13 Answers from the great Rosemary Sutcliff, author of 60 books of historical fiction and children’s literature

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Rosemary Sutcliff was an internationally acclaimed British writer for children, one of the best of the 20th century. Romey (as I knew her) is not around to answer those sets of questions sent by magazines for brief celebrity profiles; she dies in 1992. Some answers to imagined questions can be deduced from Rosemary Sutcliff’s own words in her 1983 session on BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs‘. Where were you born?

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.

You were very ill as a child; what happened?

I contracted juvenile arthritis. 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.

Where did you go to school?

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.

What books did you read when you were young?

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 Rudyard 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.

Who were your first friends?

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 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.

What was your first job?

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.

Why did you stop painting and start writing?

I enjoyed art, 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 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 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.

How did your first book get published?

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.

What period of history do you most like writing about?

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.

How do you go about writing your books?

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 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.

How do you research your books?

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.

Why do you write about men and boys more than women and girls?

I write for children aged nine to ninety. 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 encounters is because I’m writing for children—I don’t honestly know why, it’s just happened that way.

You never married, why not?

I had two separate love affairs with 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.

7 comments

  1. Rereading The flowers of Adonis and again in awe at how brilliant it is , always wondered why she did not write more adult fiction as she is easily the equal of Mary Renault ( and for me Sword at Sunset is THE definitive Arthurian novel despite all the more recent books)

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    1. Thanks for commenting. Interesting question; although it may be relevant to note that she always said her so called children’s books were for children aged 8 to 80…… I am with you on Sword at Sunset.

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  2. Dear Anthony, we have two children, Freya and Kai, now 10 and 8. We have read to them a huge amount over the years, from Tolkien to Twain. We have tonight finished the final few pages of the Lantern Bearers, having made our way through the trilogy. It has been a wonderful pleasure for all of us. She really is a very special writer, with that rare ability to capture the universal and the precious in the fine, small details of individuals’ lives or the songs of birds. Sentences or passages are often so beautiful you would want to re-read them three or four times. And it’s telling that all four of us (ranging over 4 decades in age) have equally looked forward to our nightly dose. Now we have to figure out what next?!
    Rosemary Sutcliff’s character and what she managed to create must be a story in itself. Do you know if anyone has ever thought of a biography? Maybe there is one already …
    All the best from the Boyd family on the Black Isle

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment and your good wishes, Boyd family on the Black Isle.

      If Rosemary had been alive (Romey, as I knew her) she would have replied to you — because it would have been a letter before the days of email and blogs—the day it arrived, not two days later like me. She would have loved your remarks. She would have said something to Freya and to Kai (great names!). She was very fond of The Lantern Bearers.

      She wrote an autibiography of her years until she started being published (Blue Remembered Hills, from Slightly Foxed). But there is no full biography. One day the right person will come along; I have all her papers and diaries. I wish it were me, but Romey used up most of the Lawton-Sutcliff family writing genes for several generations, certainly the fiction-writing ones.

      Best wishes from the middle of England.

      PS May I use your comments for a main post?

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  3. I’m so happy you write about your beloved relative. Just today I was telling a teacher who teaches a mythology class to suggest Sutcliff’s “Sword At Sunset,” a book I love. Rosemary Sutcliff is a writer who has always been very important to me, for what is now something more than forty years.

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