John Sergeant reads an original draft of Swallows and Amazons.
John Sergeant: What we’ve got here is almost the final draft of Swallows and Amazons, and it’s called The Swallows and Amazons, and he writes on the front ‘this is the rough draft in 1929’. And what’s interesting was that he started work on Swallows and Amazons in March of that year, by the end of the year here he is with, well, what looks like almost the complete version. It’s extraordinary.
The changes that he’s still making right up until the last minute, and it covers the characters, the main characters of the book, John is 12 years old. And that, this is very poignant, that’s the age that Arthur Ransome was when his father died. So John is the young man who’s got to take over and he’s the main character leading the Swallows in their battle against the Amazons. The other Swallows are Susan who’s 10, Titty who’s 9, and Arthur Ransome explains why he’s called this character Titty. ‘Titty is short’, he writes here, ‘for Titty Mouse.’ An odd name but there we are.
Now she’s a very important character. Roger is 7, and the baby, the boring baby, one-and-a-half years old, was going to be called Victoria, but he changes that to Bridget. And then two of the really important characters, the Amazons, now these are the pirates, and they’re very exciting, and when they’re being pirates they’re called Nancy and Peggy, but originally they were going to be called Jane and Mary, not so exciting. And in real life in the story when they’re not being pirates, Nancy is really called Ruth by her mother and Peggy is called Margaret.
Swallows and Amazons follows the adventures of the Walker children – two boys and two girls – as they spend a summer in the Lake District sailing in their small boat called Swallow (they also have a baby sister who stays on shore). Arthur Ransome based the Walker children on a real family whose children he had taught to sail in a boat called Swallow. This family were called the Altounyans and they lived in Syria where their father and grandfather ran a hospital. They often visited Lake Coniston which is where Ransome met them in 1928. The four eldest Altounyan children were named Taqui (a girl), Susie, Mavis (who was known as Titty) and Roger. The youngest was a baby called Brigit. Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons partly as a surprise for these children, but he depended on his writing for a living and knew that he had to write a book that would appeal to a wider audience if it were to sell well. For that reason he made the eldest child in the fictional Walker family a boy called John. The first the Altounyans knew about the book was when it was published and a copy arrived in the post to them in Aleppo. Happily they were delighted to discover a story all about them.
More about Swallows and Amazons
Island adventures: Hear about the children's books which inspired Swallows and Amazons.
Make a map: Go on an adventure with Swallows and Amazons as you make a map and set sail for Wild Cat Island.
The Secret Life of Books: Find out more about the other books in the series.