Recollections and reflections on reading Rosemary Sutcliff | Inspired by a Guardian editorial

Many people are moved and inspired by UK author Rosemary Sutcliff.

A Guardian editorial in March 2011 “In praise of … Rosemary Sutcliff” prompted various people to comment fondly and intriguingly upon their reading of her books, often in a childhood some years past.

liberalcynic said

I have to say I loved Rosemary Sutcliff‘s books when I was a kid. They opened undiscovered worlds and – perhaps more importantly – they didn’t talk down to my eleven year old self

thegirlfrommarz also “loved Rosemary Sutcliff’s books as a child” and “still loves them as an adult”. Like liberalcynic she thought that ” … they never talked down to you”. The Eagle of the Ninth was one of her favourites, although

Frontier Wolf was the one I loved most of all for the thrilling flight across country and climactic single combat where everything hangs in the balance. She made me believe that these were living, breathing people, but not modern people dressed up in historical clothes. Mary Renault had that same ability – as a review of one of her books said, she brings the distant past to life without diminishing its remoteness and alien glitter.

hertsred too… loved her books as a child ” and is

really enjoying getting into them again now with my oldest son. I am amazed by the vocabulary that she uses, and horrified by the decline in the standard of English used in children’s books today in comparison.

Briar also read her books when young, but thought he missed powerful female characters:

Wonderful books, wonderful writer. I seem to have spent a good deal of my childhood reading her books! Her only weakness was a paucity of strong female characters, for whom I had to look elsewhere (… Jane Eyre). It’s great to see her given the praise she deserves.

Silverwhistle, who “grew up on Rosemary Sutcliff‘s books”, and loves “them dearly” does, however, recall some female characters:

….Did you read Song for a Dark Queen? And there was a terrific, if  ‘villainous’ female character in Mark of the Horse Lord (although, as in true epic, Sutcliff’s ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ simply depended from whose point of view you told the story).

… (in fact) … I find it more preferable to have more of them (female characters)  on the sidelines, as it were, than behaving in ways that are implausible in their social/cultural context. A huge problem with a lot of modern historical fiction (especially for younger readers) is that it decides to “empower” female characters in ways that are simply unbelievable in terms of the setting. As a female reader, it did not affect my enjoyment of the stories because ‘then’ is not ‘now’. I think it’s important for readers to grasp that the values and mores of the past were different.

It troubles me more when writers distort the past in order to provide ‘role models’ and moral lessons according to contemporary mores: there are so many rule-breaking heroines in modern historical fiction that a young person who reads a lot of it might well fail to understand why the fight for women’s rights was necessary.

Silverwhistle also noted that Rosemary wrote  not about the homoerotic, but

… more about comradeship. She could, and did, write sympathetically about what were obviously homoerotic relationships (there are openly gay characters in the more adult Sword at Sunset), but those are different from the kind of comradeship that she depicts between (for example, in the same book) Artos and Bedwyr.

She also found it interesting that:

…. being physically disabled herself, many of (Rosemary Sutcliff‘s)  heroes had physical impairments to deal with, but you never felt you were being preached at about it. I also loved her canine characters …Another of my real favourite books (again, with a lovely dog) is The Shining Company, based on Y Gododdin

arbitrarynight recalled that he “re-read the trilogy recently”, and found “the writing …  as good as I remembered”. He also remembered the classic BBC Radio version.

The Children’s Hour serial was fantastic. Gabriel Woolf narrated, slowly, letting the tension build. The introductory music – horns IIRC – was plaintive and evocative. The mists of the North and recovery of honour made a deep impression on my 8-year old self. It was also my first introduction to a religion other than christianity, and it started me down the road to atheism.

Author Michael Rosen also recalled the radio serial:

… Some of us drank in The Eagle of the Ninth two ways: once as a BBC Children’s Hour serial and second time as the book. I can remember hurrying to get home to hear it – moody, dangerous, mysterious – a quest for something real but long gone, a possible solution to an unsolved story…and somehow it had something to do with events that happened a long time ago just where you walked when we were on holiday: on moors, or on wet fields where we were camping. The book made a connection for me between a past and that particular present.

thegirlfrommarz illustrated how Rosemary  has far from vanished from the minds and hearts of devoted readers, and how connected with her people still feel.

… I was in Fairfax House in York when the guide pointed out the portrait of “Black Tom” (sic) Fairfax and another woman in the group mentioned The Rider Of The White Horse. I had never read it (it appears it is sadly out of print) and thought she must mean Simon, and a discussion about what a fantastic author Sutcliff was immediately broke out among the group. Any author that can inspire that devotion in a group of adults years after we read the books should be celebrated.

MoveAnyMountain was mindful of Rosemary’s focus upon a long gone Britain:

… her works stand as a monument to a vanished Britain. Like Visigothic Churches in Spain or perhaps better yet like Inca ruins. A pity.

But although about Britain,  the devotion to Rosemary and her work stretches to the other side of the world. From  Australia catdownunder recalled that for her:

… the books were part of my childhood and my brother’s childhood. We lived in a very remote part of Australia which was so far removed from Roman Britain that this was the only way we got a taste of Roman Britain. When I wrote to her (and asked her not to reply as I knew it would be difficult) she did write back – a handwritten letter. The reply indicated that her interests went far beyond Roman Britain and that she had actually looked up my location in an atlas!

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.

7 thoughts on “Recollections and reflections on reading Rosemary Sutcliff | Inspired by a Guardian editorial”

  1. Your commenter from Australia highlights something I have been surprised by lately, ‘talking’ about Sutcliff on the social network of Fanfiction.net. I had thought of her stories as British, rooted as they are in the very stuff of the land; but it seems they are British also in terms of our old empire, for while I have met few American readers at all, there are many many Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis… who all love her books.

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  2. I was saddened to see the comment above where an atheist reader attributed Sutcliff’s work with introducing him to the path upon which he would lose his faith. In my own case, her writing sparked my deep interest in the early Christian church. (I have a graduate degree in the subject, and some of the seeds for that were planted by Sutcliff’s Roman chronicles.)

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  3. Further re: the discussion about female characters, though, what did strike me was that RS seems to have been less sympathetic to matrilineal societies that to patrilineal ones. The Mark of the Horse Lord is disturbing in that it privileges an invading patriarchal culture over the matriarchal; and when the matriarchal side strikes back, that is “usurpation”. I can’t help but think that a woman writer of a later generation might have taken a different approach.

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  4. Ahem! I’m delighted that you quoted me twice, but I’m Silverwhistle, not Silversmith! My user-name is a tribute to the subject of the biography I wrote a few years ago, on Major Patrick Ferguson, a gifted, witty and dashing 18C Scots officer,* who – on losing the use of his right arm to a Rebel bullet in Pennsylvania – taught himself to write, fence and shoot with the left. So Sutcliff-type vulnerable but indomitable heroes appeal to me still!

    *I think of him as the action hero of the Edinburgh Enlightenment.

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      1. Indeed! Pattie had already overcome TB in the knee as a teenager. He was blasted to bits at only 36 – shot from the back of his white horse while leading a last charge to break through the encircling enemy. One or 2 of my McLeod great-x-nth uncles were among the Loyal Americans for whom he gave his life, and may have been with him in his last campaign; also, he began his career in my grandpa’s old regiment, the Greys, so I feel a personal debt of honour to him.

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