Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons cover

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome is the first book in the series which is set in the Lake District, I believe it was Coniston Water and Lake Windermere that inspired Ransome to write these books. I’m fairly sure that I read one donkey’s years ago but after we visited Coniston around this time last year I thought I would start at the beginning of the series again. This book was first printed in 1930 but my copy dates from 1942 and according to the inscription it was given to Frank for his birthday on 27th of August 1943.

The Walker children John, Susan, Roger and Titty (what possessed the author?) are in the Lake District for the summer holidays. Their mother is busy with the new baby and father is away, but has given the children permission to sail to one of the islands in the lake and camp out there. Mother gets out her sewing machine and makes a couple of tents and the children are well stocked up with food and equipment. They’re dab hands at sailing too and manage their borrowed dinghy Swallow professionally.

Sailing towards the island they sail past a houseboat, complete with a small cannon, a green parrot and a man that they name Captain Flint. He doesn’t seen at all friendly. The island seems perfect but there’s evidence of previous inhabitants with a pile of wood and the remains of a fire.

It isn’t long before another boat turns up, it’s called Amazon and is skippered by two girls who live locally. Nancy and Peggy fly a pirate flag and are up for adventures. John is impressed by their sailing knowledge and it isn’t too long before they’re all friends. It turns out that Captain Flint is really their Uncle and up until this year he had been good fun, but since he has started to write a book about his travels he has changed into a curmudgeon and sees the children as his enemy.

There’s a bit of a mystery going on but really the charm of this book is that you can’t help wishing that you too are by a lake with a wee boat to sail around in, visiting various islands and just getting away from it all.

It was different times though and I imagine that if parents allowed four of their children aged from 7 to 12 to sail off and fend for themselves social services would have something to say about it!

I believe that in the modern reprints of these books the character of Titty has her name changed to Kitty. I’m wondering what Titty was supposed to be short for – maybe Felicity of Verity but presumably in 1930 it wasn’t deemed to be faintly not nice for a wee girl.

Sometimes when I read books I have a particular piece of music going through my head, for this one it was of course Deacon Blue’s Dignity.

15 thoughts on “Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

    • tracybham,
      I’m trying to catch up with children’s classics that I missed out on when I was wee, and we visited the area the books are set in fairly recently.

  1. I loved this series as a child, having first come across it as a BBC adaptation in the early 60s (that Ransome hated). We took our children on many summer holidays to the Lake District, camping at Grizedale (no longer possible as it is a car park for the forest centre) or Easter holidays in a static caravan (sic, not trailer!) at Fallbarrow Park in Bowness on Windermere.

    I even wrote a book of S and A/Ransome walks that the family duly trudged (never published and someone else got there first). I was once in the Arthur Ransome Society but regrettably the members were the generation of the children in the books and had private school, jolly hockey sticks personalities that meant you had to be in the clique or else you got little out of it.

    Although written in the class-ridden era pre WWII, the children themselves are pleasant enough characters although they live a life of privilege. Ransome mixed well with the folk of the Lake District and never belittles them, yet colours the stories with just how it was. He used to love frequenting the local pubs.

    Ransome as a character is interesting himself. You might like to read his biographies. He was suspected of being a British spy in Russia.

    • H,
      That’s such an interesting comment. I know what you mean about those cliquey societies. I suspect that a lot of the original readers enjoyed a keek into a more comfortable existence. I know I lived in the Malory Towers books as a youngster, boarding school seemed great fun! Now I think how awful it would be not to have your kids at home while they grew up.
      I will see if I can find a copy of one of his biographies, his life sounds intriguing.

  2. I have the idea that Titty was short for Matilda but I can’t recall where I got that from. ….. I’m wrong; the real person on whom Titty was based was named Mavis (known in real life as Titty). There’s an interesting article here about the recent film version in which Titty is changed to ‘Tatty’. The family are not happy and I can see why.


    • Sandra,
      Thanks for that link. Kitty sounds like a more sensible alternative to me than Tatty. I don’t think Titty was a reasonable name to give anyone – even in the 1930s.

      • I have no idea what connotations Titty had back in the thirties. But I can see that Tatty has negative connotations now and I understand why the family would feel aggrieved about the change. KItty is safer certainly!

  3. I know I read some of these books as a child but I can’t really remember them at all. Maybe I need to read them again as it sounds as though they’re still enjoyable for adults too. I didn’t know Titty’s name had been changed, but I’m not surprised to hear it!

  4. I’ve read all the books in the series many times and absolutely love them.
    I feel Arthur Ransome’s style of writing changes after Swallows and Amazons, becomes less like a “children’s book”, so even better.
    He evokes the landscapes beautifully, and describes sailing, weather, campcraft and outdoorsy activities in a way that inspires.

    Titty’s name? from https://www.allthingsransome.net/literary/mavisgu.htm which reprints her obituary:
    “Because of her early love for the children’s tale ‘Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse’, she was known in Ransome’s story as well as in life as Titty”.

    • Valerie,
      Thanks so much for that very interesting comment and link. I’m now looking forward even more to reading the later books, I still have to get Peter Duck though.

      • Ah! Valerie’s article explains why Tatty was chosen as the alternative to Titty. I hadn’t realised the children were based on real people until this thread, Katrina.

        • Sandra,
          Neither did I, but I’ve since corresponded with a blogpal who actually met Titty when she was on holiday in the Lake District, but by then Titty was an adult.

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