Another month, another cold… and I still haven’t written properly about the book that got me through the last cold. I did tell you that Swallows and Amazons (1930) by Arthur Ransome was being my solace – battling out with another 1930 book, actually, Diary of a Provincial Lady – and what a perfect solace it was too. Thank you Vintage for sending me this stunning copy a year or so ago. Not a word of it came as a surprise, devotee as I was of the film (watched when ill as a child), but that wasn’t really the point.
If anybody doesn’t know the book at all (can this be?) it is the first of a series about John, Susan, Titty, Roger, and various others (in this novel, the Blackett sisters) who join them or war with them in their boating adventures. It kicks off with that famous message of parental care, telegrammed by their father: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. There are those namby-pamby types among us who will argue that children are not better drowned than duffers, but I suspect we aren’t supposed to take his words entirely seriously. The father knows whose side the novel is on, and that no calamity will befall the children – even if they are sent off as young as seven to fend for themselves (albeit in striking distance of home).
One advantage the film has over the book is that you can just watch them doing things to boats, and all is clear – I ended Swallows and Amazons as ignorant as I began, despite Ransome’s valiant effort to immerse the reader in the minutiae of sailing. Tacking this and gunwale that. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t a clue what was happening. It was all such fun.
But… I think Swallows and Amazons is probably best enjoyed as a child, or in a sickly state such as I was. Something I’ve noticed while reading or re-reading classic children’s books as an adult – be it E. Nesbit, A.A. Milne, Richmal Crompton, or whoever – is that they are often funny in a way that is intended for the adult. The child will still love the story, but something more sophisticated is going on too. Well, unless I missed it completely, there is nothing at all sophisticated in Swallows and Amazons. Ransome tells the story in tones of breathless excitement; the narrator is every bit as childlike as the children. There isn’t really any humour (besides a good ‘ruthless’ pun), and there certainly isn’t any wryness or winking to the reader. Everything is ingenuous and cheerful. I don’t think I could have a reading diet which consisted just of this boys’/girls’ own variety of adventure, but, my goodness, it was perfect for my sickbed.