Rosemary Sutcliff was ‘Of the Minstrel Kind’, and a writer with a distinctive view of her readers

Rosemary Sutcliff, historical novelist

Rosemary Sutcliff was the subject of a fascinating, insightful article (‘Of  The Minstrel Kind’) in the children’s literature magazine Books for Keeps. First published only in print form, it has for some time been reproduced online.

Margaret Meak was paying tribute to a seventy-year-old Rosemary.

I met Rosemary Sutcliff for the first time thirty years ago in a London hospital where she was recovering from an operation. She was already famous; The Eagle of the Ninth had seen to that. Published in 1954 it had been reprinted four times. It’s probably still the book by which she is best known: an historical novel about the Romans in Britain, the first of a group of stories including The Lantern Bearers which won for her the Carnegie Medal.

Although I was nervous at that first encounter I was much more worried about seeming impertinent. I’d agreed to write about the novels for a Bodley Head Monograph, one of a series of essays about well-known writers for children, to which Rosemary Sutcliff had already contributed a fine example about Rudyard Kipling. It wasn’t so easy in those days to be curious about a famous author, especially one who had had a long childhood illness, who went to school for the first time at nine and learned to read even later, and who finished her compulsory education `mercifully early’ at fourteen.

The details of Rosemary’s early years and her amazing resourcefulness in the face of crippling pain are given with no trace of self pity in her autobiographical narrative, Blue Remembered Hills. There’s also a revealing paragraph in the collection of stories which she edited with Monica Dickens, Is Anyone There?, where she says: `I had a lonely childhood and growing-up time. My parents loved me and I loved them, but I could never talk to them about the problems and fears and aching hopes inside me that I had most need to talk about to someone. And there was no one else.’ Writers cannot be convivial people in work time; their chosen craft is a solitary one. But to be cut off in childhood from the society of the school playground, where the gossipy tales are told, is a particular deprivation. Rosemary Sutcliff could never have been a chatty novelist. Yet her experience of being read to throughout her childhood by a sympathetic adult bears out everything that has been researched or said about reading stories to children. If you want to understand where Rosemary Sutcliff, as a novelist, `comes from’, read The Jungle BooksKim and The Just So Stories, preferably aloud.

This year Rosemary Sutcliff is seventy. Her latest novel, The Shining Company, appeared in June (1990). For me it’s a vintage volume, the work of a writer who has a distinctive view of her readers, a view which many may not know that they can have of themselves. To read Rosemary Sutcliff is to discover what reading is good for. So this anniversary and this accomplishment make me ask what might be the contemporary appeal or, more simply, the enduring attraction of the historical novels for the young. After all, much has clearly changed in children’s books and reading since television became their more immediate storyteller, and novelists, now more matey and informal, adopted a more elliptical vernacular prose, in which the readers’ ease is more visible than the challenge to read.But, given her isolation, Rosemary Sutcliff needs her readers. Like her characters they people her world, so she devises means of coming close to them and drawing them into the worlds she makes out of the dark places in history. Sometimes the trick is a first-person narrative: `I am – I was – Prosper, second son to Gerontius, lord of three cantrefs between Nant Ffrancon and the sea.’ Or there’s a dedication, `For all four houses of Hilsea Modern Girls’ School, Portsmouth (my school) who adopted me like a battleship or a regimental goat.’ The first page swings the characters into action in a situation as clear as a television image. The names of the people and places set the rules of belonging; the relations between the sexes are formally arrayed; the battles are long and fierce. Readers who are unaccustomed to the building up of suspense in poised sentences may need a helping hand. Again, the best way into a Sutcliff narrative, a kind of initiation, is to hear it read aloud. Then you know what the author means when she says she tells her tales `from the inside’.

Thinking of readers, I remember, with gratitude and some pain, a class of girls in a London secondary school in the early seventies. The parents of most of them had come from the Caribbean; I guess their own children are now in school. Then they were the first of their kind to speak out their awareness of the complications we now call `multi-cultural’. They were reading with their gifted teacher, Joan Goody, The Eagle of the Ninth. On this particular day they ignored the dashing young Roman hero, recovering from a battle wound in his uncle’s house in Bath, and concentrated on the girl next door, Cottia, a Briton. Cottia’s uncle and aunt were taking her to the games, and in their hankering after Roman ways had tried to insist that she wear Roman clothes and speak Latin. Cottia protested, and so did the readers, on her behalf. I’ve never heard a more spirited discussion than that one, when those girls spoke indirectly of their nearest concerns in arguing on behalf of Cottia, who existed only in a book.

The sharing of storytelling that writers do with readers is the dialogue of imagination. Rosemary Sutcliff lives, grows and acts and suffers in her stories. The worlds created in her imagination have had to stand in for the world of much everyday actuality. From her therefore we can learn what the imagination does, and how it allows us all to explore what’s possible, the realm of virtual experience. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s world, heroes, heroines and readers alike walk a head taller than usual, as heroic warriors, to confront, like Drem in Warrior Scarlet, fearsome events as rites of passage and thus discover what is worth striving for. Readers have to expect to be spellbound in the tradition of storytelling that’s much older than reading and writing, when before the days of written records bards and minstrels were entrusted with the memory of a tribe. Rosemary Sutcliff is in this tradition; she says of herself that she’s `of the minstrel kind’. This in itself sets her apart from some of the more, apparently, throwaway casualness of some contemporary writing. In these days, when we’ve learned to look closely at the constructedness of narratives, she will still say that she knows when a story is `in’ her and `waiting to be told’.

The rest, she insists, is sheer hard work: research, planning the shape and the details of themes rather than plots. But the tale is there, entire, from the beginning. Part of her gift to her readers’ reading is that the same care is visible in the little books of single episodes (A Circlet of Oak Leaves; Eagle’s Egg; The Truce of the Games) which can be read by or read to younger readers with the same spellbinding effect of what is still, for me, her most remarkable achievement, The Lantern Bearers. The chapter in which Aquila, the proud Roman soldier, decides to stay in Britain when the legions sail away, and light the fire in the lighthouse is as memorable as anything in a history lesson, and probably more lasting. Although heroism has been an unpopular virtue for some time, we’ve seen its value for the young in newsreels just lately.

Now think of historical novels, both as a genre and as a particular way of looking at our way of living and our place in history. We’re born into our society at a particular time. Society changes; we contribute to the change and are changed by it. The same is true of the way we learn our language; of what it lets us take for granted and how it helps us discover what’s new and strange. Historians try to understand these processes in the light of what they admit as evidence. Novelists breathe life into what they take to be the past, recent or long gone, because all novels are about time. Both historians and novelists have different ways of using the past to explain ourselves to ourselves, now.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill is in recreating spots of time when change is both dramatic and threatening. How, one wonders, do deadly enemies learn to live together? What happens to those who stand in the way of invaders? What of the disgraced centurion (the hero of Frontier Wolf, which will spellbind most classes even on difficult days) who has to win back a lost reputation (the equivalent of the worst foul or missed penalty) on the miserable outposts of a crumbling empire, realising that the power he represents will soon be gone for ever? For all their intense singularity and, all right, their kinship with later forms of colonialism, these are abiding, recurrent issues. What, after all, will Europe be like in fifty years’ time? Do we care enough to ask? What will our grandchildren think of us if we bring on the dark destruction of the ozone layer? Sometimes we help the young to confront these problems directly. At others we encourage them to understand how our forebears dealt with comparable if not similar ones. At all times there are common and shared as well as individual views of what is the light, what is the dark.

Most of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels have this opposition as their main theme. In a self-deprecating way she likens it to the struggle between the baddies and goodies in cowboy Western sagas. In fact, her stories have more in common with the Earthsea trilogy of Ursula LeGuin, who says we tell stories to keep ourselves from disappearing into our surroundings. The darkest tales of all are Song for a Dark Queen and the most recent one, The Shining Company. In the first of this pair Boudicca, a rare heroine in the Sutcliff canon, is bound to avenge the sacrilegious treatment she suffered at the hands of the Romans who have no understanding of her as Queen of a matrilinear tribe. She leads her people in a savage and merciless Holy War which she cannot but lose. The legend is already sketched in the understanding of her readers; the author’s task here is to revive it. It’s interesting, and significant that this, the women’s book, is sterner, more merciless than any of the others. It calls out the dark places in all of us.

The Shining Company is a tragedy, difficult to follow for the uninitiated because there’s not the space, the breathing through the descriptions as in The Lantern Bearers or even in Frontier Wolf. There’s one great battle, as good as all the rest, but if the reader does not catch the note of doom early, the end seems unfair. The facts on which the original legend of the Comanions rests are scarce, but there is a seventh-century epic which celebrates them: it begins `This is the Gododdin, Aneirin sang it.’ Three hundred horsemen, trained together by ordeal and bonded by the Great Oath, met in the king’s seat which is now Edinburgh. The king sent them out to defeat a Saxon war host at Catterick Bridge, but failed to ensure the backup of the rest of the clans. The Company was cut to pieces, their shining and their glory gone in all but the song of the bard who returned to tell the tale. Here he is helped by the young shieldbearer, Prosper, who, in the seventieth year of his creator, stands for all his like in these exceptional books to which children deserve entry.

If I say that reading The Shining Company feels like watching the events of Tiananmen Square you’ll think I’m spellbound by legend. But I’m sure that the stories of that recent event are already in the making. I also know that those who care for the company children keep when they read will see the relation between the events of now and the stories Rosemary Sutcliff writes to make heroic readers. The conflict of the light and the dark is the stuff of legends of all ages. Those of the minstrel kind still make pictures, songs and tales out of words while there are those who look, listen and read.

  • Reproduced with permission from Books for Keeps; previously  repreinted elsewhere on this blog.

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