There has been renewed interest in the beloved children’s author Arthur Ransome lately due to the publication of a new biography: The Last Englishman by Roland Chambers. What many people don’t know is that years before he wrote the children’s classics, including Swallows and Amazons, for which he is so fondly remembered, he lived and worked in Russia at the time of the revolution; this is chronicled in the above biog.
Marcus Sedgwick’s novel also tackles Ransome’s time in Russia. Sedgwick is one of those teen authors whose books are crossover adult reads too, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough – it has revolution and politics, spies and intrigue, romance and family drama, all steeped in Russian fairy tales.
Stuck in a marriage where he didn’t love his wife, Ransome ran away to Russia in 1913, although he regretted having to leave his daughter behind. There he taught himself the language and became a journalist on the Daily News at the start of the Great War. He also covered the 1917 revolutions, and was close to Lenin and Trotsky. There he met the real love of his life, Evgenia, who was Trotsky’s personal secretary; they married eventually. He was somewhat sympathetic to the Bolshelvik cause, although remained loyal to his homeland, and this led to MI6 using him through their agent Bruce Lockhart (whose Memoirs of a British Agent was a bestseller in the 1930s); MI5 also kept tabs on him for years. Ransome’s occasional journeys to and from the UK were full of adventure and peril, especially the time the Estonians used him to deliver a secret armistice proposal to Litvinov in Moscow in 1919, where his good reputation with both sides was his life-saver.
It was at the start of his self-imposed exile that he wrote his book Old Peter’s Russian Tales: these are full of magical talismans, poor peasant folk on quests, cunning animals, greedy men and wicked stepmothers, and Baba Yaga of course. These moral tales are often dark and many don’t have happy endings, but really get into the Russian psyche.
Sedgwick’s novelisation is no dry biography. He starts by using the fairy tales to tell the problems of the people, embodied by a great Russian bear spurred into action against the Tsar by two friends arguing in the forest – they are Lenin and Trotsky. This is superb scene-setting, and Ransome wanders into it and instantly falls in love with a woman stirring a pot on a stove in an office …
‘This is what you want,’ she said, almost in a whisper.
She nodded at the pot, and Arthur found himself drawn towards her. He looked inside.
‘Potatoes,’ she murmured, as if it were the most beautiful word in the world. Her eyes lit up and Arthur realised how very hungry he was. He stood no more than a weak moment’s decision away from her, and looked into her eyes.
This is what you want.
And that was how the young writer found love, just when he had stopped looking for it.
How can you not be reeled in by the utter romance in those words. Combined with all the derring do of the amateur spy, the author delivers a totally fabulous novel. Swallows and Amazons was his favourite childhood book, and when the National Archives released the files on Ransome, it was a story demanding to be told. Some of the fascinating telegrams from those archives are reproduced in the Appendix.
This book is likely to send me off on a Russian reading trail when I have time, as I realised (again) my lack of knowledge of things historical and the October Revolution in particular. I highly recommend it. (10/10)
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Blood Red, Snow White: n/a by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion paperback.
Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome, paperback
The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers, paperback
Memoirs of a British Agent – Being an account of the author’s early life in many lands and of his official mission to Moscow in 1918 by Bruce Lockhart