First, chronologically speaking, in my big pile of Roman-setting (Rosemary) Sutcliffs : the tragic, doomed story of Boudicca (Song for A Dark Queen). I’d read this before several times, but I re-read it recently. It’s very dark, especially for a children’s book – she doesn’t pull her punches, everything in Cassius Dio’s not-really-very-contemporary-but-best-we’ve-got account is there: the rapes, the casual violence of the Romans, the torture and sacrifice of Roman women by Boudicca’s forces.
Boudicca is horrifying in this, but the writing is fabulous, and for me, it really works. Even though Boudicca ends up doing horrifying things, I felt that I ended up caring for the character and feeling a sort of understanding for her.
9 thoughts on “Another Pile of Books includes Rosemary Sutcliff | Song for a Dark Queen”
.. or be the hero’s sister. :-) Anne, I totally agree. Now we could discuss whether this is a stage you should leave behind to become a “real” adult or you loose when trying to become a “real, normal” adult, whether it is a blessing or a curse to keep it (or be stuck with it) – or both :-).
I was just thinking, Anjy, that there’s a time when girls become teenagers, especially girls who have grown up with heroic tales, where developing sexuality leads to fantasy where there is a swirling confusion about whether you want to be the hero or marry the hero or both – this is what I sometimes sense in Sutcliff’s work.
Again, in “Flame Coloured Taffeta” as in “Shield Ring,” Damaris does not act alone, but with her friend, Peter, though she does get more of a starring role. The central pairing of two friends is a very strong element in Sutcliff’s novels and sometimes this pairing is male and female rather than the usual two males. In these rare cases there’s always an understanding that this friendship will in time become a marriage: Damaris and Peter in “Flame-Coloured Taffeta”, Freya and Bjorn in “Shield Ring”, Hugh and Darklis in “Bonnie Dundee” and Tamsyn and Piers in “The Armourer’s House”.
You’re right in saying that there is a certain romantic female sensibilty in Sutcliff’s writing, most notably apparent in her adult novel “The Rider of the White Horse” – she clearly sees Sir Thomas Fairfax in the light of rather breathless romantic hero-worship – but I’m sure that on the whole she identified with male characters because they were free to act in ways women weren’t and so more able to satisfy her necessarily vicarious desire for action and adventure.
I remember reading a comment by Sutcliff on the making of Sword at Sunset, that she lived in the body and mind of a man for 18 months and it took her some time to crawl out of it again. I experience Artos as a very credible male first-person perspective. I’m not so sure about the others. There are some who although they are male exhibit a vaguely female attitude towards other male characters. I’m currently thinking of Prosper, Jesthyn, Hugh Herriot, Marcus and Esca … While everyone who wants to jump the Slash-theme waggon on that repellant fan-fiction train in those cases will have my sword at his (or more probable her) throat, I’ve often wondered if there are not a good many of Sutcliff’s on feelings about comradery, loyalty and – yes! – love appointed rather to the male characters than to the females. Maybe because her life wasn’t that of an average woman, either. Be it in a former life or not- she did have to do her bit of soldiering, much more so than other women (with the possible exception of those who had to clean up after the war). I am still looking for some of her books which are entirely told around a female character like Flamecoloured Taffeta which has never been translated into German as far as I know (not that I couldn’ read it in English, but do you know – her books are pricea. An original copy of Dawn Wind is for sale at amazon. de for 84 Euros!)
Further thoughts on the subject….
I personally still find Sutcliff’s Boudicca rather remote, even though she’s more well-rounded than many of her other female characters.
It’s interesting that while girls are usually quite sketchily drawn, Sutcliff’s older female characters fall into two distinct groups:
1) Ordinary women, usually of the brisk, nurturing sort- Aunt Honoria in “The Silver Branch” is probably the strongest example in this group
2) The Little Dark Women and the stately Celtic Royal Women- of these Boudicca in “Song of a Dark Queen” is the strongest. These women are much more threatening, – they hold the dark mystery of the Goddess, the Great Mother.
It’s my theory that these two groups represent the double aspect of Sutcliff’s manic-depressive mother, but that’s pure speculation :)
Anyone who’s read a lot of Sutcliff’s books can’t help but be struck by the notable dichotomy which shows up consistently through her body of work in the male and female principles frequently seen in conflict with each other. When you become aware of this, it perhaps makes it clearer why she might have preferred to identify with the male principle.
Male = Sun/ Sun God / Light/ Good
Female = Moon/ the Great Mother/Darkness/ Danger
@Anjy: Rosemary Sutcliff grew up with stories and legends filled with male heroes, and my feeling is that she identified much more with male characters, whose freedom to act was much greater than that of girls in the historical periods where she set her novels. She said herself that her “voice” tended to be that of a man, especially as she grew into her work over the years. Then there’s that intriguing suggestion she made that she felt she had been a soldier in past lives…
I’m sure you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that though Boudicca is the central character in “Song for a Dark Queen”, the reason why she comes alive is because she’s seen through the eyes of a male character, her bard. I don’t believe that it would have been possible for Sutcliff to write Boudicca’s story in the first person as she did with Artos in “Sword at Sunset”.
The Eagle has been reprinted in Germany, also. With Channing Tatum on the front cover ;-).
But as for “Song fore a Dark Queen” – it’s the only book by Rosemary Sutcliff, so far, I only read once and cannot bring myself to read again. And it made me wonder about one thing: I always found that Sutcliff’s female characters to me are less convincing than the males. She – imhO – never seemed to get really close to girls and women. Whether it be Frytha in the Shield Ring or Alexia in Blood Feud, Cottia in the Eagle or even Flavia and Ness in The Lantern Bearers, they just never seemed to gain as much life as the men. It’s different with Boudicca and I believe it’s because the story-teller is really a male character. Through his eyes Boudicca comes alive as a woman, completely plausible and authentic. Anyone any idea, why this be so?
Thanks for this.
‘Song for a Dark Queen’ was the first Rosemary Sutcliff book that I read as a young girl obsessed with the Romans back in the 1980’s.
To my shame I only discovered ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ this year at the age of 29, and slowly making my way through Sutcliff’s back catalogue as I get a hold of them.
Thanks for the reminder!
My only question is: why have the publishers not done re-prints of other titles after the fantastic success of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ this year?
The Lantern Bearers and The Silver Branch, have both been printed (in UK and in US) in special new editions linked with the film the Eagle…and some others are in print.