For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.
When the BBC adapted and broadcast Rosemary Sutcliff‘s historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth in 1977, the BBC Radio Times wrote about her approach to children, writing, the Romans and her hero Marcus—’part of me was in love with him’.
Her passion for the Romans stemmed from her childhood. Her mother read aloud to her from books like Rudyard Kipling‘s Puck Of Pook’s Hill. His three Roman tales entranced her.
I didn’t read myself till the last possible minute, about nine. I was brought up on Arthur Weigall’s Wanderings In Roman Britain and Wanderings In Anglo-Saxon Britain. He mentions this eagle dug up at Silchester and I’ve been fascinated by it since I was five.
For reasons I cannot divine, my Google alert for new items on <Rosmeary Sutcliff> pointed today to a 2011posting at this blog about her appearance on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs! At that time, a recording of Rosemary Sutcliff’s appearance with Roy Plomley was not available for downloading. It is now, here.
In the usual way on this radio programme, Rosemary Sutcliff talked (in October 1983) about her life and work and chose eight records to take to the mythical BBC Radio desert island. She said she chose her music just because she loved it—not everyone does, especially these PR-obsessed days. Her choices were:
Record 1: Dvorak’s New World Symphony, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, by Istvan Kertesz.
Record 2: “Eternal father strong to save” – Hymn.
Record 3: L’Apres-midi d’une Faune by Debussy. Royal Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Beecham.
Record 4: “We’ll Gather Lilacs” sung by Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth.
Record 5: “The Flowers of the Forest” played by the pipes & drums of the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards.
Record 6: Excerpt from “Under Milk Wood”. Polly Garter’s song.
Record 7: “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams. The Boyd Kneale Orchestra. With Frederick Grinker.
Record 8: “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach. Choir of King’s college, Cambridge, conducted by David Willcocks.
If she could only take One Record: The Lark Ascending
One Luxury for the island: Roy Plomley refused her request to take her beloved dogs. She chose therefore flowers, “delivered daily by bottle”.
One Book for the island: “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling.
Read more about Desert Island Discs, and stream the episode, here
Since I am a writer, not an historian, I will sacrifice historical accuracy. I really very seldom have to do it, and then it is only a matter of perhaps reversing the order of two events, or something like that. But if it does come to the crunch, I will choose a good story over absolute historical accuracy.
Margaret Meek, an academic at The Institute of Education in London, wrote a monograph about Rosemary Sutcliff, and later, a tribute to her on her 70th birthday in Books for Keeps, in 1990.
There’s a revealing paragraph in the collection of stories which (Rosemary Sutcliff) edited with Monica Dickens, Is Anyone There?, where she says: `I had a lonely childhood and growing-up time. My parents loved me and I loved them, but I could never talk to them about the problems and fears and aching hopes inside me that I had most need to talk about to someone. And there was no one else.’
Writers cannot be convivial people in work time; their chosen craft is a solitary one. But to be cut off in childhood from the society of the school playground, where the gossipy tales are told, is a particular deprivation. Rosemary Sutcliff could never have been a chatty novelist. Yet her experience of being read to throughout her childhood by a sympathetic adult (her mother) bears out everything that has been researched or said about reading stories to children. If you want to understand where Rosemary Sutcliff, as a novelist, `comes from’, read The Jungle Books, Kim and The Just So Stories, preferably aloud.
… To read Rosemary Sutcliff is to discover what reading is good for. So this anniversary and this accomplishment make me ask what might be the contemporary appeal or, more simply, the enduring attraction of the historical novels for the young. After all, much has clearly changed in children’s books and reading since television became their more immediate storyteller, and novelists, now more matey and informal, adopted a more elliptical vernacular prose, in which the readers’ ease is more visible than the challenge to read … (Her) first page swings the characters into action in a situation as clear as a television image. The names of the people and places set the rules of belonging; the relations between the sexes are formally arrayed; the battles are long and fierce. Readers who are unaccustomed to the building up of suspense in poised sentences may need a helping hand … the best way into a Sutcliff narrative, a kind of initiation, is to hear it read aloud. Then you know what the author means when she says she tells her tales `from the inside’.