Julia Jones, Yachting Monthly's literary reviewer discusses A Thoroughly Mischievous Person: the other Arthur Ransome, by Alan Kennedy
A Thoroughly Mischievous Person: the other Arthur Ransome
The Lutterworth Press £20
Alan Kennedy, is a retired professor of psychology.
But can one ever retire from psychology? Probably not.
Kennedy’s academic specialism was the working of memory.
His introduction to this analysis of Arthur Ransome’s five ‘Lake’ novels begins with an evocation of his own childhood delight in Ransome’s ‘magical world filled with cleats, thwarts, booms and centreboards’.
He believes that he may have been an ‘atypical fan’ as he lived in the Midlands, far from deep water and had no particular affinity with boats.
I would take a small bet, however that many of AR’s earliest fans were in this same situation, not part of the ‘magical world’ but lured by it.
Kennedy makes the discerning comment that Ransome understood about ‘play’, serious uncondescending play which can unite the generations.
He then describes his surprise and pleasure when he discovered the literary Ransome, who wrote a biography of Oscar Wilde and was deeply interested in French Symbolist poets.
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He’s excited by the Ransome in Russia, as revealed by Roland Chambers in The Last Englishman (2009).
Somehow within all this, the initial insight into play gets lost and we are plunged into discussions of the sexual symbolism of John rubbing down his mast and Susan brushing out the cave that seems to stand for her younger sister’s virginity.
Personally I was uncomfortable with this aspect of the book.
I have frequently rubbed down masts with definite tactile pleasure but not eroticism.
And the Swallowdale cave, I have always thought, was Peter Duck’s (or Plato’s).
Kennedy has an expert understanding of myth – as did Ransome – and he’s sensitive to the role of both personal and archetypal allusion in literature.
However, a piece of research which he reports early in the book could have provided a warning.
Kennedy is discussing ‘schema’ the mental patterning which influences readers to read and remember according to their own experiences and interests.
When Kennedy reads Ransome he is profoundly aware of the way Ransome’s failed relationship with his daughter Tabitha may be playing out in his idealised portrait of Titty Walker.
He makes many perceptive (and some provocative) comments.
Others however will read Ransome differently, focus on different themes, different characters and perhaps an alternative selection of the novels.
Alan Kennedy, a writer of novels himself, has succeeded in his attempt to make us look behind the bald-headed, benevolent fisherman with a walrus moustache and a good word for all (AR’s most effective piece of fiction, he calls it).
He has successfully revealed An other Arthur Ransome, but not ‘The Other’ – in my opinion.
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