Arthur Ransome Wiki
Nancy Blackett


Name (and aliases):
(christened) Ruth Blackett

Nancy Blackett

The Terror of the Seas
female (although she won't thank you for saying this)
perhaps about 1918
taller than JohnNOT IN USE
Master and part-owner of Amazon

Mate of Wild Cat
Captain of Firefly

Mate of Sea Bear
Native Residence:
Future career:

Nancy Blackett, Amazon pirate, master and part-owner of the Amazon, the Terror of the Seas, was christened Ruth (PM1) but took the name Nancy with her Uncle Jim's encouragement because "pirates are ruthless" (SA10).

Nancy Blackett is a character in nine of the twelve juvenile novels in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series. She is a bit of a tomboy;acting as captain of the dinghy Amazon and usually directing her friends in their various adventures. Nancy apparently has no real-world counterpart as an inspirational source for Ransome but appears to be completely the author's creation. Nancy is sometimes viewed as a subversive character for girl readers, suggesting an alternative choice to feminine domesticity. The character appeared in a 1963 BBC television adaptation of Swallows and Amazons as well as in a 1974 film adaptation of the book.

Role in the series[]

Nancy is the elder of the Amazon Pirates. An imaginative and lively girl, she lives with her younger sister Peggy and her widowed mother in a large Lake District house called Beckfoot. Peggy reveals that "Nancy" is actually a nickname derived from her affection for pirates: her real name is Ruth, but she changed to Nancy as their Uncle Jim points out that pirates are "ruthless." She is something of a tomboy, and usually wear "comfortables", a red knitted pirate cap, a brown shirt and blue shorts (SA8). She captains a sailing dinghy called Amazon, and frequently uses nautical or piratical words in her speech: Jibbooms and bobstays or the classic shiver my timbers.

Nancy usually takes the lead in any adventures, and creates fantasies and adventures, eg climbing Kanchenjunga in Swallowdale instead of just a local mountain. She is a prime instigator even when she is prevented from taking direct part in the action; in Winter Holiday when she is quarantined with mumps, or when their Great Aunt Maria comes to stay and Nancy and Peggy have to be home for meals.

In common with his treatment of many of his characters, Ransome does not give a detailed description of Nancy, just saying: The Amazons were bigger than most of the Swallows. One of them was bigger than Captain John. The other was about the same size (SA10). But while Nancy is bigger than John, it does not follow that she is older than John. It is generally supposed that in the first book of the series, Swallows and Amazons, that Nancy and John are both 12 to 12½ years old.

Nancy is a skilled practical sailor, although Nancy and Peggy were only given Amazon by Captain Flint last year; before then they only had a rowboat. John has much more sailing experience, but is determined not to make mistakes in front of her and earn her disapproval. However Nancy does not have much of the background nautical knowledge that John has picked up from his reading and his naval father, for example knowing about leading lights (SA11).

Character summary[]

Nancy Blackett (Nancy)

"Nancy takes charge - loading Captain Flint" Detail of an illustration by Arthur Ransome from Swallowdale showing Nancy as visualised by her creator

Nancy's upbringing in a single-parent household with only intermittent male influence of her uncle has been suggested as a contributing factor towards her independence and sturdy self-reliance.[2] Unlike John Walker, the Captain of Swallow, who defers to his father's judgements and seeks approval before acting, Nancy makes and acts on decisions for herself. For some, Nancy has an immature view of the world, saying Well, we shan't be at school for ever ... We'll be grown up, and then we'll live here (on Wild Cat Island) all the year round. John is more mature and realistic [3], saying I shall be going to sea some day .... and so will Roger. But we'll always come back here on leave (SA21), though John's comments reflect that boys (but not girls then) were educated for a career.

Nancy matures through the series and latterly uses her energy to support the needs of the younger members of the group.[4] Also her mother: It's Mother she's hitting at, not us ..... We've got to be so jolly good that she simply can't not realise that it was all right for Mother to go away (PM3).

Nancy is not without fault and her flexible standards of honesty, particularly when contrasted with the rigid code of John and the Swallows has been suggested as one of the reasons for her popularity as it makes her seem "more alive for today's reader".[5]

At the beginning of Swallowdale when the Amazons escape from Beckfoot, Nancy and Peggy want to talk as they were both tired of having only each other as listener. Titty and Roger decide to go exploring, and as Nancy and Peggy are louder than John and Susan they can only hear Nancy and Peggy as they get further away, and then the last voice they hear is Nancy's: Then they heard even Nancy's talk no more, though now and then, faint and far away as it was, there was no mistaking her cheerful laugh (SD4).

The others know that Nancy romanticises sometimes; Susan says about the native trouble in the Amazon’s letter: That’s just Nancy .... she always thinks there’s no fun without trouble, so she’d put it in anyhow (SD2). Peggy says about the dramatic pigeon message from the wilderness: It's just Nancy making it more exciting (PP6). And Dorothea asks Titty about Squashy Hat: Is he really prospecting too, or is Nancy just thinking so, to make it more exciting (PP8).

Nancy shows a command of formal language and native conversation, for example solemnly talking about gardening with the missionaries of Lapwing: (SW20) or as a responsible host welcoming the Ds to Rio: "We are delighted to see you. I do hope you had a pleasant journey."...Nancy laughed. Nobody could keep up that sort of thing for more than a sentence or two (PM2). Nancy is also able to restrain the Cook's indignation at the behaviour of the Great Aunt: "Cook, Aunt Maria likes that end of the table better. And she's the visitor so she must choose" (PM6).

Timothy said If you ask me, I think your Great Aunt is remarkably like her Great Niece (PM30). When Nancy said Jolly sporting of her (to pretend she has a gun) …. I never would have thought she had it in her, Timothy says She’s your aunt, you know (PM21).


Unlike a number of his other characters whose origins were firmly rooted in reality, no direct original has been identified for Nancy, although there have been a number of unproven suggestions: including Dora Collingwood, daughter of writer W. G. Collingwood, whom Ransome first met on Peel Island in 1896; Taqui Altounyan, daughter of Dora Collingwood and the oldest of the Altounyan children who were models for the Swallows (CFT p 40); and Georgina Rawdon-Smith (CFT pp 70,100 & photo 8).

Ransome himself was never explicit about the inspiration for Nancy saying only that he had once seen two small girls in red caps playing on the shore of Coniston Water near his house. (NBUS p. 21)

Ransome's own relationship with Nancy was complex. He recognised that her character defined and led the plots but also acknowledged that other characters were dominated and diminished by her presence. Discussing the plot of Winter Holiday in a letter to his mother dated 2 March 1929 he wrote "the main point of the new book is that two other children turn up... ...and then get involved in one of Captain Nancy's colossal plans for adventure" but later in the same paragraph he mentions the more prominent role that Peggy will play "who in previous books has never really had a fair chance, being so much dominated by Nancy".[6]

Critical commentary[]

When Ransome was first writing Swallows and Amazons in 1928, it was unusual for a female character to display such active leadership over males as Nancy Blackett does in the whole series of books and whilst children in children's literature had become increasingly self-motivated towards the end of the 19th century, they were, until Swallows and Amazons, still largely bounded by a "closed nursery-orientated world".[7] Nevertheless, despite writing Nancy in an unconventional role, Peter Hunt suggests that Ransome can still be accused of sexism as Susan Walker's domesticity reinforces the common views of the time; however, he points out that gender is unimportant in Ransome's work.[8]

Despite aging from about twelve to fifteen over the series of books, Nancy, in common with all the children in Ransome's books, shows no sign of developing any interest in sex. Watson suggests that this is in part because Ransome is describing "a company of magical children" rather than completely realistic ones. In addition he suggests that Ransome is merely reflecting the historical and cultural context, "Children's fiction in the 1930s had found no way of writing about sex."[9]

Watson also suggests that Nancy's principal role in the books is to open up "possibilities" and "disrupt the comfortable certainties of the Walker family". [10] He also suggests that she is a force of goodness, especially in the way she deals with her adult counterpart, the Great Aunt in The Picts and the Martyrs. Nancy shares many characteristics with the Great Aunt, but she displays a "heroic generosity" which the Great Aunt does not have. Nancy also does not possess the adult's innate cruelty.[11]

In 1960, a possible path for Nancy's adult life was proposed when critic Hugh Shelley postulated that she might have found the Second World War liberating and become a WREN. He suggested that "as a character one feels she could not be transmuted into a normal, satisfactory adult".[12] Recent analysis of Shelley's work by Katherine Holden has concluded the suggestion is a veiled reference to lesbianism and this, as well as his idea that Nancy would have eventually grown to be like her spinster Great Aunt Maria, has been dismissed as reflecting the homophobia of the time when Shelley was writing.[13] Today, Nancy is viewed as a subversive figure who, in the context of interwar Britain, offered young girls the possibility of an alternative route to adulthood.[14] The character has been cited by feminist author and academic Sara Maitland as a childhood role model "who transcended the restriction of femininity without succumbing to the lure of male-identification" and a "hero who had all the characteristics necessary for the job; who lived between the countries of the material and the imaginary".(NBUS p. 20)

Film and television[]

Nancy Blackett has been portrayed in television and film. Amanda Coxell (now known as Mandy Harper) played the character in the 1963 BBC television adaptation of Swallows and Amazons,[15] and, a little over ten years later, Kit Seymour portrayed Nancy in a 1974 film adaptation.[16]

Non appearances[]

As a major character, Nancy's absences are noteworthy:

  • in Winter Holiday, she is bed-ridden by mumps for most of the book, while Peggy Blackett assumes some of her chivvying role and her piratical language
  • absent but mentioned in Coot Club: Dorothea says It's just what Nancy would have done and wishing that Captain Nancy could see our hands .... they are so beautifully horny (CC5,15).
  • absent but mentioned in We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea: Titty says let's send a postcard to Nancy and Peggy and the D's .... Titty addressed the postcard to Captain Nancy Blackett, at Beckfoot (WD3,4,13,26).
  • The Big Six is the only book in which Nancy is not named, although the Pigeon Post adventures in the mountains of the north are described (BS22). Dorothea tells of pigeons and prospecting for gold, and Dick of making charcoal.

See also[]


  1. Shelley, p. 19
  2. Thompson, p. 16
  3. Hunt, p. 92
  4. Watson, Victor: Reading Series Fiction: From Arthur Ransome to Gene Kemp Routledge, 2000, page 52 [1] isbn 9780415227025
  5. Hunt, p. 92
  6. Brogan, p. 331
  7. Hunt, p. 161
  8. Hunt, p. 165
  9. Wtson, p. 69
  10. Watson p.68
  11. Watson, p. 65
  12. Shelley, p. 19
  13. Holden, p. 170
  14. Holden, p. 171
  15. Template:Cite web
  16. Template:Cite web