Rosemary Sutcliff‘s life and work in children’s, young adult, and adult literature, including The Eagle of the Ninth, was commented upon in 2003 by one of her editors on a website which I cannot now find (and I posted this first in April last year, 2010). She did have a “mystical communion with the past”, an “uncanny sense of place” and a rude sense of humour. But she certainly did not aspire to being a romantic novelist with books “full of sex”. Nor did she feel she had been “let down” by being “crippled by Stills disease”. And her best work was not only in the first half of her career; she had award-winning books up to the end of her life.
She wrote fine books after the 1950s and 1960s, for example the award-winning Song for a Dark Queen in the 1970s, The Shining Company in the 1980s (which won The USA’s Phoenix Award in 2010), and even her last manuscript Sword Song which was published after her death in the 1990s.
I knew Rosemary as a friend and, briefly, as her editor………most of her best writing was done in the 50s and 60s, beginning with ‘The Eagle of the Ninth‘ and ending with ‘The Mark of the Horse Lord‘, which is my own favourite. What she really wanted to do, however, was to write romantic novels full of sex, but here her experience, and imagination, let her down. She was crippled by Still’s disease, contracted as a child – many of her protagonists have physical disabilities of one kind or another. She had no movement in her legs, and hands whose work (including writing and miniature painting) was done with just a forefinger and a tiny, rudimentary thumb.
She had, as did Henry Treece, a mystical communion with the past, which enabled her both to recreate tiny details, and to confound military historians with her understanding of the art of battle in any situation she cared to devise. Her sense of place was uncanny, in that she could get no nearer to a site than the seat of a car on an adjacent road. Friends often served as her eyes, and also as her researchers, but it was the conclusions she drew from the evidence, and her re-creations of them, that made her contribution to the literature about the ancient world so distinctive. Where she was simply embellishing recorded history, she was no better than anyone else.
She also had one of the rudest senses of humour in anyone I have met.