Author Penelope Lively has a hefty prejudice against historical fiction but reads Rosemary Sutcliff avidly

Fellow author and friend Penelope Lively wrote breifly in 1992 in response to an obituary in The Independent newspaper about a visit with her family to see Rosemary Sutcliff at her home in West Susssex, England

We invited ourselves, with diffidence, because the children were devotees, as was I. We sat in her study, she in her wheelchair behind the desk, the rest of us uneasily perched, the children—as they then were—awed into total silence. A housekeeper brought tea on a trolley: cucumber sandwiches and dainty little cakes. Two chihuahuas snarled from a cushion and occasionally shot out to snap at our ankles (on subsequent visits I learned how to deal them a surreptitious kick). It was all dreadfully genteel and strained. I made some comment about the fantail pigeons on the lawn beyond the window. “Actually, they’re a nuisance,” said Rosemary. “They crap all over everything.”

And suddenly we all relaxed, the children recovered normal speech, the gentility subsided and we got over the shock that first meeting her must have induced in anyone—the amazement that from that tiny misshapen person, whose whole being seemed subsumed into the enormous, alert eyes, sprang those vivid, intensely physical books.

The children had brought copies to be signed. I remember looking at those hands and wondering—idiotically—if she could hold a pen. Of course she could, in a wonderfully idiosyncratic and innovative way, writing almost upside down, it seemed, and she drew them her dolphin logo and a great flowery signature, in their cherished Charles Keeping-illustrated hardbacks.

I have a hefty prejudice against historical fiction —but I could read Rosemary (Sutcliff) avidly, and still do. There is a marvellous passage in her memoir of childhood, Blue Remembered Hills, in which she describes her wheelchair falling over, when she was quite small, depositing her in the long grass, where, instead of yelling for help, she simply lay, observing and recording the close-up miniature world of plants and insects. The incident sums her up, in a curious way.

Rosemary Sutcliff signature on front page of Three Legions

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