Rosemary Sutcliff on Wroxeter in Roman Times | Scholarship transmuted into artistry

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In her monograph on historical novelist and children’s writer Rosemary Sutcliff, Margaret Meek, commented that “the standard of accredited detail is so high in historical novels, writers have their research material carefully scrutinized by critics”. But, she said, “it is one thing to be accurate about costume and cooking pots, and quite another to make an organic whole in which the accumulated research is assimilated by the reader because of its essential rightness in the situation. Here is Wroxeter when the Romans had left it and later the British warhost had finally been defeated.

‘Owain found himself at the Forum Gate, with its proud inscription to the Emperor Hadrian, and halted there, staring dazedly about him, while Dog stood watching him expectantly and wagging his tail. It was growing dusk, and he thought suddenly—it was a thought that made the sick laughter rise in his throat—that he could sleep in the Basilica tonight, he could sleep in the Palace of Kyndylan the Fair, if he chose, he was free of all Viroconium. But the little low-browed shops in the Forum colonnade seemed to offer a deeper and darker refuge to crawl into. One or two near the gate still had their roofs on them and he turned into the nearest of these. It looked to have been a basket-maker’s shop; everything that could be of use to marauders had been stripped from it, but a broken pigeon basket and a bunch of withies still lay in one corner. The light was going fast, and the back of the shop was already lost in the shadows of the rainy twilight.’

Meek wrote: “Weather and the ruined town all serve to increase Owain’s desolation. The scholarship is transmuted into artistry”.

(Source: “The Historical Novelist: The Light and the Dark.” In Rosemary Sutcliff, pp. 31-50. New York, N.Y.: Henry Z. Walck, Incorporated, 1962.)

3 comments

  1. It seems appropriate to add this piece from another critical essay, this one by May Hill Arbuthnot and Zena Sutherland:

    The theme of all (Sutcliff’s) stories, as Margaret Meek points out, is “the light and the dark. The light is what is valued, what is to be saved beyond one’s own lifetime. The dark is the threatening destruction that works against it.” In “The Lantern Bearers” … the blackness of despair is concentrated in the heart of Aquila, a Roman officer….

    No briefing of these stories can give any conception of their scope and power, and when young people read them they live with nobility… Nevertheless, these are difficult books, not because of vocabulary problems, but because of the complexities of the plots in which many peoples are fighting for dominance.

    Fortunately, “Dawn Wind” …, one of the finest of the books, is also the least complex. Chronologically it follows “The Lantern Bearers”, but it is complete in itself and will undoubtedly send some readers to the trilogy. For the fourteen-year-old hero Owain, the light of the world seems to have been extinguished. He finds himself the sole survivor of a bloody battle between the Saxons and the Britons in which his people, the Britons, were completely destroyed. In the gutted remains of the city from which he had come, the only life the boy finds is a pitiable waif of a girl, lost and half-starved. At first Owain and Regina are bound together in mutual misery, but eventually they are united in respect and affection. So when Regina is sick and dying, Owain carries her to a Saxon settlement, even though he knows what will happen to him. The Saxons care for the girl but sell Owain into slavery…. After eleven years, he is freed and sets out at once to find his people and Regina, who has never doubted he would come for her.

    So life is not snuffed out by the night. A dawn wind blows and two people start all over again with those basic qualities that have always made for survival…. Rosemary Sutcliff gives children and youth historical fiction that builds courage and faith that life will go on and is well worth the struggle.

    Source: May Hill Arbuthnot and Zena Sutherland, “Historical Fiction: ‘The Lantern Bearers’ and ‘Dawn Wind’,” in their “Children and Books”, pub. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1972, pp. 508-9

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  2. This piece is from a chapter in Margaret Meek’s book, Rob, a Walck Monograph titled “Rosemary Sutcliff”- see details above under Anthony’s post. I don’t know if the text is available online, but you might be able to borrow the book through your local library (assuming, if you live in England, that you still have one!)

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