Rosemary Sutcliff: “innately sexist”?

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Manda Scott is the author of the Boudica: Dreaming novels and the Rome series. The third book in that series, The Eagle of the Twelfth, was published recently. The History Girls (she is one such) are ‘a group of best-selling, award-winning writers of historical fiction’ with an intriguing blog of the same name. Today they post an interview with Manda Scott, who was questioned first about a title which “inevitably recalls Rosemary Sutcliff’s seminal The Eagle of the Ninth”. “What”, she was asked,”would you say was so unique and inspiring about it – and do you think the current literary love affair with Rome is to some extent part of her legacy?” She replied:
The Roman era, particularly the early empire, is one of those historical time periods, rather like the Tudors, that seems to be perennial in its attraction and I’ve never worked out why. Other periods have strong characters, and surviving dynasties. Other periods had empires that attempted to conquer the world. Other periods have the dichotomy between order (the Empire) and wildness (the unconquered natives of the provinces) and the constant friction between them, but the first century is one of the most deeply and extensively mined periods in fictional history and I have to think that Rosemary Sutcliff has played an overwhelming role in that. Every time I stand on a stage at a book festival or a reading and say that I was inspired by her work, heads nod throughout the audience. When I say the same about Mary Renault or Dorothy Dunnett (the Alexander trilogy and ‘King Hereafter’ respectively) there’s a buzz, but not the same wave of memory and affection.

I’m not sure if it’s simply people of our age, who grew up with The Eagle of the Ninth as our introduction to historical fiction, or whether she genuinely spans the generations, but there’s no doubt that she’s had a huge impact.

Defining exactly why she’s had that impact, is harder than knowing that it exists. Partly, she was the only one: nobody else brought the legions to life as she did, nobody else asked the questions of our identity before the Roman occupation. (She never answered them, at least not for me: trying to find out what the Seal People were doing when the Romans weren’t looking has occupied a large part of my spiritual and writing life and the Boudica series is a direct result of that). She had the capacity to engage men and women, girls and boys across the genders, which was one part of her charm: nobody has ever suggested to me that she lost readers because they knew she was a woman: her writing was too strong for that. And she was an imperialist at heart, a girl brought up in the dying days of the Empire by a father who was a Naval Officer, her writing fuses that same effortless superiority and innate sexism that propelled Enid Blyton to such massive success: there’s a level at which it resonates with the part of us that wants security; now as much as then. Her world was ordered. Her Romans were benevolent, if strict. Her natives were noble savages, but they respected their Roman over-lords.

I don’t think that was how it was, but it’s a very safe kind of fiction (and just because I think it’s factually inaccurate doesn’t stop me from regarding her as a master of her art and the progenitor of everything I’ve done.)So either Sutcliff made Rome the attraction that it is, or it’s a hangover from our Imperial past, when the Victorians rediscovered Rome and used it as a fictitious model for their own dreams of empire: the entire ‘white man’s burden and the Pax Britannia’ are modelled on Augustus’ concepts of the Roman Empire – Either way, there’s nowhere near the same kind of interest in the US, for instance, or other European nations. Our love of Rome is uniquely British and, in the same way that it’s possible to divide all those around us into natural Roundheads or natural Cavaliers, so are we all natural Romans or natural Britons. It’s part of our native psyche.

Actually, although I agree with some of her analysis, I am not sure I concur entirely  with this take on Rosemary Sutcliff. I would certainly have wished to hear Rosemary’s own response. For example: she would, I believe, have resisted being labelled and (pace, Marshall McLuhan) libelled “innately sexist” whilst being determinedly not a feminist.  She would have rejected the assertion that what “propelled her to success” was what she had in common with Enid Blyton (whose work she was not a fan of!). She did not consider the “natives” of Britain “nobel savages”.

14 comments

  1. Yes, I do think she was a very nuanced writer. (I am new to MC Scott’s work, so will read it with interest.) But you clearly are much more informed and thoughtful about the detail of Rosemary’s writing than I, and your appreciation thus much more nuanced! Thank you for your comments.

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  2. No writer writes in a vaccum, and we are all products of our era, and of course Rosemary Sutcliff’s books are a product of her gender politics. Just as Manda Scott’s politics are painfully apparent in her works.

    But to accuse her of innate sexism, leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Sutcliff was far too clever for that, gender roles in Ancient Rome where strict and proscribed [I actually love Cottia, she knew her own mind, and stuck to it.] Neither did Sutcliff stick to such a simplistic binary as noble savage:barbarian. Cradoc is very different to Liathan, but both complex in character. I would place Sutcliff closer to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Sea Tales [with a little 39 Steps in there!]

    But I’ve always viewed Scott’s work as having an agenda with sexual politics that goes far beyond male vs female, and ultimately becomes another revisionist. But, as I’ve already said, Rosemary Sutcliff was too nuanced a writer for that.

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  3. Her natives were noble savages, but they respected their Roman over-lords.

    That sentence alone makes me doubtful about how well the author remembers Sutcliff’s books, no matter how great her admiration. Catherine Butler and I have a book due out next month on children’s historical books, and, unsurprisingly, we devoted a lot of time to Rosemary Sutcliff. In the chapter about Roman Britain we looked at books written in the 50s, generally pro-Roman, and books written in the first decade of this century, generally anti-Roman. Of course we can’t claim that we read all the books written for children and teens in those two time spans and with that historical setting, but we did read a good proportion of them, and one thing was very striking: Rosemary Sutcliff was by far the most nuanced writer of either decade. She simply didn’t write ‘the natives’ as a monolithic group, whose behaviour and beliefs are determined by their birth. Nor did she write them as ‘good natives’ if they do respect Romans and ‘bad natives’ if they don’t. There are books from the 50s which do that (try Henry Treece’s Legions of the Eagle for starters), but this also seems to be the trend in the recent books as well, with the roles reversed.

    I think it’s interesting that Scott goes on to say: ‘in the same way that it’s possible to divide all those around us into natural Roundheads or natural Cavaliers, so are we all natural Romans or natural Britons’. What we found about Sutcliff’s books set in Roman Britain also held true for Simon – it does a remarkable job of offering a multivocal, multifaceted depiction of the two sides opposed in the conflict. Who is ‘the Roundhead’ in Simon? Simon, obviously, is a Roundhead/Parliamentarian, but so too are the many hugely diverse characters and types Simon encounters, in the army and out of it. Sutcliff’s ability to write of periods of great conflict without flattening the peoples in opposition into stereotypical representatives of their ‘side’, is still impressive today.

    Of course Sutcliff’s thinking about imperialism and gender is influenced by her upbringing and the period in which she was writing. But to categorically state that she wrote with ‘that same effortless superiority and innate sexism that propelled Enid Blyton to such massive success’ is to overstate and simplify the case in a very serious way. (Not to mention the downright irritating conflation of Sutcliff’s writing and that of Enid Blyton!)

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    1. … and Roseamry would have been REALLY VERY irritated at the conflation with Enid Byton, and would have been with you in your remarks, I think! I do think you are correct about the nuanced nature of her story-telling.

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  4. The period in which Rosemary was writing was innately sexist so it would be astonishing if she hadn’t reflected at least a little of it in her work – work that predominantly depicts eras when the function of gender was very strictly defined. I don’t see that as a bad thing. It enabled her to write fantastic action adventure stories without feeling she was obliged to insert some unlikely female main character who is inexplicably able to out do the men. I LOATHE stories like that – Kate Moss’s Labyrinth springs to mind. I much prefer a reasonably accurate depiction of the period. Imagine if Eagle of the Ninth was written now – the editor would probably demand that Cottia accompany Marcus and Esca dressed as a boy, or something.

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  5. Yes indeed: the era in which Rosemary Sutcliff was writing, as well as her family background and class, are important influences upon her. But reflecting upon reaction to her work even in her own time (in the 1970s) I felt moved to comment at The History Girls blog:

    “… I enjoyed (as a relative as well as a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff) reading MS’s reflections on her and her influence.

    I do not however concur that RS was I “innately sexist”: not a feminist, certainly, as she would have acknowledged. But sexist? I doubt that someone whose writing was “innately sexist” would have won, for her own novel Song for a Dark Queen about Boudica, The Other Award – which focused on writing that satisfied anti-discriminatory criteria in its presentation of gender, race, class and disability alongside literary and aesthetic merit.

    And she would certainly not have liked being bracketed with Enid Blyton; of this I am sure, having been steered away from Blyton’s writing by Rosemary herself when I was young, and having heard her on the subject!

    I would have enjoyed hearing Rosemary Sutcliff’s response to the points MS makes.”

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    1. You make an interesting mention about disability, Anthony. [Marcus] Aquilia is probably one of the best portrayals of a disabled/wounded hero in literature. Sutcliff obviously fed a lot of her frustrations into Marcus. Whenever I read ‘Blue Hills’ and she describes having a plaster removed as a child, I always think of Marcus having his wound searched. I can not imagine another writer being able to create Marcus, or write The Eagle of the Ninth.

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      1. Most interesting reflection Feona. Thank you. Marcus was Rosemary’s favourite ‘hero’ of all that she wrote of, I think. She certainly had a very special affection for him.

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  6. Rosemary Sutcliff was writing c. mid 20th century. Manda Scott is writing in the 21st century. The era in which their books are written (not when they are set) is bound to have some bearing on how they approach the subject. Both authors have their merits, but I know which one I prefer :)

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