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Nancy's Grandfather

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Posted by Robin Selby on December 13, 2018 at 07:15:08 user RobinSelby.

In Pigeon Post (p43), Slater Bob tells Nancy that ‘…yer mother’s father took me wi’ him when he went to Africa after that same stuff’. ‘Same stuff’ is of course gold. Pigeon Post was mainly written in 1935. Slater Bob tells the explorers (p41) that he ‘were a lad in the mines nigh sixty years since’. If ‘lad’ means 14 and ‘nigh sixty years’ means say 58 years, then Slater Bob is 72 years old and was born in 1863. We know that James Turner and Molly Turner and her future husband climbed the Matterhorn (later Kanchenjunga) in 1901. By that time their father and mother (Nancy’s grandparents) had died, and they were being brought up by the Great Aunt (Swallowdale, p335). We do not know how old they were, but there is a general sense that when Nancy and Peggy climbed Kanchenjunga in 1931, they happened to recreate the climb their parents and Captain Flint made in 1901 when they were the same age, say 14. So let us say that Captain Flint or his sister were born in 1887. This means that the elder Mr Turner was born in 1865 or earlier.

The Witwatersrand gold rush started in 1886, when Mr Turner was 21 or so, and Slater Bob was 23. We hypothesise therefore that Mr Turner took Slater Bob to South Africa some time after 1886, with Mr Turner (or his father) putting up the money and Slater Bob bringing his mining experience.

Captain Flint and his sister are ‘comfortably off’. Mrs Blackett lives in a large house with one or two servants, sends her daughters to boarding school and is a member of the local gentry (Colonel Jolys takes his hat off to her). Equally Captain Flint does not work, and spends much of his time abroad, either escaping the English winter or in the vain search for mineral wealth.

However, there is no sense that they are rich, as they would have been if their father and Slater Bob had prospered in South Africa. Mr Turner and Slater Bob returned to England because they did not find gold. This leads to the intriguing possibility that Captain Flint spends (I am tempted to say ‘wastes’) his life looking for gold because he is trying to achieve what his father had failed to achieve.

Ransome occasionally gives biographical hints about his adult characters. For example, in Swallowdale, at the summit of Kanchenjunga, the explorers find a message from Nancy’s deceased father, her mother and uncle, written in the same jaunty style which Nancy might have used. When Nancy introduced Captain Flint to Roger (Swallows and Amazons, p277), Captain Flint said that he had been a ship’s boy. However, he told Miss Lee (Missee Lee, p213) that he ‘chucked Oxford before Oxford made up its mind to chuck me. I went off to see the world instead’. This strongly implies that he had not left home before, and in any case it is scarcely probable that he was a ship’s boy before going to Oxford. It is unlikely that he was pulling Roger’s leg. It is more likely that Ransome wanted to introduce some Oxford/Cambridge tension into the story, and either forgot or ignored the earlier account.

In Swallows and Amazons (p27) Mrs Walker said that she was brought up close to Sydney Harbour. Yet in the same book (p191), she told Titty ‘about her own childhood on a sheep station in Australia’. There are anecdotes in other books which are consistent with both Sydney and the sheep station:

‘Why, when I was a girl in Australia I’ve often fallen asleep on horseback, riding home after a dance, and been waked by the horse stopping and snuffing at the stable door.’ (We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, p30)

‘She [Mrs Walker] talked about fishing and about caves and about camping in the Australian bush…’ (Swallowdale, p206)

‘“I thought just the same,” said mother, “when I capsized my cousin’s dinghy in Sydney Harbour”.’ (Swallowdale, p116)

I suppose it is always possible that the family had a house in Sydney as well as the sheep station, but that seems a bit elaborate.

The question is whether Ransome did this deliberately, to intrigue his readers, or whether he simply wished to add a bit of realistic detail and colour. There can be no doubt that the episode at the top of Kanchenjunga was quite deliberate. It is a poignant moment when Nancy reads the message, one of the few times when she is almost at a loss for words.

However, the inconsistencies in the other biographical details suggest that Ransome merely wished to add colour, and had no concern beyond this. If so, it is a matter for judgment whether Slater Bob’s remark falls into the same category as the Kanchenjunga episode, or is just colour. Since it is a one-liner which is easily overlooked, it is probably colour.

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