ROSEMARY SUTCLIFF’s historical novels opened the eyes of a generation of children to the past. They also set a new standard for children’s historical fiction because of their insight, passion and commitment.
Sutcliff was a demanding writer who expected a lot from her readers which is why her books are also wholly satisfying for adults. She evokes time and place with an incredibly sure touch and – once she had found her true voice with The Eagle of the Ninth in 1954 – a sharp ear for the dialogue of the past, For child readers, the fact that Sutcliff wrote about ordinary people and not the rich and famous had a particular appeal. She also wrote largely about children, mostly boys, and often about children alone or outcast.
Perhaps because at the age of two she contracted Still’s disease, a form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which left her paralysed and wheelchair-bound, she had a natural empathy with those with handicap or disability. Drem, the boy with the withered arm in Warrior Scarlet (1958), is one of the most sympathetic and most powerful of her heroes, while the unthinking prejudice that surrounds the cripple in The Witches’ Brat (1970) reflects a heartfelt understanding of the isolation experienced by those who are ‘different’.
In addition, Sutcliff had an integrity verging on ruthlessness, which meant that her stories rarely fell in to sentimentality. She pulled no punches, as in Warrior Scarlet when Drem fails the intitiation test of killing his wolf and thus must become a shepherd instead of a warrior as his forebears have been. As a reader one longs for him to succeed but Sutcliff’s own solution, that he kills a wolf in his job as a shepherd, is ultimately far more satisfying.
In Frontier Wolf (1980) the young centurion Alexios Aquila makes the wrong choice in battle. Faced with the same decision later on he must choose again. He makes the same choice but this time it is right. It is this commitment to reality rather than fictionalised optimism that gives Sutcliff’s stories their subtlety and plausibility.
Her vision of the past was similarly well-balanced and unsentimental. Her attention to the details of life built up pictures which were accurate, capturing discomfort and narrow- mindedness as well as the simplicity and clarity of life. Sutcliff combined a clear and profound historicism with a curiosity about the past. In none of her books is there a trace of the card index, so fatal for a reader. She used a variety of periods and places for her books but was always most absorbed by how the people of any period lived, worked and interacted with each other.
She knew and loved the Sussex Downs and had an astonishing feel for their past. She was fascinated by the continuity of history and how a place like the South Downs had been lived in since the Dark Ages.
In many of her books she touched on how tribes with old and new beliefs exist side by side until gradually one becomes dominant. The Little Dark People in Warrior Scarlet contrast with the Golden People who use copper goods and wear coloured cloth; the Britons invaded by the Romans and gradually learning their new-fangled ways provide the background to titles ranging from The Eagle of the Ninth to The Silver Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959) and, most recently, Frontier Wolf; the Saxons adapt the advanced ways of the Normans in Knight’s Fee (1960) and – slightly later, as the two sides move more closely together – in Dawn Wind (1961). But it is not only her domestic details that convince and absorb.
Sutcliff had an exceptional ability to describe the complexity of army strategies and the details of combat as well as to capture the emotions of fighting on any scale. Her war scenes are intense, convincing and apparently unrestrained, walking a delicate tightrope which prevents them from lapsing into the bloodthirsty. Sutcliff was never sadistic or cruel. She did not whitewash war or violence, but she did not relish it either. She recognised it as part and parcel of our past.
Sutcliff was born in 1920, the daughter of a naval officer, and much of her childhood was spent moving from one port to another. Because of her parents’ movements and her illness, she did not attend school on a regular basis, and was educated largely at home. At the age of 14 she was sent to Bideford School of Art where she proved herself a talented artist. She set out on a career as a miniature painter, and was a member of the Royal Society of Minature Painters.
From her training as a miniaturist came a detailed and fine way of looking which she used to set and define her writing. Her prose is always lucid and always vivid. The accuracy of her detail enabled her to create an enormously rich canvas with absolute conviction. She never wrote down to her child readers but had an instinctive way of speaking directly to them. She was one of a generation of children’s writers who understood the importance of writing for children as intelligent readers. She gave them a way of stepping into the past by offering characters with whom they could immediately identify. She loved the past and made it available and fresh without ever corrupting it with contemporary overtones.
Sutcliff was widely acknowledged as a writer of imagination and perception whose body of work – over 50 works spanning more than 40 years from 1950 – made an enormous impact on the way history was presented in fiction for children. She was awarded the Library Association Carnegie Medal in 1960 and the Children’s Rights Workshop Other Award in 1978: the first an establishment award which gave her the recognition she deserved for the majority of her books and the second, an equally well- deserved award, for her sympathetic – and decidedly ‘feminist’ – account of the life of Boudicca.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s works were translated into 15 languages. Although she had limited use of her hands, she wrote all her books in longhand, often in three complete drafts. She kept writing to the morning of the day she died and there are completed books in manuscript which have yet to be published