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Rosemary Sutcliff, author of The Eagle of the Ninth, drew on a ‘large lump of unlived childhood’ as she tried to show in her children’s books that good beats evil, and satisfaction can come from doing ‘right.  Because of  Still’s Disease she missed much usual childhood activity with long bouts of illness and many lengthy hospital stays.

I was trained at art school, but then the desire to scribble came over me. I got my interest in history from my mother who had a sort of minstrel’s, rather than historian’s knowedge. Inaccurate, but full of colourful legend. I disliked history at school.

They do say that to be a successful children’s writer one has to have a large lump of unlived childhood in one. I certainly think I have that.

You have to show children that good does overcome evil, but that does not necessarily mean that the old lady you helped then paid for your ballet lessons. The satisfaction should just be coming from the fact that you have done right.

US Edition of Rosemary Sutcliff’s  Black Ships Before Troy (2005)

One of the 20th century’s great writers of historical fiction for children died in 1992 from a disabling disease that had confined her to a wheelchair for much of her working life. (Blog editor’s note: actually, she did not die from Still’s disease!). Yet Rosemary Sutcliff produced many outstanding works of fiction over a 40-year-period — most notably her cycle of novels which dealt with the Roman occupation of Britain. The last two books that she completed were children’s versions of Homer.

The first of these, Black Ships Before Troy, her version of the Iliad, is now out. Like all her books, it is an intellectually-taxing read — but it also manages to sort out some of the complicated strands of Homer’s often digressive narrative. This helps children to see the characters of the great protagonists all the more clearly.

The illustrations by Alan Lee do the book a great service. At their best, they have the confident sweep and pomp of Victorian narrative painting.

  • Source: The Economist, December 4, 1993

(Posted again, original two years ago; comments kept)

April 20th Wednesday. Jane arrived at 10.30 and we set off. A lovely day and would have had a lovely run, but I still haven’t got rid of the car sickness after all, so felt wretched from Petersfield onward. We called for lunch with James C at the Quaker place, lovely old home, much of it 15th & 16th Cent., but myself lunched on brown bread an a cup of tea. Had a rest and then did the remaining dozen miles with no problem and felt alright from then on. Got to the G’s at tea time & watched Magdalene having her indian dance lesson (enchanting) while we had tea.

Went off (driven by Jane) to the Rawlinson dinner. This in full cherished evening dress and in my new Posh Frock, which I am not altogether happy with. Dinner by candlelight surrounded by dons and fellows with their ground down dinner jackets and their guests (mostly more dons and fellows). After the Loving Cup had been around, Tim took me for the ten minute break into the chapel around the Canterbury Quad, which was cold but lovely, with sky full of stars & a new moon to bow to, and then back to finish dessert and port for another  hour and a half, sitting in different positions and with different partners. Talked Greece most of the time with the Chaplain on my left & the Classics man on my right, both of whom were very nice to me. Oh, I mustn’t forget the scent of rain battered hyacinths of window boxes in Dolphin Quad.

© Anthony Lawton 2012

This will have been a formal dinner at an Oxford University college – note the ‘dons and fellows’. Reference to Canterbury and Dolphin Quads suggests this will have been St John’s College. According to Wikipedia, Canterbury Quad is the first example of Italian Renaissance architecture in Oxford. It was completed in 1636.

This is news to me, although it is probably originally in her memoir Blue Remembered Hills: the name Esca for the slave in Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth comes from Victorian novelist Whyte-Melville’s The Gladiators. Rosemary’s mother used to read her this aloud.

Image

  • Source: Talcroft, B. L. (1995). Death of the corn king: King and goddess in Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction for young adults. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press.

Veronica Horwell wrote about the life and writing of historical novelist and writer for children and young adults Rosemary Sutcliff with affectionate insight in The Guardian newspaper shortly after her death in 1992.

Rosemary Sutcliff did not spare the child, the raven and the wolf gorging on the battlefield dead. No softening, or cheapening, of violence. When you opened her books, you went easily with her into the days she described so immediately: she noticed the rhythms of rain on glass as children do, felt the same warm amazement at snow. You might not know what was this cake called a barley bannock they seemed always to eat in her books, but you recognised the domestic concentration at dinner-cooking time.

And then you would gulp her titles—“Please Miss, have you got any more by ‘er?”—past bedtime, in the last of the summer afterglow. You were caught: and she did not let you off the actual shape of life and death. The fear, the physical pain, the disappointments, the ageing, the dying. (There was an afternoon, I remember, when the brutal end of the Norseman warrior Ari Knudson of The Shield Ring bleached out the heat of a holiday sun, and another, bleaker, when nothing seemed real but the Roman legionary, turned renegade, speaking his very last Latin words and saluting The Eagle of the Ninth before fading into another misty life.)

She did not assume you were ever too young to know the powerful, if frightening, truth—that nothing iswholly new, even the brief freshness of a new generation; that continual change, but also repetition, are history. We do not tell children these things so much now: we do not recount the generations. But reading her, you waited excitedly for that Roman ring with a dolphin cut in its emerald which runs in a thread of lineal descent from book to book, from life to life.So history was lives? It was always different, always the same, and the pattern only visible after? Those who read Sutcliff don’t recall formally learning about the gods Adonis, Mithras, Lugh of the Shining Spear and the Christos: we seem always to have known them. Years of art history never made as clear as she did, in two pages, the difference in the souls of cultures between the rigid ornament of Rome and the Celtic patterns that flow and whorl like life itself. You had access through her, as never since through the heritage industry, into time past when it was time present. When the archaeologist Catherine Hills once noted that the battered Roman eagle found at Silchester was probably awaiting the contempt of the scrap furnace, she did sadly, almost apologetically. For her, as for the rest of us, he seemed a talisman of the knowledge of that departed civilisation, restored to his story by Sutcliff. And the Sutcliff story was, as legends are, almost closer to a truth.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s books are popular in Japan, (although I am not always accurate in judging which cover is which book—on Twitter today I have been told that what I, via Google, thought was The Mark of the Horse Lord was actually The Lantern Bearers …).

I am reminded that I was surprised to discover a few years ago that  Her Imperial Majesty The Empress Michiko of Japan linked Rosemary Sutcliff,  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and Philippa Pearce in the same breath in her keynote speech to the 26th (2001) Congress of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY).

Keep linking children and books…Books are children’s valuable friends and are a help to them. So that children have firm roots within themselves; so that children have strong wings of joy and of imagination; so that children know love, accepting that at times love calls for pain; so that children see and face the challenge of life’s complexities, fully taking on the life given to each, and finally, upon this earth which is our common home, become, one day, true instruments of peace.

Anne wrote long ago at the Tab ‘Write!” above about the song The Girl I Kissed At Clusium. (Write - do use it, so many readers and visitors here are vastly more insightful and knowledgeable about Rosemary Sutcliff than I ).

As for why Rosemary Sutcliff used (Clusium—an ancient Etruscan city, one of the Etrurian confederacy that fought it out with Rome for supremacy in the early days)  for her famous legionary marching song in The Eagle of the Ninth, I think the answer lies in her early schooling. She mentions in her autobiography, Blue Remembered Hills, just how much she and her classmates enjoyed declaiming Macaulay’s stirring poem, ‘Horatius (at the Bridge)’. Who could forget that image of Horatius and his two comrades gallantly holding the Pons Sublicius against the invading army of Lars Porsena, king of Clusium in the late 6th century BC, during the war between Rome and Clusium?

Meanwhile the Tuscan army, right glorious to behold,
Came flashing back the noonday light,
Rank behind rank, like surges bright of a broad sea of gold.
Four hundred trumpets sounded a peal of warlike glee,
As that great host, with measured tread, and spears advanced, and ensigns spread,
Rolled slowly towards the bridge’s head where stood the dauntless Three.
Source

Here are Rosemary Sutcliff’s own words, so you can see the effect Macaulay’s poem had upon her young sensibilities.

We learned verse upon verse of Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ and proclaimed them with glorious fierceness, stiffening the sinews, summoning up the blood and lending the eyes a terrible aspect under the beetling brows of imaginary helmets:

‘Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin should suffer wrong no more.
By the Nine Gods he swore it, and named a trysting day,
And bade his messengers ride forth,
East and West and South and North,
To summon his array.’

Who were the Nine Gods? What wrong was the great house of Tarquin suffering? We had no idea. But the lines have the true trumpet ring to them yet; the purposeful tramp of a legion’s feet on the march.

The snatches of the legionnaires’ song in The Eagle of the Ninth are

Oh when I joined the Eagles
(As it might be yesterday)
I kissed a girl at Clusium
Before I marched away
A long march, a long march
And twenty years in store
When I left my girl at Clusium
Beside the threshing-floor

The girls of Spain were honey-sweet,
And the golden girls of Gaul:
And the Thracian maids were soft as birds
To hold the heart in thrall.
But the girl I kissed at Clusium
Kissed and left at Clusium,
The girl I kissed at Clusium
I remember best of all

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