.
Ransome went on to become a newspaper journalist, first for The Daily News, then for The Manchester Guardian. In this capacity, he spent much of the period from the outbreak of World War I until the early 1920s in Russia.
At the time of the Bolshevik coup d'Ã©tat of October 1917, he was absent from Russia, on a brief visit to England. However, during his various subsequent visits and sojourns he not only witnessed some of the momentous upheavals that beset Russia but came to be on intimate terms with some of the leading revolutionary figures. For example, his second wife Evgenia Shelepina was Leon Trotsky's private secretary, and he shared accommodation on more than one occasion with Karl Radek.
It was shortly after the Bolshevik takeover that he was recruited as an agent by the British secret intelligence service. Although it is difficult to determine precisely what information he gathered for the British, files that have been made accessible indicate that he was given the code name S76.
Chambers also raises the question of whether Ransome was a double agent. His biography includes a number of details which raise the likelihood that he may have been a good deal more than what Lenin described as a "useful idiot".
Not only, as has already been noted, did Ransome have close connections with leading Bolshevik revolutionary identities, but he was also generally sympathetic towards the Bolshevik seizure of power and was critical of British and allied intervention in support of the anti-communist Whites during the 1918-21 Russian Civil War.
Furthermore, he facilitated the smuggling of diamonds into European countries to bankroll Bolshevik activity across Europe.
Unsurprisingly, MI5 regarded his loyalty as suspect until 1937, well over a decade after he had returned permanently to Britain.
Chambers' biography also examines Ransome's private life and friendships. Ransome enjoyed a close relationship with his mother, but had a disastrous marriage to his first wife, Ivy Walker. He found solace in his second marriage to Trotsky's secretary. However, thenceforth, his relationship with the daughter from his first marriage, Tabitha, went from bad to worse. So great was the estrangement that eventually he sought to have no dealings with his own grandchildren.
The Last Englishman is an interesting, although uneven, study of Arthur Ransome's life and works. The strongest and most engaging section of this work is the sizeable middle section which is devoted to the 10 or so years he spent in Russia.
Unfortunately, the last 40 years of his life, up to his death in 1967 - which included the years in which he wrote Swallows and Amazons - is surveyed only in the last couple of chapters.