Rosemary Sutcliff talked 30 years ago about her childhood, disability, painting, historical fiction, children’s literature, on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs

Rosemary Sutcliff , world famous author (1920-92) on BBC Radio Desert Island Discs talks about her life and work.

Within her conversation in 1983 on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs, Rosemary Sutcliff  made a wealth of informative and moving comments about her life and work, some ten years before she died in 1992. These statments are extracted from the transcript:

To my shame I have to admit that I was born in Surrey, but  I count myself as a West Country woman, as a Devonshire woman.

Music is important in my life, but I’m not musical, I don’t know a thing about how it works. I’m one of those dreadful people who just ‘know what they like’.

I have a great fondness for good old-fashioned American cowboy films.

My very first memory is from when I was only eighteen months old, and we know that it was so because I was never in the place that it happened again until I was seven. I was taken for a walk—I was taken along a path, and I came out from the narrowness of this path into an open space, where there were things in cages. Notably a squirrel, restlessly sort of wandering round and round his cage, obviously with a headache. And all the injustices and sorrows of the world broke over my head for the first time at that sight, and I broke forth into bellows of tears and had to be removed from the park.

Rosemary went to Malta, where the warm Mediterranean climate was meant to be good for her juvenile arthritis.

I remember little cameos of Malta. I remember branches of an orange tree hanging over a wall. And I remember the people coming and going in the streets. Four kinds of people in particular: priests, who I remember as wearing lace petticoats. You know one’s memory is a little kind of peculiar at that age – I was only about three. Goats, usually with a paper bag hanging out of their mouths, because they sort of ate anything and everything, and used to be milked on the doorstep, which was a great way of spreading Malta fever I believe. Sailors of course, everywhere; and in those days still a great many women wearing the faldetta, which I don’t suppose you would ever see in Malta nowadays, which was a very becoming headdress.

Because of her juvenile arthritis, Rosemary spent much time in the strange spinal carriage.

A spinal carriage was rather like a coffin; it was very uncomfortable, and you lay flat out in this thing, and of course all you could see were the branches of the trees or the roofs of the houses going by overhead. And it was extremely boring. With any luck you were perhaps allowed to sit up on the way home from a walk.

I didn’t go to school for a very long time because of traipsing around so much. My mother used to educate me herself, chiefly by just reading to me the books that she liked. But I did go to school, and I’ve always been very thankful that I went to an ordinary school, I never got incarcerated with other disabled children.

 Chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day. I didn’t learn to read for myself until I was very old. Me and Kipling, we were both nine before we could read: I think in my case  this was because my mother read aloud to me so much, and this I loved very very much.

My parents did not trouble to find other children for me to talk to, to have around in the home. This is odd, because they were very understanding; nobody could have had nicer parents. But they were very sufficient unto themselves—neither of them seemed to want a social life themselves—and I think it honestly never occurred to them that a child growing up and going through her teens required other young people. Hospital used to be the one place where I did meet young children, children of my own age. And of course at school. But I was never allowed to bring friends home.

I left school, which one could do at fourteen in those days, and put in three years at art school. I did the general art course—painting in oils and water-colours and making charcoal drawings of the Apollo Belvedere from the north, south, east, and west! I set up as a miniaturist and found commissions coming in. In the war I had quite lot of work to do: quite often, rather sadly, from photographs of young soldiers who weren’t coming back, and things of that sort. I worked at home, and also at the local art school; I was allowed to use a room. I enjoyed it, but I found miniature painting cramping. I was a good craftsman—but I always had this feeling of having my elbows tucked too close to my sides when I was doing it. I think for this very reason, that I began to feel that I’d got to do something to break out. I gave it up to write. And I could write as big as ever I wanted to, I could use an enormous canvas if I wanted to.

I had not written as a child, I had not written stories. I wasn’t at all writing-minded at school. I don’t know when it started, I just wanted to write. And I scribbled happily most of the time through the war. It was quite dreadful, it was rather a mixture of Jeffrey Farnol and Georgette Heyer. They’re both good writers, but I took the worst elements from both of them. It was the history that fascinated me.

I never sent my stories away to anyone, I never even thought about getting them published. I wrote purely for my own pleasure. And then, about the end of the war, I did a re-telling of some British legends. I sent them to an old friend, to see if he thought they were any good—because you can never show things that matter (to you) very deeply to your own family. I sent them off to this old friend, Colonel Crookenden and he, unknown to me, had a friend who had married into the Oxford University Press. So he passed these scripts along to her, and said, ‘Show these to your husband.’ And the very first thing I knew about was I had a letter from the Oxford University Press saying they didn’t want them, which was a surprise to me as I didn’t know they’d got them! But saying would I try doing a Robin Hood for them instead? So I did a Robin Hood, and that was how I became launched as a published writer.

It was about the time of my first book that (I had)  my one and only boyfriend, who I had two separate love affairs with, but the same chap both times. He was a sergeant pilot—bomber pilot—just out of the war, with what they used to call shell-shock. I think now they call it combat fatigue. He was the sort of person who had permanently dilated pupils and shot out of his chair if anybody slammed a door. We had a lovely two years, a very gentle love affair.

I don’t honestly know whose decision it was not to marry. The situation became impossible. My own family was so against it, and everything. And I think people’s feelings were very different in those days to what they are now, about anybody with a disability being allowed to have any emotions. And neither of us were very grown up—even Rupert wasn’t very grown up—and we just couldn’t cope. So that was that.

I just went on writing, and I produced about three books which I very much enjoyed writing but which were very much for little girls. They all had rather-more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reviews. I think the reviewers thought they were quite pretty and sweet, but much too sweet. And obviously they thought I was just going on like this, thinking ‘Oh my God, forever more and more of these books are going to come out’.

After about three books, I began to find my own voice, very slowly. All my books are historical. I don’t think I could write a modern one; I don’t know how. I can’t write about the Middle Ages. I don’t know why. It’s not that I’m not interested, I love reading about the Middle Ages. I think I can’t accept the way that religion permeated everything, the tremendous stranglehold that religion had on people’s minds and consciences. I can’t take this.

I think I feel most at home in Roman Britain. I always feel it’s perhaps a little shameful to be quite so at home with the Romans, because they really were a very bourgeois lot, but I do feel very at home with them; I feel, ‘Here I am back at home again’ when I get back into a Roman story. I do get feelings I’ve been here before. I think I do believe in reincarnation; I hope I do, because I think it’s the one thing that makes sense, that makes for justice and a really sensible pattern to life.

I write in longhand. I can only create from the top of my head, down my right arm, and out of the point of my pen. I do not write or work regular hours. Too many things happen all the time. I begin work usually in the middle of the morning and I work on and off, as opportunity offers, until say seven o’clock, sort of supper time. But so many things happen through the day that quite often I only get an hour’s work in, and sometimes I’ve done a whole seven solid hours.

I get things from the local library. I also belong to the London Library. I am quite shameless about writing to people—you know, people who know about breeding horses or whatever it is know about and asking a particular question. And people are usually very kind about sharing their own expertise with you…I take great pains that details should be right…I go to museums. And of course I’ve got quite a lot of books on things like the buckles of centurions’ belts.

I do rely very much also on this feeling: ‘does this smell right’, ‘does it have the right feel to it?’. I’ve never had any mistakes that a lot of people have written to me about, but I have once or twice made an error, which has almost invariably been picked up by a sixth-form schoolboy. Sixth-form schoolboys are dreadful: they know so much.

I do not have Scottish roots, not as far as we know. I think I’m pure Saxon—dull Saxon—but I’ve always had this feel for Celtic, particularly Scottish, things and ways of thought. For years I wrote scripts for Radio Scotland, for their school broadcasts—little plays, twenty minute plays. The producer, who later became a great friend, who I worked with, was actually herself a Sassenach, but she’d married into Scotland, she’d lived in Scotland her whole life and she taught me exactly how to write the lowland Scots (dialect). And also the difference between the lowland Scots and the highland way of speech. So I think this came in very useful—though of course it’s not as broad, the use that I’ve made of it in Bonnie Dundee.

Although most of my books are told from a male point of view, I don’t think I’m a particularly masculine kind of woman. But I can’t write about girls from the inside. I don’t think the absence of sexual encounteris because I’m writing for children. I don’t honestly know why, it’s just happened that way.

I write for (people aged) nine to ninety.

Sometimes (having captured a good ‘customer’ at school) they grow out of me in their middle teens, but then they will grow back into me again in their early twenties.

I get an idea to start with; never a plot, I’m not very strong on plots, but a theme, which grows from the idea. And I do have a certain amount of framework; I’ve got to know how I’m going to get from the beginning to the end, and a few ports of call on the way.

I do not write to a standard length, know how long a book’s going to be. I find that a book takes its own time and gets to its own proper ending place. But it would tend to take about the same time, perhaps eighty or ninety thousand words, something like that. Ordinarily I write three drafts. Occasionally just a piece of the story will need an extra draft or even two; I have written as many as eight. But normally three drafts will do it. The last one is a polish, which is delightful to do.

I think I’d stay very firmly put on my desert island, feeling that one palm tree is very like another, and better the palm tree you know.

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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