Chapter I: Better drowned than duffers…

Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome

So here we sit, on the shores of an adventure…

And that opening image, of Roger tacking diligently up the field towards his mother, resisting the urge to run straight towards her and the message she holds because it would break the reality he has constructed. These children are doing Real Life, in a big way, and they are also moving seamlessly in and out of fantasy and metaphor, constructing explanations for the the things they see that will enable them to sustain their world of adventure. I love this, and it strikes me as very realistic, and I love way their mother embraces it as well.

My mum never particularly liked this part of the story. Her empathy was all with Mrs Walker, whose husband, away on the other side of the world and never quite certain of when he would next be at home, now seemed to be saying that he didn’t particularly mind whether or not his children drowned in the lake.

I prefer to see Commander Walker’s belief in his children’s competence and resilience. The children in these stories are allowed to take risks, to challenge themselves, to make mistakes and to put them right again. No, I would not allow my seven-year-old to camp on an island for a summer with only a couple of teenagers to look after him. But in my other life, I am a person-centred therapist with a firm belief in the value of Unconditional Positive Regard. So this still feels good.

 

To some extent, these are books about sibling relationships. I’m kind of glad that the idea of sibling rivalry is actively left behind on the shores in the first chapter, when Roger “saw for the first time that it was a good thing to be no longer the baby of the family”. These are siblings who like, respect and support each other, because and despite of their differences.

I’m interested in the letters. Roger’s short letter and Titty’s long one are both in character, but I’d forgotten that Susan “had not written a letter of her own. She had put her name with John’s at the end of his, so that these two had sent one letter between them.” I do wonder sometimes about Susan’s relationship with her father. I also worry that she might be a Parentified Child – we’ll need to keep an eye on that. But for this chapter, at least, John and Susan are presented firmly as a team, jointly and mutually responsible for the wellbeing of their crew, and equally excited about the journey ahead of them.

 

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9 thoughts on “Chapter I: Better drowned than duffers…

  1. Sometime, sit down and compare this Susan to Susan of the Narnia books. Yes, this Susan is in a quasi-parental role, but she’s respected for her competence sailing (it’s a shocking scene when she gets seasick on open ocean in a later book, specifically because it’s so out of character) as well as for her sensible ways and cooking skills. And even with the cooking and cleaning thing, I think the other kids her realize they get to have all those adventures specifically because Susan has those skills, and so they listen to her for it and don’t tend to resent her advice.

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    1. My first comment – thank you!!!

      And yes, comparisons between Susans Walker and Pevensie are likely to be frequent. I absolutely love the way the female characters (who outnumber the male 2:1) are portrayed in these books, but I’m trying hard to save some of my total feminist fangirl admiration for the next 30 chapters!

      Leaping ahead though, I like the seasickness bit because it’s where Stuff Gets Real and they all show real human weakness (and Titty is revealed to be a migraine sufferer, I realised on my last re-reading!). But it’s exactly that book which raised my concerns about Susan. She’s been in mortal peril for several days, faced the possibility of her siblings all drowning, crossed the North Sea, doesn’t know what country she’s in or how on earth she will ever get home again, and then she sees her Dad. And he tells her off for getting a bit watery-eyed. WTF, Dad?

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      1. I think maybe dads were a bit different in the 20s-30s. Last time I reread the books (in my early 40s I think), I was continually struck by their historical context, which I didn’t know so much about when I was younger; in this case, it may be worth thinking how Commander Walker must have either served at the tail end of the Great War, or at the very least been a teenager then and enlisted soon afterwards.

        (And at several points when John and Roger’s inevitable future in the navy is touched on I got chills thinking about how they are headed straight for the WW2.)

        I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts a lot.

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  2. That’s a really good point, and I’m very aware that he doesn’t actually know his children all that well. Even when he does plan to spend time with them he keeps being unavoidably whisked away.

    And I don’t think he’s trying to be nasty to Susan – the message I take from it is that he sees her as a Good Chap like all the others. But still.

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  3. I’ve seen a couple good fanfics about what happens in WWII. I’d agree that you can see it looming over Roger, especially (because he’s obviously going to be a Navy engineer.)

    Come to think of it, a few of DE Stevenson’s adult books, especially Amberwell, are interesting comparison reading. You get the boys’ war careers, and also a view of parents who are distant and not caring, in clear contrast to the distant but caring Walker parents. (I wonder if her father not wanting Susan to get teary is mostly about him not knowing how to deal. There is so much emotion in the scenes where he meets the children, and yet it is all unsaid.)

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  4. I came for one thing and fell into Swallows and Amazons because it is a very important text in our family, so I’ve been reading these backwards. Thank for a detailed look at them – these books mean so much to me, and to my parents and my kids (I am lucky in both directions, generationally speaking!)

    Like you, I am ambivalent about Susan’s role as Mate and Cook, but it does feel as though her sibs recognize her authority in that area, and that her skills are a huge part of what gives their parents confidence in setting them loose.

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  5. So, S&A is the first book without pictures that I read for my self. We were holidaying down on the Lizard and mum was reading it to her because it was such an important book for her (she’d even camped on Peel Island in her youth) and we were going to be learning to sail that holiday too. She was doing a chapter a night and I became so impatient to know what happened I couldn’t wait ’til the next night.

    A few years later, in the same place, some friends of ours were also staying and they’d offered their Topper for me to sail whenever I fancied. So… it’s a beautiful day, there’s a capful of wind and a high tide, so off I go in the Topper intending to sail around the corner and up the Helford.

    So, there I am, happily outside the mouth of Gillan Creek and purling along towards the Helford pool, broad reach, the boats planing beautifully, when I spot mum and dad in the larger boat we’d hired as a family for the week.

    They’re waving to me.

    They are holding up the life jacket I’d forgotten to wear when I set off on a long, solo voyage without telling anyone where I was going. I blithely sail back to them and they mildly hand over the life jacket and suggest that next time I might like to tell them where I’m going. So mildly in fact that it was about 20 years before I realised what astonishing forbearance they showed that day.

    So, thanks Arthur, you helped make a young man very happy.

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