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.

Mark Twain’s A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Twain 1Launching into a new miniseries of podcast scripts from Why I Really Like This Book, the next few weeks will see a long and enjoyable wallow in stories about King Arthur. This will include early British history, fantasies about Merlin, and the utterly compelling theory that when the Romans pulled out of Britain, somehow the Saxon warlord culture that emerged also brought forth the stories about Arthur that were medievalised into the knights of the Round Table. I don’t begin with Sir Thomas Malory, because, entrancing as the Morte Darthur is, it’s rather hard to read, since it isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of repetitious events stuck together. I’m going to start with the American writer Mark Twain’s satire on knight errantry, A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, first published in 1889, and now more commonly known as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Warning: here be spoilers.)

Twain 2Mark Twain was irreverent. This work of Arthurness may have come as a shock to the pious late Victorians who were used to swooning over Tennyson’s Arthurian poems from The Idylls of the King, only a few years earlier. Tennyson wrote as though he were a Pre-Raphaelite without a sense of humour. The whole point of the Yankee is that the story juxtaposes the ignorant 6th century against the knowitall, up to the minute, technologically superior 19th century, and the 19th century wins, right until the last chapter. Twain makes no explanation as to how his 19th-century man, one Hank Morgan, travels back in time and place from Hartford,, Connecticut, to 6th-century England; he just wakes up one morning and there he is. He is also dealt with as any 6th-century stranger would be: he is challenged by a knight, refuses to fight, and is taken prisoner as that knight’s personal property, and condemned to die at the stake. Luckily (and this is the most ridiculous coincidence in the novel) Hank just happens to know that in a day’s time there will be an eclipse of the sun, so on the strength of that, he sends out word that he is a wizard, and will cause mighty terrible things to happen unless he is released. He is not, the eclipse happens, the populace are very much impressed and terrified, and Hank Morgan becomes King Arthur’s prime minister.

Twain 3He can see a lot of scope for his brain and superior knowledge, and the nice thing is, none of it is for his own aggrandisement. The Boss, for that is now his name, is not at all interested in getting rich, or commanding power where he doesn’t need it. He is a reformer, and is determined to reform 6th-century society with judicious applications  of 19th-century technology. The first things to make their absence known are the basic necessities of life; no soap, no matches, no mirrors. There were no books, paper, pens or ink, and no glass for windows. There was no sugar, coffee, tea or tobacco: and now I think we get the picture. Twain’s hero is not at all interested in enjoying life in the 6th century; he just wants to return to his own time as fast as he can, or, if that isn’t possible, to make where he is like his own time. It helps that the entire nation thinks that he is a magician, and that Merlin (who in this novel is a doddering and malign old man with no power whatsoever) is not going to get in his way. At least, he won’t get in the Boss’s way once the Boss has blown up Merlin’s tower with homemade dynamite. Now that the Boss really is the boss, King Arthur’s sole advisor, the Boss can get on with a more noble long-term plan, of relieving the oppression of the poor, and removing the tyranny of the knightly class. The rest of the novel is part adventure, part philosophical nature ramble, on how an ignorant and illiterate populace can be persuaded to help turn themselves into a republic. Spot the American influence.

Twain 4Not that Twain has anything against King Arthur. Arthur remains a noble and honourable figure throughout (I think it would be hard to change his character in any circumstances), but he is a bit dim. Twain does an excellent job of thinking through how 6th-century man might think, speak, and reason, and he sticks to it. There is very little anachronism here, in the way of 6th-century people thinking like 19th-century people, that can’t be explained by sustained exposure to the Boss’s own speech and thought processes. His chief assistant, Clarence, learns fast how to keep up with the Boss and his schemes and planning, but he still speaks in the way he was brought up: he’s just a fast learner with the flexibility of youth. King Arthur, on the other hand, is a great and noble savage, with excellent instincts for truth and justice, but that’s about it. The Boss takes Arthur on a tour of his kingdom in disguise, so that the king may see the common people close up, but Arthur’s inability to act common nearly gets them caught several times, and in the end they are sold as slaves. The Boss, in his turn, has to act like a 6th-century knight, especially when a fair maiden arrives at court with a tale of woe and captured ladies. He is provided with a horse and weapons and armour (complicated to put on and manage), and off he goes on a quest, with the lady sitting behind him chattering unstoppably.  Problems begin when the sun gets stronger and the shade gets weaker, and he gets hotter, and has an itch on the back, and a fly inside his helmet. These unbearable conditions force him to dismount, and get Sandy (the lady’s name is Alisande, so naturally he calls her Sandy) to take his helmet off and pour water inside his armour until he is comfortable again. Only now, he can’t get back on the horse, so he walks and Sandy rides. By such means are the impracticalities of knight errantry skewered lengthily and lovingly by Twain.

Bing Crosby as The Boss?Not very believable.
Bing Crosby as The Boss? Not very believable.

They run into Morgan Le Fay, a terrifying witch, married to King Uriens, who is a doddering old man with no courage (very much like the Red Queen and Red King from Alice in Wonderland, which had been published a few years earlier). In Morgan’s castle the tone of this novel begins to turn sharp, since real human misery and cruelty are here, in her dungeons. The Boss sets people free, and does what he can to alleviate suffering, but he can’t wipe away years of torture and confinement. This is what I admire about this novel. It is not fantasy wish-fulfilment, in which all ills are easily wiped away by a stroke. Actions have consequences, which can’t be got rid of. People get killed and die of other means: the casual brutality of the 6th century is accepted by the Boss, possibly because in the 1880s there was a lot of casual 19th-century brutality as well. The Boss blows people up, kills people, arranges for things to happen that will inadvertently kill people: it’s all rather shocking but also very real. This is what people are like. He deals with the knightly class once and for all by first defeating his most hated enemy in a joust with a lasso, and then with a revolver. Many knights die, and no-one thinks anything of this, because (we are reminded) jousting was not about the spectacle and the romance, it was about maiming and disabling your opponent with heavy, fast and sharp weapons and then cutting his head off. If death has to happen the Boss’s method is cleaner and faster and more humane. In a passage near the end, when the Boss is describing the advance of newspaper journalism in Arthur’s kingdom, he mentions as an aside that the first novelist to have his book published made a bad joke once too often, and so the Boss suppressed the book and hung the author. That sort of thing comes as a shock when we also read about the Boss’s enlightened practices and useful inventions for the betterment of mankind. He really is not like us at all. He’s like we might have been over 120 years ago.

Will Rogers and Maureen O'Sullivan? Much better.
Will Rogers and Maureen O’Sullivan? Much better.

What does this novel have to say about Arthur, and the Round Table? Arthur is untouchable: a bit gullible, but a hero and a great man. Guenevere is a bored and foolish queen in love with Sir Launcelot, which Arthur knows about, but is more sad that the queen doesn’t seem to love him. Sir Launcelot is the greatest of the knights, and a sportsman as well, we can’t say anything bad about him. This eternal love triangle brings the kingdom to ruin in the end, as it must, because you can’t change the end of this story, even if the middle has been seriously messed around with. And after the death of Arthur, in comes the Church, about whom the Boss has been railing all along, since he is afraid of the Church, and rightly so. He had plans for getting rid of the Catholics and encouraging an early growth of Protestantism, but something else demanded his attention, and so the Reformation had to wait for another thousand years. Most sad of all (spoiler alert), now that the Boss has married Sandy and they have a baby girl, he inadvertently gets killed by a malign knight and is flung forward to his own time, where the reader first met him. Luckily he dies not very long afterwards, because to be missing your wife and child who have been abandoned 1300 years ago is torture we don’t want to hear much about.

But don’t be sad: there is so much humour in this novel. Satire means laughter, and the witty asides and terrific snappy dialogue in the inner thoughts of the Boss make this a novel to treasure.

Tell Me What You Read: David McKay and literary translation

In Tell Me What You Read I interview well-kenned folk in public life about how their reading has shaped their lives, in the past and now. 

McKayDavid McKay, literary translator of Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine, and Everything to Nothing by Geert Buelens.

Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?

I’ve been thinking recently how lucky I am to have read so much of Mark Twain’s writing so early in life. A lot of children have Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn foisted on them at an early age because they’re supposed to be children’s books. But I preferred fantasy and science fiction as a child, and maybe for that reason, the Twain books that made the deepest impression on me were A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Mysterious Stranger. Both have elements of the adventure story, as well as a lot of very funny moments, but when I returned to them later in life, I was surprised to find that both are inflamed with rage and bitterness about the human condition, and more specifically about the inhumanity and hypocrisy of what Twain called the ‘damned human race’.

GodelThere are two other authors I have to mention – the first is David Hofstadter, whose book Gödel, Escher, Bach fascinated me in high school, and who turned to the subject of translation, in Le Ton beau de Marot, around the time that I became a professional translator. Hofstadter draws fascinating connections between translation, personal identity and the nature of creativity, and his explorations have helped me to appreciate the philosophical dimensions of my modest craft.

Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood combines the elusive sense of waking up to the world around you as a child with a vivid openness to the possibilities of language, the richness of human experience and the mystery of the zone where language and experience meet  ­– a zone intimately familiar to writers, including translators.

ErdichWhat or who do you read to forget about the world, to escape?

In recent years I seem to be getting fussier — I can only take so much of the competent but bland writing in a John Grisham novel or the Game of Thrones book series. Fat 18th– and 19th-century novels seem to be the most reliable means of escape: Trollope (Phineas Finn, The Irish Member), Thackeray, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Herman Melville, and of course Jane Austen. Sometimes I think the whole point of an e-reader is that you can download the Western canon from Project Gutenberg. I also enjoy curling up with twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers who can communicate the texture of a time and place and community the way Austen does. Louise Erdrich (The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse) and Jhumpa Lahiri come to mind, along with Carol Shields (Happenstance) and of course Alice Munro.

There’s also something very relaxing about tales of other people’s gruelling long-distance walks. To gear up for a trip to Japan I read The Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost, Alan Booth’s engrossing books about exploring Japan on foot. Exceptionally good science fiction and fantasy can still take me away to another world too: the compelling characters and richly conceived settings in Kim Stanley Robinson’s books (particularly The Years of Rice and Salt) make it hard to believe that he hasn’t walked on Mars and lived through alternate histories himself. I’m enthralled by China Miéville’s hallucinatory cities, and I cherish the way Jo Walton combines science fiction and fantasy elements with realistic narratives that feel very close to home.

OharaWhat reading do you choose for a long journey?

Sometimes a long journey gives me the opportunity to read a book that requires persistent, relatively uninterrupted attention. I recall the otherworldly experience of reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary cover to cover on a transatlantic flight and gaining a radical new way of thinking about the human mind. Who knows whether I would ever have made it through the book otherwise?

These days, I often try to pack light by bringing my e-reader, but that raises nail-biting questions: What do I do if I run out of power and can’t recharge? What if they won’t let me use it on the plane? For that matter, what if it breaks? One strategy is to have a little volume of poetry in reserve – because once I’m done with a novel, short stories, or non-fiction, I want to lay the book aside at least for a while, but good poetry tends to invite immediate rereading. Maybe I would slip my 90g copy of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems into my pocket.

HackerBut standing in front of my poetry shelves, I would probably give in to impractical temptation and toss a couple of heavy tomes into my carry-on, like Edward Snow’s bilingual edition of The Poetry of Rilke (which I could easily spend the rest of my life reading if circumstances required) and Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975–2001.


Then again, what better traveling companion than Marilyn Hacker, who has proved many times over that rhyme and meter aren’t reactionary and that, even in a world of free verse, the sonnet retains its power to move the heart and delight the mind. This one is from the collection Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons.

Your choice of ‘Oh lord I’m bored’ reading?

witnessOn a drizzly Saturday morning, I might feel ambitious enough to dip into one of those books that are rewarding in small doses but too dense or harrowing to read all at once, like Harold McGee’s magnum opus of culinary science On Food and Cooking or Martin Chalmers’s translations of Victor Klemperer’s diaries of the Nazi years, I Shall Bear Witness and To the Bitter End. On a long, lethargic Sunday afternoon, I might reread just about any Graham Greene novel, but especially Travels with My Aunt. On a Thursday when I’m alone in my home office and don’t feel like working, I might open up Will Eno’s monologue Title and Deed and read a few pages out loud to myself.
On a Friday evening at home, I could open up Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.

What was your last huge reading disappointment?

I’ve recently been looking carefully at a lot of recent literary translations, which is enlightening and often humbling for me when I see the skill, integrity, and imagination that some of my fellow translators show. But it can also be distressing — for example, when a well-known, experienced, prize-winning translator makes a hash of something, and I strongly suspect that he or she could have done better and just didn’t take the time to do the job properly. We’re talking about basic misreadings of words in the original language, word-for-word translations that don’t make much sense in English, ambiguities introduced by the translator — embarrassing things like that. Every translator slips up in these ways occasionally, but not over and over again with such frequency.

This is doubly distressing because, in at least one case, I think the original book really merits a first-rate translation. By agreeing to do the translation and then producing shoddy work, this translator has stood in the way of somebody else doing the job, somebody who would take the book seriously and treat it with respect. To be sure, there’s often great pressure on translators to work quickly. Publishers sometimes set challenging or even unreasonable deadlines, and if you expect literary work to make a serious contribution to your income, then you have to be prolific. Even so, what this translator did was just plain unethical.

And then it’s triply distressing to see that book reviewers for newspapers and journals tend to assume that, because the translator is well known and experienced and has won awards, the translation must be all right, so they make the usual passing reference, some variation on ‘ably translated by X’, a stock phrase which is sort of a joke among professional translators, and ignore the obvious fact that there’s something clunky and confusing about the writing.

One thing we could consider bringing into that discussion is whether we translators should try to fill the gap by publicly reviewing each other’s work more often. Some of the reasons we don’t are obvious. For instance, the community of Dutch-English literary translators is small and chummy. Most of us here in the Netherlands can fit around a large picnic table and sometimes do. I don’t want to alienate my friends and acquaintances, or even their friends and acquaintances, by saying less-than-glowing things about somebody else’s work. Fortunately, despite obstacles like these, there are a few good sources for book reviews that subject translators’ work to serious scrutiny — above all, the Three Percent blog.

And finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?

novelI’ll spare you my wonky enthusiasm for the main thing I’m reading at the moment, Antoine Berman’s Toward a Translation Criticism: John Donne, and instead tell you about the latest work of fiction that amazed me. A True Novel, Minae Mizumura’s Japanese reworking of Wuthering Heights, is a two-volume tour de force — after finishing it, I went back and re-read Wuthering Heights for the first time since my school days. To be totally honest, I prefer Mizumura’s version. Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translator, who worked together closely with the author to produce the English version, is one of my translation heroes.

If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.