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
Acclaimed internationally for her historical novels and books for children, Rosemary Sutcliff (b. 1920; d. 1992) was the subject of many magazine profiles. Sadly she is no longer here to create pieces like the ‘This much I know’ feature in magazine of The Observer newspaper. But this much she did know, as revealed in her answers late in her life to Roy Plomley’s questions on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs.
A spinal carriage is like a coffin. It is very uncomfortable. You lie flat out in this ‘thing’, and all you can see the are branches of the trees or the roofs of the houses going by overhead. It is extremely boring.
I didn’t learn to read for myself until I was very old — I was nine before I could read. I think this was because my mother read aloud to me so much. Chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day.
I think it honestly never occurred to my parents that a child growing up and going through her teens required other young people. I was never allowed to bring friends home. They were very understanding; nobody could have had nicer parents. But they were very sufficient unto themselves.
Miniature painting is cramping. I was a good craftswoman—but I always had this feeling of having my elbows tucked too close to my sides when I was doing it. 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 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 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 can only create from the top of my head, down my right arm, and out of the point of my pen. So, I write in longhand.
I start with an idea; never a plot. I’m not very strong on plots, but I start from a theme, which grows from the idea. 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. I do not 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.
I take great pains that details should be right. I am quite shameless about writing to people—people who know about breeding horses, or whatever it is—and asking a particular question. People are usually very kind about sharing their own expertise. I do rely very much also on the feeling ‘does this smell right’, ‘does it have the right feel to it?’.
I don’t think I’m a particularly masculine kind of woman—although most of my books are told from a male point of view. 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.
I don’t know whose decision it was not to marry. The situation became impossible. My own family was so against it. 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. Neither of us were very grown up and we just couldn’t cope. So that was that.
Source: BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs‘.
Rosemary Sutcliff (b. 1920; d. 1992) was the subject of many magazine profiles. But sadly she is no longer alive to create a ‘This much I know’ feature in The Observer newspaper’s magazine. But this much she did know—revealed within her answers to Roy Plomley on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs.
- A spinal carriage is like a coffin.
- Chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day.
- I was never allowed to bring friends home.
- Miniature painting is cramping.
- I feel most at home in Roman Britain.
- I think I do believe in reincarnation.
- I can only create from the top of my head, down my right arm, and out of the point of my pen.
- I start with an idea; never a plot.
- I do not write to a standard length.
- I take great pains that details should be right.
- I don’t think I’m a particularly masculine kind of woman.
- I don’t know whose decision it was not to marry.
For more, see fuller post here
Rosemary Sutcliff , internationally-acclaimed writer of historical fiction, children’s literature and books for children, wrote for an exhibition for The International Year of Disabled People in 1981 (at The Roundhouse, London, UK) about being disabled, and living with physical disabilities.
Career-wise, I’m one of the lucky ones. My job, as a writer of books, is one of the few in which physical disability presents hardly any problems. I would claim that it presents no problems at all but my kind of book needs research, and research is more difficult for a disabled person.Read More »
The estimable, book-loving people at Slightly Foxed (SF) (who republished Rosemary Sutcliff’s memoir Blue Remembered Hills in 2012) have turned their minds to Rosemary when reflecting on Valentine’s Day.
Here at SF our first instinct was to quietly ignore the overblown sentimentality of Saint Valentine’s Day but a handful of romantic souls have suggested we mark the occasion in some way, and give a nod to love in this month’s newsletter. Thus we present Rosemary Sutcliff’s heart-breaking account of falling in – and out – of first love from her memoir Blue Remembered Hills.
… As a child Rosemary suffered from the juvenile arthritis known as Still’s Disease, which burned its way through her, leaving her permanently disabled, yet Blue Remembered Hills is the very opposite of a misery memoir. It is a record of the growing up and making of a writer, and it is full of humour, affection, joy in people and the natural world, and the kind of deep understanding that can come out of hard experiences. In some ways, hers was an enchanted childhood, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards, which would later feed into her books.
… After the war was over, in the summer before the great freeze of 1947, along came Rupert, the son of a recently arrived neighbour, invalided out of the RAF, glamorous with darkly flaming red hair and ‘blazingly-golden hazel eyes’, who spoke to her as an equal – ‘the first person to whom it ever occurred that I could be asked out without my parents’. They grew closer and closer, but then Rupert clearly took fright, and eventually had to tell her that he had fallen in love with someone else, breaking her heart.
Fortunately for us, however, Rosemary had just begun to discover writing and before long her first book for children, The Queen Elizabeth Story – ‘written out of heartache, but also out of something set free within myself ’ by that searing experience was accepted by the Oxford University Press.
Blue Remembered Hills
Once he took me to the pictures. It was Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller in I Know Where I’m Going. But mostly we just wandered round the country. We saw a kingfisher blue-flashing upriver on the tawny reed-rustling fringe of Fremington Marshes, read Hassan to each other at the top of Dark Ham woods. On the afternoon beyond all afternoons – it must have been fairly early summer, because the elder blossom was heavy and rank-sweet scented over the whole countryside – we came upon the mouth of a tiny lane turned almost into a tunnel by the hazel bushes arching over it. We were almost past before we saw it, and Rupert said, ‘Ha! The Golden Road to Samarkand!’ and swung the nose of the car round into it at the last instant. Mercifully there was nothing on our tail at the time. And we went on and on, the grassgrown lane leading us, and we following, dazzled by the dapple of sun through the nut leaves overhead, and came out at the gate of a little secret meadow sloping down to the Torridge. Elder-flowers drooped over the gateway; the riverbank was afroth with pink and white balsams; and Rupert found a tiny emerald frog in the grass, and caught it to show me, just for a moment, sitting on his thumb, then let it go again. We had thermos-flask tea, and talked, holding hands, and shared the water-sounds and the elder-scent of the little secret meadow; and nothing else happened, all the long sunshiny, shadow-dappled afternoon. But if it was given me to live over again one afternoon of my life, that would be the one that I should choose.
The odd thing is that neither of us thought of what was happening to us as Falling in Love. We thought that it was something different and special. Everybody in love thinks that their love is special, an experience which nobody else has had before. But we did not think of it as being in love at all, only as being two halves of the same thing. From the first we had a strong sense of relationship, though in the early days it might as well have been a sibling relationship as any other. In those days we both believed in reincarnation, as I rather think I still do, so we tried to rationalise the thing as a link formed in other lives. Perhaps we had been brothers, sisters, lovers, comrades in arms. ‘There is only one love,’ Rupert said, trying to work it out as he went along. ‘All the different kinds of love are just facets of it’…
… Rupert was getting married. Rupert sent me a book. It was only Joan Grant’s latest novel; he and I were both keen readers of her books at that time. That was the final straw. My father, still with a bleak unhappy face, said nothing. My mother did all the talking. Of course I must send the book back, I must, must, must break with Rupert completely. No use protesting, as I did protest, that Rupert and I were friends and one did not break with one’s friends because they got married. She understood too much of the truth to be bought off by that. In the end she cried and told me that she could not desert me, and so, because of her efforts to take my part, I was tearing a gulf between her and my father.
I sent back the book. I wrote to Rupert explaining the whole sorry situation. In a vacuum we might have managed some kind of threefold relationship. In a world full of other people, it could not be done. At least by me.
Then I had a reconciliation with my father. I sat on his knee like a little girl again, his arms round me; even wept a few difficult tears on his Harris tweed shoulder. It was so lovely not to have that silent barrier of ice between us any more. Such a relief to lay down my weapons, not that I had ever had many weapons – only my little wooden sword – and stop fighting. For the moment it almost outweighed all the rest.
Rupert wrote me a last parting letter, accepting my decision – only it was not a decision, just a capitulation to circumstances too strong for me – but insisting, ‘This isn’t the end, even this time round, it isn’t the end, for you and me.’ He was right, too, though except for one very glancing encounter, it was more than twenty years before I saw him again. ‘But that,’ as Kipling would have said, ‘is another story.’ …
… Because of what had happened between Rupert and me, I was a fuller and richer person than I would otherwise have been. I knew that if a pantomime fairy in a gauze ballet skirt had appeared, and offered, with one wave of her tinsel wand, to wipe out the last two years, and with them the grey ache of loss that they had left behind, I would not for one moment have considered accepting her offer. Because of those two years, something in me which, without them, would probably have remained green and unawakened, had had a chance to flower and fruit and ripen. Because of those two years I was going, in some odd way, to be able to write as I would not otherwise have been able to do.
© Rosemary Sutcliff 1983, 2008, 2012