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.

Sax Rohmer’s The Mystery of Fu-Manchu

 

Rohmer 1Sax Rohmer (listen to the podcast of the earlier version of this review here) was obsessed with what he and the lower reaches of the pre-First World War popular British press used to call ‘the Yellow Peril’ (I hope you notice the inverted commas around that phrase).  After the war, things began to get less twitchy and close-minded in fiction about the Other – people with different religions and skin colour and who didn’t live in the British Empire. Anti-Semitism and general racism became less overt, and even less necessary to the plots, even in the most formulaic fiction. But the fiction continued, peddling residual values and opinions that formed a layer of familiar views, even if they were not the current views of later readers.

Sax Rohmer was a prolific author in the first half of the 20th century, but is now only remembered for his extraordinary creation of Dr Fu-Manchu, the tall, terrifying and sinister Chinese doctor and chemist who devoted his life to the triumph of the Chinese race and the defeat, in any way possible, of the white race. These phrases are straight from the novel: don’t shoot the messenger. It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book without using racist quotes, so please do be reassured that I’m enthusiastic about this novel because of its social history value, and its existence as a piece of cultural flotsam, not because I approve of its racial politics.

Rohmer 2Rohmer was a British writer who began his career writing for the music hall before writing novels. He seems to have fostered a reputation for being active in the occult, and certainly wrote a great many novels in the 1920s and onwards that dabbled in mysterious religions. The Fu-Manchu books did not have so much to do with the supernatural or the weird as with basic Imperialism, with a dash of drama based on science. They were serialised in weekly fiction magazines, and were wildly popular, with Rohmer being persuaded after a ten-year break to write more Fu-Manchu novels from the 1930s, until his death in 1959. I’ve only read two or three, but because they were very formulaic, and had a simple structure, I’m going to assume that they shared the same form and delivered the same messages to the readers, who wouldn’t have bought them in such large numbers otherwise.

Rohmer 3The narrator of The Mystery of Fu-Manchu (the American title of the novel was The Insidious Fu-Manchu, by the way, if you’re looking for the free download from Project Gutenberg) is Dr Petrie, and he is a medical man, as he often tell us. He is settling down to do some writing one evening, when his old friend Nayland Smith walks in, and the drama begins. Dr Petrie and Nayland Smith are a very obvious Watson and Holmes re-run, right down to the eccentric investigator’s smoking habits, and his ability to make deductions out of nothing. But unlike Sherlock Holmes stories, the pace of the action in this first Fu-Manchu novel is, initially, a headlong torrent. There is no let-up for the reader. It seems as if Rohmer wanted to write an action-packed thriller with a dollop of detection, where the speed of events and the drama were to be the attraction for the reader. There is no time for narrative reflection, but, interestingly, there is a lot of time in Petrie’s narration for repetition, and repeated tirades against the ‘Yellow Peril’ which threatens the entire white race. Reading this fiction now, it seems extraordinary that anyone could have thought in such a way, or even enjoyed the sweeping generalisation, because it is so blatantly all for effect, not for sense, rationality, or even plausibility. And that’s where the interest in novels like this lie: people liked this kind of writing, and bought it to read for pleasure. What does that tell us about what their enjoyment was based on? And should we read this stuff today?

Rohmer 5Let’s go back to the plot. Nayland Smith is a civil servant, an old Burma hand, back in England on leave because he knows that Dr Fu Manchu has reached these shores, and is going to do evil and terrible things. The plot progresses as Petrie follows Nayland Smith from one locked room mystery to another, in which Eastern experts die in horrible and inventively implausible ways. It’s interesting that the power and secret knowledge that the East wants is located in the West. There is no shortage of knowledge in the East, as well as secrecy, glamour, villainy and multitudinous deadly methods: it’s astonishing how much nonsense was laid at the East’s door that the readers of the West were willing to believe. Again, that’s something worth thinking about: why did readers fall for such claptrap, even if only at the level of reading cheap and entertaining fiction?

Dr Fu-Manchu is always at the back of the devilish crimes in this novel, which are usually based on abstruse chemistry, poison left waiting, or inhaled, or delivered by an insect. The point of all the deaths is that Fu-Manchu is trying to destroy the West’s ascendancy. Because America was an important market for British fiction, the idea that Fu-Manchu was taking on the British Empire didn’t last long in the narrative, and ‘the West’ and ‘the white race’ were trumpeted as his bitter enemies, thus involving the American reader in the attempt to whip up hate and demonise Asian characters.

By killing off Eastern experts Fu-Manchu denies their services to ‘the white West’, but sometimes he wants their services himself. So he invents a drug that will produce the appearance of death, but when an antidote is injected, the victim recovers. This happens in the nick of time in the case of engineering genius Lord Southery, shortly after he has been put in his coffin and parked in the mausoleum, but not before his burial. Good thing Nayland Smith and Petrie got there in time to open the vault at midnight, in the moonlight, and administer the antidote. This episode is a blatant steal from Dracula, from only twenty years earlier. I expect the readers loved it for that reason.

Rohmer 6In another case, Petrie is taken to see the recovery of an Egyptian boy, Aziz, because the boy’s sister, the lovely Karamaneh, has been vamping Petrie from the moment she appears in the book. She wants Petrie to help her escape from Fu-Manchu’s clutches, and so she keeps appearing in exotic outfits wearing a highly traceable scent, to tell Petrie to come with her secretly and not tell Nayland Smith, and the poor fool does it every time. He is really a very unprofessional sidekick, constantly getting himself into danger, and never learning from his mistakes. Karamaneh starts off as just a glamorous villain, but Rohmer seems to have changed his mind about her quite quickly, possibly because he had such a good time writing about Petrie’s susceptibility. Petrie even thinks about marrying her, but in the end, she and her brother sail back to Egypt, and Nayland Smith gives Petrie an ambiguous mission to Egypt as well, to encourage the readers to buy the next instalment.

Nayland Smith himself is a peculiar creation: very given to histrionics, to striding up and down ceaselessly, to spilling his tobacco all over the carpet, to gripping his knuckles until they are white, and so on. Demonstrative sort of cove, as a P G Wodehouse character might have said. He is the high-handed lone detective working independently from the police, with such fine-tuned investigative instincts that he develops a supernatural awareness of the presence of Fu-Manchu. He is an Empire sniffer dog with a specialism in the mysterious East. But Nayland Smith is also closely associated with the East himself, because he is an old Burmese hand, and one of his most frequently-used descriptive characteristics is his Burmese sunburn. The idea of a ‘good’ East and a ‘bad’ East is something that Rohmer doesn’t do anything to develop – it’s not that kind of novel – but it’s certainly there, waiting for attention. There is also a morally-weighted doubling of doctors. Petrie keeps telling us that he is a ‘medical man’, that he risks losing his licence from the BMA if he resuscitates Aziz. He keeps taking personal charge of all the rescued victims of Fu-Manchu who still need care, so he is the good doctor, a ‘physician of the white races’. Fu-Manchu is the evil doctor, also a non-white doctor, and thus pagan and unprincipled.

The ordeals that Fu-Manchu puts Petrie and Nayland Smith through are wildly imaginative, probably the main attraction of the Fu-Manchu novels. The first part of the novel has them tackling the aftermath of locked room mysteries, and wrestling with monkeys, Indian bandits and giant centipedes. We’ve come across these before, in James Bond and Indiana Jones films, so I expect that Sax Rohmer was their original inspiration. But in the second part of the novel, when Fu-Manchu turns his attention to Nayland Smith and Petrie directly, they are imprisoned in an underground dungeon, and then trapped in a cave full of giant psychotropic fungi and phosphorescent mushroom growths that eat people. You really can’t get better than that for thrilling, extraordinary, ludicrous entertainment, even if the quality of the prose is a bit pedestrian, and the politics entirely beyond the pale. So although I’m not recommending Sax Rohmer as a top novelist, and I’m certainly not recommending the Fu-Manchu novels as a sophisticated literary experience, these novels have energetic and wildly inventive methods for dealing death to our unstoppable detective heroes. Just leave your political correctness at the door.

 

Three disappointments for the dud pile

I’ve had a bad run of books I didn’t like and books read for work rather than pleasure recently, so all I can offer this week are these three pallid specimens. I’ll try to crank up my enthusiasm next week. It’s the end of term, holiday reading is beckoning, I have hopes of something marvellous waiting for me when I pick up the very next book from the pile.

RussellKaren Russell, Swamplandia!

I love Karen Russell’s short stories, in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which I reviewed here, so I bought Swamplandia!, her novel, and have been putting off reading it for over a year. I took it all the way to Hawaii and brought it back unread. Not a good sign. So I went and put myself on a train with nothing but this to read and made myself get through it. It’s not great. Her imagination is stupendous, and her eye for compelling detail creates marvels, but this novel is a short story that has grown beyond its natural capacity for wonder. And I was not entranced: I was bored by halfway through. The central premise of an alligator park in a Florida swamp is solid; Ossie’s romance with a ghost is extremely odd; the story of Louis’ swamp-sailing life in the 1920s is a beautiful short short that might have been published somewhere else first, it is so polished and self-contained. I was completely unconvinced by the Chief’s obsession with keeping the park on, and by Kiwi’s passive endurance. Ava the narrator is of course a star, but the red Seth is unused and wasted, like a glowing ember snuffed out by Gothic monstrosity. Too many details, not enough story.

WelshIrvine Welsh, Trainspotting

Another novel I put off reading until I absolutely had no choice. I inherited a Modern Scottish Fiction course from a departing colleague, and so I inherited all the novels he had carefully chosen and a course outline he had refined over the years.  Miss Jean Brodie, A Disaffection, Morvern Callar, Lanark, Keep Breathing, they’re all there. And lurking like a malignant toad at the back, was Trainspotting. I read the first half in a gobble of desperation, like a really bad medicine, and felt ill. It vastly enlarged my vocabulary for drug addiction and a truly astonishing collection of words pertaining to the body and its functions, humours, liquids and solids, but did I enjoy it? No. I hated it. I admire its technique and innovation, but I was counting the hours until I could put it back on the high shelf. I wrote my class notes. Reread bits. Cautiously took a peek here and there through the remainder of the novel and read some of the shorter chapters. Revised my class notes. Took the class through the first seminar of the week, and felt some hope. They liked the novel, some of them really liked it, so they did more of the talking than usual. Emboldened, I finished the chapters I’d not read, and we tore through the second session. I had had the brainwave of getting the class to put the book on trial, and my obliging lawyer sister found me Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. That went down well, with some strong defences of its scatology, misogyny and the glamorisation of violence. Now I never need read the bloody thing again.

NivenLarry Niven, Ringworld

I’ve been meaning to read Larry Niven for years, so I scooped up a copy of Ringworld, hoping for technological wonders. Foolish me. I’d forgotten that the only Niven story I’ve read was ‘Cloak of Anarchy’, which had the futuristic technology I craved, and the slightly dystopic enclosed society, and also the naked girl walking through a park with her cloak hovering behind her, unafraid of sexual assault because of the police surveillance. And then the surveillance stopped, and oh look, assault begins. Ringworld (as far as I read) doesn’t have the assault, but it does seem to revolve around an old man’s seedy, leering gaze on a very young woman’s body in and out of various anonymous and uninteresting parties, and frankly I could not be bothered. Several alien characters, who seemed like tedious blokes in alien suits for all the difference they exhibited in their behaviour or perceptions, exasperated my tolerance for tired 1970s fantasies until I just had to fling Ringworld on the floor. It went to Age Concern last week, and they’re welcome to it.