Borrowed fire at sea: Mark Twain and Arthur Ransome

Ransome 1Missee Lee (1941) is an adventure novel in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, one of the two novels in the series whose extraordinary places and events really could not have happened. I don’t know how the Arthur Ransome Society would feel about this theory, but I’ve always held that Missee Lee, like Peter Duck (1932), is a story told by the children to each other, off the page, whereas their many sailing adventures in the Lake District, the Norfolk Broads and off the mud near Harwich, are realistic events that could happen to anyone, which is half of their charm.

In Missee Lee these six children in their early teens, their parrot and Gibber the monkey sail around the world with Captain Flint, the uncle of the two of the children, in a two-mast schooner, the Wild Cat. The ship is burned at sea, and the two life-boats, the Swallow and the Amazon (this really proves that this is a fantasy: nobody would have transported two elderly Lake Coniston sailing dinghies to Portsmouth, or wherever, as lifeboats for a voyage around the world: come on) are separated during the night. The story of how the two parties land on the Chinese coast, get mixed up with pirates, mandarins, the slave trade and Latin lessons, in an interwar China wholly unlike the People’s Republic of China of the time, is one of the most magical and satisfying of all of Ransome’s novels.

Ransome 2The loss of the Wild Cat at sea by fire is a quickly described but searingly detailed episode, a rare moment where the children’s lives are threatened by spectacular events told in Arthur Ransome’s signature flat style. The most intense feelings, the most desperate moments, are given power by the quietness with which we are told the details. Something I don’t think anyone has noticed before (but Ransomeites can prove me wrong: I don’t have access to the Arthur Ransome Society’s publications) is that Ransome borrowed this episode from a newspaper account by Mark Twain of a real-life disaster at sea, nearly eighty years before.

In 1866, the clipper ship Hornet sailed from New York, around Cape Horn, and was heading for Australia across the south Pacific, when it was lost at sea by fire. The crew and passengers escaped in three boats but were separated at sea, and only one boat, containing thirteen men and two teenage boys, made landfall, drifting ashore at Hawaii after forty-three days at sea. [1] Mark Twain was at that time working as a journalist for the Sacramento Union, and had decided to spend some time in Hawaii, from where he had been filing reports in the form of letters to the Union since March. On hearing of the arrival of the shipwrecked sailors, Twain interviewed the Hornet’s third mate John S Thompson, and some of the men. His account of the loss of the Hornet was the first account to be printed, in June 1866 in the Sacramento Union, and shortly afterwards in other North American periodicals. [2] This disaster at sea and the survival of some of the shipwrecked sailors became a well-known story in nautical history.

Twain 1On reading Twain’s account and immediately recognising its similarities with the episode in Missee Lee, I did some literary detection. It seems clear to me that Ransome borrowed freely from the account as Twain gave it, and from which subsequent accounts of the disaster were drawn. Twain’s account may not have been reprinted in the twentieth century until 1939, in Letters from Honolulu, although this was in a limited edition of 1000 copies by an American publisher, unlikely to have come Ransome’s way. [3] It is most likely that Ransome first read about the Hornet’s end in a secondary publication from the nineteenth century, but the closeness of his account to Twain’s makes me think that whatever he read pretty much repeated Twain’s account in its details and structure. Both disasters happen on a day of no wind and tropical heat; both are caused by an ‘open light’ igniting flammable liquid in the hold. The last correlating point, of the emotion felt by the sailors on seeing their ships slip underwater, is particularly telling. Twain positioned this as a natural observation in his linear account, as did Ransome, and both conclude their dramatic, realistic accounts to remind us that to sailors, ships are people too.

The evidence is given below in two columns, in the order given in Twain’s account, and in the novel.

Mark Twain, ‘Honolulu, June 22 1866’, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (1966), ed. A Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975), 137-60 Arthur Ransome, Missee Lee (1941) (Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1976), 27-37.
  The crew are dozing on deck in the long tropical afternoon heat, on their way from Japan to the China coast.
Chief mate and two men go down to the hold to draw some ‘bright varnish’ from a cask. Captain tells them bring the cask on desk as it’s too dangerous in the hold. The mate disobeys this order and draws the varnish in the hold first Captain Flint ‘was passing full petrol tins up through the forehatch’. The crew help him pour the petrol from the cans into the engine tank on deck.
The liquid ignited from the ‘open light’ in his hand Gibber grabs Captain Flint’s lit cigar, and, chased by the crew, dives down into the hold through the forehatch opening. ‘A sheet of flame shot upward.’
The ship goes up in flames very quickly The ship goes up in flames very quickly
The crew and watch were idling in such shade as they could find, ‘and the listlessness and repose of morning in the tropics was upon the vessel and her belongings’  
Captain Mitchell ordered the three (life)boats to be launched instantly Captain Flint orders the boats to be launched immediately.
One boat’s bottom was stove in in the hurry, but was patched with a blanket *  
‘Not a thing was saved, except such food and other articles as lay about the cabin and could be quickly seized and thrown on deck’ ‘There was time to save very little’
‘Forty minutes after the fire alarm, the provisions and passengers were on board the three boats, and they rowed away from the ship’ ‘Get the boat clear,’ shouted Captain Flint […] ‘Pull clear,’ shouted Captain Flint angrily.
‘Twenty minutes afterward the two masts I have mentioned, with their rigging and their broad sheets of canvas wreathed in flames, crashed ito the sea’ ‘Deckhouse and galley were gone. The mainmast rose out of a mass of flames, its shrouds hanging loose, their lanyards burned through. There was a loud crack and then another. The mast swayed …’
‘The sea was illuminated for miles around and the clouds above were tinged with a ruddy hue’ ‘The sun was dipping now below the sea in the west and the sudden dark of the tropics was sweeping out of the east. The Wild Cat flamed against the dusk like a row of torches.

‘Two sunsets at once’, said Titty.

‘the ship went down, and the crew of the Hornet were alone […] “We felt as if somebody or something had gone away – as if we hadn’t any home any more”’ ‘There was a long drawn hiss as the sea swept through her and the last flame went out as the little schooner disappeared for ever.

John, Susan and Roger heard Titty’s gasping sob and hoped it had not been noticed by the others.’

* Notice the shared event with Swallowdale (1931).

Christina Hardyment gives an account of two notes written by Ransome during his planning of Missee Lee as he was writing it from 1939 onwards. The first rough outline includes a shipwreck and Gibber with an oil can. The second, dated February 1941, notes ‘the dreadful burning of the Wild Cat’, which differs from the ‘shipwreck’ in the earlier, undated note. [4] By then Ransome had clearly firmed up his outline, and perhaps had come across Twain’s account, and used it to create the defining moment in Missee Lee that generates the plot.

If anyone has written further on this point, I’d be glad to hear about it.

[1] Mark Twain, ‘Honolulu, June 22 1866’, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (1966), ed. A Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975), 137-60, 137, 139.

[2] A Grove Day, ‘Introduction’, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (1966), ed. A Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975), v-xvii, x.

[3] Day 1966, xvii.

[4] Christina Hardyment, Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunk (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), 170, 174.