Historian, writer and journalist  Christina Hardyment judged Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff to be  an ‘odd one out’.

Rosemary Sutcliff is most famed for The Eagle of the Ninth, but there was much more to her than that. In the 1950s, historically-minded children found her books a magic carpet into the past. I began with Brother Dusty-feet (1952) and The Armourer’s House (1951), and never looked back and an insatiable interest in history has remained the backbone of my life.

In 1954, The Eagle of the Ninth introduced Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young Roman who chooses to stay in Britain after the legions leave. Seven subsequent books follow his family’s fate, usually directly. The odd book out is the fifth, Sword at Sunset, now published in a new edition to celebrate its 50th birthday. In 1963, it was firmly announced to be for adults, and given the (for their time) graphic and violent scenes of sex and slaughter, it deserved to be.

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Endeavour Press have now republished in E form Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction novel The Flowers of Adonis, about Alkibiades, who The Times in an interview to mark its publication in 1969 called “one of the most enigmatic figures in Greek History. It is a novel of the Peloponnesian War, and Alkibiades’s relationship with Athens, and the dreadful battle at Syracuse.
Times Oct 27 1969 on Rosemary Sutcliff


  • Source: The Times, October 27, 1969, p6

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a monograph about Rudyard Kipling, who was a major influence on her approach to writing stories for children and young adults, and historical novels. From the introduction:

My schooling began late, owing to a childhood illness, and ended when I was only fourteen, owing to my entire lack of interest in being educated. But I showed signs of being able to paint, and so from school I went to art school, trained hard, and eventually became a professional miniature painter. I did not start to write until the end of the War, but now I have switched completely from one medium to the other, and it is several years since I last touched paint.’

Of the Kipling book she said, ‘My reason for writing this monograph will be obvious to anyone who reads it: I have loved Kipling for as long as I can remember.

On BBC Radio 4s Desert Island Discs today Malcom Gladwell (of Tipping Point fame) chose the complete works of Geofreey Trease as his ‘book’. This put me in mind of an intriguing article from the Morning Star by Farah Mendleson ( 26 February, 2010) about “the man who told the people’s stories” (she speaks of Rosemary Sutcliff “walking in his footsteps”).

When Geoffrey Trease began writing historical fiction for children, it was a minor and despised field, treasured not for any literary merit but because it helped to nurture€ the children of Britain.

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Rosemary Sutcliff wrote in her postscript  to Henry Treece’s The Dream-time:

Different kinds of stories need to be told in different kinds of words strung together in different ways.

Henry Treece understood this better than almost any other writer I know. He had a very special gift for finding exactly the words and word-patterns that each of his books needed, so that instead of simply telling the story, they blend into it and become part of its texture and colour and shape and smell.

This is a kind of magic; but it is a magic that, if it is perfectly carried out, hardly shows; so that one might read The Dream-time from beginning to end, and never notice that it was there at all, which would be a great pity.

The Dream-time is a story of people in the very early morning of humanity, when they were not really used to being people at all, and so everything had a strangeness about it, and nothing was quite certain; not even that the spring would come again next year. They were so near the beginning that they can have had only the fewest and simplest of words with which to talk to each other and share their thoughts and feelings and ideas. And yet we know, from the things to do with their religion and way of life that they left behind them, and from Stone Age people who are alive today, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, that they had all kinds of complicated thoughts and fears and longings in their heads and hearts. So Henry Treece has told this story in very short and simple words, put together in such a way that they can express things which are not simple at all.

Before you have read very far into The Dream-time you will know what Henry Treece is saying. Indeed, he makes Crookleg, who became Twilight, think part of it for him: `He wished that all people, the men and women and horses and owls and dogs could agree to speak the same words. Then all things would be easy, to speak and to be understood. Perhaps no one would fight then.

It is a constantly shifting and changing story that holds one all the way, with its adventures and its strange peoples and places; but it is also a plea for people to get to know each other and care about each other more; for peace instead of war;  making instead of breaking.

I think that in this, the last book that Henry Treece wrote, he did not mean to make a historical novel, such as he had made before, but to do something quite different. It is more as though, in a way, he were writing down a dream; and just as, in a dream, times and places get jumbled together, he has deliberately put different periods and `pockets’ of very different Peoples nearer to each other than they really were. The story, of a boy who would rather make beautiful things than kill people, seems to belong to the late Stone Age, to the Little Dark People who possessed the secret of growing barley; but the Hunters, the makers of wonderful cave paintings, who were there long before the Barley People, come into it, too; and about the River Folk there is a suggestion of the Age of Bronze, which came after the Little Dark Ones had had their day. I think that in all this, he was trying to show that however much people change in the outward way that they behave and even think, certain things never change. Some of these things are good, and some of them bad and sad. In all ages, even today, there are people who want to make beautiful things more than anything else in the world; and people who are willing to die for a dream, even for the kind of dream that seems crazy to everyone else. And in all ages, even today when we have had four thousand years or so in which to learn more sense, people still fight because they do not understand each other.

One of the sad things of life, for every writer, is the knowing that one day he will write his last book. And all too often, when it comes, it is just a book like others that he has written before; maybe not even as good as some of those others were. But Henry Treece was lucky; he has written a very special book indeed for his last novel of all.

Fellow author and friend Penelope Lively wrote breifly in 1992 in response to an obituary in The Independent newspaper about a visit with her family to see Rosemary Sutcliff at her home in West Susssex, England

We invited ourselves, with diffidence, because the children were devotees, as was I. We sat in her study, she in her wheelchair behind the desk, the rest of us uneasily perched, the children—as they then were—awed into total silence. A housekeeper brought tea on a trolley: cucumber sandwiches and dainty little cakes. Two chihuahuas snarled from a cushion and occasionally shot out to snap at our ankles (on subsequent visits I learned how to deal them a surreptitious kick). It was all dreadfully genteel and strained. I made some comment about the fantail pigeons on the lawn beyond the window. “Actually, they’re a nuisance,” said Rosemary. “They crap all over everything.”

And suddenly we all relaxed, the children recovered normal speech, the gentility subsided and we got over the shock that first meeting her must have induced in anyone—the amazement that from that tiny misshapen person, whose whole being seemed subsumed into the enormous, alert eyes, sprang those vivid, intensely physical books.

The children had brought copies to be signed. I remember looking at those hands and wondering—idiotically—if she could hold a pen. Of course she could, in a wonderfully idiosyncratic and innovative way, writing almost upside down, it seemed, and she drew them her dolphin logo and a great flowery signature, in their cherished Charles Keeping-illustrated hardbacks.

I have a hefty prejudice against historical fiction —but I could read Rosemary (Sutcliff) avidly, and still do. There is a marvellous passage in her memoir of childhood, Blue Remembered Hills, in which she describes her wheelchair falling over, when she was quite small, depositing her in the long grass, where, instead of yelling for help, she simply lay, observing and recording the close-up miniature world of plants and insects. The incident sums her up, in a curious way.

Rosemary Sutcliff signature on front page of Three Legions

Reader-follower-commenter Anne alerted me a couple of years ago to Rosemary Sutcliff’s comments on ‘gadzookery’ and ‘writing forsoothly’.

Victorian writers, and even those of a somewhat later date…saw nothing ludicrous in ‘Alas! fair youth, it grieves me to see thee in this plight. Would that I had the power to strike these fetters from thy tender limbs.’ Josephine Tey, whose death I shall never cease to lament, called this ‘Writing forsoothly.’ A slightly different variant is known in the trade as ‘gadzookery.’ Nowadays this is out of fashion; and some writers go to the other extreme and make the people of Classical Greece or Mediaeval England speak modern colloquial English. This is perhaps nearer to the truth of the spirit, since the people in question would have spoken the modern colloquial tongue of their place and time.

But, personally, I find it destroys the atmosphere when a young Norman Knight says to his Squire, ‘Shut up, Dickie, you’re getting too big for your boots.’ Myself, I try for a middle course, avoiding both gadzookery and modern colloquialism; a frankly ‘made-up’ form that has the right sound to it, as Kipling did also. I try to catch the rhythm of a tongue, the tune that it plays on the ear, Welsh or Gaelic as opposed to Anglo-Saxon, the sensible workmanlike language which one feels the Latin of the ordinary Roman citizen would have translated into. It is extraordinary what can be done by the changing or transposing of a single word, or using perfectly usual one in a slightly unusual way: ‘I beg your pardon’ changed into ‘I ask your pardon.’

  • Source: Rosemary Sutcliff, History is People (1971), published in Virginia Haviland’s “Children and Literature: Views and Reviews”.
 Edited, August 9, 2014; original version 22 March 2012.

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