Historical novelist Elizabeth Goudge introduces Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel The Rider of the White Horse

Cover of The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

There can be nothing nicer than being asked to write an introduction to a favourite book, but at the same time it is a difficult task. It is like being asked to describe the charm of a face you love. If you did not love the face so much, and even more the person behind the face, it would be easy. But as things are, what can you possibly say? I can only say, baldly and inadequately, that I love this book. It may not be such a great book as Sword at Sunset but it has qualities of poignancy and gentleness that make it unforgettable.

Rosemary Sutcliff historical novel which was written for adults was The Rider of the White Horse, set in the English Civil War, about Sir Thomas Fairfax and his wife. This is the first paragraph of the introduction by the renowned historical novelist Elizabeth Goudge.  

There can be nothing nicer than being asked to write an introduction to a favourite book, but at the same time it is a difficult task. It is like being asked to describe the charm of a face you love. If you did not love the face so much, and even more the person behind the face, it would be easy. But as things are, what can you possibly say? I can only say, baldly and inadequately, that I love this book. It may not be such a great book as Sword at Sunset but it has qualities of poignancy and gentleness that make it unforgettable.

Thomas Fairfax, The Rider of the White Horse, is a man of “scarecrow distinction” and “scarecrow gentleness”, dedicated and uncompromising, a great solider yet, like the Duke of Wellington, never so miserable as in the hour of victory; and again like the great Duke he is tragically unable to return his wife’s love for him. Anne Fairfax, warmly loving and fiercely loyal, has no beauty to compel a man’s passion. She follows her husband to war, he being her world, and he can give her in return merely admiration and tenderness. Their child, little Moll, who also follows her father to war, is one of the dearest of Rosemary Sutcliff‘s children. Who will ever forget little Moll having her tooth out, or little Moll with Dicken, when he gives her the ginger kitten? A younger child, the baby Elizabeth, dies early in the book, but one does not forget her. She is too poignantly described to be forgotten.

The fortunes of this little family are set against the fitting background of the civil war. They are like leaves in the wind, swept this way and that in its tragic eddies, inextricably a part of it, and making a frame for this central picture. Rosemary Sutcliff has spun her own magic of the seasons, wind and rain, the greenness of a lost England, the coldness of winter and the warmth of old gardens in summer sun. Artist as well as writer she sees details of colour and light that most of us would never see, and opens our eyes to them. Describing a cat she says, “the little cool marsh wind made bluish zigzags in her tabby fur”. Out on the wind swept Lincolnshire wolds at night a fire has been lit. “Men came and went about the fire, and the rose-gold light of the flames sprayed sideways over the flank of the white horse picketed under the lashing thorn trees.” And who could forget this? “William and I lay out on the moors above Denton many and many a summer night, when we were boys, and watched the northern sky echoing with daylight as the sea echoes in a shell, all the short night through.”

The story is not woven entirely in quiet colours, the fighting crackles and flames through the autumnal gentleness. Now here is a startling thing about this writer. Rosemary Sutcliff writes of love, suffering and beauty out of her own experience as woman and artist, but what about the battles? Most of us, attempting to write a historical novel and brought up short against a battle, something of which we are thankful to know nothing whatever, set up a few lines of toy soldiers, do our best with the usual phrases about sounding trumpets and thundering hoofs, and pass thankfully on to something else. But Rosemary Sutcliff writes as though she had been present at every battle she describes. She understands the strategy and the lie of the land, she knows what the weather was and how it affected the outcome, she knows exactly how the thing looked and sounded, and so do we by the time we have finished reading about it. I must confess that I do not enjoy reading about battles, but I can also say that I have never yet missed a Sutcliff battle. Bloody though the may be they are lit with courage and courtesy. “Sir Thomas’s compliments to Colonel Lambert … General advance at sound of trumpets.” The whole picture is spread out before one like a stormy sunset and one is obliged to watch to the end.

But the heart of this book is not Marston Moor, it is the scene towards the end of this book when Thomas Fairfax, in the extremity of suffering, and it some way liberated by it, opens his heart to his wife. With moonlight lying upon them “like a silver shawl” they are as near to each other as two human beings can be in this world. Rosemary Sutcliff has never written a more moving scene that this except perhaps the farewell scene between Raleigh and his wife in his prison cell, which opens with the words, “I have brought your good clothes, Walter.” She had brought them to be worn on the scaffold, but “the silver shawl” was for continued life together.

Rosemary Sutcliff is too true an artist to give us the conventional happy ending. The deepest moments of our lives strengthen and refine our characters but do not radically alter them. In the last chapter, coming home to his wife after a time of parting, Thomas can ask her to love him still, and can admit his need of her love, but he cannot even now return it in equal measure. But Anne had known her moment was winged and in her selflessness had made no effort to hold on to it. “You could not hold a winged thing; you could not even perfectly remember it afterward, for that, too, was a kind of holding.”

(Adapted from post first published in February 2012)

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

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