Following E. Nesbit, who wrote before the First World War, the next writer to use Fridtjof Nansen's books as the basis for his published fiction was another of the great children's authors - Arthur Ransome.  We are safe to assume that Ransome read Nesbit's publications as she was the leading children's author of her time.  He mentions in his autobiography that he met her and had great respect for her.   Whether he got the idea from Nesbit for using Nansen's writing in his own stories we cannot be sure - but more on this later.

Nansen set sail on the Fram when Arthur Ransome was nine, and Nansen's book about the expedition was published when Ransome was an impressionable fourteen.

While Ransome was living at Riga in Latvia during the summer of 1921, he met Nansen several times.  Nansen was about to launch a major famine relief programme in Russia, and was researching his subject.  By this time Ransome was the Russian Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian newspaper and certainly the best informed foreigner on Russian affairs.  He spoke the language fluently and knew all the Communist leaders.  He had played chess with Lenin [and beaten him] and was later to marry Trotsky's secretary.  It is likely that in all the talk of politics and famine relief, Ransome took the opportunity to get to know Nansen better.  Nansen's daughter says that if he was in the right mood, he could find a lot to say about his childhood and youth.  The meetings took place in an idyllic summer setting on the shores of the Baltic and were recorded in Ransome's autobiography.  He reveals that Nansen had been a hero since his childhood.  Ransome remarks that the vision of Nansen sitting by the side of the Baltic under the tall pines would always be with him and says that he regards Nansen as the most civilized person of that generation.

Arthur Ransome clearly acknowledges Nansen as an influence in Winter Holiday. Here Fridtjof Nansen is mentioned by name and we learn that Nansen was Ransome's characters' favourite author.

Winter Holiday was published in 1933 and was the fourth of twelve of Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons' books which feature various members of a fairly constant cast of characters.  In this book two newcomers - complete outsiders - are introduced, Dick and Dorothea Callum, and the tale is seen largely from their alien viewpoint.  The setting is the magnificent English Lake District where persistent low temperature and snowfall produce Arctic conditions.

Although the story is said by Ransome to be inspired by a letter from the McEoch family of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to whom his book is dedicated, accompanying photographs have survived but not the McEoch's letter itself.  No one now knows its contents.  Although not acknowledged, there are other influences which can be identified.  Ransome happened to be at school in the Lake District during the famous winter of 1895 when coaches were driven across the frozen lakes.  Ice-yachts were sailed and thousands of people deserted their comfortable homes or slums in surrounding cities such as Manchester and Liverpool to take part in the spectacle.

It is the illness of Nancy Blacket [mumps] which causes her friends to be placed in quarantine and away from school for a month.  This results in their being able to enjoy weeks in the snow, finally discovering the North Pole itself.  Nesbit used a similar ploy -

'One reason  pestilences such as measles and so on - are good for adventures is that the ones of you who haven't got it, whatever it is, are always sent away to get you out of the way so you shouldn't get it...'

In order to avoid direct contact with the others, Nancy signals her orders using semaphore from the window of her sick room.  Dorothea, outside in the cold white garden, copies the letters into the back of a notebook.  She rests the notebook on a frozen sundial and letter by letter decyphers Nancy's instructions for the expedition to cross Greenland.  At the end of the scene, Nancy's furious mother emerges to send Nancy's friends away.

And the North Polar Expedition duly emulates Nansen's feat by crossing a snow-clad stretch of moorland which they identify as Greenland.

Not content with references to Nansenís Greenland book, Arthur Ransome introduced the book Farthest North into his Winter Holiday.  A houseboat on the frozen lake is pressed into service as a substitute for Nansen's Fram.  This was the boat Nansen deliberately rammed into the frozen ice of the Arctic Ocean in an attempt to use the  currents to transport the ever moving ice and boat across the North Pole.  On Ransome's fictional bookshelves are found Nansen's factual books Farthest North and The First Crossing of Greenland.

Research for this piece has led me to suspect that Ransome took parts of Nesbit's books as  models for several aspects of Winter Holiday.  The similarities begin with the direct use of Nansen's name together with the author's characters' emulation of Nansen's actions.  Precisely the same thing happens within Nesbit's 'Treasure Seekers' books.  The fact that Nansen's name is repeatedly used by Nesbit, and her characters base their games on his books long before Winter Holiday was written first aroused my interest...

These passages lead to the question: did Arthur Ransome borrow directly and only from Nansen, or did he also borrow also from Nesbit, and to what extent?  Perhaps he got the idea from Nesbit for a book based on Nansen's books.

A series of ideas events and characters, which, were they to occur singly, would raise no suspicions, are found together in both Ransome's and Nesbit's books.  Perhaps part of the inspiration for Winter Holiday, and the two new characters introduced in it, may find their origin here: 

In E. Nesbit's The Wouldbegoods [1901]  two '...little pinky, frightened things, like white mice...' join the already established six characters for the holidays.  Gradually, under the influence of the Bastables, they show their worth.  In fact their names are Daisy and Denny, although there is a Dora and also a Dick, or Dickie in the Bastable family who is interested in science and inventing, as is Ransome's Dick Callum. Ransome's Dick and Dorothea go through a similar process of integration into the families of four Walkers and two Blackets.

All the 'Treasure Seekers' stories are presented as being written by one of the Bastables, but a passage in the chapter 'Being Beavers; or, the Young Explorers (Arctic or Otherwise)' [quoted on the 'Nesbit' page] is written in the style of a prize at a girls' school... perhaps here is the origin of Dorothea's writing?  Daisy is described as the sort of girl who would grow up to marry a missionary.

As I have said, Fridtjof Nansen is named as supplying the ideas used in the children's activities by both E. Nesbit and Arthur Ransome.  There is a remarkable chapter 'The Young Antiquaries' [in The New Treasure Seekers], where, for reasons which I cannot go into here, Nesbit's children put on spectacles [the 'trademark' of the Ransome's D's - 'D's' being a term also used by Nesbit] and go to a complete stranger's freezing garden to make speeches from a sundial.  To clinch the similarity with this most unusual scene in Winter Holiday, mentioned above, an angry lady of the house suddenly appears to demand an explanation -

'He [Oswald] was just reading the part about the sundial, which he had noticed from the train when we went to Bexley Heath.  It was rather a nice piece, I think.

'Most likely this sundial told the time when Charles the First was beheaded, and recorded the death-devouring progress of the Great Plague and the Fire of London.  There is no doubt that the sun often shone even on these devastating occasions, so that we may picture Sir Thomas Blank telling the time here and remarking - O crikey!'

These last words are what Oswald himself remarked.  Of course the person in history would never have said them.

The reader of the paper had suddenly heard a fierce, woodeny sound, like giant singlesticks, terrifyingly close behind him, and looking hastily round, he saw a most angry lady, in a bright blue dress with fur on it, like a picture, and very large wooden shoes, which had made the singlestick noise.  Her eyes were very fierce, and her mouth tight shut...  A gentleman also bounded towards us over some vegetables, and acted as reserve support to the lady...'

[Singlesticks are wooden swords - the wooden shoes are clogs... the images perhaps chosen to bring to mind Dutch clogs, to complement Oswald's talking in 'double-Dutch' or nonsense?]

In Nesbit's New Treasure Seekers we have the bare bones of Ransomeís Winter Holiday: Two inexperienced newcomers join an established group.  Illness intervenes and a conference is held in a strangerís garden around a sundial.  Exploration follows, inspired by Nansen, culminating in a search for the north pole.

It is tempting to see Nesbitís contribution to Ransome in terms of a few elements which he has absorbed and redistributed here and there in his narrative.  I believe there is more to it than that.  Nesbit's general outlook is broadly similar to Ransome's.  And this could surely be Ransome's manifesto:

'In some ways the good times you have with grown-ups are better than the ones you have to yourselves...  At any rate they are safer.  It is almost impossible, then, to do anything fatal without being pulled up short by a grown-up ere yet the deed is done.  And, if you are careful, anything that goes wrong can be looked on as the grown-ups fault.  But these secure pleasures are not so interesting to tell about as the things you do when there is no one to stop you on the edge of the rash act.

It is a curious too, that many of our most interesting games happened when grown-ups were away...'
  [From The Wouldbegoods].

'Adventures are the real business of life.  The rest is only betweenness - what Albert's Uncle calls padding.  He is an author.'  [From Oswald Bastable and Others].

It is almost possible to regard Arthur Ransome's stories as extensions of the more adventurous episodes of the Bastable family in the examples given here.  But Ransome provides much subtler characterisation, much more of a leading role for some of the girls, and more 'unsurprised' realism, mainly carried out without the backbiting and quarrelling of the Bastables.  In the latter respect Ransome is closer to Nansen's style than Nesbit's.  Ransome, however, lets you read between the lines.  His tale of inter-tribal warfare between groups of children abandoned on an island [Secret Water] anticipates William Golding's Lord of the Flies.  Ransome, however, tells the tale, including simulated human sacrifice and actual blood-letting, from several points of view.  He includes the view of the participating child [just like Nesbit] rather than simply that of a judgemental adult.

Nesbit's exploration and deliberate confusion between the worlds of fantasy and 'reality' goes farther than Ransome in some places; [see the first chapter of The Enchanted Castle].  However, Oswald [New Treasure Seekers] notes - 'The worst of growing up is that you seem to want more and more to have a bit of the real thing in your games...'  This view is certainly taken up in Ransome's books.

In 1904, the year The New Treasure Seekers was published as a book, and Edith Nesbit was at the pinnacle of her powers, Ransome met her  at G. K. Chesterton's house [author of the 'Father Brown' books].  Ransome made a special note in his autobiography about  Nesbit, remarking on his great respect for Edith Nesbit's books.

Having looked at the relationship between Ransome and Nesbit's writing, how closely related is Ransome's style of writing to Nansen?  Certainly in The First Crossing of Greenland the outbursts from the Lapps are reported.  Nansen goes so far as to quote directly from Balto's journal, but Farthest North, like most of Ransome's books, is unusually lacking in chafing and backbiting.  We could assume, by taking Nansen at face value, that the only fights that occurred on the Fram were between the dogs - but that was not the case.  Several of the crew kept diaries, and we know that grudges were harboured [or perhaps expunged by the act of writing].  Also, on rare occasions, a few of the crew came to blows over minor disagreements.  But Farthest North, the book itself, consists almost completely of composed and rational behaviour and thought taking place in quietly stressful surroundings.  This is very much Ransome's style - there are few disagreements, little backbiting or bad-temper.  Any disagreements which escalate into 'battles' are carried out in a civilized manner, almost by appointment. 

There is, then, a strong connection between Nansen and both Nesbit's and Ransome's writing, the latter two authors telling of characters who imitate Nansen.   Now see the 'Tolkien page' where I suggest a slightly more subtle link between Nansen's publications and a third great figure of children's literature, J. R. R. Tolkien.

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© Copyright 2005 - 2007  Simon J Browne
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