Congratulations to author Penelope Lively, who is made a Dame in the New Year’s Honours List. Perhaps best known for her Booker-winning novel Moon Tiger, she was a friend and admirer of Rosemary Sutcliff and gave a eulogy for her at the memorial service in the year of Rosemary’s death which I organised at St James, Piccadilly. After Rosemary’s death, Penelope Lively added to the obituary published in the Independent newspaper:
I first visited Rosemary Sutcliff 20 years ago, writes Penelope Lively (further to the obituary by Julia Eccleshare, 27 July).
We invited ourselves, with diffidence, because the children were devotees, as was I. We sat in her study, she in her wheelchair behind the desk, the rest of us uneasily perched, the children – as they then were – awed into total silence. A housekeeper brought tea on a trolley: cucumber sandwiches and dainty little cakes. Two chihuahuas snarled from a cushion and occasionally shot out to snap at our ankles (on subsequent visits I learned how to deal them a surreptitious kick). It was all dreadfully genteel and strained. I made some comment about the fantail pigeons on the lawn beyond the window. ‘Actually, they’re a nuisance,’ said Rosemary. ‘They crap all over everything.’ And suddenly we all relaxed, the children recovered normal speech, the gentility subsided and we got over the shock that first meeting her must have induced in anyone – the amazement that from that tiny misshapen person, whose whole being seemed subsumed into the enormous, alert eyes, sprang those vivid, intensely physical books.
The children had brought copies to be signed. I remember looking at those hands and wondering – idiotically – if she could hold a pen. Of course she could, in a wonderfully idiosyncratic and innovative way, writing almost upside down, it seemed, and she drew them her dolphin logo and a great flowery signature, in their cherished Charles Keeping-illustrated hardbacks.
I have a hefty prejudice against historical fiction – but I could read Rosemary avidly, and still do. There is a marvellous passage in her memoir of childhood, Blue Remembered Hills, in which she describes her wheelchair falling over, when she was quite small, depositing her in the long grass, where, instead of yelling for help, she simply lay, observing and recording the close-up miniature world of plants and insects. The incident sums her up, in a curious way.