The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome Hardcover – March 2, 2012
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Chambers's triumph is to chronicle the crucial period of physical, emotional and intellectual exile through which Arthur Ransome finally came home. --The Guardian
This sturdy biography contains some surprises for those readers who know Ransome (1884-1967) as the author of the Swallows and Amazons series of children's books. --Booklist
- Publisher : David R. Godine, Publisher; 1st edition (March 2, 2012)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 389 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1567924174
- ISBN-13 : 978-1567924176
- Item Weight : 1.73 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.4 x 1.36 x 9.26 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,041,243 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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I was disappointed that there was really no new or that interesting material on the Russian Revolution, given the closeness of Mr. Ransome and his second wife (a secretay to Trosky!) to the communists who were at the center of these events.
I would suggest this book only to those deeply interested in learning about the life of the obscure writer of some popular British children's books.
or any who enjoy boys & girls sailing stories, etc., etc. Well written and jaw-dropping, the engaging story is a major "find".
This makes for fascinating reading-particularly as an informative history of the Russian revolution;the initial euphoria of perceived freedom in a new order, descending into a tyranny far worse than that of the Tsars. Ransomes life is chronicled; his romanticism for sailing fishing and adventure, his failed first marriage and estrangement from his daughter. Ransome seems self pitying and the bringer of much hurt ; there is little doubt he was a difficult-though charming-man.
As the author states; Ransome is probably the last person you would think of as a spy /Bolshevik apologist and sympathiser/having private audiences with Lenin and Trotsky (at times at their request). A fascinating insight into the most turbulent era in history and Ransome's part in it.
All of those exploits (and more) are recorded in Ransoms's own words in his " The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome ", published in 1976, some nine years after his death. That volume is now long out of print, though, and, as an alternative, even Hugh Brogan's major work, " The Life of Arthur Ransome ", is becoming hard to source.
I had high hopes of "The Last Englishman" by Roland Chambers. It is over 25 years since there was last a detailed re-examination of the life of Arthur Ransome and while Hugh Brogan's 1984 work, "The Life of Arthur Ransome", is well researched and painstakingly detailed, the work he was able to do at that time was limited, especially with regard to information from behind the Iron Curtain. Since then, not only has the Berlin Wall come down, with Russia becoming more accessible to Western researchers, but also the British government has now declassified large quantities of its war-time and post-war secrets. This increased availability of information regarding those times provided the impetuous behind historian Roland Chambers being commissioned to re-examine the facts of the Arthur Ransome's life and most particularly his association with the early Communists of the Soviet Republics. And to attempt to determine once and for all the truth regarding Ransome's potential involvement in affairs as a spy.
Despite the availability of a great deal more records, especially within the former Soviet bloc, Roland Chambers has managed to come up with surprisingly little that is new or revelatory in this book. With the exception of some addition details concerning the background of the family of Ransome's Russian lover and later wife, the bulk of this new publication is drawn heavily from various of Ransome's own writings -- notably his "Autobiography" but also his letters and his diaries, many of which have either been published, or are now collected within the Brotherton Library at Leeds University, or form part of the Jonathan Cape Collection at Reading University. Nowhere, however, is his research as extensive or as exhaustive as that carried out by Hugh Brogan for his 1984 re-examination of Ransome's life and achievements; nor does it bring any new or original thinking to bear. Chambers' book parallels closely the structure of Ransome's own "Autobiography", from which it quotes at length, with Chambers frequently lifting Ransome's own phrases verbatim but quite uncredited -- often to an extent that would probably earn a student writer a plagiarism warning. The only major deviation from Ransome's own synopsis is in a central section, where Chambers dwells at far greater length than either Brogan or Ransome on the interregnum of the immediate post war year, 1919, and the Allied Intervention, expanding into two substantial chapters issues which are skimmed over in a couple of pages in both of the other works. This provides more of a history lesson, though, and while providing interesting contextualisation, offers nothing particularly illuminating regarding the life of Arthur Ransome.
The book is worth owning and reading, especially for any Ransome enthusiasts unable to source either "The Autobiography", or Hugh Brogan's work, but no-one should expect anything particularly new to be revealed here. Even the access to a great deal of previously classified papers has done nothing to allow the author to comment any more conclusively on the various suspicions entertained by many people over the years regarding Ransome's role as double agent or as spy.
In the light of no evidence to the contrary, Chambers goes some way towards vindicating Ransome's own oft-stated position -- that he had no interest whatsoever in politics, or in any matters of state. Ransome's interests lay in simpler, more mundane, less grown-up matters. Like many before him and indeed since, he undoubtedly developed a passionate and sincere love for the Russian peoples, their traditions and their ways (and not least of all their fortitude). But he clearly viewed the Bolshevik leaders much as he saw almost every other person he met: more as characters in a story to be liked or disliked for their personal traits, their interests and their passions, and not at all for their politics or any positions of power they might hold. For Ransome, fishing and sailing, the enjoyment of a good pipe of tobacco, the pleasure to be derived from a game of chess, or the telling of a well-made tale were the important issues in life. If he had any interest in political matters, this was purely as part of a wider concern to return the world to a more orderly and peaceful state in which he (and everyone else) would be free to take the time to indulge in these more important matters. This much at least, Chambers is able to communicate clearly and well. None of this will, of course, come as a surprise to any reader of Ransome's books.
Top reviews from other countries
Ransome emerges as an extraordinary, rather naive romantic who somehow lived through very dangerous adventures. The idea, expressed later by people who knew him as a children's writer in the Lake District, that he was a very tense man, harried by demons, for whom writing his children's books was an escape, a vital calming process, is clearly foreshadowed in this account.
When arrested on his return from Russia after the first world war, and questioned by the head of Special Branch, he relates that he was asked about his politics and his reply was "fishing". But the real reason that this flippant reply was sufficient was clearly that he was a unique source of information to the British about soviet Russia, and similarly to the Russians about British intentions. He was the great go-between.
This book tells the story extremely well.