In a brief review in The Dallas Morning News in 1985 (12 May) Cherie Clodfelter commented that the historical novel for children and young adults, Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff (published in USA by Dutton) was:
… historical fiction at its very best, a blend of fact and fiction. The writing style is immensely informative and engrossing, although the American teenager may lack the knowledge of British history to appreciate the complicated plot and the Scottish idiom. John Graham of Claverhouse (called Bonnie Dundee by his followers) was a Scottish Royalist who died fighting to keep the House of Stuart on the throne. Both the legendary leader whom King James entitled the Viscount Dundee and the period of history where battle was both elegant and horrible is carefully developed to maintain the pace of a suspenseful adventure story.
3 thoughts on “Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel ‘Bonnie Dundee’ | American 1985 Review”
For a young boy who’s been treated unkindly by his own family, Claverhouse (Dundee) is a natural object for hero-worship – he’s charismatic, stern but fair and genuinely concerned for Hugh’s welfare. “(Claverhouse) had looked at me as I took his horse, in a way nobody had ever looked at me before.. and I knew that something had happened in my life that could not unhappen again”.
Yes, the fatalistic mysticism is such a powerful presence in “Bonnie Dundee” that I’m surprised so few reviewers mention it – it fair lifts the hair at the back of your neck at times – I’m especially thinking of Darklis’ prediction at the sacred well, “The Dark Lady’s Looking Glass”.
The ongoing running battle between the Covenanters and the King’s forces was a brutal and savage one with no quarter given on either side , and Sutcliff does well in unflinchingly capturing its nature without going gruesomely over the top, one of her particular skills in dealing with fictional battles. One of my favourite contemporary children’s authors, Elizabeth Laird, has written a good teenage novel about the same period but written from the Covenanters’ point of view called “The Witching Hour” – Claverhouse makes a brief appearance in that, though of course he’s seen as the enemy.
I totally agree with you, Anne. “Bonnie Dundee” is a secrete masterpiece among Sutcliff’s works. The strain of celtic mystic is woven expertly into the story (you mentioned the Washer at the Ford). I specially love it because it is one of the rare occasions she gives a reason for Hugh’s unwavering Loyalty to Claverhouse: he says of himself that he’s a born follower. What in other, more sophisticated psychological texts might be considered a deficiency Sutcliff describes just as part of Hugh’s personality which is endearing all through. The way the Gypsies move into the story through captain Faa reminds me of “Brother Dustyfeet”. There’s a certain ring of a mystic different from the celtic in it which imhO contributes to the story’s charm.
Although not one of her better known stories, I found “Bonnie Dundee” intriguing because it is absolutely vintage Sutcliff and employs all her favourite story elements. It has its teenage male protagonist with his faithful dog and horse companions who forms a central partnership, in this case (one of the rare occasions where a girl forms half of the partnership) with a young Gypsy girl who later becomes his wife. Most notably, potent imagery of mythic significance used at premonitory points and the themes of the Goddess and ritual kingship are expressed here more clearly than anywhere else outside the “Aquila” series. Although Hugh’s story is engaging in its own right, his chief role is to tell the story of Viscount Dundee’s valiant, doomed campaign, and Sutcliff draws obvious comparison between figures from universal heroic mythology and her tragic Scottish Jacobite hero. As ever, I’m impressed by Sutcliff’s deft hand with language – she creates a Scottish dialect which is seamlessly natural, and adds greatly to the story’s atmosphere.
Dundee’s story is the classic tragedy of a man whose character predisposes him to make choices which are heroic, but lead to disaster for those around him. He’s at the height of his powers, well-favoured and regarded; an inspirational officer. He wins the woman he loves despite fierce opposition from his superiors and her fanatical Covenanting family (the bride’s mother refuses to attend the wedding). He and his bride are both ill-fated, though. He dies at the point of victory and his rebelllion doesn’t long survive him. His only son dies as a baby six months after his father’s death. His widow later remarries, only to be killed with her new baby in an accident. It’s easy to see the family as being touched by the dark Goddess.
Because other reviewers don’t generally mention the use of central Sucliffian motifs, I did focus on them in the review I wrote for the Historical Novels Info website, necessarily kept reasonably simple as it was written with younger readers in mind.