Arthur Ransome and the Lake District as Playspace

As part of the Cultural Landscapes series of talks, at the Ambleside campus of the University of Cumbria, we listened to a talk by Sally Bushell, from Lancaster University.

The talk focused on the importance of maps in fiction, and especially in children's fiction, and how Arthur Ransome used maps to create a "playspace" for his characters within, primarily, the Lake District. The idea of "playspace" is a safe space where children can have independent adventures, free from the strictures of adults, but also within a safe and controlled environment.

I must admit that my reading of the Arthur Ransome novels differs from Sally Bushell's reading. I have always felt that the children were allowed huge amounts of freedom and faced many dangers with no recourse to adult supervision. The opening chapter of Swallows and Amazons, for me, sets the scene for the adventures to come.  The Walker's father, when asked whether the children might go sailing, alone, famously replies by telegram: "better drowned than duffers, if not duffers then won't drown". This doesn't strike me as scene setting for safe "playspace."

I did, however, enjoy the exploration of maps in children's literature, generally, and how the maps, often included as endpapers, can set the scene for the novel. This made me think of the maps in Malcolm Saville and Marjorie Lloyd novels. Both of these authors base their stories in real places, just like Arthur Ransome. Saville's novels are set in Shropshire and Sussex mainly and Marjorie Lloyd's novels are also set in the Lake District. In the novels of both these authors, the maps enable the reader to follow the journeys taken by the characters, and add immeasurably to the enjoyment.

There were many aspects of the talk which I really enjoyed. Sally Bushell examined the use of danger in Arthur Ransome's We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea and R L Stevenson's Treasure Island, linking these two very different books through their use of maps. She speculated that there is danger present in both of these books, but Treasure Island's danger isn't contained and therefore isn't fun for the child. This reminded me of many of the books I read when I was too young, including Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. These are books and authors I struggle to read to this day.

The final element of the talk linked Arthur Ransome's novels with the early visitors to the Lakes and the Picturesque. In the work of the Picturesque artists and writers, including William Gilpin and Thomas West, the Lake District is presented as a wild and savage place but, by comparison with Scotland at the time, safe and contained, possibly even a "playspace" for the early tourists.