Sunday, 17 August 2008

Signalling to Mars

I've been interested in Arthur Ransome as a writer for a long time: in particular, his experiences in Russia and his politics, and their possible influence on his literature for children. I began exploring this last month in the post, To the Summit of Kanchenjunga. This was principally about the book, Winter Holiday, and writing it prompted me to re-read that book in the light of my own thoughts.
The book introduces two new characters, the children Dick and Dorothea. It immediately struck me how at the beginning, as "the Ds" (as they come to be known) see the Swallows and the Amazons at a distance, our attention is drawn to the red caps of the Amazons. The association of red with the "vanguard" Bolshevik Party goes without saying, and almost invariably, it is the red-capped Amazons, led by Nancy, who are the vanguard, encouraging the Swallows to think big and throw caution to the wind. (Later in the story, when Nancy is ill, her sister Peggy does her best to take her place, adopting her sister's extravagant, idiosyncratic language).
Dick is a scientist and Dorothea a writer, and their introduction into the stories seems to me to be a conscious effort to bring science and the arts into the other children's ongoing project to remap the world in their own terms, to see beyond the world of the "natives". Russian revolutionaries shared these concerns: indeed Marxism itself was considered to be "scientific" and was treated as such. If this seems far-fetched, consider Mrs Dixon's "native" reaction to Dick's plans to establish an observatory (the observatory, incidentally, gives rise to the "signalling to Mars" game, whereby "the Ds" make contact with the other children):
Stars? Couldn't they see stars as well and better from the farmyard, or from the scullery window for that, and keep warm into the bargain?
"You must have an observatory on the top of a hill," Dick had explained, "so as to get a larger horizon."
"Get along with you, you and your horizons," Mrs Dixon had laughed.
In my view, it's hard not to see a metaphor going on here.
Some Ransome fans find the characters Dick and Dorothea problematic. It has to be said that as creations they don't seem quite in the same league as the Blackett and the Walker children, although to be fair to Ransome, there must be a limit to just how many iconic characters one writer can create, unless he or she is a Dickens or a Joyce.

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