The Last Englishman by Roland Chambers
The Last Englishman by Roland Chambers
A biography of Arthur Ransome is every bit as contradictory as its subject, says Adam Mars-Jones
In 1919, Sir Cavendish-Bentinck summed up Arthur Ransome's character for the benefit of the Foreign Office: "He is really rather a coward and is trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds." It's hard to dispute that verdict. Ransome had turned himself from jobbing literary journalist into a self-proclaimed expert on the Russian Revolution, but his great gift was for ignoring contradictions, his own most of all.
In Russia, he had access to important figures (first Trotsky, then Lenin) and seemed to subscribe to their analyses and actions, but when he returned to Britain he worried about "some swine" blackballing his application to the Royal Cruising Club.
This is Roland Chambers's first biography and it shows. The attempts at historical overview tend to be cartoonish. "The imperial household was run by the Tsarina, who, fearing for the life of her haemophiliac son, had become the slave of Rasputin, a lecherous holy man whom she believed possessed magical powers to quench the flow of blood when the sickly child was injured." Isn't that more or less GCSE-level? Hindsight is the dry rot of historical writing. Some pages here are honeycombed with it, to the point of crumbling away. When you say someone was "destined to be friends" with your subject, you invoke a past in which things could not have been otherwise, and what becomes of history then?
Chambers has learnt how unreliable a witness Ransome was by comparing his notebooks with his autobiography. The journey from Estonia to Moscow in 1919, during which the worst ordeal was in fact riding on a hospital train, becomes a boys' adventure story, with Bolsheviks threatening to shoot him until he calls their bluff by saying Lenin will be very angry if they do.
Should we trust Ransome's testimony elsewhere just because there's no evidence to contradict it? His first marriage (to Ivy Walker) unravelled and no letters from her survive that predate the divorce. So what alternative does Chambers have to accepting Ransome's retrospective dismissal of Ivy's character? Well, he could lean a bit harder on some pieces of evidence before describing her as "all whimsy". In 1910, there was nothing whimsical about wanting your husband to be present during labour, as Ivy did. It was highly unusual and suggests she wanted a marriage of equals, without the traditional discretions. The choice of name for their daughter, Tabitha, is also rather startling, since it derives from a joke Ivy made when asked what she would do if she had twins: "Oh, drown the black one and keep the tabby." A woman of the period capable of such taboo humour certainly didn't regard motherhood as a sacred duty.
Chambers suggests that Ransome's departure on his travels in 1913 was an act of marital desertion. There's no evidence of that. He's closer to the truth when he says: "Ransome's approach to his marriage was to make no choice at all."
He was out of Russia for those "10 days that shook the world" in October 1917, and soon after his return he met Evgenia Shelepina. Doesn't it seem fishy that he should become involved with Trotsky's secretary after writing an admiring interview with her master for the UK press? Chambers doesn't raise the possibility she was officially encouraged in their relationship. He was certainly a useful resource.
Ransome knew which side his bread was buttered on, though he may not have realised how busily it was being buttered on both sides, by British and Bolshevik agencies alike. He was nothing as complicated as a double agent, but was useful to each side only if he had some standing with the other.
His sense of human reality was certainly defective; at one point, he offered to intercede on behalf of British prisoners of war in Russia, but that was a ploy. He was between journalistic jobs just then and needed a visa if he was to bring Evgenia to England.
She brought with her more than a million roubles' worth of jewels to further the interests of the revolution in Britain. He asked her to sign an affidavit, pledging she would conspire no more. They seem to have made the best of it and she was certainly better off in the Lake District than she would have been in her own country, when "Trotsky's secretary" stopped looking so good on a comrade's CV.
Ransome began to write the children's books for which he is now known. Occasionally, he took an interest in Tabitha, his actual child, inevitably more demanding than the ones he made up. She emerges as tragic and admirable. He wanted her to return his collection of books. She refused, saying: "It is all I have got of ever having had a father." She wouldn't be grateful for his paying the bills. He told her: "There is no such thing as unearned money." She would have been within her rights to reply that there is no such thing as unearned love.